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‘Chile Woke Up’: Dictatorship’s Legacy of Inequality Triggers Mass Protests
Published Nov. 3, 2019
Updated Nov. 4, 2019, 10:54 a.m. ET
By Amanda TaubPhotographs by Tomas Munita
SANTIAGO, Chile — The suddenness of the protests, the anger that spilled onto the streets every day, might have been surprising anywhere. But in the country often lauded as Latin America’s great economic success story, it has shocked the world.
For three weeks, Chile has been in upheaval. One day alone, more than a million people took to the streets of Santiago, the capital.
Perhaps the only people not shocked are Chileans. In the chaos, they see a reckoning. The promise that political leaders from the left as well as right have made for decades — that free markets would lead to prosperity, and prosperity would take care of other problems — has failed them.
“Chile woke up,” thousands of protesters chanted one recent Sunday afternoon in Santiago’s O’Higgins Park.
But that growth did not reach all Chileans.
Inequality is still deeply entrenched. Chile’s middle class is struggling with high prices, low wages, and a privatized retirement system that leaves many older people in bitter poverty. And a series of corruption and tax-evasion scandals have eroded faith in the country’s political and corporate elite.
“This is a sort of legitimacy crisis,” said Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, a political scientist at Diego Portales University in Santiago. “People start to say, ‘O.K., why is it we have to pay that, and the very rich are not paying their fair share?”
“And at the same time, we have a political class that’s totally out of touch,” Mr. Kaltwasser added.
In an attempt to restore order, President Sebastián Piñera scrapped the four-cent subway fare increase that set off the initial demonstrations. Then he deployed the military in Chile’s streets for the first time since the country’s transition to democracy.
When that didn’t quell the protests, Mr. Piñera went on television to ask for forgiveness and promise higher pensions, better health coverage, higher taxes for the rich and pay cuts for politicians. Later, he asked his cabinet to resign.
But demonstrators were not convinced.
“The abuses haven’t stopped,” he said, “so we have to go into the streets.”
His best-selling flag, of his own design, demanded Mr. Piñera’s resignation.
Minutes later, it sold out.
‘It’s Not 30 Pesos, It’s 30 Years’
Javiera López Layana, 24, an activist and student at the University of Chile who helped organize the protest, was buzzing with excitement.
Many of the speakers had used the term “el pueblo” when describing the Chilean people, she pointed out. To an outsider, it seemed like a tiny detail. But that term, which in Latin America is associated with the left, had been taboo in Chile for as long as Ms. López could remember. Its resurgence seemed as if it could be a harbinger of more significant change.
The end of the Pinochet dictatorship, in 1990, came with an implicit caveat: Military rule would end, but the socialist policies of Salvador Allende, the leftist president Gen. Augusto Pinochet had deposed in a coup, would not return. Subsequent governments preserved the extreme laissez-faire economic system imposed in the 1970s and 1980s.
But today, widespread public anger over the inequality and economic precarity that many Chileans see as a consequence of that system means that conservative economic policies may be more of a threat to political stability than a means of ensuring it.
“It’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years” has become one of the slogans of the protests — a reference to the proposed metro fare increase that set off the crisis and to the three decades since military rule ended.
The country’s median salary is now about $540 per month — below the poverty line for a family of four, said Marco Kremerman, an economist with the Fundación Sol, a left-leaning think tank in Santiago. Median payments in the national private pension program, the only safety net for retirees, are about $200 per month.
There is broad agreement, among protesters and experts alike, that the country needs structural reforms. Replacing the current Constitution, which was adopted under the dictatorship, would also signify that Chile is emerging from the 30-year shadow of the Pinochet regime.
“When we’re in debt, living in misery and impoverished, we don’t necessarily think of the Constitution,” Ms. López said. “But in the end, we need to make changes.”
That evening, Ms. López and her family gathered around the kitchen table at their home in Lo Espejo, a working-class municipality far from the city center, and discussed the protest movement.
Seeing the military once again patrolling the streets had brought painful memories, long repressed, to the surface.
Ms. López’s grandfather revealed to her, for the first time, that he had been arrested during the military regime, and his sister killed by the government, because they had hidden a leftist politician and his family, then helped them escape to safety abroad.
Her father described how dictatorship had divided Lo Espejo in his youth. One neighbor, who still lived nearby, was interrogated and tortured by a man they had both grown up with. Another had a sister who worked for DINA, the feared secret police.
“Education was supposed to be our ladder out of poverty,” said Javiera López Layana, center. “But the debt turns out to be a heavy backpack.”
In part because of those experiences, they have been cautious about joining the protests, even if they support the goals.
“Javiera’s generation, they grew up without fear of the dictatorship,” said Ms. López’s mother, Pamela Inés Layana Guendelman. “She’s fearless.”
“I’m not afraid,” Ms. López said.
“But it enrages me” she said, as tears welled in her eyes. “Every time I go to a protest in Plaza Italia, or a protest in La Alameda, I have to come back here, to Lo Espejo, and see the same crap, the same misery, that has been there for many governments. And nothing has changed at all.”
In many ways, Ms. López personifies the contradictions of Chile’s political crisis.
Her parents and grandfather strained to send her to private schools, she was the first in her family to go to college, and she now hopes to attend graduate school. At least on paper, Ms. López seems to be a success story, proof of the benefits that hard work is supposed to bring under Chile’s free-market system.
But when she reached the University of Chile, she said, she confronted an educational system that seemed designed to keep her in Lo Espejo forever. Though a scholarship covered much of her tuition, she has still had to borrow money to complete her degree. Getting a master’s will mean borrowing even more.
“Education was supposed to be our ladder out of poverty,” she said. “But the debt turns out to be a heavy backpack.” Her background may also dilute the value of her degree: Employers are widely believed to discriminate against candidates from poorer social classes.
Families like hers have become a new constituency in Chile, one that has sacrificed to succeed in a supposedly meritocratic system, only to find that they are still excluded from its benefits.
“There is this discourse of merit, of striving, of how ‘you should get up earlier,’” she said. “But even if we get up early, nothing is going to change.”
The Larger Conflict
One recent day, at the near-shuttered University of Chile, as clouds of tear gas billowed outside, student leaders scrolled through Instagram and Twitter posts announcing demonstrations.
“We are the generation for whom the joy never came,” said one of them, Nicole Martínez, 26. Her words were a bitter twist on “joy is coming,” the slogan from the campaign that ended military rule.
But the Chilean political crisis is not unique to Chile. It carries unmistakable echoes of a problem that is at the center of political conflict all over the developed world.
As free trade, new technologies, the rise of China, and other seismic changes have reshaped the world’s economies, political divisions have emerged between those who gain from the current system and those who do not.
In much of Europe and the United States, onetime industrial towns declined as economic growth accrued to large, globally connected cities, instead. For many, even those who have seen modest objective improvements in their own standards of living, watching others surge ahead while they struggle has left them feeling angry and disillusioned. In many countries, trust in institutions is falling, surveys show.
The same economic changes have shattered longstanding political coalitions, weakening mainstream parties. Far-right populists and other outsider politicians have moved to fill the vacuum left behind.
And with no effective channels for public anger, mass frustration has erupted into protest movements like France’s Yellow Vests and the demonstrations in Chile.
The Chilean movement, like the Yellow-Vest movement, has no clear leaders, said Ms. Martínez, with information mostly spreading through people’s social networks.
“It is a social explosion,” she said.