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Chile’s Class Rage

In Chile, a transit fare hike has produced a national protest wave against austerity – and the most severe state repression since the Pinochet dictatorship.

Two years ago, nationwide elections began reshaping Chile’s oligarchic party system. But the pace of change was too slow to prevent festering discontent and outrage against the political class from boiling over into the streets.

The last few days of spontaneous and uncontainable protests, looting, and arson will leave in ruins a regime that in the eyes of the working and poor masses has long worn out its welcome. This is just the beginning they tell us, and as the fires spread and burn out, Chile will be transformed irreversibly. But when the smoke clears, what will the new Chile look like?

The Eruption

The immediate trigger for the uprising was the executive’s October 1 announcement that peak subway fares would increase by a 30 pesos.

Considering the 800 pesos (U$1.15) rate was already the second-highest subway fare in Latin America, neither the panel of “experts” that recommended it, the right-wing Sebastián Piñera administration, nor its mainstream opposition, anticipated any pushback against the hike. But continuing an upsurge in student protests that has lasted since 2006, youth responded with mass civil disobedience. High school federations mobilised a social media coordinated campaign of turnstile jumping throughout the capital. After a week of direct action by students, the campaign grew until, by the week of October 14, it had spread throughout the city. The public-private consortium that manages Santiago’s dysfunctional transit system estimated losses of nearly a quarter-million dollars.

In response, Piñera opted for a heavy-handed law-and-order approach. When students, now with the support of local community activists, intensified and expanded their protests to numerous subway stations last Friday, the government called special carabinero shock forces to stop the teenagers, often trapping and beating them in cars. The reaction was immediate: what had been mild disturbances accompanying the “collective fare evasions,” morphed into widespread vandalism and destruction. Punitively, and idiotically, at 4 PM, right before rush hour, Piñera shut down the entire system.

Stranded in a city where public transit commutes easily exceed two hours, and learning of the crackdown against their children, exhausted and desperate people erupted with a fury uncharacteristic of Chile’s marginalised sectors, generally considered more restrained than their regional counterparts. The hike and slaps in the face that followed were the final straw after decades of growing inequality, apartheid-like public services, and oligarchic rule.

Roughly eighty stops were trashed with dozens of trains and stations burned to a char. By evening, mobs began targeting other public infrastructure, major intersections, and, most concerning to the economic elites, big retail.

Around midnight and either unable or unwilling to grasp the outrage fuelling the rioting, Piñera declared a state of emergency in the capital. Before sending troops into the streets, the billionaire president took one more opportunity to show the poor his indifference by celebrating his grandson’s birthday in an upscale pizzeria. As patrolling soldiers brought back the worst memories of the Pinochet dictatorship, the long discounted poor and working-class were eager for battle.

Military occupation of Santiago only fanned the flames. Overnight and the following day, looting and burning spread to other key cities, including the major ports of Valparaiso and Concepción in the South. Hoping to curb the disturbances, the general heading the state of emergency declared a 10 PM curfew.

In the capital, officers pointed their barrels at civilians, and in Valparaiso sailors arbitrarily beat locals. Meanwhile, large middle-class progressive sectors of the capital poured into the streets to oppose the presence of troops and express their general rejection of the right-wing government. They gathered in central squares and avenues, banging pots for hours and demanding “que se vayan los milicos.” They primarily objected to the loss of civil liberties and militarisation of public order, wary of a return to authoritarianism.

The right-wing rejoinder that these are not the same armed forces of the military regime, however, is not wrong. Today, the army is deployed not to reimpose a dictatorship but rather to safeguard post-Pinochet free-market democracy.

The repression and suspension of basic rights failed to subdue the upheaval. Fires spread and looting became generalised, as the rebellion reached medium- and smaller-sized towns. When Chileans woke up on Sunday, the capital’s supermarkets and pharmacies had been ravaged. Walmart, for instance, claimed that eighty of its supercentres and markets, known as Lider and Ekono in Chile, had been plundered. Interior Minister Andrés Chadwick reported eight more metro stations destroyed along with over seven hundred arrests and more than sixty injured police. In one incident at a military checkpoint, two civilians were near-fatally shot.

