(TMU Op-Ed) — Since October 14, the South American nation of Chile has been in the grips of massive unrest that has threatened to topple the right-wing government of President Sebastian Piñera.
The protests, which began with student-led demonstrations against an increase in mass transportation fares, quickly spiraled into a nationwide movement against high costs of living, austerity measures, and massive inequality in a country that had once been seen as an economic success story in Latin America.
The unrest rapidly took a violent turn as some protesters fought back against the country’s heavily militarized police force, leading the president to hastily declare a state of emergency on Saturday while declaring curfews.
And while some protesters clashed with police and military, many peaceful protesters faced indiscriminate beatings and violence—including being fired on with tear gas, rubber bullets, and seemingly deadly firearms—at the hands of the police and military. Others have reported that Chileans are being tortured by state security forces.
According to officials, at least 18 people have been killed—including minors—while hundreds have been injured, and over 5,000 have been detained. Independent groups and unverified reports have warned, however, that the official numbers may merely be the tip of the iceberg.
The mass violence is easily the worst the country has seen since the U.S.-backed military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet came to a halt in 1990, and coverage of the events has dominated headlines across Latin America and much of the rest of the world.
Yet in the United States, media reports about the protests have been hard to find—with coverage instead being devoted to comparatively mundane news such as the never-ending drama surrounding the Democratic presidential primaries, Donald Trump’s Ukraine “quid-pro-quo,” U.K. royals, and the latest Star Wars trailer.
However, the events in Chile could have a ripple effect across Latin America, with repercussions lasting decades. Here are some of the reasons why the unfolding protests in Chile are one of the hemisphere’s most important events in recent years.
1. The Protests Prove That Washington’s “Miracle of Chile” Was a Neoliberal Illusion
The country has long been touted in U.S. foreign policy circles as “The Miracle of Chile,” with right-wing economists portraying the country’s development as a triumph of free market economics, even though this came at the cost of a brutal 17-year military dictatorship under the Pinochet regime.
Since the relatively peaceful transition to democracy in the early 1990s, however, Chile’s “economic miracle” has led to one of the highest rates of economic inequality in the region and has the widest wealth disparity among members of the OECD group of high-income countries. This has, in turn, led to widespread desperation on the part of working people.
As Bloomberg wrote:
“Chile has been seen as the living embodiment of the economic policies installed under Pinochet by the ‘Chicago Boys’—a group of economists, many of whom had been trained in free-market ideas at the University of Chicago … The fact that Chileans have revolted against the cost of living, then, is alarming, and suggests a similar situation could more easily happen in the rest of the developing world. Many assumed that insurrections like this would follow hard on the heels of the Great Recession; instead that moment seems to have been delayed amid a decade of slow recovery, but also deepening inequality.”
Economist Jeffery Sachs put it simply:
“Because of very high housing prices, most people are pushed away from the central business districts and typically depend on personal vehicles or public transport to get to work. Much of the public may thus be especially sensitive to changes in transportation prices, as shown by the explosion of protests in Paris and Santiago.”
As protester Juan Carlos Giordano told Democracy Now:
“They talked about a Chilean economic miracle, until it all exploded. They raised the subway fares. There was a rejection, and the government reversed itself. But the capitalist plans are terrible. The people say they don’t have access to water, to electricity. Everything costs the prices of the First World, and the salaries are in the Third World.”
2. The Extreme Brutality Toward Protests is a Product of US-Backed Fascism and Israeli Training
Since the protests began, Latin American social media has been awash in gut-wrenching footage of police firing live ammunition at peaceful protesters; wantonly beating citizens, including children; dumping bodies from police vehicles at night; and generally engaging in a frenzy of violence toward Chileans.
Much of this violence is rooted in the country’ dictatorship era, when U.S.-backed dictator Pinochet locked up, disappeared, tortured, and executed members of the left-wing socialist, communist, and Mapuche indigenous opposition.
However, as Benjamin Zinevich of the Independent wrote in an important report published Tuesday, the tactics are also a result of Israeli training of Chilean security forces:
“In recent years, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has seemingly used a tactic of maiming Palestinian protesters rather than lethally shooting them. For more than a year now, Palestinian civilians have marched towards the Gaza wall in protest of Israeli occupation, and the IDF has shot nearly 60 per cent of these 10,511 civilians in the lower limbs, with more than 90 per cent of casualties coming from live ammunition.
During the past week, these Israeli tactics have been used on Chilean civilians on multiple reported occasions. One woman has been shot in the thigh and was reported in critical condition due to excessive bleeding. In another, a 23-year-old man was shot in the leg before a military vehicle crushed him to death.
