NATIONAL Social Crisis

A Look Back: One Month into Chile’s Social Crisis

SANTIAGO – Yesterday marks a month since the protests in Chile started. From students evading metro fares to mass marches, protesters have shown that they will not back down until fundamental changes are made. A month into the crisis, it’s worth asking: What has been accomplished? What has been lost?

No one expected a metro price hike to lead to weeks of nationwide protests, but the anger that surfaced on Oct. 18 sits like a supervolcano under niceties worn thin by years of inequality. Once it erupted, it started breaking through everywhere, until the public and parliamentarians could no longer ignore the social: “it’s not about 30 pesos, it’s about 30 years,” the saying goes.

Chile’s latest social movement is now a month old and the surface costs grow larger by the day. The riots and destruction, the lives broken and lost. Was it worth it?

The Awakening

On Oct. 6, the government announced a metro fare hike of CLP$30 (US$0.04). Unable to accept such an increase for an already very high cost of transportation, a group of 100 students organized mass metro fare evasions, jumping the gates at Universidad de Chile Metro Station.

In the days that followed, many joined and jumped over gates at other stations. By Oct. 18, some 80 mass evasions had occurred, but this only marked the beginning of the nationwide movement.

As the sun went down, protests became more intense, some even devolved into violence. In some areas, authorities were quickly overpowered. 

The exterior staircase to the ENEL Tower (where the energy company of the same name has its offices) was set ablaze and quickly became an emblematic flaming sword of the initial days of violence. Stores and supermarkets were also trashed and looted and metro stations vandalized and torched.

At 11 p.m., President Sebastián Piñera declared a state of emergency and the military was sent to the streets. National Defense General Javier Iturriaga also imposed a curfew in Santiago the next day.

The Shaping of a Movement in Chile

Piñera’s measures and his attitude—referring to the crisis as a “war” and referencing an “organized enemy”—only further fueled the outrage and multiplied the protests and riots nationwide. 

The president did, however, come out soon after this, on Oct. 22, to announce a Social Agenda to outline his plans to respond to the demands. The measure, which was the first of many others to come, proposed minimum wage increases, higher retirement pensions, lower electricity rates, and tax changes.

The nascent Social Agenda was a step in the right direction, but Chileans were still not ready to go home; and, on Oct. 25, exactly one week into what was now a push for broad-based reforms, the Largest March in Chile occurred. Over 1.2 million people gathered in an around Plaza Italia in Santiago. Smaller versions of the march were replicated in other cities nationwide.

On Oct. 26, with a modicum of peace restored to most areas, and many still seething that the military had been deployed in the first place, President Piñera suspended the state of emergency and curfew and withdrew the military.

In the meantime, Piñera’s approval rating hit a historic low of 14% since the return of democracy, according to a CADEM survey, and, although the metro fare increase that sparked the movement had long since been withdrawn, and other concessions had been offered by way of the Social Agenda, the anger and resulting manifestations—both peaceful and violent—had moved far beyond the original issues.

On Oct. 28, Piñera announced a Minister Cabinet change, another effort to attend to the people’s demands. But although he promised a complete renewal of his ministers, most of them rotated and only a few actually left office. Among those who left, however, was Interior Minister Andrés Chadwick, known as one of Piñera’s most trusted advisors and whose reputation was deeply scarred after his supervisory involvement with Mapuche Camilo Catrillanca’s death in November 2018.

In the meantime, yet another cause for protest evolved: various agencies were increasingly receiving complaints of military and police abuse and human rights violations in Chile. The National Institute of Human Rights (INDH) had filed 120 such complaints, and received evidence of over 1,100 related injuries. Among other things, the INDH logged evidence of arbitrary detentions and indiscriminate use of teargas and pellet and rubber bullets against protesters.

The Demands, the Solutions, and the Costs

Since then, the protests have continued, and with them the riots, arson, looting, and other acts of violence and vandalism that continue to inflict severe damage nationwide and at every level, from the national to the personal.

On the national level, for example, the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP25), the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit and the national charity event, Teletón 2019, were all canceled in early November.

On the personal level, the INDH has identified hundreds who have sustained eye injuries (including loss of vision) from being hit by rubber bullets fired by the police and military. Others have allegedly suffered torture, including sex abuse, while detained by authorities.

Less visible, but often no less serious, are the emotional injuries many have suffered at the hands of one group or another (police, military, rioters, arsonists, looters), or simply as a result of bearing witness to the violence.

Many businesses have also been destroyed, literally or figuratively (from not being able to operate because of the chaos).

On Nov. 12, Piñera stepped before the cameras and announced that recently-retired police and PDI officers would be called back into service to help. He also said that he had given instructions to the Interior Ministry to file complaints against those who have promoted or participated in violent acts and crimes during the recent protests. He called on the country to work on three accords—accords for peace, justice, and a new Constitution. As to the latter, he said such would be possible through “a ratifying plebiscite, so that the citizens can participate in its construction, and can have the last word on this new social pact that Chile needs.”

The president’s announcement about the procedure for a new Constitution for Chile was widely appreciated, but his other announcements were seen by many as just additional repressive actions.

On Nov. 15, parliamentarians and lawmakers came together to announce that in the context of Piñera’s accord for peace, a plebiscite had been organized for April 2020, which marked the way towards a new Constitution. 

A new Constitution was a change no Chilean had thought possible a month ago. It’s now not only a possibility but a probability if recent surveys are correct.


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