By the end of the weekend, the hazy panorama was clear enough. Chile’s forgotten masses, political nonentities denied the benefits of the country’s touted open-market miracle, shut routine life down. The “other half” took the initiative, and — for now — frustrated middle classes have followed.

Fear of the state’s coercive institutions has collapsed as looting expands relentlessly and protesters continually raise barricades in main squares and intersections. As the second curfew descended, now at 7 PM, twenty-five thousand middle-class Santiaguinos kept banging their pots in the capital’s largest of many cacerolazos. Basic stability vanished in the most stable country in Latin America.

By midnight Sunday, roughly 200 superstores, 120 pharmacies, and 75 gas stations had been partially or totally destroyed. In a northern port, marginalised youth unabashedly rampaged against a luxury casino. Since the start of the class rebellion, eleven have died (at least one shot by troops, though most burned alive in looted stores), hundreds have been injured, and nearly 2,000 arrested.

The poor will continue to pay a high price for their resistance, but the most decisive cost was imposed on the ruling class. Chile’s disenfranchised workers mobilised spontaneously to initiate a system-wide disruption and have foregrounded their grievances.

Political Class Folly

All political forces in Chile acknowledge the obvious: the uncontainable rage reflects much more than the subway hike. Vast swaths have had it with poverty wages, undignified pensions, tiered schools, all while elites vaunt their growing wealth.

In a country where GDPPC is U$16,000, one-half of the population survives on less than $200 per month, half of the already paltry $400 minimum wage. Public minimum pensions amount to slightly more than that for retirees between seventy and seventy-five years old. Meanwhile, the actual average monthly cost of food alone is $500, ten times the absurd official figure.

The effects are deadly: last year nearly 27,000 poor Chileans died waiting for necessary health care in the country’s crumbling public system. Those appalled, surprised, or lamenting that supermarkets and pharmacies were the main targets of the protests simply operate in an entirely separate social universe.

By contrast, while median monthly wages are $550, Chile’s 1 percent earns at least ten times as much, controlling one-third of national income. Recently, the center-right government proposed and much of the center-left supported a tax counter-reform that some claim would transfer U$650 million to the super-wealthy. Chile’s obscene inequality, matched by the oligarchic concentration of political influence, is fuelling the revolt. With its inadequate and tone-deaf response, the entire political class appears bent on going down with the fires.

Both the center-right in power and the less cohesive center-left that governed for most of the post-dictatorship period have mainly proposed a restoration of the status-quo ante. To recover their rule, they are pushing a combination of “public security” and patches of relief. After first calling for dialogue and soon thereafter announcing a reversal of the hike, the president has doubled down on a harsh law-and-order strategy.

Chile’s right-wing seems genuinely unable to formulate a different response. As the days of rage escalated, their anti-crime discourse hardened. Piñera declared that the country is at war and his aristocratic minister Chadwick claims that organised and well-coordinated groups with logistical support and bent on destabilisation are behind the rioting.

The rhetorical shift is a calculated effort to drive a wedge between the “responsible and peaceful” demonstrators raising legitimate grievances and the criminal “violentistas” (a term suggesting adherence to vandalism for the sake of violence itself), a move to win over the middle layers and isolate the informalised poor of the peripheries. Repeated concerns for middle-class property and hard-earned opportunities reiterated by Chadwick and other officials is surely dog-whistle messaging. But it also reflects the worldview of the conservative politicians and their constituents.

On the other side of the isle, any differences were merely of degrees and emphasis. Heavyweights of the shaky Socialist-Christian Democratic coalition adopted the president’s public order attitude. Top Socialist senate dealmaker José Miguel Insulza, for instance, called for even harsher repression. While the center-left across the board joined the condemnation of vandalism, saying that protesters must obey the law if they expect reforms, the moderate opposition has more commonly called for a national dialogue and mitigation of the most offensive features of Chile’s inequality.

