Chile is no longer an exception to Latin American turmoil. Mass protests that deteriorated into violence and looting since mid-October are testing the copper-exporting country’s market-based economic model.
No matter the culprit, the modern passenger rail system is now broken at junctures used by the very people the country’s popular crusade for equality is meant to support. Similarly, looting and arson that defied a military deployment and nighttime curfews imposed by the terror-stricken government are hurting small businesses and workers, mostly in places where wealthy Chileans never set foot. The Santiago chamber of commerce estimates $1.4bn in damages in the capital alone. Another $200mn is needed to fix the metro.
Despite decades of progress in reducing poverty, most Chileans say the government needs to do a lot more to close a wide income gap, improve public healthcare and education, and control the spiraling costs of basic services. Chastened elites are hoping the upheaval brings much-needed social and economic reforms without tearing down institutions or making everyone poorer. A peaceful 25 October demonstration by more than a million people in downtown Santiago raised expectations that Chileans would come together around something greater than football.
But for many politicians —and not only in Chile — social division is the currency of power. Opposition parties, responding to a radicalized base, rebuffed Pinera´s calls for dialogue and overtures to participate in a cabinet overhaul. A growing chorus is demanding a constituent assembly and even the president’s ouster. While Victor Jara protest songs rang through the Alameda in Santiago, the congress came under attack in Valparaiso.
As Ecuador and Bolivia recently showed, the rest of Latin America is accustomed to such turmoil. Not so Chile, where the unrest has revealed it is not exceptional after all.
While protests grind on in some places, the Pinera government has now lifted curfews, most Chileans are back to work and school, and the military is returning to the barracks. But social demands unleashed in October cannot be bottled back up. Chile´s long-complacent establishment is under pressure to prioritize equality over growth through policies designed to redistribute more wealth, without alienating investors who can no longer take the country’s market framework for granted. Tragically, just over a week of violence has left fewer resources to share, and a weaker base to generate more.