Chile Shaken by Protests Against Economic Inequality

At night the streets of Santiago, the capital of Chile, fill with tear gas and rubber bullets fly as protesters and the police face off after a day of protests. In several regions of Chile, martial law is in effect as the military and police patrol the streets. This occupation brings back memories for many older Chileans of Pinochet’s dictatorship that only ended thirty years ago. 

These demonstrations erupted from a fairly modest 4% increase in metro tolls. This hike led Santiago high school students to stage turnstile jumping demonstrations on Oct. 18 that eventually escalated to demonstrators burning down metro stations and trains. Instead of  Santiago residents turning against the protesters, this escalation led to hundreds of thousands throughout the nation joining the protests. These new members broadened previous demands to decrease metro tolls. Now the expanded demands are for a general decrease in privatization, a revision of the constitution, written by the Pinochet regime, an increase in the minimum wage and pensions as well as the resignation of the president and his cabinet.

The demands are generally a critique of neoliberalism and the extreme wealth inequality in Chile, a nation with one of the highest per capita GDPs in Latin America, yet is simultaneously one of the most unequal nations on Earth. Protesters point to the fact that Chileans who attend college can expect to pay off their debt well into their 40’s and 50’s. They also make the point that Chile has an underfunded public healthcare system. Meanwhile, many elderly Chileans have to work full or part-time jobs to make ends meet because their pension and savings are not enough to live on. 

The broad protest movement has affected all aspects of Chilean life, as the country’s economy is at a standstill. Truckers put significant stress on internal trade when they declared a strike against private toll roads. In Santiago, the epicenter of the movement, a massive demonstration with over 1,000,000 Chileans shut down the city on Oct. 25.  

At the beginning of the protests, President Piñera took a hard line stating that the authorities “are at war” with the demonstrators. Simultaneously, international organizations and civil rights groups have criticized the internal security forces for their brutal repression of protesters. The police have used water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse and arrest protesters. Government forces have also been recorded beating bystanders and protesters lying on the ground. 

Since the protests began at least 20 have died and over 3,000 are under arrest. Demonstrators have claimed that the government is collaborating with the media to downplay police violence, so the protesters nearly burned down Televisión Nacional de Chile before security forces intervened. This conflict has even further burdened Chile’s struggling healthcare system as hospitals are inundated by protesters shot in the eye or suffering other police-related injuries.

Recently Piñera has conceded to some of the demonstrator’s demands. On Oct. 25, the president has proposed reforms that would increase Chile’s pension by 20%, the minimum wage by 14%, reverse a 9.2% increase in electric utilities and increase taxes on the wealthy. Additionally, Piñera will reshuffle his cabinet. Despite these changes, protesters have said that this is not enough from the conservative politician. Demonstrators have demanded a fundamental change in the government and the resignation of Piñera, the first billionaire elected president of Chile, who they view as a manifestation of the inequality they are opposing. 

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