On The Streets in Chile
In what appears to be a new political scenario, the street-not Parliament nor the ballot box- is emerging as the arena where ordinary citizens in democracies are beginning to challenge political leaderships. The specific reasons differ but the developments reflect anger at social disparities and the ruling elites. While Iraq and Lebanon continue to witness daily demonstrations- marked often by violence- by people fed up by polities that have failed to fulfill their expectations, and continue to reject palliatives by those in power, across the world a similar situation is unfolding in Latin America in Chile and Bolivia.
After the ouster of General Pinochet following his reign of repression, violation of human rights mass imprisonments and torture, Chile had moved from dictatorship to democracy in 1990. It had slowly come to be lauded as a role model for Latin American development under a democratic polity. It was accorded the region’s highest score on the United Nations Human Development Index, a blend of life expectancy, education and national income per capita. Economic dynamism was not affected by changes of government with left- and right-leaning leaders alternating in governing the country.
The success story was founded on the current Constitution framed by General Pinochet in 1980 following his coup against Socialist President Salvadore Allende. That Constitution remains in force with successive governments adhering to a laissez faire economic system and promising that free markets would lead to prosperity, and prosperity would take care of other problems.
Yet the failure of the system has become starkly visible with Santiago, the capital of Chile, witnessing nearly 1 million people on the streets, said to be the largest protest since the final days of Pinochet. The protests commenced in the third week of October 2019. The people’s ire was directed at the political system and President Pinera elected in 2017. The protestors’ slogans included “Pinera, listen! Go to hell!” and vehicles carrying bright yellow and red signs that read “No more tolls! Enough with the abuse” along with demands for a new Constitution. One commentator put it succinctly-- Chile’s protests were not about 30 pesos. They were about 30 years of failure. As was earlier reported about Iraq and Lebanon, commentators on Chile have also said that the Chilean movement has no clear leaders.
Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, a conservative, Harvard-trained economist and businessman who had won office twice, was a billionaire who had made a fortune introducing the first credit card to Chile. Elected in 2017 he had faced massive protests in his first term in 2011 by students demanding educational reforms. This time it took just a small economic straw on the camel’s back to ignite the fury that resulted in protestors seeking to storm La Moneda, the Presidential Palace; being thwarted by the security forces; and the Chilean military taking over Santiago. Curfews and riots and arson have marked the demonstrations and the death toll last reported was 17 with 7000 arrests and business losses of over US Dollars 1.4 billion.
Michelle Bachelet, a former president of Chile, has said she would send a mission to investigate allegations of human rights violations while Defence Minister, Alberto Espina, said investigations had commenced into allegations of abuse by security forces, as social media purported to show excessive force used by police and soldiers.
Chile has a population of 19 million under 30 who have no memory of the harsh days of General Pinochet. The protests started after young people were angered by a 4-cent fare increase for the capital’s subway system. Though Piñera suspended that action, the protests intensified. It was also not surprising that with the youth in the vanguard the demonstrations reportedly had a festive atmosphere with protesters banging and pans, blowing plastic whistles, and waving the Chilean and Mapuche indigenous flags. Vendors sold snacks, jewelry, hats and t-shirts. They were joined by striking healthcare workers and professionals and teachers. The Copper Workers Federation (FTC), which included unionized workers from each division of state miner Codelco, the world’s top producer of the metal, joined the strike.
Reported to be mostly between 20 and 30 years old the demonstrators called for a change in the market-dominant socio-economic model that had fully or partially privatized pensions, health and education. Pension reform, an end to the private ownership of water rights and the resignation of President Sebastián Piñera figured in the slogans.
The current retirement system, forces Chileans to hand over 10 percent of their income to private fund managers and then receive pensions that barely cover a third of most people’s monthly expenses. The public health system lacks timely responsiveness leaving expensive private care as the only alternative. The distortions in the economy had led to 1% of the population earning 33 percent of the nation’s wealth, making Chile the most unequal country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development group.
An online poll conducted by local company Activa Research of 2,090 people between Oct. 22-23 found 83% of respondents said they supported the goals of the demonstrators, but 72.5% opposed violence as a method of protest. But what could be of greater concern to the President was news that members of his own governing coalition were sympathetic to the protestors demands. Congressman Mario Desborde, president of the National Renovation party, one of the three parties that supported Piñera in congress, came out in favor of reforming the constitution.
Six opposition parties that controlled the House and Senate and that favoured changing the constitution did not have enough votes making support from governing parties essential. The opposition parties were holding meetings to begin moving towards constitutional reform.
The President had told the Chilean people that he had heard the demands of Chileans “loud and clear.” He had also said he would meet opposition leaders to forge a “new social contract” to alleviate inequality. Social Development Minister Sebastián Sichel said citizen forums would be involved in a national dialogue to develop concrete proposals for change and José Pérez Debelli, president of the National Grouping of Fiscal Employees (ANEF), one of the unions that called the strike, demanded that trade unions and social groups be given a voice in the formulation of any social reform plan.
The government had sought to move legislation to overturn a recent hike in electricity rates, and reforms to guarantee a minimum wage of $480 a month and introduce state medical insurance for catastrophes was being considered. Pinera had said he would hike minimum pensions by 20 percent. But the limited measures taken so far -- replacing eight ministers, calling for national dialogue, offering small increases in the minimum wage and the lowest pensions, higher taxes on the wealthy and decreases in the prices of medicine and electricity—had no impact and had been rejected by the protestors.
Lucia Dammert, a sociologist and political scientist at the University of Santiago said that Pinera’s government had an intense focus on economic growth and might imagine that the streets would quiet down as time passes and people get exhausted.”
What would happen next depends a great deal on the credible delivery of the promises made by the President and the people’s willingness to give him time. It does appear, if Iran and Lebanon are to be taken as examples, that the people of Chile might only be assuaged by a change in the Constitution which they blame for the current disparities and economic hardship. Does it mean that any new constitution would have a more Socialist bent? That could hardly be Pinera and his supporters intent.
The process of finalizing a new constitution-if indeed the initiative is taken-will be a long drawn out one. A plan proposed by Pinera calling for a new charter to be drafted by a “constituent congress” and then put to a plebiscite, was rejected by the opposition on the grounds that the existing legislators, whose credibility had eroded, would be involved in the exercise. They called for a constitutional assembly or any other means that would allow people a form of direct participation in writing the new constitution. But the government had rejected the call for a constituent assembly, which would involve the election of a group of citizens to draft the new constitution.
It is doubtful if the few economic measures so far announced and that may be announced would placate the people -especially the youth- who might be convinced that this is the opportune moment to change the country’s polity. As one commentator has said economic changes have shattered longstanding political coalitions, weakening mainstream parties. Populists and other outsider politicians have moved to fill the vacuum left behind. So far no one person or group of persons has emerged as a leader that would exploit the protests to change the system. Perhaps the vacuum would be filled by one of Pinera’s own supporters through a process of fresh elections. Or maybe the billionaire President would find his social conscience.