SIM REPORT: Latin America & Caribbean, Issue 2

CHILE: Protest movement highlights discontent over inequality in region’s ‘success story’

On 14 October, students in the capital Santiago began holding protests over a 4 per cent increase in peak hour metro fares, whose cost the government had increased by 4 per cent on 6 October. The demonstrations, which initially were limited to students hopping metro barriers and vandalising metro stations, quickly escalated into a broader, mostly leaderless protest movement of citizens unhappy with the socio-economic status quo. While the movement triggered large, peaceful protests in major cities across the country, these were also accompanied by a sharp rise in looting, vandalism, and arson.

The protests prompted President Sebastián Piñera to declare a state of emergency in Santiago on 18 October, which was quickly replicated in other cities and subsequently led to the army deploying troops to the streets and imposing a night-time curfew in more than half of the country’s sixteen regions. Piñera’s response served to galvanise protesters further, who demanded action over the country’s extreme levels of economic inequality and high living costs. This led to violent confrontations between protests and the security forces, with at least 20 people being killed since unrest began. Attempting to de-escalate the demonstrations, Piñera proposed a series of welfare reforms on 22 October, ended the curfew and states of emergencies, and replaced eight members of his cabinet on 28 October. Protesters and sympathetic trade unions, however, have continued to stage demonstrations and associated strikes, with many activists calling for either Piñera’s resignation or the creation of a new constitution.

The unrest, which has taken place in one of the region’s best-performing economies, reflects longstanding grievances among many in Chile over the vastly unequal distribution of wealth in the natural resource-rich country. Despite Chile being one of the wealthiest countries in Latin America per head, and having the world’s largest copper industry, among OECD members it ranks third lowest by GINI coefficient, and second last for social spending as a percentage of GDP. In 2017, the wealthiest 20 per cent of the country earned 8.9 times more than the poorest 20 per cent, although this figure has decreased somewhat since 2006, when it stood at 10 times. In turn, this has fuelled hostility among many in the public over a broad array of economic grievances, including high levels of household and student debt, high costs of public transport, inadequate pensions, and a lack of formal or permanent jobs. While the increase in metro fares was relatively minor, it provided the trigger for the expression of wider and decades-old discontent over wealth distribution.

The protest movement, which according to the October Termómetro Social 2019 survey by three research institutes and universities has the support of around 85 per cent of the population, is likely to last several weeks longer and continue to demand measures to address income disparity. In the two-week outlook, Piñera is unlikely to give in to demands for a new constitution, however, may consider amendments to the existing document or other measures enshrining new economic and social rights into Chilean law.

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