Chile is considered the most democratic and stable country among Latin American countries. According to Freedom House’s 2021 reports, the country’s assessment score for political rights and civil liberties is 93 out of hundred. (Freedom House, 2020) Given this report, it can be said that the country has a very bright image in the name of democracy and political stability. However, is this the case for Chile?
It is a fact that many Latin American countries face their democratic and managerial problems today. Militarism, economic crisis, the presidential crisis, drug trafficking and revolts against the government are severe Latin American problems. Although the country has survived military coups over the years, it has difficulty adapting to neoliberal practices in Chile. (AA, 2019) Chilean President Sebastián Piñera plays a leading role in policies that are the cause of anti-state protests. The Chilean people began a mass rally in the capital Santiago in 2019, revealing a series of protests and demonstrations that have come so far. But recently, peaceful protests have been replaced by violence by government forces and civilian injuries and deaths. (The New York Times, 2019)
Reasons for Protests
After the 16-year rule of Chile’s dictator Augusto Pinochet ended in 1990, the country transitioned to democracy. With the withdrawal of the military dictatorship from the administration, the Chilean people’s hopes and expectations became dependent on the new government. Economic promises made to the public were not met in the long term after the transition to democracy. Public and health spending was curtailed as the country, which had survived the dictatorship, began to incorporate liberal economic and social policies. The government did not remain economically poor, but rather, over the years, it has achieved significant economic growth, stripping out Latin American countries. After 30 years of military coups, Chile has also witnessed the democratic election to elect governments. But the country’s economic growth and increase in its level of prosperity were not reflected as income equality to the people. While the rich remained very wealthy, the country’s lower class continued to fight for life, and besides, the political class became untouchable. (Atlantic Council, 2019)
According to World Bank data, the country’s impoverished population, which stood at 30 per cent in 2000, has decreased, but inequality remains an unsolvable and growing problem. (GQ, 2019) Life has become too expensive for the lower-and middle-income Chilean population, and the vast disparity between rich and poor continues increasingly today. Unfortunately, the fact that the country’s welfare level corresponds to the region’s highest rates does not mean that its people have reached the same level of welfare. (BBC, 2019) Chile is known to have the highest inequality rate in terms of income distribution among the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD) member countries. The income gap rate is 65 per cent higher than the average of OECD countries. While a Chilean worker earns about $550 a month, according to a state study in 2018, the country’s richest earn 13.6 times more income than the poorest. During the presidency of Sebastián Piñera, since 2018, the economic difficulties faced by an ordinary Chilean citizen with a 30-year history, such as high inequality, semi-privatized education and health systems, reduced public services, low salaries, and a privatized pension system, broke out. Also, corruption and tax evasion scandals involving the Piñera government’s name cause incredible frustration for Chilean citizens, who have difficulty meeting simple vital obligations in the country. For these reasons, the people’s greatest desire is to enact economic reforms that are well regulated and support the equality of income distribution. (Reuters, 2019)
How Did It Start, How Does It Continue?
In Chile, anti-government protests in 2019 were fueled by a 4 per cent hike in metro fares on October 6. On October 18, 2019, the protests grew and became violent. The demonstrations began in Santiago, then spread to other cities in Chile and became looting and damaging. (Euronews, 2020) The protests, which suddenly appeared and involved more than a million Chilean people, caused shock on the international agenda and Latin America’s “Golden Child” Chile. For the ordinary Chilean citizen, who has not found what he/she wants from the promises of the government and leaders who have consistently emphasized the prosperity that a free-market economy will bring in 30 years, there was no choice but to take to the streets. Therefore, the first and catchy slogan of the protests was “Chile, wake up!”. (The New York Times, 2019)
Unfortunately, the course of protests in Chile, which is seen as Latin America’s success, has been violent since 2019. There are violations by the government against the political rights of citizens in the country. Withdrawing the metro hike, the first step president Piñera took to calm the demonstrators, did not change the event’s course and did not alleviate it. The president’s last promises, such as raising wages, fixing the pension system, and making the rich tax more, were also late promises which were also not convincing. (The New York Times, 2019) As mass mobility has not stopped, government forces’ attitude towards civilians on the streets has become increasingly harsh. The security forces, which attacked the rights of assembly, one of the principal political rights of citizens, quickly caused more than ten civilians from the start of the events.
