Chile: The longest week in recent history

November 1, 2019
Protest in Chile's capital Santiago on October 25.

In part 2 of his series on Chile’s popular revolt, Pablo Leighton looks at the dynamics behind the protest movement and why Chileans won’t return to “normal”.

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One week on, the Chilean uprising has gone further than any revolt since 1990, and seems more uncontrollable and widespread than the biggest upsurge against former dictator General Augusto Pinochet.

The corporate media is finding it difficult to understand these new historical events: they are erroneously pairing Chile with recent protests around the world. The New York Times, puzzled about the mass reaction against a small price rise in subway tickets, initially called the uprising a “citizen revolution”. Time magazine saw something different about the possibility of future uprisings in “unexpected” and “wealthy” places such as Chile.

However, most international media have accepted, with excuses and reluctance, that the uprising comes after three decades of neoliberal capitalism and growing inequality.

The Chilean media have also had to grapple with the new reality. El Mercurio, the official broadsheet of a recalcitrant elite, was unusually descriptive in its blackened, mourning cover on October 20. It was shocked that not even the curfew and the military on the streets, which was successfully deployed by the dictatorship, was inspiring the same paralysing fear. El Mercurio's reporting on the “36 most violent hours since the return to democracy” spoke of a political and social earthquake.

Overall, the corporate media's assessment is that the “new middle classes” are growing “more demanding” and are not appreciative enough of what they have been bestowed by neoliberalism. It is a delusion, periodically sustained by the intellectuals of the transitional democracy.

The crisis, which the Chilean and international media and other “experts” have refused to acknowledge since the beginning of the 1990s, is people's growing anger over the growing class divide, non-existent social mobility and a lack of social rights.

The United Nations Program for Development has reported on this, as has Chilean author Tomas Moulian who, in 1997, identified a clear discontent with neoliberalism. He wrote a bestseller describing the anger derived from the non-existent transition to a full democracy — a system eagerly administered by the former centre-left opponents of Pinochet, who even defended him when he was almost tried in Britain in 1998–2000 for crimes against humanity.

Some have pointed out that the subway fare evasions and the losses from the destruction of rail stations pales in comparison to the generalised and gross inequality in Chile. Academic Javier Ruiz-Tagle published a summary of recent evasion of taxes or straight corruption by private companies (retail, pharmaceutical and medical insurance), the armed forces, the police, President Sebastián Piñera and even from within the family of former president Michelle Bachelet, amounting to US$5 billion.

Cutting through the propaganda

Any examination of the latest uprising must also touch on another context: Chileans seem to have finally seen through the culture of propaganda that assisted the military and political coercion necessary for the implementation of neoliberalism.

In a telling example, channel TVN — the only public media left — started its prime-time news on October 19 with the riots in the background, while promoting its private sponsors. These sponsors are motifs that explain the crisis: a private university already hunting for student-clients for 2020; an elite peak body (the Chamber of Construction Industry) happily announcing they have become a bank; and a sugary Coca-Cola owned-drink brand that has lowered its price, so everyone can afford this health hazard.

Citizens are defying the propaganda by going onto the streets. Social media platforms have also been used to inform the world about the protests and the Chilean state's repression. New websites have shown numerous instances of human rights violations, including the deliberate use of police cars to run over bystanders and the military's shooting of peaceful demonstrators in full daylight.

In one particular incident, the past caught up with the present when the Directorate of Intelligence of the Army (DINE) — the inheritors of Pinochet’s secret police — used automatic weapons to shoot unarmed civilians.

The precise number of human rights abuses is unknown. The government count of about 20 fatalities is inaccurate. Many more have been injured by rubber bullets and pellets. Public hospitals have been overwhelmed by the repression and the cut-backs, with orders to not report the numbers of victims while missing basic supplies to treat them.

Today's uprising is a continuation of colonial and post-colonial history, twinning neoliberalism with the extreme inequality of the 18th and 19th centuries.

However, last week was also a rupture: Chileans dropped their fear of a militarised state. For seven consecutive nights, the curfews were defied and the heavily-armed military was challenged by women and elders.

What next?

After the first weekend of riots — which included the torching of metro stations, public and private buildings and the looting and destruction of more than 250 supermarkets (most belonging to the US Walmart chain), 150 chemist shops and other symbols of power — civil society organisations and unions called for daily national strikes.

The country was effectively paralysed for an entire week, with minimum or no mass transportation and classes suspended.

In a country that boasted stability — ideal for corporations such as BHP, which owns the largest copper mine in the world and whose miners went on strike to support the uprising — the government has had to improvise.

The future of the uprising is uncertain. It could be shaped by Piñera's use of Pinochet's phraseWe are at war”, used to explain away the repression of the 1983–86 uprisings.

Even though Piñera apologised, the phrase has become a motif to unite the opposition. It led to the largest demonstration in Chile’s history on October 25, when up to 1.5 million people demonstrated in Santiago. Hundreds of thousands more people gathered in all major cities, villages and towns, many of whom had never attended a protest before.

Piñera, and even some far-right politicians, went on the defensive, hypocritically sending support messages to the protests. However, the promises of reform, including a minimal increase of wages and pensions, were debunked by the protesters.

Unidad Social, an alliance of civil society organisations, is asking for an end to the state of emergency, the abolition of laws that deepen the neoliberal model, and a constituent assembly to draw up a new constitution. However, these demands have been rejected by the Chilean elite and government.

Among the left and supporters of the uprising, there are different assessments of the riots and lootings that continue daily. Did the violent riots and lootings inspire the general revolt against neoliberalism, or are they separate? Should politics be returned to the institutions, such as regular elections, as most congresspeople would like?

The left has condemned the lootings, but has had difficulty explaining why many thousands continue to participate in street violence and the fact that many Chileans refuse to condemn property destruction, especially symbols of power.

The future is open and tentative, but one thing is certain: it will not return to the Chilean government and elites' desired normalcy. The uprising will continue in different ways. The government, the elite and the monopolistic private sector has not conceded defeat nor have they shown any willingness to dismantle neoliberalism.

There is more certainty on display on a wall in Santiago, where the customary analytical clarity of graffiti reads: “Neoliberalism was born and dies in Chile”.

[Pablo Leighton is the editor of Latitudes: Latin American Research Platform. Read part 1 in this series,  Chile: Popular revolt exposes a violent economic system.]

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