Chileans seem to get more critical of their society by the day. That is not too common throughout the world. Why are we like that?
“The England of South America,” a correct and legalistic country. The “oasis” of South America, President Sebastián Piñera said two weeks before the 2019 social outbreak. Welcoming to outsiders. An OECD member surrounded by neighbors that cause it unease and which it despises. A Catholic country with Sunday mass. A country where the powerful are not being touched, because even if they make mistakes, they contribute to development thanks to trickle-down economics, sharing a few crumbs. A country that values the traditional family and does not accept divorce – and certainly not same-sex living arrangements.
Where was that country?
Within less than a decade, Chileans realized that many certainties we took for granted had vanished. Or perhaps, they were simply myths with which the elites convinced the rest that those were the rules of the game. I believe the celebration of the bicentennial anniversary in 2010 was the beginning of the end of some beliefs.
At that time, the media, companies, and the elites were in charge of presenting these myths to us. But Chileans realized that many were not just invalid, but also detached from their daily lives.
The institutions fell into crisis. They disintegrated one by one in a sequence as dramatic as it was unexpected. First, the political class. It introduced the concept of “ideologically false invoices,” a euphemism for tax fraud involving the declaration of a non-existent service to obtain tax returns some companies used to finance political campaigns. This episode showed how political-economic interests intersect.
After that came leaders of big companies. Having preached the gospel of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School for decades, it turned out that they had seemingly forgotten everything about their religion as they colluded to fix prices and stifle competition.
And of course, the final blow hit the Catholic Church, which played such an important role during the dark dictatorship years. It emerged, however, that numerous priests abused minors sexually at a scale even the Vatican struggled to comprehend. Suddenly we learned priests had double lives, preaching and giving penance to sinners while stealing children’s innocence and betraying the trust put into them.
Living in the False Country
Chileans then realized that the country in which “the institutions work,” a favorite phrase of every president since the return to democracy, had vanished.
Migrants arrived, although this time not German, Spanish, or Italian settlers to take over the south. Neither were they blond or white. They were black – Haitian, Venezuelan, Colombian. Now it was up to us Chileans to discover that we were xenophobic and very little tolerant of diversity.
Then the eruption of Oct. 18, 2019 (18/O). This was the prime example of a society tired of abuse, of inequality disguised as Teletón, the TV spectacle that allows elite thieves to clean their image by donating part of the booty to sick children. It was the beginning of the rebellion against elites and the institutions that did not work. But it was also the expression of indignation against a system that was holy, maintained by a few and unconsciously accepted by the rest.
The President as “Role Model”
Unfortunately for Piñera, the over-promise of his campaign slogan to deliver “Better Times” and his personal story put him in the spotlight. He represents everything citizens are concerned about.
Part of his story is Banco de Talca – the Bank of Talca. Robbing the bank with pen and paper and some accomplices – who went to jail while Piñera, holed up at a still unknown location, negotiated his impunity with prosecutors – laid the foundation for his wealth. A stuffed campaign account was later discovered, which Piñera defended by saying it showed he was a middle-class guy, causing cognitive breakdown.
Here was a rich, powerful, cold, distant man. It did not fit with the myth. Gone was that idea engraved in the subconscious that it was better to have a rich man governing the country, because voters still accepted the myth that the rich do not steal. Others saw in him an aspirational fantasy; a rich man was well equipped to create jobs and increase general living standards.
The current citizen rebellion doesn’t seem to follow a direction; rather, it targets the entire flock. Right now, we’re seeing general annoyance with everyone in power. It is as if Chileans are accounting for decades of inequality and misleading.
Institutions lost public trust. The three worst evaluated are the government, congress and political parties, according to the Center for Public Studies’ annual survey. The survey also showed that institutions that led us through previous mega-crises have failed to provide guidance this time. The Catholic Church, for example, is practically non existent.
In these long weeks of pandemic quarantines, the elites failed to understand the magnitude of the problems, the dramas and the fears. The government has been petty; the opposition has been petty. Juan Sutil, leader of the most powerful business union, stoked xenophobia saying that immigrants do not contribute to development, even though we are a country of immigrants.
And a powerful agricultural entrepreneur accused people of laziness, preferring to live off the meager onetime pandemic cash payments the state provides. This is an elite that seems to believe today’s Chile is the same as 10 years ago. But we now have a divorce law, same-sex arrangements law, and the pension system that propelled its inventor the president’s brother to global fame is being crushed.
What is Chile?
Chile is no longer the England of South America. We do not live in an oasis and we are not superior to the rest. Piñera may rightly say we got the vaccines first, but he still has only 9% approval. The government may rightly boast that it has provided more cash payments than any other in the region, but Chileans are still angry and upset.
Public anger is palpable in social networks, in small talk, in broadcast interviews. Nobody seems to be happy with anything. The judicial system is criticized, the Carabineros police mistrusted. Business owners are criticized, parliamentarians, everyone.
Citizens felt abandoned and screamed so they could access their pension savings to survive the crisis. They rose on 18/O, demanded a plebiscite on a new constitution, and nearly 80% voted in favor. It was hoped the drafters would be faces not linked to the political elite. But most running for the constitutional convention are former ministers, parliamentarians, and above all right-wingers who fought to maintain the constitution imposed by Pinochet. They will obtain much influence in the process thanks to the electoral system created by parliamentarians.
We Chileans seem to have become disenchanted with us or with Chile. It is as if we rebelled against a past that embarrassed us and was more of a mirage anyway.
New generations must ask how their elders could tolerate a transition in which Pinochet, the dictator, remained commander-in-chief and designated senator for years after the dictatorship. Or how we accept the collusion of providers of essential products, like drugs, leading to real suffering and possible deaths; how we accepted gender inequality, lack of dignity or abuse of minors.
Unfortunately, our elites are oblivious to this rising alienation and the general disenchantment.
This development is personified by lawmaker Pamela Jiles of the Humanist Party, who leads in all presidential polls. She is the primary force behind the pension fund withdrawals but does not have a program and is an empty vessel. Yet she captured something others missed: the withdrawals were a response to individuals’ assertion of a right and criticism of the state for lack of support.
Pamela Jiles embodies anger and emotional disenchantment with that Chile from 10 years ago that we don’t like today. This is the Chile the defenders of the status quo not only fail to see – but can’t even understand.
Germán Silva Cuadra is an expert in corporate communications and a regular commentator on Chilean politics. His latest book is ‘No te reconozco Chile. Cómo entender al país que noqueó a la elite.’ Germán tweets under @gsilvacuadra.