A State of Emergency Amidst Political Unrest in Chile

Current Events Jan 06, 2020

By Alexandra Beaudry

Student-led riots in Chile’s capital, Santiago, began in response to the increase of transportation fees enacted in early October, whereupon “metro rush hour prices” saw an increase of “0.30 pesos ($0.04).”

Taking into account the fact that a large portion of Chilean residents utilize public transportation services on a daily basis, and that “half of Chilean workers earn less than $550 per month,” the anger of the protesters is warranted.

Chile’s protestors numbered in the hundreds of thousands and “marched across cities and towns throughout the country against the high cost of education and healthcare, wage stagnation and low pensions.” Many protesters took a peaceful route and walked through the streets “banging spoons against cooking pots, known as cacerolazo, to call for President Sebastián Piñera’s resignation.” However, other protestors resorted to setting “fire to buses, metro stations, and even banks.” Thus far, a total of “approximately 822 ATM machines have been destroyed.” In response to the chaos in the streets, Piñera officially declared a state of emergency on the 19th.

It is important to note that despite Chile’s title as “one of Latin American’s wealthiest countries,” it nonetheless remains “one of its most unequal”; reportedly “75 percent of the average Chilean’s income” goes into paying national debt alone. It is equally pertinent to mention that college tuition costs in Chile are among the highest in the world; thus implying the difficulty in acquiring higher education for the current youths.

Ultimately, the spike in transportation fees was the final straw for the working population - the resulting uprisings are a demand for social reform. Sofia Donoso, a Chilean sociologist, describes the riots not as a representation of a singular view point but rather an accurate reflection of the demands of a multifaceted population; she states that “what we’ve seen in the last week is much more spontaneous […] demands for new education and health system, massive complaints against current pension systems…it’s so much broader.”

In an early attempt to appease the outcries, Minister of Economy, Juan Andres Fontaine, suggested that “those upset with the price rise could wake up earlier and pay a lower rate,” consequently furthering public outrage and “leading school children to conduct a mass fare evasion by jumping over the metro turnstiles.”

Since the unrest arose, “millions of students were unable to attend classes, several subway stations were shut, and…many stores were torched or otherwise destroyed.” After the second week of ongoing protests, the frustration of the population culminated in “the most significant and historic social mobilization in a generation;” the gathering in the streets of Santiago amassed a million protestors, which marks “more than five percent of the country’s population.”

Following the massive turnout, President Piñera publicly apologized “for his lack of vision” and introduced placating reforms such as an increase in “the basic pension by 20 percent…a minimum wage of 350,000 pesos ($482),” and increase of “taxes on the wealthy” and “a reversal of a recent 9.2 percent hike in electricity bills.” A week later, Piñera “fired his whole cabinet to pacify protestors,” stating that he had “put all (his) ministers on notice in order to restructure (his) cabinet to confront these new demands.” Such propositions have nonetheless “failed to calm anger in the streets” and “solutions remain elusive.”

However, civilians’ willingness to fight for their cause does not come at a low cost. Government efforts to restore social order include “an estimated 20, 000 soldiers” deployed to patrol the streets and a mandated nightly “military-enforced curfew” for 16 cities. Furthermore, since the unrest arose, “at least 20 civilians are reported to have been killed” while “582 people have been injured.” According to Chile’s National Institute of Human Rights (INDH), “2,840 people have been detained, including more than 200 minors.” The force used to control protests has not been benign either; to confront demonstrators, soldiers and police officers have resorted to the use of “tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets.”

Whether Chileans approach their demonstrations in a peaceful or violent manner, their safety and lives and nonetheless put on the line: “peaceful demonstrations […] were broken up with water cannon, while video footage circulating on social media showed demonstrators being shot with rubber bullets at close range, or being physically attacked by police.” Hospitals are currently receiving a high volume of demonstrators who are victims of police brutality. Posta Central hospital, a public hospital in Santiago, noted a particularly high influx, where “victims are largely working-class victims of gunshot wounds.”

Additionally, because the “strict military curfew has thousands of soldiers patrolling the streets from late evening until dawn,” hospital staff “are working 24 hour shifts” in order to avoid “dangerous and difficult hospital commutes.” It is reported that compared to nearby private hospitals, Posta Central faces resource scarcity, thereby making it difficult to treat patients. There is a severe “lack of basic supplies including surgical gloves, syringes, and masks,” to the extent that “physicians and nurses must decide whether to withhold supplies for patients near death in favor of those with a better chance of survival.” The extent of injuries inflicted upon protestors, according to the President of the Chilean Medical Association, is “substantially under-reported” largely due to the fact that “medical colleagues have, in part, been intimidated not to provide information.”

This civil unrest is the “worst violence Chile has seen” since the reign of their former president, Augusto Pinochet, who led “a bloody 17-year military dictatorship” that ended in 1990. While “some claim he turned his country’s economy into a dynamic free-market model for the developing world,” Pinochet was “indicted for human rights violations;” “approximately 40, 000 people were killed, tortured or imprisoned” at his hands. While Pinochet “claimed to be ruling with the absolute majority support of the Chilean people,” it is pertinent to take into consideration the fact that Salvador Allende, a socialist, democratically elected president and Pinochet’s predecessor, “had received 45 percent of the vote in the previous election.” This thus implies that Pinochet’s coup and his subsequent repression of the Chilean population was opposed by, at the least, 45% of the population.

It is imperative to highlight certain parallels between the current political era and the previous one; specifically upon the observation of government-issued soldiers maintaining societal order through inflictions of violence on the population. Joel Hernandez, commissioner of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IACHR) stated that “we are very concerned for the situation going on […] the response by the state should only be under strict international standards, under the principles of proportionality and restraint. We are observing…an excessive use of force.” José Miguel Vivanco, director at the Human Rights Watch, also commented on the ongoing violence ; he said “the images that we’ve received from credible sources…show that there has been an excess of force both by police as well as some soldiers.”

Furthermore, after Pinochet’s reign, “the gap between rich and poor widened to give the country the worst income distribution in the region after Brazil.” Since the end of his rule, the many facets of inequality have culminated to resonate in Chile’s current social and economic climate. Yerko Ljubetic, board member of INDH, stated that “one of the democracy’s big promises is that things that happen during the dictatorship would not happen again.” Yet, Ljubetic noted that “young people already feel detached from the system because they think it’s unequal and corrupt. What is happening these days will contribute to that feeling and will last for years.”

From another standpoint, the prolonging of riots has significantly impacted the economic sector; Chilean businesses have reportedly “lost more than $1.4 billion,” rioters “have looted more than 600 businesses,” and “the city’s metro suffered nearly $400 million in damages.” The unrest poses a prominent threat to mine production, according to copper producer Antogafasta PLC; the company noted that the protests, which cause “delays in supplies and travel disruptions for workers,” “could cut its production by about 5000 tonnes, equivalent to less than three percent of third-quarter output.” Chile’s economy relies on the copper industry and the “plummet in copper price” has created “global trade tensions” and “exposed entrenched inequality.”

Furthermore, the tourism sector is equally taking a hit from the political instability. Monica Zalaquett, Chile’s sub-secretary of tourism, stated that the country has “seen reservations drop by around 50% these last two weeks.” Tourists typically flock to Chile from December to February, yet Zalaquett postulates that it is unlikely to see “new reservations until the country’s situation stabilizes.”

In sum, the widespread riots in Chile stem from an incredible inequality with roots in an “unregulated free market and a neoliberal system that protects it.” These riots will likely last until reform deemed appropriate by the collective population is enacted.

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