Chile is currently witnessing the largest protests it has ever seen in its history. More than five percent of the country’s population, totaling over one million people, marched peacefully in Chile’s capital Santiago on 25 October 2019. The protests were triggered by a $0.04 increase in the Santiago metro fare. They started small on 18 October with students jumping turnstiles to highlight their refusal to pay the new fare. Quickly, the students’ small act of resistance ignited a full-blown citywide crisis. More non-students started to join in, hopping over turnstiles turned into looting, rioting, and burning 22 metro stations, according to Vox. Weeks later, on 8 November, the riots continue, and protestors have even looted a church and set fire to a university. There are no signs of these protests winding down.
It seems the students tapped into a much broader sentiment about economic conditions in Chile, as protestors are still not satisfied following President Sebastián Piñera’s reversal of the fare increase. Protestors are not even satisfied with the numerous steps President Piñera has taken to meet their demands. These steps include blocking a price-hike in electricity charges, expanding pension benefits and wages, raising taxes on the upper class, and changing out his cabinet members. No, now protestors recognize they have their foot in the door, and leverage to change the discussion surrounding long-standing policies that have created substantial economic inequalities. While Chile as a country has prospered, several studies show that this prosperity is limited in the people it reaches. A 2017 UN report found one percent of the country makes 33 percent of its wealth. Chile’s Comisión para el Mercado Financiero goes so far as to state that half of the workforce in the country lives in debt, primarily driven by the fact Chile has some of the most expensive universities in the world. On top of all that, Fundación SOL reports that half the workers in Chile also only make around $550 a month, meaning they live well below the U.S. poverty line. Disparities also manifest themselves in healthcare, education, and working conditions.
In addition to these numbers and data points, there are countless stories showing the real, tangible impacts of this inequality. For example, Melissa Medina, a 25-year-old makeup artist, claims, “we have shitty wages and 12-hour shifts. It takes me two hours to get back from work, and when I get home, I don’t see my daughter because she is asleep.” The poor economic conditions themselves are no longer the only issue. In response to overwhelmingly peaceful protests, President Piñera increased police presence and, more recently, has called for increased prison sentences for protestors. Clashes between police and protests have left at least 20 dead, and thousands of others injured, The Washington Post reports. Police have even shot students. The government must act to stop these deaths; there is no economic gain large enough to justify the loss of civilian lives.
There is a solution. The primary demand of protestors is that the government rewrites or amends the constitution. Chile has had the same constitution since it was a dictatorship. Constitutional lawyer and professor at the University of Valparaíso, Jaime Bassa, found the remnants of the dictatorship written into the text. She stated, “the entire system of protection of social rights, specifically social security, health, education, work and trade union cover is marked by a preference for private property and freedom of entrepreneurship.” The constitution itself lacks a formal mechanism explaining how to change it, and so protestors have unanimously called for a plebiscite, or referendum. While the details of what will be at stake in the referendum can be hammered out in the long term, in the short term, President Piñera could agree to hold one. Agreeing to dialogue over a referendum would appease protestors, help to stop police violence, and open the door to real, powerful changes in Chile that can address economic inequalities.