SANTIAGO/NEW DELHI: Sergio Grez Toso is professor of history at the University of Chile in Santiago whose research has focused on popular movements in the region over the last two centuries. In this email interview with The Citizen he discusses the social, economic, ecological reasons behind the recent protests in Chile and their lesson for the world.

With inequality so high, why did one of Chile’s richest men Sebastián Piñera so convincingly win the 2017 election?

Piñera’s re-election in late 2017, supported by barely 25% of the electorate due to high abstention levels, can be explained by big sectors of the population feeling let down by Michelle Bachelet’s second administration, due to the aversion brought about by certain cases of corruption that surrounded her government.

Hopes for change were also thwarted when Bachelet failed to fulfil important promises made in the program she offered to the country, such as a new constitution that would replace the one imposed by the dictator Pinochet in 1980.

Why, so soon after Piñera’s victory, are there huge protests and a general strike?

The spontaneous popular uprising that is taking place in Chile stems from deep-rooted structural causes. It represents deaf discontent, built up through more than four decades of relentless implementation of the most extremist neoliberal model in the planet—discontent which lacked a political projection at first.

Since the 1973 coup d'état, many abuses have been committed, thereby systematically violating most of the population's essential rights and brutally repressing people both during and after the dictatorship.

All types of big business owners and professional politicians have committed theft, destroyed nature, subjugated the indigenous people, handing the country over to multinational corporations and negating popular sovereignty.

To a long build-up of complaints and distress, you must add the blundering and overbearing management by Piñera’s government and its ministers, who remained inflexible following protests against the rise in fares in Santiago’s Metro system, worsening the tension with declarations that caused generalised indignation.

The conditions for a big social explosion were ready long ago. The government’s behaviour ended up being the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Piñera deployed the armed forces so quickly and brutally—what is the relationship like between the Chilean government and the army?

The Chilean armed forces have enjoyed great autonomy since the end of the dictatorship in 1990. Not a single post-dictatorship government has taken on the essential task of democratising and reforming them to the point that their doctrine, values and behaviour truly reflect the armed forces of a democratic system.

These institutions remain permeated by the ultraconservative and anti-popular values of the National Safety Doctrine, which views the people of its own country as an “internal enemy” and favours the most opulent and powerful sectors of society.

Admission into schools for officials is still based on social segregation criteria: rarely do the offspring of labourers, farmers or poor employees get accepted. The training and indoctrination of the Chilean military elite is still under American influence: numerous officials are sent to United States to be American military officers, all the armament comes from the US or their NATO and Israeli allies. And the high officers remain stuck to the legacy of the dictatorship, connected by class links and right-wing family members.

A lack of control on the behalf of governments since 1990 has resulted in numerous corruption scandals, and many former Commanders-in-Chief of the Army are being indicted for embezzlement, fraud and theft of public property. Add to that the case of another former Commander-in-Chief of the Army, Juan Emilio Cheyra, who was sentenced for complicity in murders committed by soldiers during the dictatorship of Pinochet.

The post-dictatorship governments have made feeble attempts to keep the armed forces within the formal frame of the institutional regime, but very clearly they have failed at it.

The brutal behaviour of police and military personnel proves the lack of significant changes in these institutions during the last thirty years.

The worst has taken place in these last few days, after Piñera —overwhelmed by the popular uprising— decided to declare a ‘State of Emergency’ and deploy armed forces in the street to fulfil police functions for which they were not prepared.

By resorting to the military, the true objective of the president of the republic is not to protect the life of people, nor public and private property, but rather to quash the popular uprising.

There are protestors born before and after Pinochet, there are students, teachers, health workers, copper unions... Why do they all want Piñera to resign? What are they hoping for if the government falls?

This is a spontaneous movement led by most of the Chilean population, regardless of any political opinions they may have had in the past.

It is a movement brought about by the weariness and disappointment generated by the unfulfilled promises of the never-ending transition to democracy that started in Chile 30 years ago.

To the demonstrators, Piñera represents the concentrated paradigm of the causes of this general unrest: he is a big speculator and businessman, belonging to the wealthiest 0.1% of Chile, who benefited from the model imposed by Pinochet, while being one of the main politicians who has co-administrated said model in these past decades.

The fall of Piñera could signify the beginning of the end for this neoliberal economy and society; likewise, it could possibly mean leaving behind the protected, guarded, low-intensity democratic system that has contained and repressed social demands during the last decades.

This is the meaning that demonstrators give to an eventual downfall of Piñera.

