Tear gas filled Santiago’s Plaza Italia last week as protesters clashed with Carabineros, the latest outbreak of violence amid months-long anti-government demonstrations. Dissidents countered the use of water cannons, rubber bullets and gas by the country’s military police with makeshift firebombs and laser pointers. More than four months after Chileans took to the streets to oppose fare hikes on the Santiago Metro, the popular anger which has already helped achieve education and pension reforms and has compelled a constitutional referendum shows no signs of abating. With many students returning to school and university at the start of March – the month which will also mark the tenth anniversary of President Sebastián Piñera’s inauguration – organizers are calling for bigger rallies to increase pressure on the government.
That sentiment was embraced by protesters last week, with those interviewed by the BBC lamenting a recent congressional recess that has decelerated the political response. One woman declared that “We haven’t achieved anything yet,” a warning that Chile’s leaders, wary of escalation, are heeding. “Negotiation and nonviolence is the way,” President Piñera wrote on Twitter at the weekend. “Many anticipate a violent March… [but] the government has prepared to safeguard public order.”
Mr. Piñera’s words will not be enough to prevent further violence. An Amnesty International report published late last year alleged that Chilean police were using excessive force to deter protests. Erika Guevara-Rosas, the group’s America’s director, noted that these “Are not isolated or sporadic events,” identifying several deaths, thousands of serious injuries and incidences of torture and sexual assault that Amnesty attributes to deliberate tactics by the Carabineros. “It’s not a few rotten apples within law enforcement. They have sustained attacks in different parts of the country,” she said. Within a week of that report, Mr. Piñera defiantly sought congressional approval to increase the police presence on the streets of Santiago, and since then he has shown little interest in addressing his own security force’s culpability in the chaos.
The president’s decision to hold a referendum in late April, a key demand of the protest movement, signals a more promising response on his part. The plebiscite, which polls indicate is likely to succeed, asks voters if they want to replace the current constitution, which was introduced under the Pinochet dictatorship in 1980. Representatives to a constitutional convention would then be elected in September, with a new constitution to be approved by March 2022.
Legal reforms, however, can only go so far in dealing with the root of the problem: populist undercurrents inflamed by rising inequality and the apparent apathy of the Chilean elite. Long vaunted as a neoliberal success story on a continent with a strong Leftist tradition, Chile is nevertheless one of the most unequal countries in the OECD. Its richest citizens pay lower tax rates than those of most nations in that group, and polling suggests that ordinary Chileans generally regard their government as working to benefit the elite at their expense. The fact that they are led by Mr. Piñera, a billionaire who was once arrested – and promptly acquitted – for violating banking laws, only reinforces that perception.
With constitutional reform set to be a years-long process, and popular anger persisting, the turmoil is likely to continue for some time. It is clear that however successful it has been in burnishing economic growth, Chile’s economic order must become more inclusive as a matter of political necessity. Besides, safeguarding protesters’ freedom of expression is just as important as addressing the specific demands that they make. Change within the regimented and conservative ranks of the Carabineros will not be easy, but it is essential for protecting democracy and restoring trust in government institutions. When he was first elected president, Mr. Piñera vowed that “Better times are coming to Chile.” More than a decade later, the Chilean people are still waiting for him to make good on that promise.
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