In October, Chilean student activists fare-evaded on the Santiago Metro as an act of civil disobedience against recently introduced public transport price increases. The increase was 30 Pesos, but for many low-income families—many of whom already spend more than 20% of their income on transport—this 4% increase in ticket prices was unacceptable. These new fares also had significant symbolic power, signalling that the government, headed by billionaire President Sebastián Piñera, does not understand the problems of everyday Chileans nor represent their interests. As such, alongside demanding that the price increase be repealed, the nearly four million Chileans who have since been involved in street protests, also call for a higher minimum wage, a fairer pensions system, a more equitable education system, a new constitution, and the resignation of President Piñera.
Initially, the Chilean government attempted to depict the protesters as internationally-sponsored provocateurs seeking to spread instability, but this only intensified the notion that the government did not comprehend how widespread the protesters’ concerns were. Since then, the state’s response to the protests has been a mixture of repression and concession. As the protests ballooned in size, violent crackdowns became more common. Human Rights Watch notes that the limited restrictions or accountability measures on the national police (Carabineros)—particularly during the week an official state of emergency was declared in Santiago—have permitted the malicious use of shotgun beanbag rounds, rubber bullets, tear gas, and the direct assault of protesters. The Chilean National Human Rights Institute reports that this police brutality has claimed the lives of 26 people and injured more than 11,500 people. More than 15,000 people have been detained by police and there are hundreds of allegations of abuse, torture, and illegal imprisonment.
Rather than submission, the overwhelming response to this state-sanctioned police violence has been to intensify resistance. Consequently, the state has conceded to some of the protesters’ demands: the initial metro fare increase was repealed, the Piñera cabinet removed eight ministers, and a date in April has been set for a referendum on the rewriting of the Chilean constitution. This last concession is of particular importance. Practically, the current Chilean constitution requires a two-thirds congressional majority to overturn the minimalist provisions for national social welfare programs like healthcare and pensions. Symbolically, as it was written during Augusto Pinochet’s authoritarian rule, for many, the failure to update his constitution reflects a continuation of his regime, which was characterised by its brutality and its aggressive promotion of economic growth to the detriment of social welfare.
The violence has not been entirely one-sided. As the protests have grown they have also regrettably devolved into violence more frequently. According to the Chilean Police Commander, nearly 2,000 officers have been injured (about 120 of them seriously). However, to depict these protests as an equally internecine conflict neglects the power asymmetries enjoyed by the state and the coordinated campaign of violence and abuse that continues to be waged against the protesters. This violence by police, while being inhumane and utterly morally unconscionable, has also been deeply ineffective in curtailing or suppressing the reformist demands of the Chilean people.
In a context where mass protests against economic neoliberalism are becoming more common—see Lebanon, Colombia, or Bolivia—the Chilean example is particularly educative. The widespread predisposition for states to resort to violent crackdowns on protests must continue to be monitored closely, decried, and wherever possible, restricted. The Chilean protests demonstrate the necessity of dialogues between governments and protesters and an attempt to understand and assist their concerns if peace, stability, and prosperity are to be restored.