Ecological destruction was a factor behind the indigenous led protests in Brazil. Are there similar reasons for the rising discontent in Chile?

The environment is a key factor in the protests of both indigenous people and the citizenry at large in Ecuador, Brazil and Chile: a fight against the imposition of the extract-and-export neoliberal model in their ancestral territories.

Currently, there are projects for logging, oil and mining extraction in the Amazon territories as well as megaprojects for mining expansion in the Andes mountain range in Chile. Some of these projects destroy glaciers, others pollute rivers and seas (such is the case of the multinational expansion of the salmon industry in the regions of the Chilean Patagonia).

Most Latin American economies are based on the extraction and exportation of mining, forestry, fishing and agricultural natural resources which are located in the territories of indigenous people, resources that are mostly destined for international markets, especially the United States, China, Japan, the Middle East and Europe, among others.

Meanwhile, the local population and communities in Chile suffer the impacts of an aggressive process of privatisation of common goods and natural resources (fresh water, land, lakes, rivers, coastal areas, oceans, mangroves, fisheries, etc.) to be handed over to multinational enterprises and the multinational financial system.

In turn, the territories of these communities are affected by megaprojects of multinational investment in energy (coal, oil, lithium, hydroelectric, solar, wind and geothermic energy) as well as intensive fishing and farming for export.

Both Chileans and indigenous people are fighting against the political, economic and social neoliberal system that is embedded in the extraction-and-exportation model imposed during the bloody coup d’état of 1973.

The Mapuche, Lafkenche, Willicke, Kawesgar and Yagán communities fight against environmental, sanitary and social impacts resulting from the expansion of the big multinational industry that produces salmon for exportation, especially in the shores of the Bío Bío, Aracuanía, Arhicipiélago de Chiloé and Patagonia regions.

As for the artisanal and indigenous fishers, they fight to nullify the corrupt fishing law in the parliament, and to allocate production and fishing to secure the national supply.

In the context of the biggest drought in Chile in the last 40 years, the farming communities are protesting to recover access to and use of fresh water, by establishing a code that will declare it a fundamental right, destined mainly for human and animal consumption, and small-scale farming to feed the population.

The urban population (more than 80% of the country’s inhabitants) protest against the impacts of the drought and the lack of fresh water —both products of climate change— and again high-price food policies, with basic food being increasingly destined for export, and against chemical and organic contamination of industrial origin.

All this goes hand in hand with a demand for democratising Chilean society, territorial and resource control for urban and rural communities, as well as the political autonomy of indigenous people.

In his last speech Salvador Allende described the leaders of the coup as ‘victims of the same social sector which will today be in their homes hoping, with foreign assistance, to retake power’. Who was he alluding to, and what is their current state?

The social sector Allende was alluding to in his final speech to the people of Chile was the oligarchy, a minority (the wealthiest 1% or 2% of the country) that has the tools to extend its cultural, ideological and political hegemony over bigger social sectors.

It is this social sector which has with few exceptions held economic and political control of Chile since the country’s independence.

This sector felt deeply threatened by the measures taken by the administration of the Unidad Popular, and by the mass movement that was fighting to achieve its own emancipation.

Although there have been important transformations in the country’s social structure during the last decades, overall, when it comes to the configuration of class and social stratums, it could be argued that it is the same social sector that is represented by Piñera and the political coalition that sustains his government.

What is the international dimension of the Piñera government’s policies, and its response to the general strike?

Chile has been displayed internationally as an example of the virtues of neoliberalism, somewhat akin to an exemplary student applying the recipes of the Chicago School, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

In the 1990s, Chile was called the ‘Latin American jaguar’ and just days before the big social outburst of October 2019, Piñera himself dared to refer to the country as the ‘Latin American oasis’.

This mythicised image of neoliberal Chile has been shattered.

The stock market shares of Santiago have suffered important losses, and, surely enough, international perceptions of Chile as a safe space for investing are rapidly changing.

The myth was destroyed within a few days; the reality, the obstinate facts, came to the surface and were spread all over the world by the press and social media.

Piñera’s response to social demands, by means of a brutal repression that has resulted in more than 20 people killed, hundreds tortured, people missing, thousands of people arrested and wounded, as well as a military presence in the streets reminiscent of the worst moments of Pinochet’s dictatorship, signifies a powerful lesson for the entire world.

The king is naked. This nakedness will without a doubt have repercussions in other countries. Neoliberalism is being questioned in many places, and its profound crisis in Chile will only deepen its international questioning.