Last weekend in the Chilean capital of Santiago, more than half of the city’s subway system was destroyed by riots and arson, resulting in $200 million in damages. Tragically, several people lost their lives. While the initial spark for the protests was a planned subway-rate hike, the scope and reasoning behind Chile’s social unrest has grown to include broader issues such as economic inequality and overall dissatisfaction with the role of the country’s political elite. On social media, thousands of users have declared that the country has awoken. But awoken to address what exactly, has not yet been determined.
What started out as small-scale protests by students to evade an increase in fares, quickly escalated into an outright rejection of the existing social order in Chile. There has been a long-standing narrative, that socioeconomic divides exist in Santiago, and with that, two very different realities for its citizens. But beyond Santiago, this same dynamic appears to be affecting the rest of the country. One reality is married to the political and economic standards of a developing nation, and the other seeking recognition for its level of order and development on par with European standards.
Since the return of democracy in 1990, the reduction of poverty in Chile has been impressive. From approximately 48 percent of Chileans that lived below the poverty line in 1988, compared to 14 percent today, the country has progressed rapidly. It is considered one of the most stable and democratic countries in the hemisphere, becoming South America’s first member to be admitted to the OECD in 2010, despite its own set of issues and challenges.
These are widely known, but often not the center of attention. Massive income and wealth inequality between economic groups or the business elite, which have maintained control over key industries, have clashed with the interests of lower to middle income Chilean families struggling to obtain affordable and good quality education, healthcare and pension plans. Unfortunately, the country’s strong economic performance in past decades has not been shared widely nor has it adequately supported the growing demand for public goods and services.
The future of the Chilean miracle, as the late economist Milton Friedman called the country’s growing economy, is now in a state of profound crisis. While it may be too early to tell what has replaced it, the level of mobilization and the intense sense that a political fracture is imminent, echoes past divisions within the country. It is worth noting that the state of emergency and military curfew recently implemented by President Sebastián Piñera’s administration, perhaps more than bringing order to a city on edge, has allowed past memories of dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet to resurface.
The declaration by the president that the government is at war has also exasperated and widened division among Chileans. The speed and degree to which the protests and mobilization of different sectors of society has occurred has been difficult for the current administration to manage. The latest headlines in Chile, however, point to a shared instability and mounting political tension throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, as social unrest and violence has visited countries such as Venezuela, Haiti, Ecuador and Mexico.
While Chile may wish to remain a shining example of good governance and stability, it too must reconcile the differences of its citizens and the tensions created by decades of unequal outcomes and living standards. A major factor in many of these countries, beyond an increase in the cost of living, slowing economies, and citizen insecurity, has been the sense that an economic elite with impunity exists; not beholden to democratic institutions and void of any punishment for its own misdeeds.
In Chile, this line of thinking is perhaps what led to dissatisfaction and anger over the increased cost of public transportation—that along with the suggestion by Juan Andrés Fontaine, the Chilean Minister of Economy, that metro riders should simply get up earlier to avoid higher fares. But a much more subtle underpinning of the current tension in Chile can be linked to past decades, where economic growth was prioritized over addressing inequality.
With growth now subsiding, the current administration is unprepared to address the explosive nature of this past weekend. The level of disconnect between the public’s demands and the government’s performance, can only improve if there is some degree of mutual understanding to compromise. A democratic solution, one of dialogue and negotiation, can be best guided by frank discussions that denounce violence at any scale and highlight the precarious nature that some lower income and middle-class families find themselves.
The role of any government is to serve its citizens; however, limitations also exist. Over the course of the coming weeks, there will likely be a role for civil society and other goodwill actors to begin negotiating with government stakeholders on how to proceed past what has boiled over into the streets. Coming to a solution is of the utmost importance, as these domestic issues could soon influence the international perception of Chile—which is only weeks away from hosting two major summits, APEC and COP25.
President Piñera has already declared a reversal of the fare hike as well as the creation of a working group to address the concerns of citizens. Indeed, compromise will be needed on both sides, otherwise discontent will continue to grow. Perhaps the best path forward is for the government to declare an end to the state of emergency, seeking support from opposition leaders in creating a unified effort to address the concerns of the country’s stratified and for now, deeply fractured society.
Lucia Dammert is an Associate Professor at the University of Santiago and a Global Fellow for the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program. Anders Beal is a Program Associate in the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program.