‘The Truth is, Chile is Unequal’: What’s Behind Chile’s Protests

As part of a series on global protests, Dr Christopher Sabatini tells Lyndsey Jefferson why Chileans are taking to the streets.

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3 minute READ
A demonstrator waves a Chilean flag during a protest in Santiago on 21 October 2019. Photo: Getty Images.

A demonstrator waves a Chilean flag during a protest in Santiago on 21 October 2019. Photo: Getty Images.

Why are these protests happening now?

The truth is, Chile is unequal, even though it actually reduced poverty from 1989, the time of the democratic transition, until today, from 40% to 16%.

There are a number of reasons for the protests. One is the most proximate cause, which is the increase in the subway fares, but that really doesn’t explain the underlying tensions.

One of those tensions is despite reductions in poverty, social mobility remains a large problem in Chile. It remains a very elitist country with limited social mobility. So, poverty may be reduced, but the likelihood that someone in the working middle class would reach the upper middle class has always been a stretch.

The second issue is a lack of political change. The last four presidents were the same two people.

Chile’s been governed, with the exception of Piñera, basically by the same political coalition, La Concertación, which is a combination of the Christian Democratic and Socialist parties. Piñera came from the right, an outside party, but even he has remained. There has been no renewal of the political leadership which again reinforces that lack of social mobility.

Do the protesters have any other demands or grievances?

The demands are amorphous and that’s part of the issue – they’re going to be difficult to meet. People are expressing a genuine desire for change but what would that change mean?

Chileans don’t necessarily want to change the economic model; they simply want more mobility. That’s difficult to do and these are untested demands.

Chileans also want political reform. What Piñera offered is to rewrite the constitution, which was created under military government in 1980. Other than some changes here and there in terms of the electoral system and reduction of military power, it has pretty much remained intact.

Will constitutional change really address these demands? It’s simply a document that may create the rules for how power is allocated and conducted, but it’s not going to dramatically remake Chilean society.

You mentioned inequality as a key driver of the protests. Can you expand a bit more on the current economic situation of ordinary Chileans?

Chile is going to grow at only around 2-3%, but it was growing at around 4-5% earlier. A lot of those funds were ploughed into social programmes that have since been reduced.

Chile’s economy really boomed in the early 2000s because of Chinese demands of Chilean imports. But as with any sort of commodities-based economy, the jobs it provides tend to be lower wage.

As a result, despite the fact that Chile tried to diversify its economy by investing in entrepreneurship and innovation, it hasn’t grown in a way that provides jobs that many associate with upward mobility. As Chile’s economy cooled, its ability to lift people out of poverty lagged as well.


Demonstrators hold placards depicting eyes – in reference to police pellets hitting demonstrators' eyes – during a protest in Santiago on 10 December 2019. Photo: Getty Images.

Demonstrators hold placards depicting eyes – in reference to police pellets hitting demonstrators’ eyes – during a protest in Santiago on 10 December 2019. Photo: Getty Images.

Two major issues for the protesters are education and pensions – can you explain why this is?

These are two issues of the economic and social model that was held up at one time as being a model for the region, the neoliberal models that are really coming under question and are in some ways at the heart of this.

One is the privatized pension system which is failing to produce the returns that retirees need to survive. The second is the education system. Chile created a voucher system where parents can shop around and send their kids to the best schools. The idea was to create competition among schools to improve.

The problem was like any market, it created a certain amount of inequality among schools. There was a problem of some schools underperforming and being relegated poorer performing students, or students being forced to go to those schools because the more successful schools were already spoken for.

At the end of October, the government announced a series of social reforms. Will this be enough to satisfy the protesters’ demands?

Social reforms may address some of the issues of insufficient pensions or lack of quality education, but it will take a while for them to have an effect.

The second thing is, social reforms don’t address the issues of power. At the heart of this is this idea of closed economic, political and social power. That comes about through economic growth and how you break up concentrations of wealth. Social reforms aren’t going to do that, although they’ll help on the margins.

We’re seeing horrific scenes of police violence against protesters and dozens of people have died. Has this deterred the protesters in any way?

No, in many ways it has sort of inspired them. It has, I think, sustained the protests.

We’re not talking massive repression and tanks rolling in like Tiananmen Square. We’re talking about tear gas, rubber bullets, some injuries and deaths, and even credible reports of torture.

It’s funny you should mention this – a class I’m teaching today is about social media and protests. One of the central arguments is that successful social protests need a martyr; they need a rallying cry.

The deaths and the repression sort of help sustain that, but moreover, social media helps communicate what’s happening through videos and pictures. It really helps maintain this sense of righteousness, disdain for the government, and this idea of the need to demand change.

Where do you see this going next?

I don’t think we know. In the 60s and 70s, the political scientist Samuel Huntington argued in Political Order in Changing Societies that as economies grow, political institutions often strain to contain and channel demands. I think we’re seeing this now.

This social ferment over political, economic and social demands is uncharted water. I don’t know where this will go, but I think we’ll see a change in the constitution. We’ve already seen a fragmenting of the party system, which I think will continue. Hopefully, that will lead to new leadership that can help reflect a change in Chile itself.