Change is on the horizon in Chile. The protests of the past two months embody the culmination of half a century of struggle. Most say that the protests are a direct response to the pitfalls of neoliberal economics which have facilitated widespread economic inequality throughout Chile. The increased cost of living, corruption, subway fares, and widespread privatisation are just a few examples of the economic shifts that are contributing to the unrest. Initially, citizens of Santiago united to protest the increased transit fare. By occupying train stations, protesters hoped to send a message to the small elite who were benefiting from these policies at the expense of the many. The protests spread like a wave over the city. After the hike in metro prices, the protests came to a head on 18 October, when rebellions were launched throughout the city, causing a full shutdown of the Santiago Metro network. Reports suggested severe damage to the city’s infrastructure, and violent civil disobedience prompted President Sebastian Piñera to declare a state of emergency and implement a 6pm curfew for civilians in Santiago. The subsequent deployment of the Chilean Armed Forces in Santiago would mark a violent turn in the conflict in Chile, as the demonstrations dwindled into widespread riots, arson, looting, and significant damage to public and private property. The demonstrations have been met with excessive use of force by Carabineros police force as well as the Chilean Armed Forces.
The events in Chile have paralleled civil responses Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship beginning in 1984. Pinochet’s reign is widely known as the beginning of the aforementioned neoliberal policies which have incited today’s protests over four decades later. With the backing of President Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and economist Milton Friedman, Augusto Pinochet facilitated the entrenchment of free market capitalism, and the privatisation of state owned entities. Since then, the Chilean economy has made large strides of economic growth, often referred to as the ‘economic miracle’ of Latin America, demonstrating the success of American neoliberal development projects. Despite the economic growth, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Chile still has one of the most disproportionate wealth distributions in the world. A 2017 United Nations (UN) report stated that the wealthiest 1% of the Chilean population received 33 % of national wealth.
The protesters can be broken into three categories: organized crime groups taking advantage of the chaos; socialist groups with direct opposition to the free market model; and, last but not least, the common Chilean citizens protesting for a decreased cost of living. The demographic of the protesters spans across geographic locations, racial categories, and age groups. The protests have spread to other cities in Chile, most notably Valparaíso, Concepción, San Antonio, La Serena, Rancagua, and Valdivia. Throughout Chile, there are an estimated 3.7 million protesters, making this one of the largest occurrences of civil unrest in history. Human rights organisations have reported 24 deaths, over 2400 injuries, and 5400 detainees as a result of the conflict. National Human Rights Institute (INDH) reported that five of these deaths were caused by the Chilean security forces such as the Carabineros. In addition, the injuries have been connected to the excessive use of force by security forces, often through the means of firearms. As a result of rubber bullets used against demonstrators the Chilean Ophthalmological Society has estimated 225 instances of eye trauma from October 19th to November 10th. In addition, Amnesty International have “received hundreds of complaints about serious human rights violations that range from excessive use of force to torture, illegal raids and arbitrary detention.”
Recent events, such as those on 25 October, have called for the immediate resignation of President Piñera. Who has responded by putting forward remedies to current inequality. Such remedies include price cuts in medicare for poor, guaranteed minimum wage provisions, reform of the criminal justice system, and rise in minimum pensions. Although such policies were welcomed by some opposition parties, the desire for structural reform remains. In recent events, the Chilean government has agreed to make constitutional reform. On Friday 15 November, lawmakers and politicians alike proposed an “Agreement for Peace and a New Constitution”. These proposals include an April referendum allowing Chileans to vote on the creation of a new constitution. It is estimated that 80% of Chileans desire a new constitution, which better ensures health care and education to the general public. Public responses to the referendum have been mostly positive, putting a significant halt to the violence throughout Chilean cities.
Despite the “Agreement for Peace and a New Constitution” there is significant progress to be made in order to ensure sustainable peace and economic prosperity in Chile. As the spectre of October looms over Chile, it is imperative that public prosecutors make inquiries into the estimated 1000 cases of physical and sexual abuse by security forces during the protests the past months. Such occurrences showcase a culture of impunity which has been evident since the violent suppression of Pinochet’s reign. Pathways to peace for Chile, therefore, not only include constitutional reform, but acknowledgement of past and present human rights violations by security forces in Chile. Requests for security forces to wear body cams during riot control have been addressed by police chief Mario Rozas. In the wake of the potential continuation of demonstrations in Chile non-combative recommendation to nullify violence could include mandatory riot control training for security forces. In addition, officers accused of sexual assault, rape, torture, and murder must have their day in court. The prosecution of security forces committing human rights violations could act as a deterrent to violence in future protests.
So, Chile, known as Latin America’s miracle economy, has been embroiled in a history of corruption, violence suppression, and inequality. Both Chilean elites, and United States officials such as Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, hold responsibility for the manifestations of impunity which have come to a boil in 2019. Domestic, regional, and international actors implicated in the conflict owe Chilean citizens new pathways to sustainable peace and economic fortune that can be enjoyed by all.