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ANTONIO CHAMORRO CRISTÓBAL & JUAN LUIS DELGADO | 14 NOVEMBER, 2019

Latin America and the Meaning of Neoliberalism

‘It’s not 30 pesos but 30 years’


QUITO: The multitudinous protests Chile has experienced, including the massive demonstration on Saturday October 26 which was the largest in the last 30 years, are the result of an accumulating process of discontent, in a country where only half the population votes in elections.

The quality of life in Chile has progressively worsened in recent decades, especially in relation to education and pensions, which are already in private commercial hands. University education depends on bank credits which generate indebtedness within families.

This fall we are observing social protests spread across different Latin American countries, because of the inability of the neoliberal model to produce growth without expropriating a large majority.

These citizen mobilisations take us back to the massive demonstrations in the US in the 1920s which led America to a New Deal.

They are facing state repression and the use of the army against protestors. These forms of reaction recall the worst moments of Latin American dictatorships in the 1970s, when people were disappeared and imprisoned on a massive scale.

The current mobilisations result from the incapacity of the neoliberal model, which is the political implementation of savings in state budgets, leading to the privatisation of public goods.

This model is unable to respond to social and environmental citizens’ needs. Protests against it have a broad historical scope, as Chile was the first laboratory worldwide for the implementation of neoliberal measures back in the 1970s.

There the neoliberal model was performed by a prominent group of Chilean economists known as the Chicago boys, as they were educated at the University of Chicago by Milton Friedman and Arnold Harberger.

The protests are a response to the resulting neoliberal expropriation of public goods and limitation of citizen rights. Just like the protests preceding the New Deal agreement in the US, they involve a heterogeneous set of social groups.

The US protests in the 1920s were responded to by fascist and white supremacist movements, which made use of white militias such as the Ku Klux Klan to fight them back. This should alert us to the current trend of authoritarian ‘nationalist’ movements emerging worldwide, which are trying to jeopardise citizens’ widespread demands for a society that is more egalitarian, heterogeneous and ecologically sound.

Suffragists protest in New York City, 1917

In less than a month’s time we have seen two states in Latin America, Ecuador and Chile, using the army to repress their citizens, the people who were morally stronger. With access to social media, connections are growing between world citizens are spreading grassroots messages all around. This has weakened the capacity of traditional state repression to silence citizen claims.

Chile lived in dictatorship from 1973 to 1990, so the images observed with the military repressing the population followed by civilians’ arrests, which we thought would not be repeated in the 21st century, are producing a strong commotion in large parts of the world.

By late October state repression in that country had led to 20 people dead and over 2,000 detained. At least 12 women were raped. Numerous missing persons were reported, some of them removed by the army from their homes. Tear gas grenades were thrown inside people’s homes, something we already saw in Ecuador a couple of weeks before.

The protests in Chile stand out for their horizontality. They began on October 13 with student protests and have been spreading to different layers of Chilean society. The Chilean people have literally taken the streets: what happened on Saturday October 26 took a massive corporality, being the largest citizen demonstration during a democracy there.

The movement began in Santiago de Chile with students protesting an increase in metro fares. They responded with collective actions such as entering the subway en masse without paying, in response to the offensive statements of Economy Minister Juan Andres Fontaine, who advised them to get up early to avoid paying the raised rates, which were concessed between 6 and 7 am.

These statements lit the flame and managed to extend the protests to the entire nation, which has since taken to the streets to demand the resignation of President Sebastián Piñera. After the repressive state response, health workers called stoppages nationwide, which led to the massive and peaceful demonstrations in the last week of October that confronted the claim of Piñera that Chile was “at war”.

Santiago, November 9

Chile, despite observed advances and its image of progress and stability, remains a very unequal society, with a democracy that emerged under the dictatorship. This system granted the military privileges to weave a relationship with them. The Chilean state granted the military support, giving them special economic concessions, while expropriating the majority of the population. These problems have been accumulating for decades and have ended up exploding.

Chile ranks 14th worldwide in the level of inequality, just ahead of Rwanda, and it is sixth in the region. Just 1% of the population accounts for 30% of the wealth. According to a 2015 World Bank report, the income of the richest 10% there was 27 times that of the poorest 10%.

The report also indicated that Chile had lost 13 points in the UN Human Development Index, specifically due to the lack of state intervention in health and provision of educational goods.

These data provide valuable lessons to countries like India.

Despite the process of agrarian modernisation implemented in Chile at the end of the Pinochet regime, which fuelled export-based cash crop agriculture, such basic social rights as the eight-hour workday are still being discussed.

Part of the 200 million strong workers’ strike across India last January

In addition, Pinochet left the country organised under his imprint, which limits the scope of Chilean democracy.

This contrasts with the social and economic gains made during the government of Salvador Allende. At the time, French Prime Minister Francois Mitterrand was interested in this process of building popular power, something that caused alarm in the United States, specifically to Henry Kissinger, who was National Security Advisor in 1969 and Secretary of State in 1973, and saw in this encounter a danger to American interests in the region.

The outbreak experienced today is the result of a historical process of private capital accumulation at the expense of the state, that has weakened Chilean society as a whole.

It is not just public transport fares. The theft of water from small farmers by entrepreneurs linked to agribusiness has been constant. In this way, water is another public good privatised.

The demonstrations have been peaceful and chaos has been created mainly by the police and the military, which not only produce looting, but have also shot people at point blank range. Although there are curfews, people are recording the murders.

The disappearances are constant: when people are kidnapped by the police they call out their name loudly, a common practice during the dictatorship so family members would know what had happened to them.

