SANTIAGO – Chile’s recent protests are just the latest in a history full of repeating cycles of social upheavals and economic inequality. Chile Today takes a look back to see what mistakes are being repeated and what the current administration can do to fix them.
For the past couple of weeks, Chile has found itself in complete chaos and massive protests have been taking place in the capital and in other major cities. The underlying anger was detonated when a panel of experts announced that they would raise the price of the Santiago Metro CLP$30. In response, on Oct. 7, a group of students from the Instituto Nacional, one of Chile’s most prestigious public schools, decided to jump the metro turnstile in protest. This went on for a week until President Sebastián Piñera publicly condemned their acts and announced a crackdown on the practice.
After two weeks of constant clashes between students and police officers, the Minister of Interior Andrés Chadwick condemned the students protest, called them aggressors, denied the possibility of reducing the fare, and announcing that they would be applying the Law of State Security, meaning that they could give harsher sentences to anyone vandalizing public property.
Following Chadwick’s threats, the protests became riots, barricades were set up, looting began, and many of the metro stations were set ablaze.
At the same time, the President was seen at his grandson’s birthday party in an upscale pizza restaurant in Vitacura—bad optics that only further stoked the rioters’ anger.
State of Emergency
On Saturday, Oct. 19, the president declared a state of emergency, letting the military handle the situation. The protests continued throughout the weekend and on Sunday night President Piñera announced that he would suspend the fare raise.
By this time, it was too late and the damage had been done. The Chilean public was determined to be heard.
The use of the military only exacerbated tensions. Many people were furious that military forces were back patrolling the streets, a move that opened up many unhealed wounds that still exist in Chile’s collective psyche.
Now, although the state of emergency has been lifted, the protests continue with no end in sight. Last week, the president issued a 10-point proposal to meet public demands, and then this week he also replaced his entire cabinet, but the people demand more change.
The military are also gone, but for many the sting remains, especially with the many alleged human right abuses being investigated by Amnesty International, the UN, and other organizations.
Most international news organizations seem to ask the same question: “How can Latin America’s most stable country fall to such anarchy?” What most people do not seem to understand is the fact that Chile has deep-rooted social problems and social protests since the 1940s, and that most of the time the solutions the government employ are more or less the same.
“La Revolución de la Chaucha”
The closest we have to the current situation in Chile would be “La Revolución de la Chaucha,” which occurred in 1949 during the government of President González Videla.
At that time, Videla was heavily criticized for creating “La Ley Maldita,” a law that effectively banned the communist party from participating in politics, even though they helped him win his presidential campaign. After the law went into effect, Videla decided to ally himself with right-wing politicians, earning him the scorn of the Chilean public.
Videla’s administration then pushed its luck with a public transit price hike. Thus, on Aug. 12, 1949, the government announced that it would raise the fare at least CLP$20, and this fare hike, like the current one, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It’s a familiar refrain: people were furious because the prices for basic necessities had continuously been rising but wages had remained stagnet.
In response, on Aug. 16, Santiago’s workers and college students organized themselves and took their protest to the city center. Once there, they began tipping any public transport that they saw, constructing barricades in the street, and tearing down electric poles.
Videla’s administration immediately called in the Carabineros and the army to help calm down the situation. Law enforcement’s response, however, ended up leaving hundreds injured and an unknown number dead, which to this day is undetermined and estimated to be between 4 and 30 casualties.
After two days of violent protests, the movement started to die down without any real leadership and with only one simple demand: lower the fare. The government conceded.
As a direct result of this protest, Chile’s first nationwide workers union was created, known as the “Comité Unido de Obreros.” The president also announced an important change in his cabinet. This all demonstrated that Chileans were capable of rebelling when the situation called for it, and that they were willing to die in order to have a better quality of life. They also impressed a visiting Albert Camus, who wrote in his diary, “Chile has taught me that even volcanoes can be tender.”
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🗣️#ChileNoSeRinde In Temuco, protesters tore down the busts of Spanish conqueror Pedro de Valdivia and Chilean soldier Dagoberto Godoy. Godoy’s head is now in the hand of the mapuche leader’s statue, in a symbolic act against the historical repression against indigenous people.
The Battle of Santiago in 1957
If La Revolución de la Chaucha showed what the Chilean people are capable of doing for their right to a better quality of life, the battle of Santiago showed what the government was willing to do in order to maintain the rule of law.
In 1957, during the government by President Carlos Ibáñez del Campo, Chile was in the middle of an economic crisis and in order to alleviate the situation they decided to enlist the help of the Klein-Saks commission, a group of american economists who ended up creating the bases for the neoliberal model. The commission concluded that the Chilean people were consuming more than they were producing and that the best solution was to raise the cost of necessities and freeze wages, a solution that was met with disapproval.
This likewise came to a head when they announced a public transit price hike. In response, most of the workers unions in the country staged protests in Santiago on Apr. 2 and 3. Many unions, student organizations, and left-wing political parties also supported the protests.
On the first day, an estimated 20,000 people participated, and without any violence until the police intervened, when the mob became unruly and complete anarchy ensued in the center of Santiago.
According to first-hand reports of that day, students entered public buses with guns, stole money, and gave it to the passengers. The mob also began breaking and robbing nearby stores, while the Carabineros shot their weapons to the sky in a desperate attempt to scatter the rioters.
During this event, President Ibáñez del Campo declared martial law and suspended Congress while the military attempted to regain order in the streets. At the end of the day, 16 were dead and an estimated 5,000 were injured.
Carlos Ibáñez del Campo’s political career was also finished. The center left-wing parties of the time decided that they could not cooperate with the right-wing, meaning that they would start taking a more violent and confrontational approach in order to reach their goals.
🗣️ #ChileViolatesHumanRights The Amnesty investigates human right violations in Chile since Oct. 28. Investigator Pilar San Martín said, “[we see] signs of … excessive use of force, possible torture acts …; but more importantly, we see it at a massive, long term level.” pic.twitter.com/Kv5XtyYcpC
— Chile Today News (@ChileTodayNews) October 30, 2019
Breaking the Wheel
Chile’s story arc is full of examples of history repeating itself, right down to the smallest detail. As a result, we can often see how things might turn out.
At the moment, Chile has a big inequality problem that is not being addressed, and instead of simply sweeping it under the rug and leaving it for the next president to deal with it, President Piñera should confront it head on.
Piñera should act more like Videla and less like Ibañez del Campo, but he will almost certainly have to go further. What he has done to date echoes the solutions from the past which have not fixed the problem. He and his administration might therefore want to look to history and find the correct solution, which at the moment seems to be to listen to the people and try to reach a compromise that not only would be beneficial to the people of Chile but would also be one they truly feel is theirs and one that gives them hope to aspire.
Diego Rivera is currently a senior in University, finishing up his audiovisual degree. You can find him on Twitter as @Piover45.