From Turnstiles to Protests: holding Chile’s government responsible for change

On October 14, 2019, Santiago, Chile’s streets filled with thousands of people protesting the Chilean government’s announcement that they would be raising the price of the city’s metro fare. Despite the government later retracting the fare hike, millions of people still took to the streets. The protests have continued, addressing the high cost of living and wealth inequality in the country. At press time, the protests are ongoing and 23 people have been killed.

“This has come as a surprise to observers because this is Chile, famous for its political and economic and social stability,” said Consuelo Cruz, a Tufts Professor of Political Science. “But, this is not an explosion. This is something that is coming to the surface that’s been in the works for decades.”

The rise in subway fares was announced on October 6, one week before the protests began. This led to many people, including students, to start fare-dodging by jumping the turnstiles. The action, which was spread online with the hashtag #EvasionMasiva (Mass Evasion), led to police presence and violence at many stations throughout the city. Eventually, on October 18, the first protests took over many metro stations, which led to the majority of the city’s metro systems being shut down due to violent incidents.  

However, this action simply led to wider protests, which have now become a response to the rising cost of living in a city where wages are stagnant. “People are really out here just putting everything on the line and… they’re out in the streets every single day and they’re fighting with a power that I just have never seen before,” said Maya Velasquez, a junior currently studying at the Universidad de Chile through the Tufts-in-Chile program. 

Chile appears to have made great economic strides since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship, a fascist rule which lasted from 1973 to 1990. However, the numbers tell a clear story of extreme wealth inequality. According to the World Bank, the country’s poverty level went down 24.6 percent  from 2000 to 2017, leaving the country’s poverty rate at 6.4 percent. Half of Chilean workers earn less than 400,000 pesos a month (about $540), while 70 percent of workers earn less than 550,000 pesos a month (about $743). The subway fare increase was a 4 percent  raise (about $0.04). Although this number may seem small, it represents a significant amount for many Chileans who are struggling to make ends meet. 

Along with nonviolent marches, there have been many reports of looting, vandalism, and arson. Soon after the protests began, the country’s president, Sebastian Piñera, declared a state of emergency. In a country that has known relative peace since emerging from the dictatorship in 1990, this was an action that shocked many. These protests mark the first time the country has sent soldiers onto the streets against protestors since the dictatorship, and the first time they have been deployed in any capacity since the 2010 earthquake. 

There have been multiple instances of police officers attacking protestors, using both tear gas and water cannons in an attempt to break up crowds. The violence has reached a level where Michele Bachelet, the current United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights and former President of Chile, announced an investigation into alleged human rights abuses by the Piñera administration. 

Although Piñera has expressed that he is willing to meet with members of the protests, no plans have been made to do so. His first statement in which he said, “We are at war against a powerful enemy who is willing to use violence without any limits,” was what Cruz called “a total blunder…that took Chileans back to a very dark moment in their history.” After this, he decided to attempt to satisfy protestors and replaced eight members of his cabinet on October 28. This switch added more women to the cabinet and lowered the average age. Piñera stated this was done to create “a Chile with greater equality of opportunity and fewer privileges and also a more prosperous and peaceful Chile.” However, this action did nothing to quell the protests, which continued the night after the cabinet replacement. 

Due to the protests, Chile pulled out from hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), which was scheduled to begin on November 11, and COP25, a United Nations Climate Summit. COP25 has now been moved to Madrid, but the APEC Summit has not been rescheduled. This will not only impact Chile; the US and China were planning on entering preliminary talks regarding their ongoing trade war at the summit. 

The worldwide impacts of these protests are obvious. However, the space between Santiago and Medford makes it hard for students to be fully aware of the situation. “Although these protests are big in international news, I don’t think they are on many Tufts students’ radars. Chile is a small country. Not many people know too much about it,” said Jake Soria, a senior and member of Tufts Latin America Committee. 

For Tufts students such as Velasquez currently studying abroad in Chile, these protests are having a large impact on their time in the country. The program, which runs for either the fall semester or the full year, is based in the capital city of Santiago. Students either take classes at the University of Chile or Pontificia Universidad Católica. Furthermore, students live with families from the area, which connects them with the lives of locals. Given this proximity and considering how many of these protests are being led by students, the protests are impossible to turn away from. 

According to Mala Ghosh, Tufts Senior Director of Study Abroad and Global Education, the office was made aware of the situation on October 18 by the Tufts-in-Chile Residential Director. “The RD was talking and texting with each student multiple times a day to make sure they were inside their host family houses during the curfew and staying in their local neighborhood,” stated Ghosh over email. “The health, safety, and security of our students is our top priority.” 

According to Velasquez, “the main way that the Tufts program is ‘keeping us safe’ is that we are not allowed to go to any of the manifestations.” Despite being unable to attend, Velasquez said that “life at the university has totally and completely changed,” and that the energy is “inspiring.” 

Soria is also excited to see “such a strong rejection of neoliberalism in Chile,” and hopes that this movement will be “a wake-up call to other leaders in Latin America… [that] leader’s can’t just do whatever they want, they still have to respond to people.”

It’s impossible to predict how long these protests will continue for. Despite Piñera saying he opened channels of communication, Cruz stated “the protest movement…has not yet produced a leader,” meaning that due to a large amount of organizing taking place on social media, there has not been a singular leader. As for what will come of these talks, Soria is hoping for “some kind of constitutional reform… that would change the structure in Chile to make it less of an elite form [of] government and [have] less inequality in the country.” 

Cruz agrees that this would likely be the best move as the current Chilean constitution is a remnant from the dictatorship that, despite various amendments over the years, was still created under a fascist government. “The demonstrations are going to calm down. But they will not go away completely, nor will you have a sustainable, stable scenario for the next 10, 15years if you don’t address the fundamental grievances,” she said. 

However, Cruz also believes that this is unlikely to happen and that it is more likely that the country’s politics will skew to the left in the next election. No matter what route is taken, in the words of Velasquez, “this whole neoliberal capitalist empire is not going to continue… it’s going to have to change because the people are not backing down.”


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