Chile: Popular revolt exposes a violent economic system

October 23, 2019
A woman holds a sign saying "No soldiers on the streets". Phot: Chile Solidarity Network/Twitter

Countless symbols of neoliberalism came under attack during protests in Chile over the October 18–20 long weekend.

A skyscraper housing the headquarters of a European electricity company, profiting from power generation in Chile, was burned down.

Protesters also took giant TV sets from looters and used them for bonfires.

There was an attempt to set fire to the largest Catholic cross in South America, which houses a museum dedicated to Pope John Paul II, who legitimised dictator Augusto Pinochet with his 1987 visit to Chile.

The Valparaiso headquarters of El Mercurio newspaper, financed by the Nixon-Kissinger administration to set the stage for the 1973 coup, was burned down, along with other sites and icons of power and neoliberalism.

These events, which are ongoing at the time of writing, across all major cities of Chile, are producing upheaval, chaos, state repression and the breakdown of society, in a highly meaningful location for Latin America and the world.

The weekend of October 18–20, and possibly the whole month, will create a historical fracture in the memory of Chile, Latin America and beyond.


Chile, the first country where neoliberalism was fully applied from 1975 by Pinochet, under the advice of economists Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, became the model and the path for much of the world.

The ruptures that followed Chile’s neoliberal shock therapy included: former United States President Ronald Reagan’s and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s conservative revolutions; China’s developing role as the sweatshop of the world; the Australian Labor Party’s dismantling of the social rights legacy of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and the rise of Russia’s oligarchy.

Neoliberalism, this extreme form of capitalism that replaced the so-called “welfare state”, aims to eliminate social rights, including education, health and transportation. It disregards national resources as part of the commons and makes inequality itself — or “the market” — the engine of a new economic, political and social structure.

October this year will be historic for much of Latin America, with the recent uprising in Ecuador, which forced the duplicitous Lenín Moreno government to reverse or at least temporarily stop the application of a neoliberal International Monetary Fund package.

This month, Latin America will also hold key presidential elections potentially defining the return of left-wing governments in Bolivia, Argentina and Uruguay.

In Brazil, former president Ignacio (Lula) da Silva could be freed from prison.

There are strong signs that Mexico will have to decide urgently this month, whether it is a “terrorist narco-state”, a term given to it, not by the US, but by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.

However, the Chilean October might be the most telling for the future of Latin America.

In the birthplace of neoliberalism, 46 years after a civic-military dictatorship applied brutal coercion with extreme capitalism to reshape society, the current Chilean revolt might just show that the most entrenched system, in the “most individualistic, repressed and lobotomised society of Latin America”, as Noam Chomsky characterised it in the late 1990s, has finally been challenged.

Chilean stability

The day before the mass revolt, on October 17, the Financial Times, the London-based bible of global capitalism, published an interview with billionaire Chilean President Sebastian Piñera.

Piñera made his fortune bringing credit cards to Chile. He created an empire out of the formerly public airline, LAN Chile, a TV station and many other businesses, including Chile’s most popular football club, Colo-Colo.

The FT presented Chile as “a beacon of stability and sound economic management in a continent not famous for either”, and Piñera as a “solitary” fighter against “populism”, the code word for any challenge to the status quo or neoliberalism.

Piñera told the FT: “Look at Latin America … Argentina and Paraguay are in recession, Mexico and Brazil in stagnation, Peru and Ecuador in deep political crisis and in this context Chile looks like an oasis because we have stable democracy, the economy is growing, we are creating jobs, we are improving salaries and we are keeping macroeconomic balance.

“It’s not easy,” added Piñera, possibly hinting concern about what was already boiling under the surface.

Four days before that article came out, daily civil disobedience acts began, after the government raised the fares for the metropolitan subway — one of the last state-owned companies left in Chile.

Fare rise

Fares were increased by 30 pesos (3%), which in this extremely unequal country would have made economic survival even more difficult.

