Five months since Chile despertó:


n October 18, the Chilean government announced that metro fares in Santiago de Chile would increase by thirty pesos (about four US-cents) during peak hours. High-school students jumped the turnstiles. Other commuters joined them and protests became violent. The next day, President Sebastián Piñera declared a state of emergency in Santiago and deployed the military. On October 25, more than a million people took to the street. Protests of Chileans living abroad expanded in front of foreign embassies. The protests also gained global attention when the President had to remove the UN-climate change conference COP 25 from Santiago de Chile to Madrid, Spain. Interior minister Andrés Chadwick had to resign. The government eventually froze the fare hikes, committed to raising the minimum wage and pensions for the poorest citizens and, on October 28, lifted the state of emergency. But protests and repressive answers by the police have not stopped until today. Before Christmas, a young demonstrator was squeezed between two police cars. In the night of December 31, thousands of people gathered at Plaza Italia. 2020 started with newly increased unrest, among others, due to calls of high school students to boycott the PSU, the Chilean University Selection Test (cf. Bengoa, 2020). Protests calmed down over the summer holidays, but incidents, such as the riots during an international music festival in Viña del Mar in February, demonstrate the ongoing social revolt. Since so-called “super March”, protests have been on the rise again.

Demonstration in Santiago de Chile, Plaza de la Dignidad, November 2019. Photo by Alexandra Tost

The demonstrators claim for various economic, social and environmental reforms. This concerns the pension system, the rights of employees, women rights, children’s rights, the education system, health system, access to water and land, housing, and they want to rewrite history with a new constitution. The protests have revealed multiple grievances and the call for “dignity” allowed to unify diverse social groups and their concerns against the hegemonial capitalist system. Correspondingly, in November, the protesters renamed Plaza Italia, the main site of the protests in Santiago, as Dignity Plaza. Here particularly young people gather every Friday. All over the country, memorials of colonialism and dictatorship were taken down, replaced etc. Moreover, supported by social media, the social groups interact, create identities and fortify each other’s claims. In reaction to the violations of human rights, LasTesis, a feminist collective from the city of Valparaiso, started to perform the protest song “a rapist in your path”. Women worldwide picked up the flashmob; first, in other Latin American countries, then also on other continents. Since then, the women movement has successfully managed to spread the massive structural shortcomings of justice and the police force and to manifest the relevance of improving women rights in Chile.

Besides open protests, people started to organize in the form of more than a thousand so-called cabildos, i.e. small local assemblies across the country (and abroad), where individuals and organized groups (schoolchildren, neighbors, sport clubs, neighborhood associations etc.) gather to talk about their needs and desires. The Social Unity, a table of approx. 300 civil society organizations, including unions (workers, teachers etc.), social movements (e.g. women, settlers etc.), sport clubs, environmental groups, brings together the concerns and desires of the cabildos and compiles the claims for a new constitution for the people.

Repression and human rights violations by the police keep going on, too. According to INDH (National Institute of Human Rights of Chile), in the last five months, almost 10,365 people were arrested, at least 28 people died during the unrest, 3,765 had to be treated in hospital, 445 because of eye injuries, 34 of them have lost one or two eyes. 2,122 persons sustained gunshot injuries, 520 people were tortured. Meanwhile, the INDH filed almost 1,312 lawsuits of human rights violations by the law enforcement forces, 195 of which because of sexual abuse. Moreover, academic studies and analysis of NGOs detected content of plumb in rubber bullets as well as the presence of caustic soda and pepper gas in water thrown by water cannons. Human rights organizations and representatives of the medical association speak of systematic mutilation by the police, intended to intimidate the demonstrators.

In December, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) published a report, underlining the necessity of police reforms in Chile due to the observed human rights violations (OHCHR, 2019). The Government which had denied the facts, talking of single cases or foreign influences, now assured that any violation would be investigated by the Attorney General’s office. However, none has been removed from duty. And at the turn of the year new escalations of human rights violations were recorded. General Police Director Mario Rozas apparently doesn’t feel bound to President Piñera’s instructions, and is not willing to cooperate in order to solve human rights abuses in reaction to the reports of OHCHR (2019), Human Rights Watch (2019) and Amnesty International (2019). Recordings were leaked in which he announced to a group of policemen that he wouldn’t dismiss anybody for police procedure (El Mostrador, 2019). Meanwhile, numerous politicians and organizations claim the resignation of the General Police Director, and also of President Sebastián Piñera, the new Interior Minister Gonzalo Blumel and the Intendant of the Metropolitan Region of Santiago Felipe Guevara.

