A Crash Course to Explain What’s Going On in Chile and Why People Are Protesting

Protest Chile BELatina
A man wearing a chef’s hat runs for cover as anti-government protesters clash with police in Valparaiso, Chile, Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. President Sebastian Pinera made more economic concessions Thursday announcing a freeze on a 9.2% rise in electricity prices until the end of next year, to try to curb a week of deadly protests over price increases and other grievances. (Matias Delacroix/AP)

Since mid-October, the nation of Chile has been shaken by deadly anti-government protests set off by the announcement of transportation fare hikes. As of today, at least 15 people have been killed and hundreds injured amid the demonstrations, which have at times devolved into destruction and violence. Prior to the violent protests, Chile had been, at least on the surface, a beacon of peace and prosperity in Latin America ever since the end of Augusto Pinochets dictatorship in 1990. So, what’s going on in Chile right now? How does an apparently stable democracy become the site of violent protests that reverberate around the world?

If you’ve ever lived in an unaffordable city at the time of a public transportation fare hike or perhaps an increase in road tolls or street parking rates, you understand how deeply these announcements can rankle the community, especially when a fare hike isn’t tied to any tangible improvement in quality of service or of life in general. The rise in these essential, everyday costs of living inevitably ends up dominating the talk around the water cooler for a short period of time, becoming a proxy for all of the other gripes that the public has over the cost of living.

In Chile, there’s a particularly lopsided distribution of wealth between the haves and have nots in the country. In fact, according to Bloomberg, Chile is one of the most economically unequal countries in the world. Everyday Chileans are burdened by the untenable cost of healthcare, education, and pensions, as well as dwindling job opportunities, and these realities created volatile conditions that made it much easier for the public to go from expectedly disgruntled to inconsolably outraged over the announcement of a fare hike.

Put simply, the protests are not really about the price of public transportation but rather about being left behind as powerful and wealthy few prosper. Many major news outlets recalled similar uprisings in other countries where haves were pitted against have nots through these types of legislative actions — most recently in France during the Yellow Vest movement when President Emmanuel Macron attempted to raise gas and diesel taxes as a step toward building a greener France. (Critics felt that the taxes would place a disproportionate burden on working-class French who live outside of the confines of cities and rely upon cars to get around.)

To try to mend things, on Wednesday President Sebastián Piñera finally expressed contrition for having overlooked economic inequality in the country. “I acknowledge this and I ask for forgiveness for this shortsightedness,” he said. It was a statement delivered perhaps a little too late, as Piñera earlier in the week deflected any blame and characterized the protestors as the problem, not his administration. In any case, as of now, Piñera hopes to heal the country and end the protests through a “social contract” that proposes to reduce the cost of living and improve Chileans’ quality of life. It’s yet to be seen whether these measures will go far enough to appease the wide-ranging population of protestors.