High school and university students ignited the protest movement, as they did in the 2006 and 2011 popular explosions, which took place during Chile’s “transitional democracy”. They asked metro customers to evade fares by jumping the gates.

Piñera announced the scrapping of the fare increase the following day, but the uprising continued. Piñera, congresspeople and the mainstream national and international media are struggling to explain why.

It is different from the Ecuadorian case, where following an uprising over the scrapping of fuel subsidies, President Lenin Moreno managed to stop the revolt and enter negotiations.

Prior to targeting symbols of power, the Chilean rebels targeted the underground transport system, used by millions of commuters instead of the above-ground, unrealiable bus system, privatised by the dictatorship.

The metro was one of the few sectors left untouched by Pinochet’s neoliberalism.

The other was copper mining, the “salary of Chile”, nationalised by former President Salvador Allende in 1971. However, the largest copper mine in the world, located in Chile, has been owned by Australian-based BHP since the 1990s, and pays little tax.

Commuters have always paid more to use the metro, despite its crowds and lack of air-conditioning. It is reliable for getting to work and crossing the capital Santiago, one of the most sprawling and class-segregated cities in the world.

The metro has been presented as a model of “urbanity” and “sophistication” by all dictatorial and post-dictatorial governments. The metro is a source of pride, befitting of the “developed” world, to which Chile desperately claims to belong, especially after having been recently accepted into the OECD.

The youth, and then many commuters, began to regard this symbol of “pride” as a meaningful public space in which to display civil disobedience.

The police’s repressive response to the protests was predictable, but the enclosed space of the underground metro made the incidents particularly explosive and destructive.

Mainstream Chilean media has been outraged and puzzled by the “inexplicable” contradiction of people destroying the only truly public transport left.

By October 18, the youth went above ground and the multitudes joined them. Out in the open, greater collective expression made fear disappear.

They now defy the police and even the military in the streets. They no longer adhere to the current social contract in this “island” of Latin America, surrounded by the huge Cordillera of Los Andes and the Pacific Ocean, an “oasis”, free from unstable and polarising politics, a “model” of consumer-capitalism.

On October 18, Alameda Avenue, the main public space and neuralgic centre of Santiago, became an open field beyond the words and dreams of Allende.

Uprisings not new

The closest chronological precedent to the current riots were the lootings that followed the 2010 earthquake and tsunami in the south of Chile. Then-president Michelle Bachelet, after some reluctance, sent in the military when the state failed to provide basic services and food.

The current crisis, which “nobody foresaw”, according to the cover of one of Chile’s two monopolised print media outlets, has a longer history than the country’s neoliberal-transitional democracy since 1990.

Some online alternative media have reminded readers about the 1949 chaucha revolution, when a transport fare increase of 0.20 pesos (known as a chaucha) brought street violence and repression.

There is not much mention, however, of the fact that this revolution also led to the end of the alliance between the middle and popular classes (the “popular front”), the birth of powerful leftist unionism, or to Salvador Allende’s first candidacy as a Marxist in 1952. (Allende then went on to run for office four times until he was elected in 1970.)

The closest parallel to this revolt is the 1983–86 cycle of national protests and strikes, which paralysed the whole country once a month, caused the Pinochet government to tremble and defeated the impervious fear following 10 years of dictatorship.

On August 11–12, 1983, Pinochet sent 18,000 soldiers onto the streets to repress protesters. This time, 9500 soldiers have been sent to patrol the streets of Santiago and major cities, according to official figures.

A curfew was enforced from 10pm on October 19 until 7pm on October 20. The last time a curfew was imposed on the capital was in 1987.

The curfew has produced more chaos, in a neoliberal society that demands its citizen-employees continue producing services, selling goods and working “flexible” hours.

There are more historical parallels, when the Minister of the Interior, in charge of security, is Andrés Chadwick, a fervent young collaborator of Pinochet. But this is where the parallels end.

[Part 2 of this series will appear in the next issue of Green Left Weekly.]

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