NATIONAL Social Crisis

Why the Destruction in Chile? It’s a Game of Snakes and Ladders

Stephen Darwin works and lives in Valparaíso and sent Chile Today his thoughts on the protests in Chile. Earlier, he spoke about the underlying reasons. Today, he discusses the destruction.

One of the critical aspects of the current uprising in Chile has been ‘why the looting, why the destruction?’. This demand is, of course, a very legitimate question. After all, many of the businesses attacked have been small businesses that provide valuable employment and income to workers without any other options. However, what we are seeing is a result of generations of games of social snakes and ladders.

However, the first question must be why is this happening? What makes young activists so angry that they resort to such violent means to prosecute their arguments? They only find snakes and no ladders.

Put simply, it is a product of profound alienation. Generations of relentless social and economic disadvantage which has slowly but surely eaten away at confidence that there is a shared future. But why such anger?

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It starts with education: where you live and what resources you have largely predetermine your future. Public schools, even with recent reforms, are the poor cousins to subsidized and private schools (and therefore access to the rich world of post-secondary educational opportunities). Large classes, overworked teachers and underfunding leave a hopeless divide. You confront a snake, while your more socially privileged equivalent finds a ladder. Moreover, even if low-income students can navigate this brutal economic divide, next is the gratuidad: free education for those in lower economic quantiles, but only in selective institutions where a high score is required.  So, back down the snake with a high-cost education loan.

Then there is grinding family poverty: the type of poverty that means long working hours, low income, and most importantly, precarity. While a small minority have done exceptionally well from the Chilean’ economic miracle’, as OECD statistics starkly demonstrate, the inequalities are profound and the worst in the OECD. This stark unfairness is despite the richness of the natural resources of Chile. So, most find the snake, however strong socio-historical connections (particularly from the privatization of public assets during the Pinochet military dictatorship) have helped the privileged few find a lucrative ladder.

And then there is the proliferation of corporate corruption: SQM, Penta, the famous cartels’ price-fixing essential commodities like toilet paper. These systematic forms of corporate fraud have been dealt with consistent with prevailing neoliberal principles: as forgivable market errors with few consequences. The street vendor without a license gets the full effect of the law, the corporation with highly paid lawyers, well it is understood as merely an error of judgment — more ladders for a few, snakes for most others.

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Finally, to retailers. The low incomes of workers in Chile mean the desperation for keeping their head above water is strong. Yet the cost of essential commodities and medicines is a constant battle for those used to living the snake. Yet there is always the rich promise of the ladder: store credit cards. However, these are the types of credit arrangements that attract the kind of predatory interest that means that high levels of debt are the inevitable consequence. The snake is never far away for the poor.

The widespread outburst of looting and vandalism cannot be disconnected by the built-up frustrations of generations of economic exploitation developed through these predatory credit mechanisms.

The promise of the ladder, the reality of the snake.

Nothing ever justifies looting, vandalism and arson. However, equally, nothing ever justifies systematic exploitation of the vulnerable for personal enrichment. In Chile, the generations of social and economic abuse of those always dealing with a snake—by those always finding ready access to the ladder—had to have an eventual consequence. The times we are living through are a manifestation of built-up social tension, not just criminal behavior as many on the ladder have been so motivated to shout from the highest rungs.

Stephen Darwin is an education academic at Universidad Alberto Hurtado and lives in Valparaiso

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