Opinion: Why (and how) things are changing in Chile

Protestors in Plaza Baquedano, Santiago, Chile, October 22, 2019. (Photo credit: Carlos Figueroa)
Protestors in Plaza Baquedano, Santiago, Chile, October 22, 2019. (Photo credit: Carlos Figueroa)

At 2:24 a.m. on Friday, November 15, after 28 days of unprecedented unrest and violence nationwide, the Chilean congress announced that the people will get to write a brand new, “100 percent Democratic” constitution using the mechanism they will vote on next April 2020.

The referendum will ask the people:

1) Do you want a new Constitution? Yes or no.

2) What body should write the new Constitution: Mixed Constitutional Convention (Current congress people and laypeople elected for this purpose) or Constitutional Convention (exclusively made up by laypeople elected for this purpose).

After 30 years of tinkering around the edges of a constitution written by a dictatorship that prioritizes private property over everything, a “starting from scratch” Constitution is a huge victory.

And yet, people are still on the streets, and many do not trust the process.

How did just a few weeks of mass protests provoke such a big change?

Winds of change

On October 18, 2019, Santiago de Chile, the nation’s capital city, exploded into some of the most intense and widespread expressions of social unrest it’s seen.

After five days of mass fare evasion of the city’s Metro transportation system — initiated by high school students, and joined by a sizeable chunk of civil society by the end of the work week — the city was literally up in flames, roads were blocked, protesters were rioting, and the military took on the streets to restore order.

Over half of the Metro stations (77 out of 135) were “considerably damaged,” to the tune of $200 million dollars, and nine of them were completely burned down.

Let that sink in: Completely burned down.

While a state of emergency — complete with a curfew and military on the streets — is a catastrophe anywhere, in Chile it was particularly painful as this was the first time in 35 years that the military had been ordered to restore order.

Previously, “restoring order” meant a coup d’etat followed by 17 years of a horrifying dictatorship full of disappearances, torture, exile and killing.

What went wrong

How did the most solid and stable economy in Latin America turn into a war zone in a short week?

Like everything that happens seemingly overnight, this one had been cooking for a while — over a decade, I would argue.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was an increase on the Metro fare, which led to mass fare evasion initiated in protest by high school students — who had already led a social movement beginning in 2006 — and joined by the rest of the population in the following days.

The metro fare was raised to the equivalent of a bit over one dollar — which in Chile would mean that 21 percent of your minimum wage would go to transportation.

For 70 percent of Chileans it means they would spend up to 14 percent of their monthly wages on public transport.

And in Chile, public transport is not totally public. Those fare increases were for transnational corporate profits.

This fare evasion tactic quickly escalated into what can only best be described as complete and utter chaos.

When the Minister of Economy suggested folks should get up earlier to catch the Metro at the cheaper off-peak time, and President Piñera was photographed dining at an upscale restaurant Friday night when the city was going up in flames — people didn’t take it so well.

What had been a call for mass fare evasion in protest turned into rioting, looting, arson, a breakdown of the social contract, and the military taking the streets.

The Metro hike has been rolled back to pacify the masses, but the thing is, this was never about just the Metro.

This photo encapsulates the best summary of the issues I’ve seen. The sign reads: “Rebellion in Santiago against the precarization of life.”

This is the neoliberal capitalist economy — built on the back of most to benefit a few — hitting the fan.

The Chicago Boys

For the last 40 years, Chile has been the first laboratory for the neoliberal economic experiment, born mostly out of Milton Friedman’s work at the University of Chicago School of Economics, and imported to Chile by the Chicago Boys, a group of Friedman’s followers.

Their free-market doctrines were first imposed by Pinochet’s regime in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s — but the free-market doesn’t care for anybody’s well-being if it’s not profitable.

In modern Chile, Friedman’s theory made a minority of the population very, very rich, at the expense of virtually everyone else.

Chile has the highest per capita income in Latin America, and the largest degree of social inequity.

This in turn led to widespread, and institutionalized, social neglect.

• Scandals over the last decade saw Chile’s politicians receiving illegal financing from corporations with impunity, and those corporations colluding to charge consumers higher prices.

• In health care, three of the biggest pharmacies raised prices on over 200 prescription meds, most of which are used for chronic illnesses. Meanwhile, the public-health system, which covers 80 percent of the population, has 2 million people on waiting lists, and a lack of hospitals, specialists and preventive care. And the fifth of the population with private health care complains about price increases, lack of coverage and restricted access to health centers. 

• Chile’s pension system has been privatized — a part of Pinochet’s legacy — and doesn’t cover retirees’ basic needs even after a lifetime of paying into the system. 

• Water has been privatized — no, not just tap water being administered by a private company; water sources themselves are owned by private interests

• The educational system is by design inequitable. This includes a failed voucher system and a lack of investment in low-income children. 

These are just symptoms of a system that forces people to struggle — for life. Just to cover their most basic needs and have a decent life.

That system — neoliberal capitalism, the system of the Chicago Boys — benefits from a multiplicity of oppressions. Racism and sexism are woven into the fabric of neoliberal economy, and impact daily life for millions of people.

And now it looks like we’re not gonna uphold it any more.

A new constitution?

The Chilean Constitution was created in 1980 during Pinochet’s dictatorship.

This Constitution does protect the right to property — but not to housing or water, nor does it ensure adequate education, health care and social security. 

There is a much better alternative in the works, one that I’m feeling hopeful about: Asamblea Constituyente — or Constituent Assembly, a form of representative democracy in which an assembly of popularly elected representatives drafts a constitution.

There are other mechanisms for amending or even creating a Constitution anew, but this particular mechanism is getting more attention, and may just be what a disempowered nation needs to believe in democracy again.

It would address the issue at the heart of the slogans of the protests: #Chiledesperto — Chile woke up.

It would offer a way of organizing that is people-centric rather than focused exclusively on perpetual growth and profit.

It would offer pathways to civic participation, which is the antidote to feeling disempowered and oppressed.

This is what the Referendum in April 2020 will be about — if and how to write a new Constitution.

It is also quite relevant to note that according to studies by Harvard University, when 3.5 percent of a population are engaged in protest, change is unavoidable.

Chile has been well over twice that figure for four weeks, with over a million people on the streets, in a country of 18 million.

My hope is that this is an opportunity to dream this nation anew.

Given that Chile was the original lab for neoliberalism, it is only fitting that Chile should be the first lab for deep democracy and a post-neoliberal economy that is centered in human rights.

Maritza Schafer is a writer, communicator, activist, strategist, and campaigner. She grew up in Chile, is a citizen of the United States and Australia, and currently resides in San Francisco. maritzaschafer.com

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