These similar tactics are no coincidence, and are internationally a part of what activist groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace have named ‘the deadly exchange.’ In the United States, municipal police, ICE agents, and other security agents routinely train alongside the IDF, sharing tactics and weaponry that can encourage racial profiling, extrajudicial killings, and increased surveillance on both countries’ most marginalized groups.”
3. Chile’s Protests May Have Averted a Live-Fire War on Venezuela
Buried in the fast-developing drama swirling through South America over the past few weeks is the fact that on the very day that the massive crisis erupted in Chile’s capital of Santiago, the country’s foreign minister essentially threatened to lead a war on Venezuela.
A Financial Times story from Oct. 14 reported:
“Chile’s foreign minister has vowed to work with allies to cut off Venezuela’s communications, shut down its air space and implement a naval blockade if Nicolás Maduro refuses to hold free elections.
Amid an escalating humanitarian crisis that is destabilizing the region, causing more than 4m Venezuelans to emigrate, “ever stricter” measures must be taken to put pressure on Caracas to comply with demands to restore democratic order, Teodoro Ribera said.
… Chile’s hardening stance towards Venezuela comes as Sebastian Piñera, the center-right president, takes on a stronger leadership role in the region and beyond.”
However, in a seeming repeat of the “Assad Must Go” meme—which has seen leaders calling for the ouster of the Syrian leader successively be deposed or outlasted by him—Piñera now finds himself on the ropes and in a potentially weaker position than the embattled Maduro.
Toda mi solidaridad con el noble pueblo chileno, quienes se encuentran en resistencia contra las criminales políticas neoliberales implementadas por el capitalismo. Abogo por el cese de la violencia y la brutal represión que vulnera los DD.HH. de la población. ¡Un Abrazo Chile! pic.twitter.com/fnFgVM5giU
— Nicolás Maduro (@NicolasMaduro) October 20, 2019
Venezuela’s president has relished this turning of the tables, mocking Piñera as a wannabe Pinochet or “Piñechet” and saying:
“They are telling you it is no longer about 30 pesos (fare increase), it is 30 years! It is about education, it is about health, it is electricity, it is gas, it is transportation, it is work, it is wages, it’s discrimination, it’s inequality, this is what the people of Chile are telling Piñechet!”
4. The Protests Have Exposed U.S. Hypocrisy Over Human Rights and Democracy, Once Again
The extremely violent force meted out to protesters has largely been greeted by silence from Piñera’s allies in Washington.
This hasn’t failed to go unnoticed in countries like China or Venezuela, who have either faced sanctions or the threat of sanctions for their actions suppressing unrest within their own countries.
Speaking to reporters Monday, China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that the response by Western countries to the protests showed how their democracy and human rights concerns “are only a hypocritical cover” for their interventionist urges in places like Hong Kong. She poetically added:
“Judging from the relevant developments in recent days and the performance of some Western politicians, more and more people have come to realize that ‘human rights,’ ‘democracy’ and ‘beautiful sights’ preached by some Western politicians are just illusory as a mirage in the desert or the Sirens’ song on the sea. Those who cannot distinguish right from wrong and stand firm will only end up getting lost and destructed.”
5. It Proves That the Workers and Poor in Latin America Are Still a Major Force to be Reckoned With
While the protests began as a rejection of a 30 peso rise in transit fare—and concerted fare-dodging or #EvasionMasiva by students—working-class and poor Chileans are now protesting water shortages, university debt, poor healthcare, bad pensions, destructive mining, miserable wages, and every other social grievance imaginable.
This has manifested itself in tens of thousands of people protesting, doing battle with the state, the looting of over 100 Walmarts, and the country basically exploding into full-scale rebellion.
President Piñera is now gasping for air as the protests show no sign of ending. The president has apologized and is offering to increase pensions by 20 percent, cover the cost of medical treatments, tax higher income earners while offering new subsidies to improve living conditions, alongside other social reforms.
But this will be far from satisfying for the radicalized poor in Chile, who are demanding that Piñera resign. And as La Iguana TV reports, social movements and trade unions are also forming a Constituent Assembly that would be tasked with writing a new constitution that would replace the post-Pinochet one that opened the door to the militarization of the streets.
And a general strike shutting down the country’s economy could lead to the people of Chile winning their demands.
In the end, the government’s inability to take poor Chileans’ needs into consideration is what sparked the present crisis. Speaking to the Clinic, one retired citizen summed up the popular mood succinctly:
“Unfortunately in World War II to defeat Hitler’s people, cities had to die, right?
“If we don’t fuck shit up, we don’t exist to them.”
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