In late 2019, widespread and sometimes violent protests against economic inequality in Chile forced the government to promise a national plebiscite on changes to a constitution that dates back to the Pinochet era of the 1970s and 80s.
That process was put on hold as the coronavirus pandemic hit. The vote, originally set for April, is now supposedly rescheduled for October 2020 but, as this report from filmmakers Luis del Valle and Lali Houghton makes clear, the passionate debate about the country’s future shows no sign of diminishing.
By Luis del Valle and Lali Houghton
For decades, Chile was hailed as Latin America’s lonely success story.
While most of its neighbours were blighted by corruption and poverty, Chile was seen as a stable economy with a gross domestic product of European proportions. The root of its success was thought to be its economic model: an open economy with international free trade agreements, of well-established institutions and a working democracy.
Then 15 years ago, the rumblings of discord began as students and pensioners went to the streets demanding better benefits. Nothing much changed, though, and the discontent was left to simmer away, just below the surface.
Last year, that anger boiled over. It started after an increase in metro ticket prices in the capital, Santiago. Students began dodging turnstiles and occupying stations, which led to fierce confrontations with police. After social media videos revealed police beating some of the protesters, the violence exploded. Train stations were burned down, there was looting and upheaval spread throughout the country.
We have 20,000 reasons for being on the streets but all derive from the same cause: Chile's political system.
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera said the country was at war, a phrase that only fuelled the fury of the demonstrators. Thousands returned to the streets, building barricades, throwing stones and defying the establishment. The police responded ever more aggressively and things seemed to be spiralling out of control.
In total, 31 people died and thousands were injured; almost 500 protesters had eye injuries caused by rubber bullets shot by police. Mobile phones began documenting the violence in real-time, imprinting the injustices on the memory of Chileans. There was a real sense of awakening.
Fabian Leiva, one of the main characters in our film, was one of those shot in the eye. A relative newcomer to Santiago after a childhood spent in the far south of the country, he suddenly found himself at the forefront of the protests.
“We have 20,000 reasons for being on the streets but all derive from the same cause: Chile’s political system,” he later explained.
Legacy of inequality
The unrest exposed deep and unresolved issues that reminded Chileans, and other Latin Americans, that the so-called “Chilean success” was brittle and liable to break.
Its foundations lie in the country’s economic system, established in the 1980 constitution and approved by then right-wing dictator General Augusto Pinochet. He embraced the vision of a group of Chilean economists who had studied in Chicago, the birthplace of neo-liberal economics.
They believed in a market economy where the state would withdraw from its productive sectors. Under this system, private property had a central role, state companies and public services were privatised, and unions were silenced in favour of some labour reforms – including a new private pension scheme.
During the 90s and early 2000s this model was celebrated, reducing overall poverty rates from 40 percent to 10 percent. However, those advances were not for everyone. As some became wealthier, others struggled with declining incomes and increasing indebtedness – debts for education, debts for health, debts also for clothing and even to buy food were commonplace for a vulnerable middle class.
In fact, over time, Chile became one of the most unequal countries in the world. Modest changes to the constitution by the democratic governments that followed the Pinochet era did little to change things and, say many, the unrest of last year was the inevitable result.
“I haven’t been able to graduate because I wasn’t able to pay nearly $30,000 that I still owe to the Magallanes University,” said Leiva. “And it’s terrible because you study to get a better quality of life but you don’t get it.”
As the mass demonstrations intensified, the government was on the ropes and finally, on November 15, 2019, the political establishment caved in and agreed on a plebiscite to change the country’s Pinochet-era constitution. It was an historic landmark.
Then came the coronavirus pandemic and everything shuddered to a halt. The whole political schedule in Chile changed and the referendum, set for April this year, has been postponed. But intense debate over Chile’s constitution goes on.
We liked to be called the jaguars of Latin America; we thought we were the best but clearly we were not.
“Starting from zero, proving something that is totally unknown is not going to solve the problems that the average Chilean on the street has,” explained Jose Ramon Valente, a former finance minister. “Chile has found its way to prosperity and has to pursue it.”
For many, the pandemic in Chile has provided further support to the view that their country is locked into a private system that favours the few.
Marco Kremerman, an economist with the Sol Foundation, believes Chile should head towards a social democracy, with fewer oligopolies and less wealth disparity. “But for this to happen there needs to be a change in the forces behind the capital and that is not something we can yet see from the October unrest.”
In the meantime, protesters are clear that the plebiscite is the start, not the end of the process. They want a radical overhaul of the whole economic system.
As Leiva told us, “We liked to be called the jaguars of Latin America; we thought we were the best but clearly we were not.”
The producers wish to thank Prensa Opal, Ernesto Fontaine, Transhumante Films and Patricio Veloso for help in making this film.