This week there was a massive call to jump over the paying turnstiles of the Santiago Metro, in response to the fourth fare rise so far this year. Mainly high school students entered the stations en masse, surpassing the responsiveness of the security guards. A short time passed before some stations were closed and the special forces of the Carabineros (Police) entered, repressing with tear gas bombs, lumazos and even dogs. Today there was also repression with pellets, which left several students injured. The Santiago Metro (which transports some 2.6 million users a day) is a serious, modern and efficient icon of Chile that wants to project itself abroad, but at the same time it is the most expensive in Latin America (at rush hour ticket prices are around 1.17 dollars), and the country’s salaries are not enough to maintain the rising cost of living in a society with intense inequality, the highest in the OECD. Fifty percent of Chileans earn less than 550 dollars a month (some 400,000 pesos), and transportation represents around 10% of that amount, to which must be added the bills for basic services such as electricity and water, which are also among the highest in the region.
If we add to that the costs of housing, education and health, we have a people who practically live on the edge of consumer credit, afraid of losing their jobs and not being able to pay their debts. And those who have retired receive very low pensions (less than 175,000 pesos, about 250 dollars) from their AFP (Association of Pension Funds), in a privatized system from which they cannot even withdraw the funds they have saved for a lifetime. All of these are consequences of the neoliberal reforms introduced in Chilean society in Pinochet’s time (1973-1989) and deepened by the successive governments of the Concertación por la Democracia, which chose not to make fundamental changes. In fact, the country continues to be governed by the 1980 Constitution, created by the military regime.
Yesterday, Thursday, and especially today, the “week of evasion” reached a turning point. Several Metro stations were closed, those that were open were filled with police and the students who managed to reach the inside of the platforms were trying to sit on the edges of the tracks. Demonstrations in the streets were also growing, with “ordinary” citizens joining the high school students. In the end, the entire Metro network had to close without knowing when it would reopen. Several social organizations called for a pot-pourri on the night of Friday the 18th, which had a massive following throughout the city. At night there were demonstrations with barricades and interruption of traffic in various parts of Santiago and in particular in the emblematic and central Plaza Baquedano. According to the television news, the building of the electric ENEL is burning, although it would not be unusual for it to be a montage to divert attention.
Sebastián Piñera’s government reacted by criminalizing the demonstrators and blaming them for the inconveniences they caused the workers throughout the week. On Friday evening, minutes before the pots and pans, he gave signs that a state of emergency would be declared for “serious disturbances to public order,” which would allow the military to barracks and restrict freedom of movement and assembly.
The opposition, and even some politicians in his own sector, accuse him of “trying to put out the fire with benzine” and of not seeing the consequences of his own privatizing model, in which a few rich families enjoy the benefits that correspond to all Chileans.
In the opposition Broad Front, a conglomerate of progressive social organizations, Beatriz Sánchez, former presidential candidate in the last elections, tweeted: “Seriously, the discussion for the authorities is whether they are going to put 3 or 5 locks on the door of the Metro, or whether they are going to send 10 or 15 carabineros? Don’t you see the desperation of a family that earns the minimum wage ($301,000) and spends $33,500 a month going to work?”.
Catalina Valenzuela, president of the Humanist Party, also a member of the Broad Front, declared: “We know that what is happening is not the fruit of criminality, it is the fruit of injustice. Chile is a country that is scary, Chile is a country where organized citizenship is criminalized, and where violators of crimes against humanity are released.
The deputy of the PH Tomás Hirsch, pointed out for his part in a tweet: “president @sebastianpinera: You can’t be so irresponsible as to put the military out on the street. Declaring a state of emergency is typical of dictatorships like the one you and your cousin @andreschadwickp supported. Enough repression. Stop abusing people.
Senator Francisco Chahuán, a moderate right-wing Senator who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, declared: “It is urgent to change the way in which transportation increases are established, because the social factor is not included in the formula. But it is also necessary to punish violence and destruction.
Piñera, who loves national and international public exposure, will host the APEC Summit in November and the COP25 (United Nations Climate Summit) in December. It will be necessary to see how the country will be for those dates, with all the international news attention. At this rate, a social explosion like the one that has just occurred in Ecuador may well explode.
The demonstrations have already reached the international press, with articles in the Spanish newspaper El País (https://elpais.com/internacional/2019/10/18/america/1571403677_862701.html) and the British newspaper The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/oct/18/chile-students-mass-fare-dodging-expands-into-city-wide-protest), among many others.
CONFECH (Confederación de Estudiantes de Chile) confederation of Chilean Students, called for a national day of protest on Monday 21 October, and in Santiago at the nearest Metro station, before the state of emergency was declared.
There are those who compare these mobilizations with the “Chaucha Revolution,” which also occurred in 1949 because of the rise in transportation. It remains to be seen if this is a similar social outburst, but it is evident that the rage of high school students has been fed by their families without privileges, with mothers, fathers and grandparents who have suffered throughout the decades the dark side of the “Chilean economic miracle.”
Photograph by Sergio Bastías
Translation Pressenza London