While the Hong Kong demonstrations have been dominating international headlines, tensions are also flaring on the other side of the Pacific. Thousands of protesters have flocked the busy streets of Santiago, Chile following an increase in the capital’s subway fares by 30 Chilean pesos (CLP), or about 0.04 USD. The protests, though, call for a greater resolve to address the perennially huge inequality gap between the elites and the ordinary class.
Since the dismantling of the cruel dictatorship of President Augusto Pinochet in 1990, the Chilean constitution has adopted neoliberalist perspectives, enabling a free-market economic model that has privatized retirement systems and pensions, healthcare, and education. This has encouraged impressive economic growth over the past thirty years, for which the nation has become renowned. According to the World Bank, poverty rates decreased from 31% to 6.4% between 2000 and 2013. Its GDP per capita had also increased from 2,577 USD in 1980 to 15,941 USD in 2013. Chile set the standard among its Latin American neighbors, ranking the highest in the region on the United Nations Human Development Index.
A more comprehensive look at statistics, however, reveals the irony that the international image of Chile belies. While the nation’s economic growth is impressive, its rate has declined over the last few years. From annual GDP increases of over 5% in the 1970s, the rate of increase has barely reached 2.5% per annum since 2014. Furthermore, the results of this growth have not been equally distributed throughout the country. The middle-class has continued to suffer under high prices of common goods, low wages, and inaccessible privatized basic commodities and services. A study by Fundación SOL shows that around half of the working population of Chile earns less than 400,000 CLP (about 550 USD) monthly. Meanwhile, 1% of the whole population, primarily comprised of the elites, earn a third of the nation’s overall wealth. This places Chile as the most unequal nation among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) group of nations.
For a large proportion of people living in substandard conditions, the increase of 30 CLP for transportation is too much to bear. Following widespread protests, incumbent president Sebastian Piñera had then revoked the implementation and issued a public promise to increase the minimum wage and impose higher taxes for wealthier citizens, all to no avail. For years, Chile’s economic growth has been regarded as a commendable model in the international landscape. But the ongoing civil protests show that this image stands on shaky pillars. The collective fury of a population that will no longer be pacified by pretty promises or false hopes now threatens to knock them down.
But this should come as no surprise, considering the underlying principles of neoliberalism. Besides privatizing even basic commodities, such an economic model discourages any form of interference from the government. This encompasses not only the abolishment of policies that essentially restrict the smooth running of markets and its flow of profits, but also a complete disregard for the rights and welfare of workers. It also essentially puts more burden on the poor to make ends meet while they try to better their lives through even the smallest opportunities they could find. Consequently, it promotes the mentality of blaming them for failing to break out of the cycle of poverty where they unfortunately found themselves into.
Chile has gone through an economic miracle with its neoliberal approach, but it’s high time that they put its people’s welfare first. Fortunately, Chile’s Congress finally agreed to reform the country’s constitution. Chilean Senate President Jaime Quintana promised the people that the new constitution will “build a true social construct” and will be more democratic. All that is needed for now is to wait for this promise to become a reality, and for the citizens to be vigilant so as not to fall to empty words.