The ongoing social outbreak that started on October 18th,2019, highlighted the fracture that has been affecting the Chilean society for a long time. In the first place, this fracture is a consequence of the prevailing neoliberal model that was generated during the Pinochet dictatorship. The protest that secondary students started in the Santiago metro was the starting point of the outbreak. Contrary to what we have heard, the youth that dodged the metro passage were not young rebels driven by their impulses and accustomed to things going their way. They did it because they and their families were suffering from the current economic model and its adverse outcomes. Soon after October 18th, it became evident that all those who went to the streets were protesting in anger because their poor salaries were not enough to guarantee their basic needs. Besides, those demonstrators were also asking for the end of the AFP – a system imposed by former ruler general Pinochet that privatized pensions – and for decent health and education.

The fracture in Chile goes even deeper than that. It alludes to the gap that has taken place between the political class and the citizens. The rise in the value of collective locomotion and the unfortunate phrases of some of President Sebastian Piñera’s ministers acted as “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

But to be fair, the fracture had been taking place for many years. When the political class settled into parliamentary seats and governmental positions and started enjoying salaries that are unthinkable for the ordinary people, they stopped listening to the citizens’ demands. Even worse is the fact that these politicians stopped understanding how the majority of Chileans live. It is often said that politicians lack a real sense of understanding things; with few exceptions put aside, this is true in Chile.

The fracture finally affects the society as a whole. It is divided between a socioeconomic elite and a well-off middle class that enjoys immense privileges on the one hand, and a vast majority of Chileans who are struggling for decent salaries that would allow them to make ends meet on the other hand. When in need of urgent surgery, those people still must wait years on the public health waiting lists. They also have to send their kids to public schools that lack adequate education and infrastructure. Most of the Chilean population lives in segregated neighborhoods that are often dominated by drug cartels. According to recent data from the World Bank, based on the average household income, Chile ranks 16th among unequal countries in the world.

As mentioned before, the fracture is not recent. It is even possible to track it back in time and to sort out its classist and racist components. These latter are especially felt by this large part of the population that faces abuses because of belonging to a specific social class. According to a 2019 UNDP report, in 2016, four out of every ten people acknowledged having been mistreated, and about half of them attributed that to their social status.

The social outbreak made these problems public. This officialization of the situation has been done through both violent and peaceful means, rendering evident how much people were fed up with a situation that was not sustainable anymore.

It is true that popular mobilization decreased in summer when most Chileans are generally on holiday. But the situation is expected to change now that we are in March, when work resumes, and universities and colleges start their academic year.

The challenges that Chile is facing are indeed considerable.

On the one hand, citizens need to make a qualitative leap and to cut off with the logic of mere protest and demand, though these undoubtedly paid off up to now. Citizens now need to organize politically and contribute to the construction of a real democracy.

On the other hand, the political class, especially the government, must be up to the importance of the events for them to meet the legitimate demands of an empowered citizen, and initiate, therefore, a path of structural reforms.

A new constitution may be in the making, and this is a fundamental first step to generate the necessary changes, but that will not solve the urgent social problems of the citizens.

Chile has an excellent opportunity to cement a path towards a more integrated society that benefits from more significant equity and justice, but to achieve this, it is essential that there is a change of mentality in the ruling elite. As a starting point, this elite would need to tear down its stubborn defense of the alleged untouchability of the Chilean social model.

Nancy Nicholls is a professor at the  Instituto de Historia, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.

This article has been translated from the original Spanish version by Monica Carroll.

To quote this article, please use the following reference:

N. Nicholls (2020). “Chile’s Fracture”, Observatory on contemporary crises, March 9, 2020, URL: http://crisesobservatory.es/chiles-fracture-n-nicholls/ 

Photo credit: CUT Chile