Students in Chile began evading transit fares on Thursday, October 17 to protest a hike in ticket prices implemented by the federal government. As the student protest grew, the government deployed 20,000 soldiers, who used brutal force against nonviolent demonstrators. As of October 24, 18 people have died, over 200 have been wounded, and 5,000 have been arrested in one of the most violent governmental repressions in Chile’s recent history. According to the Chilean National Rights Institute, there have been a large number of allegations regarding the excessive use of force, torture, and human rights violations against unarmed protesters by the Chilean authorities.
Chilean President Sebastián Piñera introduced a curfew on October 18 that remained in effect until October 23. Two days later, he declared, “we are at war,” describing protesters as a “powerful, relentless enemy, that does not respect anybody or anything.” The six-day curfew has been marked by police brutality against a population whose grievances extend far beyond an increase in transit fare.
According to Julio Pinto, a history professor at the University of Santiago, the massive protest grew from an accumulation of unaddressed demands. He explained that Chileans are experiencing significant economic decline as well as frustrations over health, education, pensions, and other services. Boris Van Der Spek, founder of the independent news site Chile Today, told Al Jazeera that “the protests are more than just about fare increase. “It is about the cost of living and the level of inequality in the country,” he said, noting a great deal of discontent among the population. “This was always going to happen one way or another.” Cristián Castro, a department director at Universidad Diego Portales, echoed these statements to NPR. “The cost of living in Chile has no logic when related to the paychecks you receive at the end of the month – unless you’re part of the upper class,” he said. “The system has favoured too few for too long.”
“Over the past decade, the Chilean state has lost touch with these problems,” writer Marco Antonio de la Parra told The Guardian. “The places that have been targeted […] are deeply symbolic: transport and energy represent the success of the state and the model it upholds.”
This isn’t the first time that a student protest of this scale has occurred under conservative billionaire Sebástian Piñera’s regime. One of the biggest protests in Chile’s contemporary history took place in 2011, one year Piñera took office for the first time. Piñera’s election in 2010 represented the end of the centre-left political era that characterized Chile after the end of military rule in 1990. His second term, which began in 2017, was endorsed by the right-wing coalition Chile Vamos (Let’s Go Chile).
Members of the government have denounced the actions of the student protesters as aggressive and unwarranted. “This desire to break everything is not a protest, it’s criminal,” President Piñera said in a radio interview. Government spokesperson Cecilia Pérez denounced “irresponsible, populist leaders,” whom she accused of inspiring violence. These remarks ignore the root of the problem and contribute to the collective public dissatisfaction with the government’s inaction.
Piñera claimed to have listened “with humility” to “the voice of [his] compatriots.” However, his government’s responses to the protests – martial law and military violence – do not support these statements. International media sources continue to focus on the material destruction and react to the protests as if they were newly and exclusively spawned from the metro fare hikes.
After six nights, the power of collective civil action forced President Piñera to give a public apology. “I truly recognize the social problems that have been accumulating in the last decades and that different administrations, including mine, were not able to tackle. I recognize that, and I apologize for that lack of vision.” In order to save face, he also presented a new public policy agenda, expected to cost 1.2 billion USD. This policy includes raising the minimum salary, reducing medication prices, maintaining electricity costs, and increasing taxes for the upper class by 40 per cent, among other social measures. Despite these concessions, we must remember that the issue is ongoing and that the administration must continue to be held accountable.
We must support Chilean protesters and their message, spread awareness of the situation, and question the Chilean government’s characterization of the protesters as “criminals.” As students at a Canadian institution, we must also be cognizant of our positionality and uplift the voices of our Chilean peers in these conversations. Social mobilization, especially in Latin America, tends to be ignored and underestimated. The student movement in Chile is organized and effective in a way that we can – and should – learn from.