The atmosphere in Chile is heating up close to boiling point.
Millions of people are fed up with the government and have organised protests dating back weeks. Now Chile’s president, Sebastian Pinera, has cancelled a scheduled meeting with Donald Trump and Chinese president Xi Jinping, as well as the United Nation’s COP25 climate summit. These events were postponed after weeks of protests that have shaken up the entire South American political landscape, never mind just Chile’s. So why are people protesting, and what’s next?
The wave of protests have their roots in a deep dissatisfaction with the government, with many of Chile's citizens believing the system does too little to help the poorest members of society whilst giving far too much to the rich. The latest uprising was a result of the government's decision to increase public transport fares. These changes made Santiago’s metro one of the most expensive in all of South America. The hike itself seemed small – 30 pesos, equal to about 3p – but for many it was simply the final straw. The hike adversely affected the least affluent within Santiago as well as the residing students, both of whom rely heavily on public transport.
Soon after the hike was announced the hashtag #EvasionMasiva caught fire online. Students decided to skip the fares on transport, jumping turnstiles. This quickly evolved into storming stations in groups. Naturally, the protesters soon took the streets, clashing with police. Protester numbers swelled, and what appeared a localised, brief outcry, turned into a national movement, and a political disaster for Pinera.
Chilean protestors in late October
As vandalism spread and protests intensified, Pinera went into crisis mode. A state of emergency was declared in late October, seeing soldiers take to the streets, a national curfew introduced and protestors’ rights diminished. Undeterred, the protests grew, with more than a million people marching on Santiago just days after Pinera called the state of emergency.
The protestors wanted reform, and Pinera has belatedly attempted to provide it. On the 27th of October he sacked his entire cabinet in order to form a new government that could push through reforms. He also lifted the curfew, but stopped short of ending the state of emergency. So far there have been 17 deaths during the protests, but the peacefulness and unity shown at recent larger demonstrations has been striking.
The songs of Victor Jara are chanted constantly. Jara was a cherished folk singer brutally murdered by the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s forces in 1973. The favourite anthem of the protestors is Jara’s ‘The Right to Live in Peace’. The day before Pinera sacked his cabinet, thousands of protestors brought their guitars along to perform the song. Another favourite of the protestors is the chant “It’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years”, a reference to the policies introduced by Pinochet and carried on by successive governments.
Chile is attempting to break free from its past. What started out as secondary school student and working class anger over train fares which became a coordinated fare evasion campaign has now morphed into a national movement against the US led neoliberal policies that have swept through the country since the ousting of Pinochet. That movement is forcing positive change for the future of Chile and is now another example of the increasingly global resistance against the outrageous wealth inequality that plagues most countries right across the planet.