As described, Piñera’s government reacts to the protests with repression. A protest criminalizing strategy dominates the discourse, although the government increasingly pronounces its cooperative attitude. In early December, the Chamber of Deputies approved the “Anti Barricades Law” and “Anti Pillages Law”. These laws provide for massive aggravation of penalty for committed crimes in the context of protests. In this vein, the Government announced that it would press charges against the students who called to boycott the PSU by using the National Security Law, which dates back to the military dictatorship. In reaction to the claims, the government announced to invest 5,5 billion dollars in social reforms, (e.g., pensions and public health system) until 2022. And according to a bill, minimum wage shall increase to 470 dollars, which implies only cosmetic changes.

Most importantly, on November 15, the National Congress agreed on holding a plebiscite in April 2020, in which the people will be asked whether they want a new constitution.[1] They can also indicate whether it should be written by a constitutional convention made up of members of Congress and private citizens chosen in local elections[2] or one of elected citizens alone. According to a non-binding consultation in December, over 90 % of the Chileans are in favor of drawing up a new constitution. If approved, citizens will then elect the members of the convention in October, which will have nine to twelve months to draft the new text. Once finished, Chileans will vote again, to approve or reject the constitution. Over the summer holidays, the campaigns for the new constitution have started, and many citizens gathered at the cabildos to discuss the constitution.

Concertación - the alliance that governed Chile for 20 years after the return to democracy – and Frente Amplio, which emerged after the student protests of 2011 and which in the last election managed to consolidate itself as the third political force, are promoting the new constitution and the constitutional convention. In Chile Vamos, the center-right coalition in government, there are conflicting positions: in Renovación Nacional - the party in which Sebastián Piñera campaigned, the option of rejecting change prevails. The argument is that changes can be made through reforms to the current constitution. UDI, a party with more conservative positions, will vote against it. Evópoli, the third force of officialdom and more liberal, is promoting a new text.

The country has been in a state of crisis for several months now. The economy has suffered severe damages. The destruction of the inner city of Santiago in particular, are running into billions of dollars; more than 100,000 people lost their jobs. The peso decreased dramatically and the central bank reduced the growth forecast from approx. 3% to 1%. With COVID-19, another serious challenge has appeared in the scene now. 


Even if economists (and others) didn’t grow tired of emphasizing Chile’s political stability and the country’s economic growth rates, it is nothing new, that social inequality in Chile is particularly high. Some progress has been made in the last 15 years to reduce social inequality due to improved fiscal redistribution and social security mechanisms. Nevertheless, half of Chilean workers earn 550 dollars a month or less according to the National Statistics Institute, while costs of living are comparable to countries such as Germany. With a Gini coefficient of 0.50 (2017) according to the official national CASEN survey, Chile has the second highest level of income inequality among OECD members. The Gini Index for retirement income is even higher, as the pension system reinforces the skewed distribution of income in the Chilean economy (Borzutzky and Hyde, 2016, page 64; OECD, 2013). 90% of the pensioners do not have more than 200-400 dollars per month. In a recent UNDP-study, people expressed even more discontent with unequal access to health (68 % of the respondents), unequal access to education (67 %) and unequal respect and dignity in the way people are treated (66 %) (Conceição, 2019). The report concludes that dignity as equal treatment and nondiscrimination can be even more important than imbalances in the distribution of income. Regarding education inequality, segregation of secondary school students into different schools along socioeconomic status is among the highest in the world in Chile based on the analysis of PISA-tests over 15 years (Gutiérrez et al., 2019). And according to Pérez-Roa & Ayala (2019), before free education policy was implemented in 2015, indebtedness was the main financing strategy for higher education for the majority of the middle and lower classes. Regarding the disposability of water– another cause of the protests –, due to the comprehensive privatization of water, in some regions of Chile people don’t have access to clean drinking water anymore, as agriculture and mining use up the complete drinking water supply.

Statue of General Manuel Baquedano with a pot on the head, Santiago de Chile, November 2019. Photo by Alexandra Tost.

These social conditions and thus the protests in Chile trace back to the social system built up under Pinochet’s military dictatorship (1973– 1989). The Chilean constitution was worked out back then and has only slightly been changed since. The lawyer Jaime Guzmán, most important player in drafting the constitution in the 1970s once wrote: “If our adversaries govern, they should be constrained to act in a way that is not very different from what we wish” (see also Osorio, 2019). After the return to democracy in Chile, the political and economic framework conditions experienced only cosmetic changes. In particular, a consensus-oriented model of governing was established, forced by political and economic elite networks and a technocratic political guiding principle (Zunino, 2006). At the time, Chile became a neoliberal laboratory, where the so-called Chicago Boys (Chilean economists who were trained under Milton Friedman and others in Chicago) implemented through processes of liberalization and privatization of natural resources and infrastructure (social housing, education, highways etc.) (Silva, 2008). Furthermore, oligopolistic organized industries became omnipresent. This is also true for the media, which rendered politically differentiated access to information impossible. To give some examples, Pinochet’s water bill allowed Chile to be the only country worldwide where water resources and water management are almost completely privatized (Budds, 2004). And regarding Chile’s pension system, which is based on individual capitalization, all Chileans have to deposit 10% of their salaries into one of the seven private companies (AFPs Administradoras de Fondos de Pensiones / Administrations of Pension Funds). These companies pay very low pensions, even though they obtain millionaire benefits after investing the funds in the markets. Moreover, they collect high charges. Most of the AFP in Chile belong to José Piñera, Sebastian Piñera’s older brother and Minister for Employment and Social Affairs under Pinochet. What makes the situation even more delicate is that the military and police have a separate pension system.