The number of injuries rose to 11,000 from October 2019 to November, with 26 killings. (Human Rights Watch, 2020) A curfew has been declared in some major cities as the army and police try to repel protesters with tear gas. President Piñera also aimed to restrict freedom of movement and assembly, with the state of emergency declared within the capital. (BBC, 2019) The government stated that it viewed the protests and demonstrations as “vandalism” and announced that the demonstrations were planned in the name of harming the state. Interior Minister Andres Chadwick said the vandals’ main goals were a planned attack on the country’s food chain, first on the metro system, and then on looting and store burning in cities. (Reuters, 2019) Piñera referred to protesters as “criminals” in general and said that those behind and involved in uprisings were criminal organizations. Moreover, the country’s president called on citizens to stand up to criminals and called the demonstration a “war.” (BBC, 2019)
Social unrest in Chile continues into 2021. The country has been on the trail of protests starting in 2019 through 2020, and many human rights abuses have taken place. Chilean security forces, called” Carabineros”, continued to exert violence and repression on civilians. In October 2020, as many as 25,000 demonstrators gathered in Plaza Dignidad to mark the first year of protests. The demonstrations also drew protests for an October referendum to decide whether to change Chile’s Constitution, which has not changed since the dictatorship years. Although the demonstrations were mostly peaceful, there were reported arrests, and some injuries carried out by the Carabineros. (BBC, 2020)
The Freedom House 2020 Report downgraded Chile’s score in several categories due to practices contrary to citizen freedoms and human rights in protests throughout the year in Chile. For example, in the variety of “freedom of assembly,” the country’s score was 4/4, and it was downgraded to 2/4 due to civilian injuries and killings carried out by security forces. (Freedom House, 2020) Unfortunate developments about demonstrators continue in the first three months of 2021. In February, a street artist was killed by police forces during ongoing protests in Santiago. Protests flared further after this incident, and town halls were set on fire by demonstrators. Although Interior Minister Rodrigo Delgado condemned the situation, the Chilean public continued to react from everywhere, including social media. Given the overall situation, tensions continue in Chile this year, making it difficult to prevent human rights violations. (Al Jazeera, 2021)
This article prepared by Gökçen Hardal for The FEAS Journal.
AA. (2019). Latin Amerika ve güncel sorunları. Retrieved From https://www.aa.com.tr/tr/analiz/latin-amerika-ve-guncel-sorunlari-/1671585
Aljazeera. (2021). Protests erupt in Chile after police fatally shoot street juggler. Retrieved from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/2/6/chile-protests-erupt-police-shooting-of-street-juggler
Atlantic Council. (2019). What’s behind Chile’s protests. Retrieved from https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/whats-behind-chiles-protests/
BBC News. (2019). Chile protests: Cost of living protests take a deadly toll. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-50119649
BBC News. (2020). Masivas protestas en Chile por el primer aniversario del estallido social terminan con incidentes aislados y la quema de dos iglesias. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-america-latina-54594783
Euronews. (2020). Şili’de barışçıl protestolar yerini çatışmaya bıraktı. Retrieved from https://tr.euronews.com/2020/03/15/sili-de-bariscil-protestolar-catismaya-donustu
GQ. (2019). Why Are There Mass Protests in Chile? Retrieved From https://www.gq.com/story/chile-protests-explained
Human Rights Watch. (2020). Chile Events of 2020. Retrieved from hrw.org/world-report/2021/country-chapters/chile
The New York Times. (2019). ‘Chile Woke Up’: Dictatorship’s Legacy of Inequality Triggers Mass Protests. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/03/world/americas/chile-protests.html