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Nations in Crisis: Pinochet’s Ghost in Chile

By Maxwell Stronge, December 5 2019—


Last month, while the international community watched Hong Kong descend into protests, the other side of the world saw protests explode in the city of Santiago, Chile. The protesters, furious with a government they deemed corrupt and unresponsive, have taken to the streets en masse in response to burgeoning inequality in the South American nation. The growing discontent and massive demonstrations resulted in current President Sebastián Piñera deploying the military to the city for the first time since the country emerged from military dictatorship.

Several people have been killed, thousands injured and thousands more arrested. The protests culminated in an agreement made on Nov. 15 between the government and the citizens, promising the possibility of a new constitution, to be decided via plebiscite in April 2020 — but not all the protesters are satisfied, and demonstrations will likely continue until meaningful change is enacted. Pablo Policzer, associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Latin American Politics, offered comment on the situation. 

“It’s important to understand how Chileans got to this agreement, between the government and the opposition, to engage in a constitutional convention,” explained Policzer.

A new constitution would be a promising symbol for Chilean citizens. The current document dates back to 1980 and was put in place by the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet — a man whose legacy can still be felt in Chile. Pinochet rose to power by overthrowing the democratically-elected socialist Salvador Allende in 1973 in a military coup backed by the American CIA. Pinochet and subsequent rulers implemented an extreme version of laissez-faire economics in the nation, characterized by mass privatization of industry. The unrestrained capitalism in Chile has had mixed results over the last 40 years. The neoliberal policies saw sharp, long-term growth in the economy, achieving the highest nominal GDP per capita in Latin America in 2006. Further, Chile became the first Latin American nation to join the OECD in 2013. So, why the protests? Dr. Policzer offered his take during a Latin American Research Center panel.

“That puzzle, the question of why are they protesting, bears some analysis. Because if you actually look at the macroeconomic indicators,  GDP has never been higher. Unemployment is low, certainly by historical standards. GDP per capita has also never been higher. So if you look at a bunch of the standard economic macroeconomic indicators, Chile looks pretty good […] but if you actually scratch beneath the surface of it and look at, for example, opinion polls, then there’s signs of trouble that begin to emerge.” 

Precipitous economic growth made Chile the poster child for neoliberal success in Latin America — but this growth has not been felt by all Chileans. While the nation has grown richer, much of that wealth has been funnelled into the pockets of political elites, and the large middle class is struggling. Naturally, much of the citizen’s frustrations are directed at the government. 

“Chileans have displayed a real lack of confidence in their political class,” Policzer explained.  “The level of trust that you see in their politicians is very low, even by Latin American standards. You can see this, again, in opinion polls the answer to a question such as “Is the political class governing for the benefit of just a few elites?”[…] — that question received a very high response. So there is a clear dissatisfaction with a number of things that have to do, primarily, with inequality.” 

Combine this with relatively high costs for education, limited access to affordable healthcare and a private pension system that leaves many elderly Chileans in dire poverty, and the result is a citizenry under monumental economic pressure — small cost of living increases have the potential to push families to the brink of financial ruin.

It was one of these small price increases that kick-started the recent protests in Chile. In mid-October, the subway fare was increased by a factor of four percent — only 30 pesos, or $0.04 USD. But this small change was enough to prompt a group of high-school students to begin jumping the turnstiles in protest. From there, the spark of unrest was fanned into a flame over one million Chileans strong. 

President Piñera has made a number of concessions to the citizens, including the election of a new cabinet and the repeal of the subway fare increase. The most meaningful concession, however, is the announcement of a plebiscite asking the citizenry if they want a new constitution. The plebiscite is scheduled to be released to the public next April, and until then, it is up to the people of Chile and the government to work out the minutiae of such a historic agreement. 

“Hopefully, this new constitution reflects a consensus, at the very least, over some broad, basic, fundamental principles,” Policzer said. “A constitution doesn’t have to stipulate everything in order to guarantee the institutional foundations for something. So for example, what people speculate is that very likely, the constitution that comes out at the end of this process will be a lot shorter than the current constitution — and the standard Latin American constitutions that are, more often than not, huge. They try to stipulate everything and determine every single thing. And it’s not necessary for the constitution to regulate everything in order to regulate some of the foundational bits and pieces of the political framework. [One thing] that is very controversial in Chile is whether to continue with this constitutional guarantee for private water rights. Chile is the only country in the world where water rights are privatized. And it’s caused a lot of problems — a lot of grief, a lot of opposition against it. So if there’s a two-thirds agreement, [the new constitution] could stipulate that water rights belong to our public, to our whole population.”

It is expected that negotiations regarding the size and makeup of the constitutional convention to unfold over the next several months. Protests continue on the streets of Chile. 


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