At least 20 people have died, hundreds have been injured and more than 2,000 detained since demonstrations began Oct. 18. The ordinarily stable and prosperous country is facing its greatest crisis in decades — and there’s no clear end in sight.
“All of society is surprised by what’s happening,” said Miguel Ángel Martínez, a political scientist at Austral University of Chile. “The government is surprised because it simply didn’t expect it, and the protesters, because they’re realizing they can efficiently pressure the political system even without a well-
The conflict began with high school and college students on social media urging each other to hop subway turnstiles in protest of the fare hike — for many, a final straw after years of increases in the prices of basic goods and services. But the movement quickly grew and broadened, the government met it with force, and the country became the latest across the region to erupt in violence.
From the outside, Chile has been seen as a Latin American success story of freedom, transparency and development. But its region-leading growth has been shared unevenly: It’s among the most unequal countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Now student leaders, joined by middle-class professionals and civil society groups, are demanding broader, deeper change.
“A structural transformation and a new constitution,” student leader Emilia Schneider tweeted. “A dialogue with civil society that goes further than discussing concrete demands,” the Federation of Professional Schools said. “A new social pact,” the Health Professionals Union wrote in an op-ed.
Piñera has acknowledged his concessions so far won’t bring an end to the chaos. “But they are an important step,” he argued Monday in a televised speech. “Chile is not the same as it was a couple of weeks ago. Chile has changed.”
More than a million people marched in the capital Friday in the largest popular mobilization since democracy was restored in 1990. The government has deployed more than 10,000 troops in the largest operation since the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
Demonstrators have seen Piñera’s concessions as “cosmetic,” “superficial” and “unable to tackle the structural causes of the discontent,” according to Pablo Villoch, who teaches leadership, conflict and sustainability at the Catholic and Andres Bello universities.
“A big part of the population believes that the real problem won’t be solved with insurance, bonuses or social policies,” Villoch said. “It would need a profound transformation of the political model and of the constitution.”
Those are steps that Piñera so far has been unwilling to take.
Chileans have long clamored to modernize the constitution, written during the Pinochet dictatorship, although not with the current intensity. Protesters say they want it to enshrine health and education as universal human rights, rather than leaving their provision — and access to water and pensions — to the markets.
Michelle Bachelet, Piñera’s predecessor, led a dialogue to reform the constitution that drew more than 200,000 participants. But she waited until five days before the end of her term in March 2018 to present the results. New elections brought Piñera to power, and he has pursued other priorities.
Piñera, a Harvard-trained billionaire viewed by some as out of touch with ordinary Chileans, has watched his approval ratings plummet to the teens. But most protesters aren’t yet calling for his resignation.
His new cabinet has called all political parties to a dialogue. But who would participate and what the government would be willing to negotiate is unclear.
¨We want to be very clear,” Juan Pablo Letelier, a socialist senator, told the National Congress on Tuesday. “There won’t be relevant reforms in health, education, labor, environment or water if the constitution isn’t reformed.”
Letelier and other center-left lawmakers proposed a referendum on whether to write a new constitution to be held in December. But it would need the unlikely support of at least some lawmakers on the right.
Piñera on Monday lifted a state of emergency and curfew that had been in place for 10 days, just as Bachelet, now the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, sent a delegation to evaluate allegations of torture and abuse by security forces during the unrest.
On Wednesday, Piñera said he had made the “painful” decision to cancel the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation trade summit that Chile was to host next month and the U.N. Climate Change Conference planned for December, “given the difficulty of the circumstances that our country is going through.”
Martínez, of Austral University, said restoring stability now will be a challenge.
“Political forces would have to come together and generate consensus,” he said. “If subversive political agendas that are no doubt part of the protests prevail, then democracy will be hit, and Chile may fall into an instability spiral similar to the ones in neighboring countries.”