As repression grows, Chilean democracy in question

Anti-government protests are still ongoing in Chile, having started in mid-October after an increase in subway fares. Despite human rights abuses by the security forces, Chileans continue to pour into the streets to denounce social inequalities.

Sparked by high school students jumping subway turnstiles after the second fare increase of 2019, the protests quickly moved from the subway to the streets. It could hardly have been otherwise, given that a fifth of the average Chilean’s monthly salary is spent on transportation. 

Nevertheless, it seems clear that subway fares were just the detonator which permitted the expression of other grievances. The poor quality of public health care and education, low wages, and the rising cost of living were also put on the table shortly after the start of the movement.

Although Chile is one of South America’s wealthiest economies, and to all appearances a prosperous and stable nation, we cannot forget that the country’s prosperity is mostly in the hands of a lucky few. The country has the highest level of post-tax income inequality among OECD members, and it is characterised by extraordinary economic disparities, even in the prosperous city of Santiago. Consequently, Chileans are exercising their democratic rights in asking for a larger share of the nation’s prosperity. 

Since the beginning of the demonstrations, riots and clashes with soldiers and police became deadly for 20 of the protestors. This is not a surprise, given the fact that Chile’s president, Sebastian Pinera, declared the government to be “at war” with the protesters. 

After Pinera’s statement, a curfew was announced in several Chilean cities, and a state of emergency for public disorders was imposed for the first time since Chile’s transition to democracy in 1990.

Even after Sebastian Pinera’s appointment of a new cabinet and announcement of social reforms, Chileans continue to raise their voices at the politicians. Certainly the billionaire president’s belated attempts to calm things down in no way excuse the human rights violations by the Carabineros that took place during the protests.

Chile has a dark history of military abuses by the 17-year military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Unfortunately, tanks and troops are now back in the streets. Citizens are unsettled by the sight of the 10,000 soldiers sent by the government, still haunted by memories of military rule under Pinochet. 

Among those Latin American countries with a history of dictatorship, Chile is the only one with the same constitution it had during the military rule. Protesters are demanding that that constitution be changed. 

According to Bastien Rafel, a French student in Santiago on international exchange: 
“The streets have turned into a space of expression where Chileans express their bitterness by covering walls with tags and posters. Contrary to the information spread by the traditional media, the protests are primarily creative and festive. The press and TV coverage has now become another concern for the protesters. Some of them were holding signs that said ‘Apaga la tele!’ (‘Turn off the tv’) and ‘Los periodistas están mintiendo!’ (‘Journalists are liars’).”

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