Chronicle of an announced explosion

Photo by Susana Hidalgo
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By Claudia Heiss*

The social explosion of the last few days in Chile did not really surprise many social scientists who for decades predicted that acute inequality, the lack of social protection and the absence of democratic channels for transmitting demands, at some point, would give way to institutional structure.

Numerous studies have analyzed the crisis of representation in Chile, the distance between elites and other citizens, the growing perception of “abuse” that people experience, the inability of the political system to process conflict, the problems of a system of parties without social roots. and the effects of the dictatorial Constitution of 1980 on political legitimacy.

Does this mean that citizens immediately reject the right-wing government they elected just two years ago and now demand a more leftist court project? Not necessarily.

Although the majority of civil society forces and the center-left parties have taken it almost for granted that this is a crisis of the neoliberal model, the truth is that we do not know exactly what the millions of Chilean women and men who have a week fill the streets of the country in the biggest social uprising since the Pinochet dictatorship.

Yes, we know, broadly speaking, what they don't want. They don't want to live with the anguish produced by third world wages and a cost of living in a developed country. They do not want the State to abandon the elderly, the sick and vulnerable children to their fate, nor do they want education and health to be luxury products that only a few can afford. Nor do they probably want a tax system that leaves the coefficient of inequality before and after taxes and deductions almost in the same position. And there is no doubt that many people simply want their share of the pie of economic growth and greater access to consumption.

A few days ago, President Sebastián Piñera told the newspaper Financial Times that Chile was an “oasis of peace in a convulsed region”. In effect, even though there are several countries with much more serious problems of governance, with that description the president overlooked important social movements of the last decade.

In 2006, after years of deliberate political demobilization, a generation that did not experience the dictatorship led the “penguin revolution” [in allusion to the uniform of high school students in Chile] with which high school students kick-started educational reform. In 2011, the focus of the student movement shifted to universities and Chile experienced the biggest mobilizations in its history. From then on, there was a clear decline in the mediation capacity of political parties and their replacement by social movements with agendas such as the environment, indigenous peoples' rights, sexual minorities, decentralization, new constitution, feminisms and pensions.

Unlike the social movements listed above, the explosion of discontent that began last week has neither articulation nor a specific demand. It was a spontaneous explosion triggered by the increase in subway fares in Santiago, which grew as the days went by.

It certainly did not help that the economy minister, Arturo Fontaine, had called on people to get up earlier to face the increase, avoiding peak hours, which was perceived as yet another example of the authorities' lack of empathy. On Monday, October 14th, some students called on people to defy the authorities and get on the metro without paying. The massive evasions grew with each passing day and culminated in peaceful protests that interrupted the service on Thursday the 18th, but also with violent attacks on subway stations, which suffered serious damage to their infrastructure. Since then, the protest has expanded to almost the entire country with massive marches in major cities and the noise of horns and pans. At the same time, there were violent attacks on supermarkets and other facilities.

On Saturday, October 19, the president declared a “state of emergency”, one of the four states of constitutional exception contemplated in the 1980 Constitution and, from that day onwards, a curfew was imposed in different areas of the country. The military were in charge of safeguarding order in the state of emergency areas, which led to several cases of homicide by state agents, abuse in the use of force, illegitimate approaches, torture, sexual abuse and illegal arrests. On October 24, 18 people were killed, 2.400 arrested and many wounded by bullets and other weapons. Regrettably, the use of the state of emergency did not put an end to looting.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) condemned the excessive use of force by the security forces and called on the State to “start an effective and inclusive dialogue to consider the legitimate demands of the population within the democratic framework of the rule of law”. The organization questioned Piñera's decision to impose the state of exception and recalled that it "must be adjusted to strict causes such as the existence of an objective and extremely serious danger that jeopardizes the preservation of democracy or the integrity of the nation, but which should not be invoked for the generic suspension of fundamental rights, such as expression, or protest that seeks to express a social malaise”.

According to the opinion study Citizen Pulse, of October 24, 2019, the most important motivations for the protests that the country is experiencing today are (1) workers' wages, (2) prices of basic services such as electricity, water and gas, (3) pensions for retirees and ( 4) economic inequality among Chileans. The crisis generates feelings of anger, insecurity and sadness (in that order) and only 20,9% of respondents expect that Chile and its politicians will be able to overcome the crisis, against 52,4% who express little or no confidence that this will happen.

Currently, there are at least two interpretations in dispute: the claim of this crisis as a protest against inequality and abuses, which is summarized in the motto “Chile has awakened”, and a version that seeks to emphasize the purely criminal dimension of looting and attacks on property. . This second image was the predominant one in television coverage during the first few days, until citizens themselves began to demand that peaceful protesters and their demands be given a voice.

Since the first calls for tariff evasion, President Piñera has refused to reverse the increase, arguing that the price had been set by a panel of experts and was necessary for the sustainability of the system. Later, he adopted a security and public order approach and, after declaring a state of emergency, declared that he was “at war with a powerful enemy”. Protests then only increased and spread across the country. When the reversal of the increase was announced, it was already too late.

After five days of protests, on Tuesday, October 22, Piñera sought to change his tune. In a television message, he asked for forgiveness and announced some social measures that, at this point, were perceived as insufficient. These included a 20% increase in the solidarity pension and the solidarity pillar, a project to reduce the price of medicines, the increase in the minimum wage and the reversal of the increase in electricity tariffs. He also spoke of raising taxes on people with higher incomes.

More than a week after the explosion, a return to normalcy seems far away. Little by little, different civil society organizations and political parties have taken advantage of the mobilization to try to articulate demands and generate platforms that allow some kind of negotiation with the authorities. Too often these efforts are seen as opportunistic and are being rejected by citizens.

What is the way out of this crisis? It's not easy to say. Some have pointed out that a profound change in the model is needed. However, is it reasonable to expect from a center-right government the structural reforms that have not been implemented in almost 25 years of center-left governments?

Two years before his term expires, Sebastián Piñera's government is now extremely weak. He was already weak when a meager 26,5% of voters led to his victory in December 2017, in the second round, against Alejandro Guillier. Despite having won with a resounding 54,58% of the votes in the second round, three quarters of the electorate did not vote for Sebastián Piñera.

Electoral abstention is today a major enemy of the democratic legitimacy of rulers in Chile. Added to this, the government does not have a majority in Congress. Political parties suffer from serious credibility problems. The scandals about illegal political campaign finance in 2015 contributed to its deterioration, by highlighting the power of money over some legislators. In this scenario, it is difficult to imagine which leaders or political and social forces will be able to channel this explosion of citizen anger and transform it into proposals and bills that can be discussed in legitimate forums of political deliberation.

*Claudia Heiss Professor of Political Science at Universidad de Chile.

Translation Fernando Lima das Neves

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