“It’s not 30 pesos: it’s 30 years.” This slogan, one of the most frequently used in the mass protests in Chile, explains in seven words what has triggered the biggest mass demonstrations in living memory in this Andean country since the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. It was not the increase of 30 Chilean pesos (41 cents) in the subway fare but the accumulation of decades of neoliberal policies, which have turned the Chile of today into one of the most inegalitarian countries in Latin America.
The subway fare rise, one of the highest in the region, unleashed, in the words of Argentine sociologist Maristella Svampa, “an unprecedented generalized experiment in civil disobedience” that began on 7 October, when a group of high school students called for a mass avoidance of fare payment. Five days later, the popular uprising took to the streets.
“A violent outbreak was to be expected because it was the only way out. When the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) was discussed in Congress, for example, we went on marches, we asked for meetings and consultations, and we were ignored: the system continues along the path of social injustice,” says Alejandra Parra of Environmental Rights Action Network.
Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, who shortly before the social unrest broke out had described his country as “an oasis of stability” in the midst of regional upheaval, declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew. As the crisis mounted, the president compared himself to Ulysses: just as Homer’s mythical hero did not succumb to the sirens’ song, he would not give in to the claims of his people (equating the sirens’ songs with populism — and populism with the people’s demands).
Not long afterwards, however, he reversed the increase in the subway fare, introduced a package of social measures and announced changes in his cabinet — changes that his critics consider cosmetic. Chile’s citizen’s movement is aiming further than this: it wants to dismantle the neoliberal economic and social order that was imposed in the country through blood and fire, following the coup that removed Salvador Allende in 1973, and the implementation of a system that effectively remains in place thanks to a constitution which, as Parra explains, “was formulated in the middle of the dictatorship, and designed to place in private hands public services such as health, education, and pensions, and basic rights such as water.”
The uprising in Chile coincided with protests in Ecuador and Haiti, also triggered by an increase in the cost of public transport, but the causes go further back. On October 1, the Ecuadorian government announced a package of economic measures (the “big package”) that included the withdrawal of the fuel subsidy (through Decree 883), a 20 percent reduction in the wages of casual public employees and other reforms imposed by the IMF.
The people responded with mass protests and their demands went far beyond the repeal of the decree; they questioned “the neoliberal policies that are against the people’s interests, under pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which seek to reactivate the business economy but not the economy of the people, or of our rural communities,” concludes Katy Machoa of the Federation of Indigenous Organizations of Napo (FOIN), speaking from the Amazon.
The protests made President Lenín Moreno reverse the fuel price rise, but it seems less likely that there will be a reversal in the direction of his economic policy. “Ecuador is trapped: it has a dollarized economy that it cannot devalue, it does not control its own currency and is very reliant on the export of raw materials, whose prices are falling,” says Svampa, who is concerned about the rise of the right at a time of “a questioning of the party system.”
In Haiti, where, according to a report by the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research, inflation (18 percent) and a wage freeze exist alongside the para-militarization of daily life, the government of Jovenel Moïse, weighed down by corruption and waste, followed the recommendations of the IMF and decided to increase the price of fuel. This provoked shortages, which, in turn, generated mass protests in which, according a report published by the United Nations on 25 October, 30 deaths were recorded, half of them at the hands of the police. It never rains but it pours: the cycle of citizen’s protests had begun in July 2018. The Haitian people are demanding Moïse’s resignation and the end of foreign interference in their economy.
If anything is characteristic of these protests, it is the sheer size and diversity of the mobilization. “In Ecuador, the popular revolt has served not only to put anti-neoliberal theories back on the agenda but also the issue of pluri-nationality, thanks to the strong role played by the CONAIE [Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador], the [clear] visibility of women, and its multicultural nature,” explains Svampa. Students, unions, rural movements and citizens in general have also joined the ranks of the protestors.
In Chile, where the mass demonstrations of 2005 and 2011 were led by students, this time other social actors have joined in, including the middle classes disillusioned with the neoliberal model that has failed to live up to its promises. Alejandra Parra highlights the horizontality of the movement:
“The organization has been spontaneous, and at the same time it has been the result of the strengthening of diverse social organizations — students, unions, community and socio-environmental organizations, women’s rights groups, native peoples — who had been working along parallel lanes but who in recent years have been working together to put forward coordinated proposals.”
“Women will be increasingly important in the mobilizations — in different aspects: community women’s groups, urban or rural women’s groups — as well as native peoples and socio-ecological groups,” says Svampa. This Argentine sociologist also notes a common reaction by the states: “It is to be expected that these crowds will face a repressive response from the state, and a state of emergency.”
We have already seen it in Ecuador, where the Ombudsman’s Office counted eight dead, about 1,200 arrests and 13,400 injured. President Moreno decreed a state of emergency and imposed a curfew. In Chile, the tally is even more alarming: 20 deaths, 3,193 detainees and more than 1,000 injured, according to the National Institute of Human Rights (NHRI), which has also reported complaints of rape and torture.
Several witness statements suggest that a torture center was set up for at least one night at the Baquedano subway station, which brings back dark memories of the dictatorship for the Chilean people. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and former Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet, sent a mission to investigate what happened; the social movements are demanding that there should also be an independent investigation that coordinates with the social organizations.
What will the Latin American political scene look like in the wake of these protests? Parra is optimistic: “I hope that there will be a real change: what we have experienced will stay with us, body and soul, ‘learning by doing’ has not been erased from our popular culture and is seen today in the form of assemblies that are formulating structured proposals from the demands voiced on the streets, in order to launch a people’s demand for structural change in our country; and that will go to a constituent assembly that will lead to the reform of the constitution.”
According to a survey carried out in October, 80 percent of Chilean citizens approve the idea of a new constitution and 85 percent are “in agreement” with the social movement of recent weeks.
“In Chile there is a radical questioning now of the status quo, but there are no left or center-left parties capable of articulating those demands,” argues Svampa. What has been put on the table, however, is that the “oasis” of stability that was Chile, for years presented as proof of the success of the liberal model, had feet of clay. From now on, it will be more difficult to use Chile’s macroeconomic figures as an argument to legitimize adjustment policies in the region. And it remains to be seen what will happen to Piñera, who has already had to suspend the summits of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum (APEC) and the 2019 United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP 25), scheduled for November and December, respectively.
What these popular uprisings have also shown is that “the impact of the mobilizations is much greater when they manage to break away from the polarized image that presents the issues as a case of government versus opposition,” explains Svampa.
In other words, these protests are not so much about the government of the day, but the economic model itself: in Ecuador, the movements now protesting against Moreno have also dissociated themselves from former President Rafael Correa. Likewise, in Chile and Haiti the protests are not against a specific government and in favor of another one, but rather against neoliberalism and its austerity/adjustment policies. In Argentina, on the contrary, although anti-neoliberal protests are frequent, they have not developed “the ability to break into the public scene and end the simplified neoliberalism versus populism paradigm,” says Svampa.