The mass media are not reporting this, or the fact that state forces have used loud, disturbing sounds to terrorise civilians. Supermarkets run shortages because truck drivers are stopped, often with the involvement of a right-wing group which played a central role in the 1973 coup against Salvador Allende.

This shortage of food is being used to pressure the population. However, people are responding by making common pots, or community meals, to cope with the pressure.
 

A protest in Port-au-Prince last month demanding the resignation of the Haitian President

Demonstrations have been massive throughout the national territory, with everyone participating from children to elders. However, from the presidential palace La Moneda the government of President Sebastián Piñera has been miscasting the protests as the work of a few, so that international investment does not panic about the chaos and military repression being experienced.

Military intervention has extended to people's homes. State repression has been greater than typically reported. There is information coming through recordings made by people which indicate that they threw and burned bodies, thus the number of deaths is higher than reported in the media.

There are corroborating reports of detained women being stripped and abused by the military, who point their weapons at their vaginas and buttocks, asking them where they would prefer to be assaulted.

Detainees have also been veiled and treated as prostitutes, with soldiers telling them they will rape and kill them, reminding them how many missing women haven’t yet been returned to their homes.

From the ongoing protests in Baghdad where hundreds have been shot and killed

Social tension is spreading across the globe in response to the progressive collapse of the neoliberal economic model, which is not just incapable of responding to accumuating social and environmental problems, but also aggravates them with the extractive model that it promotes. The historical limits of environmental extraction have been overpassed by far.

Therefore, the protests represent an awareness among the citizenry that does not accept that the status quo will continue to operate, without considering a solution feasible to the problems that directly affect their daily lives.

A seemingly isolated rise in the price of transport limits the mobility of the population, which is highly indebted and cannot access salaries to cover their vital needs, a situation that extends widely along the globe, affecting the reproduction of life itself.

That the state is unable to respond to people’s demands without the use of repressive force, whether police or military, indicates the seriousness of the current situation.

The inability of states and institutions to creatively integrate different social groups points to the existence of a crack of overwhelming dimensions within contemporary societies.

This urgent situation needs the political promotion of a social and economic model that will respond to current disruptions by combining integral and consensual responses.

However, the opposite could also happen. It could lead to the expansion of an authoritarian model. This moment as in the 1920s is a moment of extreme polarisation worldwide, as it is responding to global environmental and socioeconomic crisis.

Protests in Beirut last month, triggered by a tax on WhatsApp messages

The higher the level of inequality, the more the exploitation process increases. In this way the neoliberal model intensifies the process of social and environmental extraction, which after centuries of plundering, is taking contemporary global societies to the limit of their possibilities.

With these factors operating for decades, we are once again in a moment of hostility experienced throughout the American continent. On October 17, Mexico experienced moments of tension when a commander of the Mexican Army and the newly created National Guard detained for several hours the son of drug trafficker Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán—who is currently in prison in the United States—in the city of Culiacán in Sinaloa.

Due to deficiencies in the operation, and above all because it was carried out within the headquarters of the Sinaloa Cartel, Guzmán’s son had to be released because, as the federal government declared hours later, it did not intend to cause unnecessary bloodshed.

The decision was applauded by many sectors of society, especially by government supporters, and above all by the inhabitants of Culiacán. But for detractors of Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the operation represented another failure in the fight against organised crime.

Beyond the current political polarisation, what became clear was the enormous power of the Sinaloa Cartel, which set a precedent in achieving the release of one of its leaders through direct threats against the families of military commanders in particular, and against civil society in general.

Protests in Khartoum last April

The disorganisation of the Mexican state in its fight against drug cartels is also clear. López Obrador has stated on various occasions since he came to the presidency last December that he does not want more bloodshed in the country. But the problem remains: he has not said how he will act against criminal organisations, and the failed operation shows he still has no strategy to do so.

Meanwhile, to keep waters calm with its powerful northern neighbour, López Obrador’s government ordered a large detachment of the National Guard to the border to stop massive illegal immigration.

Thus, in contrast to the Chilean or Ecuadorian governments who have sent the army against their people, the Mexican government is still ambivalent about the use of force.

The emergence of new social mobilisations in Latin America represents the emergence of a blunt response, preceded by a decade of protests, the revolts of 2010 and 2011 in the Arab countries first, and in southern Europe later, first in Portugal and then in Spain with 15M, peaceful mobilisations that subsequently expanded to the United States with Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter.

In France the yellow vests movement has taken the streets several times over the past year, the immediate cause being state taxation of consumers for fossil fuel use.

In Spain, independence movements in Barcelona and across Catalonia are responding to the unfair ruling of the Supreme Court, which has sentenced Catalan politicians to more than a decade in prison, with actions at different levels coordinated through the social media. Under the hashtag of Democratic Tsunami, they started by collapsing airport operations in Barcelona through a massive citizen parade.

In France, the loss of purchasing power of the rural middle classes, and in Catalonia the presence of huge unemployment among youngsters, and the impossibility of access to quality jobs, are pushing them to social mobilisation. In Catalonia they lead the independence struggle as a burning nail, which may not resolve their problems but keeps them busy.

The response of the state in all cases observed has been violent repression, and stigmatising protesters as vandals or terrorists.

Although these revolts are citizens’ peaceful responses, and have had a largely peaceful profile, they may turn violent if their needs are not properly considered.

 Organising for independence in Barcelona last month

Antonio Chamorro Cristóbal has a PhD in Andean history from FLACSO Ecuador. Juan Luis Delgado has a PhD in contemporary history from the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid and a postdoctorate from the Geography Institute of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico.

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