Chile: An uprising against inequality
The very foundations of Chilean society are starting to crumble, said Rocío Montes in El País (Spain). It started on Oct. 18—“a date that will go down in history”—when students took to the streets of Santiago to protest a 4-cent hike in the subway fare. Soon, those demonstrations exploded into furious cries against inequality and the soaring cost of living. Scores of subway stations and government buildings were set on fire, and hundreds of supermarkets and businesses looted. Near-nightly riots led President Sebastián Piñera to call out the army, a horrifying development in a country that only emerged from military dictatorship in 1990. Not every protest has been destructive—late last month, more than 1 million Chileans peacefully marched through the capital for a rally against inequality and police brutality. But with more than 20 people dead, some 2,000 injured, and thousands detained after three weeks of chaos, “neither the government nor the opposition” knows how to calm the anger. The center-right Piñera replaced his cabinet and offered new social perks, including a 20 percent rise in pensions, but that didn’t stop the demonstrations. “There’s a malaise,” says political scientist Daniel Mansuy, “and the people don’t feel represented by anything or anyone.”
There’s no letup, said F. Escobar in La Cuarta (Chile). In Santiago’s central Plaza Baquedano, protesters last week hurled Molotov cocktails at the police, severely burning the faces of two women officers. Interior Minister Gonzalo Blumel said such violence “strikes at the soul of our country.” Unions have now joined the protests. Taxi drivers blocked streets in the capital last week, while a threatened strike by oil company workers could halt traffic in the rest of the country. Already, economic losses are upwards of $2 billion. This “serious loss of public order” could lead to anarchy, said La Tercera (Chile) in an editorial. The “scenes of young people loudly insulting the military and police” and violating curfews are appalling indications that “respect for authority” has been eroded. “Citizens must not lose sight of the crucial importance of the rule of law.” Once this period of unrest is over, there will be much work to be done in “families and schools” to “reinforce vital ideas of civic life”—the most important being respect for governing institutions.
But our institutions have failed our youth, said Patricio Silva Rojas in La Nación (Chile). Chile has the worst inequality in the developed world, with the richest 20 percent earning nine times more than the poorest 20 percent. The old military dictatorship cemented that divide by creating hybrid public-private education, health, and pension systems, which give the rich—who can pay more—better benefits and opportunities. It’s not enough to just “condemn criminality”; we must take these protests as a clarion call to build a more just society. We need “a new social pact.” ■