The Roots of the Chilean Uprising: Neoliberalism, Misery, and Repression

By: John Gonzales


For the past two weeks, Chileans have been protesting in the streets. The spark which ignited the protests started when the government increased the subway fare in Santiago by 30 pesos (or about 4 cents in U.S. dollars). High school students were the first to initiate the resistance, calling on people to jump subway entrances to avoid paying the new fee. The government responded with brutal violence. Now, the majority of the Chilean population has joined the protests, and the movement has spread from Santiago to the entire country.

So why, those unfamiliar with Chilean history might ask, is the Chilean population so angry about 4 cents? As the protestors have said, this movement is not just about 30 pesos, it’s about more than 30 years of abuse, corruption, and oppression under neoliberal dictatorships.

We Chileans have been through a lot in recent history. In 1973, Augusto Pinochet took power in a U.S. backed-coup against a democratically elected socialist president, installing one of the worst fascist dictatorships the world has ever seen. Pinochet began a regime of terror with the killing, torture and kidnapping of thousands of Chileans. During this time (1973-1990), politicians, military men, and business interests set out to change the entire political and economic framework of the country by adopting neoliberal, capitalist-friendly policies. The architects of this new framework were a group of economists sent to study at Chicago with “libertarian” American thinker Milton Friedman. This group, known as “the Chicago Boys,” pioneered an economic system premised on having no social safety net, no regulation of corporations, the privatization of society, and a militarized police state. This brutal experiment set the stage for the spread of what we have come to know today as neoliberalism. Throughout the 80’s, the neoliberal regime in Chile privatized education, health, pensions, natural resources, and even water.

The dictatorship “ended” in 1990 and a new era of Chile democracy was born. New politicians promised happiness for everyone; since 1990 we have had 7 different governments, all chosen “democratically.” Yet, the political transformation from military dictatorship to liberal democracy was not accompanied by a transformation of the neoliberal economic system violently installed by Pinochet and orchestrated by the Chicago Boys and the U.S. Since 1990, governments from left and right have maintained the status quo. Subsequent politicians have only deepened this neoliberal model; as a result, the rich continue to get richer and the poor continue to suffer.

Paradoxically, Chile is one of the richest nations of South America with a per capita income of 25,000 dollars, but the country also boasts some of the world’s highest rates of inequality. 50% of the working class have a monthly income of under 540 dollars, and 50% of senior citizens’ monthly pensions are under 204 dollars. 1% of the population takes in 33% of the national income (fundacion sol). In addition, the cost of living in Chile is among the highest in the region: we have the most expensive college, transportation, and housing.

So how have Chileans survived the last 30 years amidst horrendous inequality and a skyrocketing cost of living? The answer is credit. 11.3 million Chileans have taken on enormous debt just to afford housing, education, health, transportation, and food, debt which many can never afford to pay off. People buy food with credit cards because salaries are not enough to afford the cost of living. Additionally, Chile is experiencing a mental health crisis, as the population struggles with the alienation and stress of living in an unequal and unaffordable society.

“It is not 30 pesos, it is 30 years,” the movement calls out. Since 1990 and our supposed transition to democracy, politicians and businessmen have looted our country’s natural resources. Agribusinesses have killed native forests to grow pines and eucalyptus, stolen water to cultivate avocados, and destroyed our ecosystems. The lack of industry regulation has led to a mass deaths among our native animals, the contamination of our rivers and lakes. Corporations and the government have united against the indigenous Mapuche people to steal their lands, destroy their culture, and revoke their rights. In Chile, the pharmaceutical industry, the food industry, and others all have large, unregulated monopolies which collude to raise the price of drugs and goods, further pushing Chileans into unsustainable debt.

Chileans are tired of the injustice. We are demanding radical changes in the constitution and calling for a Constituent Assembly to reestablish democracy in the country. Protestor demands also include big changes in education, health, democracy, and the distribution of wealth. There are no political parties behind this grass-roots movement. Another common slogan heard among the movement is “neither left nor right”. The people can no longer accept the sham of establishment politics. They are rejecting the neoliberal democracy which has offered them the false choice between a political class of the capitalist left (Nueva Mayoría) and right (Alianza por Chile).

Most worrying, however, is the government’s violent and brutal crackdown on those demanding a fair Chilean society. In a chilling echo of the 1973 dictatorship, Chilean president Sebastian Piñera has called a “state of emergency” and is using the military to repress his own people. Yet, in response to the re-awakening of the nightmares from our past, the Chilean people have answered, “We are not afraid anymore.”

Still, the police and the military forces have been committing brutal human rights violations. In just two weeks, 20 people have been killed and 571 people injured by police and military weapons; 121 people have lost an eye from rubber bullets, 4,271 have been arrested, and 94 official complaints of torture and rape (INDH) have been reported (for more information visit The state’s repression has only confirmed what we Chileans always knew: the dictatorship of neoliberalism never ended, it only changed clothes. When Piñera quoted Pinochet saying, “We are at war,” the people answered, “We are not at war, we are more united than ever.”’

Yet the number of human rights violations keeps growing. For this reason, we need the world’s help in recognizing and denouncing the crimes of the Chilean government.

Right now, the Chilean people remain in the streets demanding social and economic justice, risking their lives. Right now, the government, the police, and the official press are colluding to criminalize, injure, and kill the Chilean people in an attempt to maintain their wealth and privilege. However, Chile has woken up. On October 25th, millions of Chileans and Mapuche peacefully marched across the country, demanding the resignation of Sebastian Piñera. And the movement continues strong. Right now, we need all the international support that we can get.

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