Over the weekend, the country erupted in violent protests and flames, with peaceful crowds chanting, playing instruments and banging pots giving way to arson and looting as supermarkets were ransacked and buses, buildings and subway stations set ablaze. A planned hike in transit fares ignited a long-simmering anger that has bubbled up before in the past decade, in the form of looting after 2010’s 6.9-magnitude earthquake and the 2011-2013 student protests aimed at making education more accessible.
Suspending the subway hike has done little to quell collective rage. The protests run deeper than a 4 percent fare increase. “It’s not about 30 pesos.It’s about 30 years,” protesters chanted, referring to the three decades since dictator Augusto Pinochet stepped down as president of Chile in 1990.
“Everyone following Latin America is watching this and saying, ‘Oh my God, Chile, too?’ ” said Brian Winter, vice president for policy at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas.
But the uproar shouldn’t really surprise anyone. The neoliberal free-market policies, which began under Pinochet and continued over the past three decades have helped Chile achieve low inflation, stability and prosperity at the expense of a vast and struggling middle class that cannot afford the basics of a decent life. The veneer of Chile’s exceptionalism has masked deep inequality and uneven economic development.
“I feel like I want to cry,” my father said about the destruction. You should know that my father is not a crier, and the only tears I have seen in his eyes came during my mother’s funeral and after a cancer diagnosis.
The Chile my father knows and wants to cry for is one of memory. He came to the United States in 1975 and has never returned. Recently, I asked if he wanted to make a return trip. “No, I was thinking about it. I don’t want to go back.” As much as my father has a fierce affection and pride for his country, praising at every chance its subways, dizzying landscape, writers and, of course, its empanadas, he has a lot of hurt related to many disadvantages he experienced early in life.
“My whole family died,” he says, pointing to the inadequate health care they received in Chile, and to the fact that he has no one left to go home to. An elder sister died before he was born, and a younger brother a few years later. Dad’s parents died not long after he immigrated to the United States. A decade later, another older sister died in her 50s.
The recent unrest lifts the veil on those my father left behind. The youthful student protesters could be his grandchildren. Their smooth, unlined faces remind him of his nephew Gabriel, forever frozen at 18 — the age he died of leukemia because the hospital where he was being treated didn’t stock the necessary medication and his family couldn’t afford to order it from Argentina.
Chile’s young protesters face similar hardships to those my father shouldered as a young man: poor access to education, job opportunities and health care. Rampant unemployment forced my father to leave his city, Valparaíso. He spent four years working in nitrate mines in the Atacama Desert before he left altogether at 27. He didn’t want to die early, like the miners who got silicosis. He wanted to live, to travel. And he couldn’t find work without connections.
“It was very hard to find a job without friends or family to help you. They didn’t want to give poor people a chance. That’s why I don’t like my country,” Dad says. He went to work on ships that took him around the world and eventually to the United States.
My father had nothing when he came to New York, except his energy and willingness to work. He didn’t become rich but caught some modest breaks in that historical moment that have given him stability as he’s aged: a green card, a union job with a pension, affordable housing in Manhattan. It’s hard to imagine him attaining this stability either in the United States or Chile today.
Young people around the world now are fighting for their lives. We need to listen and to act. Growing youth discontent, deepening income inequality, recent strikes, a conservative businessman president with a tin ear. Sound familiar? The fire next time may be in our own backyard if we do not address growing inequality at home and learn from the unrest unfolding abroad.