What’s Behind the Chile Protests?

What’s happening?

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Chile has seen several weeks of unrest, including street protests, riots, and vandalism, that has so far killed twenty people and injured more than one thousand others.

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The turmoil began on October 18 with student-led protests over a metro fare increase. It soon escalated as rioters burned buses and metro stations, looted businesses, and clashed with security forces. Most demonstrations have been peaceful, though, with one drawing more than a million people—the largest protest in Chilean history.

How has the government responded?

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Chile’s conservative president, Sebastian Pinera, initially cracked down, declaring “a state of war” and deploying ten thousand troops to the streets. Security forces unleashed tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons on civilians. Human rights groups have alleged abuses by police and soldiers.

Pinera has since softened his stance, reversing the fare hike and unveiling reforms, including a minimum wage increase and higher taxes on the wealthy, that require approval by lawmakers. He also reshuffled his cabinet, saying “Chile changed and the government also has to change.”

What’s driving the protests?

The immediate trigger—the equivalent of a four-cent rise in metro fare—struck a nerve among many Chileans, who say income growth has not kept pace with rising education, housing, and health-care costs.

Chile has been held up as a model for development in the region, with its strong economic growth, falling poverty, and stable political system since the end of Augusto Pinochet’s rule in 1990. But it remains one of the most unequal countries in the world; the United Nations estimates that the richest 1 percent of citizens earn one-third of national wealth.

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Experts say middle- and working-class Chileans have many complaints. These include: a low minimum wage and slow wage growth, weak union protections, a privatized pension system, a stratified education system that leaves poorer students in debt, unaffordable housing and health care, a constitution that retains vestiges of military rule, and a political class beset by corruption scandals.

Public frustration over these issues is not new. Chileans have repeatedly protested over the education and pension systems, including in 2006, 2011, and 2016.

What’s the international context?

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Chile is an open, trade-based economy that is highly dependent on global commodity prices, especially that of copper. As copper prices have fallen in recent years, Chile’s growth has slowed—a dynamic exacerbated by the U.S.-China trade war.

But some have cast blame further afield, alleging interference by socialist governments after Chilean police identified Venezuelan and Cuban nationals among the rioters. Pinera is a staunch opponent of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who has celebrated the protests, though many analysts question how large a role Caracas could realistically play in the mass movement.

The United Nations sent a team to investigate allegations of human rights abuses by security forces, which have sparked memories of brutal practices under the Pinochet dictatorship. The three-person investigative team was sent by former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, who is now the UN high commissioner for human rights.

The United States, which backed the Pinochet regime, has remained largely silent. Washington has not had an ambassador to Chile since January.

The ongoing unrest led Pinera to cancel next month’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, where U.S. President Donald J. Trump was expected to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping to discuss a bilateral trade deal. Pinera also pulled out of hosting the next major UN climate conference, planned for Santiago in December.

What’s next for Chile?

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Demonstrators have so far rejected Pinera’s moves. They demand his resignation and broader reforms, and some call for a new constitution. But the decentralized nature of the movement has created confusion about protesters’ demands, which activists worry will weaken their negotiating power.

Observers say that if Pinera survives calls to step down, he faces an uphill battle. His approval rating has fallen to 14 percent and the opposition controls the National Congress, making political gridlock likely, at least until the next national election in 2021.

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