A few words that captured the arrogance of the ruling class have set in motion a popular movement and widespread unrest that started in Santiago, the capital city of Chile, last week. In response to dissent after a 30 peso increase in public transportation tickets, Harvard-educated Labor Minister Nicolás Monckeberg told lower income people to “get up earlier” and buy cheaper off-peak fares. Squeezed by the economic pressures of high utility rates, poor social services, expensive housing, and low wages, Chileans were outraged by the government’s flagrant indifference to their situation.
On Thursday, October 17, public high school students started refusing to pay for transport on the Santiago Metro, standing on the turnstiles and waving other riders to join them in their protest. By Friday, metro stations were in flames and President Sebastián Piñera, another Harvard alumnus, declared a state of emergency, imposing a 7 pm curfew, something the country has not experienced since 1987. Even though the fare increase was reversed, anger had already spread beyond the teenagers to other age groups and outward to other cities in Chile. At least 15 have died to date in clashes with the state police, and there have been many injuries, thousands of arrests, and extensive destruction of property.
Piñera, one of Chile’s richest businessmen, a billionaire, was quick to resort to tactics that predate the high schoolers but are still within the memories of many Chileans. Descendant of a former president, Piñera amassed the rest of his fortune under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, who took power through a violent coup d’état and the death of President Salvador Allende in 1973. Thursday’s youthful civil disobedience in the subways was met with outsized militarized force, resulting in three deaths and a shutdown of the entire system. As the general public came out to the street banging pots and pans in support of the protest, tear gas, helicopters, water cannons and military might was deployed against them.
“Chile despertó” (Chile woke up) read the handmade signs. “There’s a curfew in many parts of the country, a déjà vu I never thought I would experience after fighting the dictatorship in the 1980s. What my generation and the country is reliving is shocking,” writes Juan Pablo Sutherland in a plaint published in Página 12.
In contrast with the last century’s dictatorships, the 21st century has seen the phenomenon of elected neoliberal governments built on a false sense of popular support. Gabriel Morales writes that in just a couple of days, a hidden Chilean dictatorship has been disrobed:
“This can only be understood in the context of a country where social rights have been kidnapped by private corporations and delivered to a market that ultimately depends on people paying for their rides, their rent or mortgage, their debts and tuition fees. The student fare evasion was exemplary in this sense, because they encouraged all riders not to pay. And the power of this example is what those in power fear most.”
The privatization of utilities, deregulation of economic and environmental protections and unrestrained market forces offer a freedom only the rich can enjoy
The privatization of utilities, deregulation of economic and environmental protections and unrestrained market forces offer a freedom only the rich can enjoy. And the powerful do seem to be fearful. Media outlets are portraying protestors as instigators and hooligans, with Piñera, who used to own the Chilevisión televisión network, declaring, “We are at war against a powerful enemy who will resort to limitless violence”.
That assertion may be modulated by memories of the 1973-1990 dictatorship, under which tens of thousands were tortured and thousands “disappeared”. Among the tortured and murdered was the father of former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, who served two distinct terms from 2006-2010 and then 2014-2018. Now United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Bachelet, a socialist like Allende and her father, was also tortured and driven into exile for four years in East Germany.
Bachelet declared that “the use of inflammatory rhetoric will only serve to aggravate the situation and runs the risk of creating fear among the people.”