Chile is on the edge. Though it might seem rather ironical on the face of it, the raging upheaval is more a reflection of the deepening economic crisis in Latin America’s most prosperous country. President Sebastián Piñera has his back to the wall; the emergency was on Monday extended beyond the capital, Santiago, and the death toll from three days of relentless violence has risen from three to eleven. The riots have escalated despite the President’s retreat over the three per cent increase in subway fares, indeed the issue that has brought matters to a head, igniting the turmoil.
More accurately, the country bears witness to the worst unrest in three decades. It has been a weekend of rage over the ballooning cost of living. Official data reaffirms the scale of the turmoil unleashed by clashes and riots over the weekend ~ 1,554 arrests, more than 10,000 troops deployed, and reports of at least 40 outbreaks of looting. The challenge for the establishment is forbidding. Student protesters have stormed metro stations as part of a fare-dodging movement designed to exert pressure on the government.
Last Friday, demonstrators torched at least a dozen stations, causing severe damage, estimated at $ 300 million. To that has been added such issues that are close to the bone ~ the low pensions, the privatisation of water, the rise in electricity tariff, the healthcare system, the need for equal education rights. Small wonder the people, with students in the vanguard ~ as in Hong Kong ~ are up in arms. The rebellion ~ the worst unrest that Chile has faced since the twilight phase of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship three decades ago ~ has been fuelled by deep-rooted disillusionment at how millions of citizens have been “frozen out” of the country’s economic upswing.
“This isn’t only because of the metro price; it is because the system is squeezing us like lemons,” is the dire prognosis of Bessy Gallardo Prado, a 34-year-old law student who has joined the protests. On closer reflection, the crisis is embedded in decades of injustice, abuse, and inequality. There is little or no social security, the general lament being that wages are not enough to make ends meet. Unlike other Latin American countries, such as Argentina, Paraguay, Mexico, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador, Chile had thus far been able to stave off a major crisis and the attendant street fighting. But no longer.
Not that the economic parameters are alarming; on the contrary, poverty levels are going down. Chile has been growing for most of the past decade. For all that, people perceive that wealth and opportunity are not evenly distributed. “There isn’t a level playing-field,” said a protestor. “They feel like they are at the gates of the promised land. And they see all the elites inside having fun and enjoying the benefits of economic development ~ and they are not being let in.” In a word, growth and development have had little or no effect on the populace. More the consternation, therefore, when President Piñera stepped into an upmarket restaurant for pizza… as Santiago burned.