In addition, Chile’s ‘compulsive’ modernization process was accompanied by a neoliberal restructuring of society that pushed forward individualization and consumption orientation (Bengoa, 2009). Furthermore, also the depoliticization and fragmentation of political opinions and of social capital among potentially powerful resistant forces such as settler movements (Guzmán et al., 2009), has been intensified as a result of different policies creating a quiet consensus with the state (Rodríguez and Sugranyes, 2004). In an interview on local participation processes, a consultant told me a few years ago “Chile’s social community structure is totally primitive... We almost live in a feudal state with a feudal lord who subdues the city”. The apolitical attitude was widespread – a particular characteristic of Chilean societies compared to other societies in Latin America. This explains why it took so long until “Chile despertó” (awoke) from the years of austerity and postpolitical conditions.

However, Chile did not exactly awake on October 18. The increased metro fares were just the straw that broke the camel’s back. Actually, the current protests need to be seen in the context of mobilization dynamics against neoliberal logics over the last decade or so (see also Boano and Vergara-Perucich, 2018); for example, of the student movement demanding reform of Chile’s privatized education system (Inzunza et al., 2019), and the emergence of a protest network in reaction to the state reconstruction program after the 2010 earthquake in Chile, in the course of which activists founded the National Federation of Pobladores (FENAPO). Also, tendencies of civil-society (re-)mobilization, including emerging middle-class organizations and pobladores movements are offering new opportunities (Hölzl, 2018). Furthermore, the initiative Marca Tu Voto is calling for a new constitution on the basis of a constitutional assembly since 2013. And since 2016, the alliance of No+AFP frequently brought up to 2 million people on the streets to demonstrate for a reformation of the pension system. And maybe above all, a new youth without a future (Osorio, 2019), but also without fear, opposed to older generations who are intimidated by the dictatorship, is ascribed a special lead role in this uprising. These young people do not act organized, however, actions such as the PSU-boycott are creating common voices.

Over the last one or two decades, the government mostly didn’t take the efforts for participation and citizen empowerment by social movements and initiatives seriously, or reacted by criminalizing protest and repression. In general, the existing elite networks strongly defend the status quo and refuse systematic structural reforms. Thus, it has tried to keep participation small. The government doesn’t support and not even protect civil engagement against intimidations of different kinds by private companies. For instance, in the framework of delicate environmental issues, a recent study emphasized, that nowhere in the world so many environmental activists commit suicide than in Chile (Trost and Reperger, 2019; Wehr, 2019). Moreover, and what the contentions show dramatically, the police force in Chile experienced only partial reforms since their build up under Pinochet. Duce and Dammert (2019) state that the Chilean Carabineros have been facing a strong crisis for some time regarding their performance, control function and legitimacy. Though citizenry generally respects the police in everyday contexts like fighting criminality, in dealing with public demonstrations and protests, it is feared for still relying on repressive strategies (Bonner, 2013).

Stencil in Santiago de Chile, December 2019. Photo by Alexandra Tost.


The past five months of unrest in Chile underline that society has changed and that the people are ready for real democracy. With the decision for a new constitution the government hoped to stop the protests. But the protests didn’t stop; the people want more, they also claim justice for the committed crimes against human rights. Due to the negative impact of the country’s situation on (international) investments, even economic leaders increasingly speak of reforms. However, considering the strategies elite-networks applied in the past to establish and extend neoliberalism in Chile conservative stakeholders will do everything in their power in order to steer the process. Correspondingly, Piñera’s government and the police force are still far from willing to accept a modernizing democratic society and to adapt its policies. Repressions and human rights violations are ongoing, the reform of the pension system that Pinera suggested in January doesn’t question the criticized structures.

What matters now is that the process of writing the new constitution is accompanied by a strong legitimation. The framework conditions are not too easy as social movements were not involved in the roadmap and there is no quota for Mapuche. However, meanwhile, a quota for women was decided. Furthermore, the social revolt is diffuse and there are many voices among the activists, e.g. women movements have recently left the Social Unity table. On the contrary, constitution experts consider Chile a simple case, as there is one common focus: a strong social state. Thus, hopefully, the people manage to interact around this common goal.

[1] Meanwhile, the date was postponed to June due to COVID-19.

[2] The delegates of the constitutional convent would have to be elected by Congress. Consequently, the composition of the convent would be guided by the current majority situation in parliament. Additionally, a 2/3 majority has to confirm the decisions of this convent.


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