Chile is the latest Latin American country to erupt in violent protest. Here’s why

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Demonstrators run from police launching water cannons and tear gas as a state of emergency remains in effect in Santiago, Chile on Sunday. Picture: Esteban Felix/AP

Santiago – At least eight people are dead, 200 injured and more than 1,500 detained as Chile, long a beacon of stability and prosperity in South America, has become the latest Latin American country to erupt in violent protest. Protesters have called for a general strike on Monday, and the president says the country is at war.

“We are at war against a powerful enemy, willing to use violence with no limits,” President Sebastián Piñera said Sunday evening.

The youth-led demonstrations, sparked last week by an increase in subway fares in the capital, have grown and spread even after Piñera rescinded the rate hike. Protesters have shut down public transportation, ransacked supermarkets and pharmacies and set fire to subway stations and government buildings.

Piñera, who was returned to the presidency last year after serving from 2010 to 2014, has responded by declaring a state of emergency and deploying more than 10,000 troops in the largest operation since the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet more than three decades ago. Security forces have fired tear gas and rubber bullets at the crowds.

The chaos follows protests against austerity and corruption in Haiti, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina and Honduras, among other countries. But Chile was supposed to be different. The country tops South America across virtually all tables: Per capita GDP, the U.N. Human Development Index, multiple freedom rankings.

Brian Winter is vice president for policy at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas.

“Everyone following Latin America is watching this and saying, ‘Oh my god, Chile, too?”

Police detain a demonstrator in Santiago, Chile on Sunday. Picture: Esteban Felix/AP

Why are Chileans protesting?

The 4 percent increase in subway fares sparked small demonstrations last Monday. By Friday, the movement had mushroomed into massive demonstrations against a rising cost of living and an economic model that angry Chileans say is noticeably unequal.

Steady growth over the last two decades have given Chile the biggest middle class and one of the lowest rates of poverty in the region. But high inequality has remained pretty much the same, according to the World Bank.

Protesters complain of expensive private education and health care, the rising cost of public service and shrinking pensions. In June, the price of electricity rose by 10 percent.

Some are angry at Piñera, a Harvard-educated millionaire who some say is out of touch with the people. Many are frustrated by the combination of increasing costs and an economic slowdown that has left them feeling trapped.

“The anger that keeps people in the streets is against a model that privatizes and profits from all the aspects of our life,” tweeted Emilia Schneider, head of the Federation of Students of the University of Chile. “The rise of the tickets was the drop that spilled the glass.”

She added that no previous government has been able to solve the problem, either.

Who’s protesting?

It started with university students, who stormed subway stations last week without paying, chanted slogans and spray-painted walls. The protests continue to be dominated by high school and college students, but Chileans of all ages, workers and professionals, have joined. Opposition politicians have also taken part.

Patricio Navia, a Chilean political scientist at New York University, notes the alienation of the middle class.

“Piñera’s government has always been preoccupied with reducing poverty, and has also designed policies that help the rich, so the middle class feels abandoned,” he said. “”The middle class has been growing in Chile, but with a slowing economy, they feel like they were offered a path to the promised land and were never really let in.”

Protesters have targeted public transportation. At least 16 buses and four subway stations have been burned, and service has been shut down. Santiago Metro General Manager Rubén Alvarado said Sunday that losses would come to “much more than $200 million.”

At least 90 flights have been cancelled at Santiago International airport over the weekend, according to local media. More than 5,000 people slept at the airport Saturday night. More than 20,000 homes in Santiago had no electricity Sunday and 152 traffic lights were damaged.

A demonstrator holds up his hands toward advancing soldiers during a protest as a state of emergency remains in effect in Santiago, Chile on Sunday. Picture: Esteban Felix/AP

How has the government responded?

Piñera, who was elected president last year after serving from 2010 to 2014, declared a state of emergency in six cities Saturday, restricting rights of movement and assembly for 15 days. The military has overnight curfews in three cities. Security forces have fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters; videos circulating on social media show demonstrators tending to wounded comrades.

Piñera said Saturday that the subway price increase would be reversed and called for dialogue. Student leaders and opposition politicians rejected that call until the state of emergency was canceled and soldiers returned to their barracks. Students called for a national strike on Monday.

Piñera met Sunday with leaders from the Chamber of Deputies, the Senate and the Supreme Court. The goal, he said, was to seek ways to “reduce excessive inequalities and abuses that our society continues to face.”

He predicted Monday would be a “difficult day.” He said those who are causing violence “have a level of logistics that is characteristic of a criminal organization.”

“We are against a powerful enemy that doesn’t respect anyone,” he said. “That is willing to use violence without a limit, even when it means loss of human lives.”

He distinguished between radical protesters and those who were in the streets to demand better life conditions.

“We share many of your concerns,” he said. “I ask you that we unite in this battle that we can’t lose.”

The protests weren’t yet expected to threaten Pinera’s hold on power before his term ends in 2022.

Why is Latin America erupting in unrest?

As in Chile, protesters in Ecuador and Argentina succeeded in forcing leaders to make concessions, which analysts say will likely encourage more protests. Growing access to social media has also helped galvanize movements.

But behind it all, analysts say, are unmet expectations, as broad growth during the commodities boom of the 1990s and 2000s has run into stagnation over the last decade as global prices have fallen, sparking frustration not just with political leaders but the whole economic and democratic system.

Latin America’s annual GDP growth rate rose from 0.3 percent in 1990 to nearly 6 percent in 2010, according to the World Bank. But it has since shrunk faster than the global average, to 1.4 percent in 2018.

Trust in the political system, meanwhile, has reached a nadir. Pollster Latinobarometro has found that less than 25 percent of the region’s population is “satisfied with democracy in their country.”

“As the economy has slowed over the last decade everywhere in the region, people are not seeing their lives improve as much as they expected and are lashing out against their governments, and the whole system,” Winter said.

With frustration rising against center-right leaders in Chile, Ecuador and Argentina, he predicted rising support for leftists.

“It’s kind of like watching a fish flop around the table,” Winter said. No one is really able to give the people what they want, so they elect someone from the other side of the political spectrum.

“It’s either that people have unrealistic expectations, or that no one has tapped into the reforms that could really get Latin America back on the path of growth,” he said. “I believe it’s the latter.”

The Washington Post