ON THE FRONTLINE: Chile is the future

ON THE FRONTLINE: Chile is the future

Marcos Gonzalez Hernando

The largest wave of demonstrations in Chile since the end of Pinochet’s dictatorship began in October with groups of students protesting a 3p subway fare hike by jumping over turnstiles. As they did so, it was common to hear them chant “evadir, no pagar, otra forma de luchar” (to evade, not to pay, another way to fight). Days later, as images of skirmishes between demonstrators and the police were doing the rounds, it was not unusual to see the word ‘evade’ graffitied in the background. But how exactly is that word – most often associated with the rich and their taxes, both in Spanish and in English – the dictum inspiring protests of the poor, young, and disenfranchised?

It is well known that Chile is one of the most unequal countries in one of the world’s most unequal regions. It is also widely known that Chile was in the 1970s and 80s a brutal dictatorship and the testing ground for free-market reforms that later became commonplace across the globe. These included the stamping out of trade unions, a sharp retrenchment of the size and role of the state, financial deregulation, and low tariffs and taxes. As their pioneer, in Chile such policies went even further and included innovations such as a private pension system – that stokes up capital markets while fuelling suicide rates among the elderly – and the privatisation of utilities, energy companies, and even surface water. Hence, it should come as no surprise that Chile is two worlds. Branko Milanovic, a world expert on inequality, recently remarked that while the richest 2% of Chileans live like the richest 2% of Germans, the poorest 5% have a similar income to the poorest 5% of Mongolians.

That much is relatively well known outside the country. Nevertheless, it is also true that Chile spent decades seeking (often successfully) a reputation as a good place to conduct business, especially compared to its neighbours. Among Latin American nations, it tops rankings of Human Development, ‘Global Competitiveness,’ and ‘Economic Freedom.’ As a Chilean national living abroad, over time I noticed that the more Chileans’ reputation as the wealthiest Latinos took hold, the more I heard in passing that my country was among the most ‘European’ in Latin America. Brazilians have a saying: ‘money whitens’.

In order to uphold this perception, Chilean elites propagated the idea that the country’s political and economic system is technocratic but effective, harsh but fair. In a region historically beset by turmoil, Chile’s fiscal discipline and business-friendly policies set it apart. So much so that Conservative Trade Secretary Liz Truss was highly impressed by the country’s strict fiscal rule in her recent visit to Santiago (by the way, Chile was among the first countries to sign a preliminary trade agreement with the UK ahead of Brexit). In the words of journalist Daniel Matamala, Chile is “a country of Excel spreadsheets and police batons.”

However, the past years have seen this veneer erode. First it was revelations of price-fixing among retail conglomerates, affecting everyday items such as medicines, chicken, and even toilet paper. Later, it was major corruption scandals involving the centre-left and right coalitions that have governed since 1990: the former through the use of insider information by former President Michelle Bachelet’s daughter in law, the latter through illegal electoral funding channelled through one of the country’s largest financial groups. Even the military and the police – which hitherto had an image of being brutal but incorruptible – have been tainted with corruption allegations, and the fact that their pension system is different to that of the rest of Chileans is seen with growing resentment. In such a situation, the purchase of the word ‘evade’ becomes clearer: why should the poor not do the same those above do all the time? After all, a reported 72% of billionaire President Sebastián Piñera’s own wealth is held offshore.

For his part, Piñera’s government has done its utmost to frame these demonstrations and the ensuing disorder as the result of disaffected but well-organised extremists and opportunists, interested in dishonest gain or in chaos for its own sake. The disruption of everyday life in major cities and the work of overwhelmingly pro-government local TV stations and press did its part too. Though much of the violence and looting was demonstrably carried out, stoked up, and tolerated by the armed forces – presumably to break up protests and frame the public debate – it is also true that many Chileans took the opportunity to get material advantage amidst the turmoil. Perhaps this is what happens when ‘there is no society.’