Christian Democrat leader Fuad Chahín acknowledged that the whole political class created the current situation and should now take responsibility for restoring stability by addressing protester demands. Yet although it insists on curing the underlying “illness” with social policy, rather than the “symptomatic fever” with guns and batons, the center-left’s central goal is to preserve the regime’s capacity to rule. Chahín, for instance, warns that should the governing class fail to do so, “illiberal populism” will likely be the nightmare outcome.

The sharpest edge of this “we messed up, so now let us fix it” posture comes from the Communist Party, which in 2014 joined the center-left coalition. Early on, the party’s president urged Piñera to “resign if he lacked the capacity to govern.” In other words, move aside, it’s our turn again. Put simply, like its right-wing counterparts, the center-left wants above all to preempt being swept away by the popular fury.

Unfortunately, the new independent left has yet to discover how to seize the moment and push for the institutional and structural transformations that Chile’s political collapse and social implosion requires. The Frente Amplio coalition, poised just two years ago to meaningfully chip away at Chile’s neoliberal order, has for the moment failed to lead a badly needed transformative strategy. Its key figures are being intimidated for allegedly justifying the violence, and although it has tried to resist the temptation to dichotomise the protests (between “good” and “bad” actors), the alliance has limited itself to reacting to unfolding circumstances.

Between demands for removing troops from the streets and calls for the president to step down, it has been unable to reframe the national policy debate. Perhaps more significantly, none of its member parties has forged organic links with the protesters. Leading parliamentarian Gabriel Boric boldly confronted soldiers in downtown Santiago, but such symbolic if exemplary actions fall far short of what’s needed.

A Democratic Future

As parties jockey around the unfolding events, the angry masses keep delivering on the threatening promise that things are only beginning. A hike reversal, ratified on Monday, or a raise in minimum public pensions will not persuade people to clear the streets. While they lack a coherent set of demands or representatives to negotiate on their behalf, the mobs and pot-bangers are clear that they must maintain the heat on the state. A retired worker captured popular motivations perfectly: “If we don’t fuck shit up, we don’t exist to them” (si no dejamos la cagá, no nos pescan).

As ordinary Chileans impose increasing costs onto elites, concrete steps should emerge from the rebellion. For starters, the insurrection’s instinctive understanding of the need for escalating disruptions should shift into an organized mass mobilisation culminating in days of a national strike. For the moment, no political force has the capacity to lead the effort, but channeling popular discontent in this direction is necessary lest the rage burn itself out and public support fade into exhaustion and recrimination.

More importantly, the social forces that can sustain a general stoppage have lined up to make it happen. Teachers in most large cities have been forced to stay home, transit unions have ordered members to avoid the dangerous conditions at work, powerful miners remain on the tail end of an industry-wide strike wave and dockworkers have explicitly promoted a national strike. If coordinated, the standstill will force the political class to entertain radical reforms.

For that, a comprehensive and minimum set of reforms must be placed on the agenda. As the movement rejects the piecemeal relief measures that have begun trickling out of congress and the presidential palace, an alternative programme must emerge as the baseline concessions targeted by the mobilisations. The programme’s content is no mystery: renationalisation of copper, robust progressive tax reform, elevated wages, labor rights and protections, universal and dignified public health care and pensions, and fully socialised public education. If properly coordinated, the social movements that have emerged over the past decade are fully capable of formulating these policy blueprints.

Of course, these forms of socioeconomic democratisation require real political democracy. The existing regime is designed to block reform. But this critical juncture produced by Chile’s rebellion can serve as an opening for an institutional refounding of the state. Now is the time to demand a constituent assembly and finally discard Pinochet’s 1980 neoliberal charter, which has operated as a framework for an extreme dictatorship of the capitalist class with the trappings of democratic procedures.

In Chile there is a before October 2019, and an after. The mass defiance of Chile’s most marginalised workers created this watershed moment. What the post-October reality looks like will depend of what ordinary people do with the opportunity.