Chile: A Political Economy in Despair

An Unprecedented Protest 

Across the world, numerous countries are in the grips of raging protests that have taken to the streets. From Lebanon to Chile, citizens are fighting against economic disparity. 

Chile has long been the victim of a deep social inequality gap. Between 2011 and 2013, a series of student-led protests unveiled a discontent that has been escalating for years[i]. Chilean students were demanding a more affordable framework through which to finance their studies. Their demands reflected a larger frustration regarding the soaring levels of inequality in the country. 

October 18th, 2019 marked the upheaval of a country with a history of instability, as over a million protesters took to the streets decrying Chile’s failed system and the government’s continual lack of action. The anger driving these demonstrations was additionally illustrative of the resentment Chileans had long been harboring about the increasing privatization of social services, and the government’s failure to provide resources for basic social needs (including safety, education, water, and more). As Chile’s violent protests persist, they do not seem to be subsiding anytime soon. As a result, the Chilean president, Sebastián Piñera, has since canceled two major global conferences that the country was supposed to host [ii].

The Last Straw: “It’s not about the 30 pesos. It’s about 30 years.”

In the same tradition as many other mass protests, the triggering incident in the Chilean case was superficially insignificant. Demonstrations erupted following an increase of 30-pesos (0.04$ USD approx.) of the Santiago Metro’s subway fare[iii]. Beyond this seemingly minor event, this civil revolt reveals a much deeper issue, with protesters going so far as demanding constitutional change, raising the question: what aspects of Chile’s democracy led to the staggering inequality gap in the country?

Until 1990, Chile was under the rule of a military dictatorship. Following the establishment of democracy, the Chilean government adopted a neoliberal approach — privatizing almost all social services, and by extension, almost all aspects of its citizens’ lives. While Chile became known for its steady economic growth, its wealth gap became even more prevalent. The United Nations published a report in 2017 entitled “Unequal origins, changes and challenges in Chile’s social divide,” explaining how the richest 0.1% of the people in Chile control 19.5% of the wealth [iv]. Today, Chileans are battling against an extremely aggressive tax system and pro-market policies. Considering that half of all Chileans earn about 400,000 pesos annually (which amounts to approximately $550 USD [v]), the privatization of most social sectors makes everyday life in Chile very expensive. Protesters are demanding to live with dignity, especially given that a significant proportion of the population is struggling with debt. 

The ongoing Chilean social revolt also features the request to change Chile’s 1980 constitution. Protesters are working to change a system that has existed since Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship ended 30 years ago. Although the constitution was amended several times, Jaime Bassa, constitutional lawyer and professor at the University of Valparaíso, explains that Chile’s current constitution sustains the economic model underpinning the wealth gap. According to Bassa, “the political project that the dictatorship embedded in the constitutional text remains in force” to this day. He argues that, “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 [the] freedom of entrepreneurship” [vi]over the well-being of the people. If a new constitution is ratified, it would be the first time in the nation’s history that the citizens’ voices would be heard. 

Dreadful Riots 

Over the past month and a half, Chile has witnessed unprecedented social unrest. The Chilean police have allegedly committed serious human rights violations that further provoked violent protests. In response to the riots, police are accused of multiple arrests without any judicial oversight, abuses in detentions, and the use of excessive force in the streets resulting in 26 deaths. Furthermore, the National Human Rights Institute filed “442 criminal complaints on behalf of victims with prosecutors, regarding injuries, cruel treatment, torture, rape, killings, and attempted killings allegedly committed by security forces” [vii]since the protests began in mid-October. The UN High Commission on Human Rights raised concerns and decided to send a team to tackle the issue [viii]. After conducting numerous interviews with victims and international social workers, they found compelling evidence for the mistreatment of Chilean protesters. In response to the accusations, José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas division director at Human Rights Watch, urged for police reforms to avoid any further misconduct on behalf of the authority [ix]

A Prospect of Hope?

Amid ongoing protests, Chileans have already started to see some governmental change. On November 15th, President Piñera announced his agreement to change the constitution [x]. Following a meeting gathering all the parties, lawmakers decided to hold a referendum to be held in April 2020 to elect those who are going to be responsible for the change of the constitution [xi]. Members selected will then have 9 months to write the new constitution, which will then be voted on in a plebiscite 60 days later. Chileans will have the possibility to participate in the constitutional convention[xii], giving them the chance to forge a new chapter in Chile’s sovereignty.  

While this decision is an important leap in rewriting Chile’s history, it is only a first step towards satisfying the demands of the demonstrators. An important number of Chileans are still to this day demanding the resignation of their president, and feelings of uncertainty and mistrust remain significantly high.

Edited by Laurence Campanella


[i] Langman, Jimmy. “From Model to Muddle: Chile’s Sad Slide Into Upheaval.” Foreign Policy, (November 23, 2019).

[ii]Zialcita, Paolo. “As Protests Persist, Chile’s President Cancels 2 Major International Summits.” NPR, (October 31, 2019).

[iii]Bodine, Alison. “Chile Despertó! Chile Has Woken Up! The Rising Fight Against Neo-Liberalism in Chile.” Common Dreams, (November 26, 2019).

[iv]Bodine, Alison. “Chile Despertó! Chile Has Woken Up! The Rising Fight Against Neo-Liberalism in Chile.” Common Dreams, (November 26, 2019).

[v]Check, Reality. “Chile Protests: Is Inequality Becoming Worse?” BBC News, (October 21, 2019).

[vi]Miranda, Natalia A. Ramos. “Explainer: Chile’s Constitutional Conundrum – To Change or Not to Change?” Thomson Reuters, (November 6, 2019).

[vii]“Chile: Police Reforms Needed in the Wake of Protests.” Human Rights Watch, (November 26, 2019).

[viii]Bartlett, John. “Chile Protests: UN to Investigate Claims of Human Rights Abuses after 18 Deaths.” The Guardian, (October 24, 2019).

[ix]“Chile: Police Reforms Needed in the Wake of Protests.” Human Rights Watch, November 26, 2019.

[x]Al Jazeera. “Amid Unrest, Chile Says It Will Rewrite Pinochet-Era Constitution.” Chile News | Al Jazeera, (November 11, 2019).

[xi]Lombrana, Laura Millan. “Chile Accord Aims to Unite a Nation Riven by Social Conflict.” Bloomberg, (November 15, 2019).

[xii]The Editorial Board. “Chile Is Ready for a New Constitution.” The New York Times, (November 19, 2019).

By Raya Chehabeddine

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