This framing of the situation makes sense. In December 2017 Piñera successfully unseated a centre-left coalition that, besieged by a generalised crisis of trust in politics, sought to enact welfare reforms without much popular or media support. His campaign’s main argument was that Chileans did not really want a new economic system, but simply greater access to the benefits of capitalism. In parallel, much of the Chilean political debate was becoming similar to the ‘culture wars’ that characterise Europe and the US nowadays, and growing migration rates from the north of the subcontinent made Piñera’s job even easier. Indeed, his main talking point during the last election was to avoid turning Chile into ‘Chilezuela.’ What Chile needs then is more order, more toiling and personal ‘aspiration’, fewer over-ambitious reforms, and all will be well.

Nevertheless, a video that has become viral in Chile suggests something else is going on too. A group of demonstrators take away a flat-screen TV from a looter, only to throw it atop flaming barricades. This image epitomises what’s going on: it shows that self-interest is not the only thing behind public disturbances. Warts and all, for many a ‘country’ is being awoken after being dormant for so long, one that is not just a collection of appetites. Paraphrasing Vicente Huidobro, one of Chile’s most celebrated poets: ‘Out of the mere communion of bellies one does not get a nation, one gets a pig herd’. Another common chant these days is ‘Chile despertó’ (Chile woke up). And after all, with the number of FTAs Chile has signed, high-end technology is often much cheaper than rent.

A few weeks ago, Santiago saw the largest demonstration in its history. A reported 1.2 million took to the streets, around a fifth of the city’s total population. Two decades-old songs were commonly heard there. The first is ‘El derecho de vivir en paz’ (the right to live in peace) by Víctor Jara, an anti-Vietnam war piece by a songwriter who can sadly be counted among the first to be brutally murdered by Pinochet’s henchmen. The second is ‘El baile de los que sobran’ (roughly, ‘the dance of the human left-overs’) by Los Prisioneros, a 1980s working-class rock band whose anti-meritocratic anthem decries the myth that education and individual effort could take them and their classmates out of poverty. Both songs have in common that they demand a minimum of dignity and voice, a space to breathe in the face of a political and economic system that simply does not convince them. Los Prisioneros sang: “they asked for effort and dedication, and what for? To end up dancing and kicking stones!”

After a month of failures and human rights violations, the heads of most of Chile’s political parties agreed to hold a series of referenda on a new constitution to replace the one currently in force, which dates from the dictatorship. Though this agreement is far from perfect – and does little to address the protesters’ most urgent demands – it is nevertheless an impressive attempt to break the deadlock and bolster the legitimacy of the political system. It was certainly unimaginable only a few weeks ago and opens the space for far-reaching reforms, if in the long term. Nevertheless, this process will have to be carried out in a context where distrust of political institutions is ubiquitous, and it’s already under attack from both left and right.

I vaguely remember that a visiting Italian judge in the early 2000s said to the local news he found the country interesting because Chile is the future. This is true on many levels. Chile’s left and right still inspire the left and right of the world; suffice to mention that Jeremy Corbyn has declared his political hero to be Allende and the alt-right uses Pinochet’s murder tactics as a meme. Chile is the first country to have adopted neoliberal policies so radically and comprehensively; its present conundrum is the end result of tendencies that have characterised much of the world for decades. It’s not exotic or atypical, it’s prototypical. As Colombians started demonstrating against inequality in November, ’El baile de los que sobran’ was sung there too. And now Chileans are set to draft a new constitution amidst generalised mistrust in politicians and in each other. Whatever happens next will show what’s likely to follow the crisis of legitimacy of liberal capitalism: a new social settlement or even more radical repression. The writings on the wall could mean either.


Marcos González Hernando is Senior Researcher at Think-tank for Action on Social Change (TASC), Visiting Teaching Fellow at the University of Bath, and Managing Editor at Distinktion: Journal of Social Theory. His work focuses on intellectual change and discourses on the economy and economic inequality of elites in Europe and Latin America. He tweets at: @MarcosGHernando

Image Credit: Diego Correa