Why Chileans Are Still Protesting Despite Reform Promises

In Santiago, demonstrations over economic inequality are expected to continue after President Sebastián Piñera promised reforms.

Demonstrators march in Santiago, Chile, on Oct. 23.
Demonstrators march in Santiago, Chile, on Oct. 23. PABLO VERA/AFP via Getty Images

After more than a week of protests in Chile, President Sebastián Piñera made a televised apology Tuesday night, saying his government and several preceding administrations had failed to see and respond to the long-standing frustrations with economic inequality. He also announced his intent to pursue several major policy reforms, addressing issues that Chileans had protested over for years, including pensions, minimum wages, and electricity prices. Demonstrations largely spurred by anger over economic inequality have taken place in Santiago, the country’s capital, since last week. Continued clashes between demonstrators and police, as well as riots and looting, also occurred over the weekend, presenting the biggest challenge yet to Piñera, who imposed a widespread state of emergency. 

Among the reforms pledged by Piñera late on Tuesday: a promised 20 percent raise to government-subsidized base pensions, a guaranteed minimum wage, and the reversal of a planned increase in electricity prices. Piñera also said he would pursue pay cuts and term limits for members of the National Congress. Opposition lawmakers responses ranged from cautious optimism to dismissal of the pledges as cosmetic, noting that promises on education have not been included. Protests are expected to continue Wednesday, as the countrys labor unions call for a general strike in various cities for Wednesday and Thursday.

How did these demonstrations evolve from a student protest over subway fares?

The protests began last week as the government announced a roughly 4 percent fare hike in subway fees, bringing the fare up by 30 pesos, or $0.04. For minimum wage workers, the cost of using public transportation can already range from 15 to 20 percent of wages. By Friday, students in the capital had called for widespread fare evasion, hopping the turnstiles at subway stations and using the hashtag #EvasionMasiva. 

The protests have quickly transformed into widespread demonstrations over the country’s economic inequality, which is among the highest in the developed world. Protests have also centered on a lack of access to quality health care and education and inadequacies in the pension system, compounded by a rising cost of living. Protesters have also taken up issues including the rising cost of electricity and the price of Chile’s privatized water. 

According to Julio Pinto, a history professor at the University of Santiago, Chile, in a context of economic slowdown and stagnant wages, frustrations over health, pensions, education, and other services, which have been the individual subjects of previous protests, have all resurged at once. “That’s the difference—this is a much larger, stronger protest than we’ve seen in the last 30 years,” he said. 

What are the protesters demanding?

At first, the protests centered on the plan to hike fares for the subway, but as the demonstrations continued, the range of issues has broadened significantly. According to Jennifer Pribble, an associate professor of political science at the University of Richmond, this protest follows, in part, from a series of periodic protests over specific aspects of economic inequality in the country, including student-led mobilizations in 2006 and 2011 on the education sector and 2016 protests against Chile’s private pension system. “Those many pent-up demands are what we’re seeing in these protests. It’s not about the metro, it’s not just about pensions, it’s not just about education. It’s about many, many, many things,” she said. 

But Pribble said it’s unprecedented to see something so large-scale and broad and that unlike previous protests, these demonstrations are not organized in a unified manner. Instead, the demonstrations have “unity in discontent.”

The student protests had clear leadership and very clear and defined demands. These protests have no leadership structure. They’re decentralized, dispersed. People are protesting for all kinds of different reasons,” Pribble said. “It’s a much more difficult line to respond to because you have no one to sit down at the table with.” 

Pinto believes the question of whom to negotiate with is superseded by the government’s willingness—or lack thereof—to negotiate. He suggests that, at some point, the government will have to sit down and negotiate seriously on topics such as health, pensions, water, and education. But for now, the likelihood of direct negotiation is unclear, as politicians on the left have refused to negotiate while the military remains on the streets. Pinto also said that civil society groups—including the pension protest group No Más AFP, feminist groups, and labor and teachers unions—remain excluded from dialogue, although he believes they have a stronger rapport with many of the Chileans protesting than the main political parties.

How has the government response changed since the start of the protests?

In response to the protests, Piñera backed off the subway fare hike on Saturday, but as the movement transformed into wider demonstrations, and incidents of violence occurred on the sidelines, the government appeared hard-pressed to come up with solutions for several days. 

Some 10,000 soldiers have been sent into Santiago in an effort to quell the protests, an act that has been widely scrutinized. Since the government’s measures took effect, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have expressed concern over the response of security forces, with the latter citing “excessive use of force by the Chilean national police (Carabineros), as well as possible arbitrary detentions of demonstrators.” In an address on Sunday evening, Piñera said the country was “at war against a powerful enemy, who is willing to use violence without any limits.” He later struck a more conciliatory tone.

On Monday, Piñera extended an invitation to meet with opposition leaders to work on a “new social contract.” In response, the major left-leaning opposition parties initially refused to meet with Piñera, citing concerns over treatment of protesters and the lack of information on deaths, Reuters reported. It remains to be seen whether Piñera’s pledges made on Tuesday, after talks with some coalition and opposition lawmakers, will result in further dialogue.

What has the impact been on the country?

Fifteen people have died, and more than 200 are reported injured. The capital saw rioting and several incidents of looting and arson over the weekend, and a military curfew was imposed on Saturday and maintained through Tuesday night. The state of emergency declared on Saturday now covers several cities in addition to the capital. Chile’s interior minister, Andrés Chadwick, said protesters looted over 100 grocery stores and set fire to a dozen. Prosecutors announced on Monday via Twitter that the authorities had arrested 2,151 people across the country, later saying the total was 5,400

Electricity was widely disrupted over the weekend and metro stations vandalized. Santiago’s subway system, which carries more than 2 million riders a day during the week, was shut down for days. The head of the subway system, Louis de Grange, said over 75 percent of the system had been damaged, according to the Buenos Aires Times. By Tuesday, a limited number of businesses, supermarkets, and public transportation access points had reopened. The protests have continued into Wednesday.

Elizabeth Miles is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @e_a_miles

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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