Can Pinera Deliver the Kind of Change Chileans Want?

World Politics Review, 31.10.2019
Max Radwin, periodista basado en Guatemala

An anti-government protester waves a Chilean flag in Santiago, Oct. 29, 2019 (AP/Rodrigo Abd).

Chile witnessed the largest protests in its history last weekend, with more than 1 million people filling the streets of Santiago to demand the government deal with economic inequality and the high cost of living—and to express their outrage over the authorities’ repression of an initial wave of protests earlier this month. For a moment, the massive demonstrations seemed like the climax to a movement that began two weeks ago in response to a subway fare hike, and that had seemed to be on the cusp of fizzling out.

Instead, protests have continued this week, and more are planned for next week. It wouldn’t be surprising if they carried deep into November. President Sebastian Pinera must think so too, as he announced Wednesday that Chile would no longer host a major Asia-Pacific trade summit in mid-November or a U.N. climate conference in early December.

Chileans seem set on change, and the embattled Pinera, a conservative billionaire who can’t seem to say or do the right thing, now has his back to the wall. Chile is far and away the most socially and economically stable country in Latin America, having cut its poverty rate from 30 percent to a miraculous 6.4 percent in less than two decades. So the protests came as a surprise to many observers given the recent unrest in more volatile countries, such as Ecuador and Bolivia. But hidden within Chile’s economic success, it turns out, was a trend that should sound familiar to both middle-class Americans and protesters as far away as Lebanon.

As Chile’s rich have gotten richer, wages for almost everyone else have not kept up with the rising costs of living. Chile has some of the highest income inequality in the developed world, and the highest among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Earlier this year, Pinera stoked resentment by announcing a 9.2-percent increase in electricity costs. He has also done little to reform the country’s pension system, which leaves a majority of retirees living on less than minimum wage.

It may seem irrational that Chile’s protests rose out of a 30-peso increase in subway fares, equivalent to 4 cents. But in this larger context, the fare hike tapped into a deeper well of discontent over inequality. According to one of the slogans of the protests, “It’s not about 30 pesos; it’s about 30 years.”

Pinera’s initial response to the protests was nothing short of a political blunder. On Oct. 19, he declared a national emergency in much of the country that would stay in place for nearly two weeks. This included a curfew that put the Chilean military on civilian roads for the first time since the 1970s, when the country was under the rule of dictator Augusto Pinochet.

“We are at war against a powerful, relentless enemy, who does not respect anything or anyone, who is willing to use violence and crime without any limits,” Pinera said during a press conference on Oct. 20. For many, it was a transparent attempt to brand the uprising as illegitimate, to put the focus on the rioters who had burned subway stations and broken storefront windows, rather than the many peaceful marches happening at the same time.

Protesters latched onto Pinera’s divisive rhetoric, turning it into another anti-government slogan. On cardboard signs, flags and t-shirts, their message read: “We are NOT at war.”

Pinera eventually backed off and released what he billed as a “New Social Agenda” that includes eliminating the subway fare hike and postponing the rise in electricity bills until 2020, while also introducing a guaranteed minimum income program. The plan also pledges a 20 percent increase for government-subsidized pension plans, with additional increases to be scheduled for 2021 and 2022.

Critics say it doesn’t go far enough. The guaranteed income program, through what amounts to a government subsidy, would raise the minimum wage from 301,000 pesos a month—about $412—to 350,000 pesos a month— $479. But that would do little for middle-class Chileans who have turned out to protest in the largest numbers.

In an act of symbolic solidarity, Pinera is also pledging to reduce the salaries of members of Congress and other high-ranking officials. Currently, lawmakers in both houses of Congress are paid an average salary of roughly $13,000 a month. But continued protests suggest that Chileans won’t be swayed by that kind of political gesture.

“If he insists on the same agenda, then he’s not understanding,” Camila Rojas Valderrama, a member of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, tweeted about Pinera. “The social agenda is more of the same, 30 years of bonuses and adjustments. We can’t get on board with that. The voices on the street want less stress in life, more rights, and an end to the abuses and privilege.”

Others have called for deeper, more aggressive measures, like the drafting of a new constitution. The current one was written behind closed doors by the Pinochet regime and, though over 200 amendments have been added since then, lacks inherent rights for indigenous groups and other minorities. In 2015, then-President Michelle Bachelet began drafting a new constitution through a series of local town halls, but Pinera scrapped the initiative once he took office.

Succumbing to pressure last weekend, Pinera put his entire Cabinet “on notice,” saying that sweeping changes would have to be made in order to carry out the kind of larger-scale reforms demanded by protesters. Eight ministers were replaced this week, including the minister of economy, the minister of finance and the minister of interior.

Yet for many protesters and opposition politicians, the damage has already been done. Reports have begun to surface that hospitals lack the resources and staff to attend to the influx of injured protesters—over a thousand according to the latest count by the National Institute of Human Rights of Chile. With 20 protesters having been killed in the crackdown over the past two weeks, much of Chile wants Pinera out, if not held responsible for human rights abuses.

A team from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is set to arrive in Chile soon to evaluate the situation, but its plans have been kept largely under wraps. Bachelet, who is now the U.N. human rights chief heading that office, said the team would be speaking to a wide range of people, demonstrators and government officials alike, in order to understand what occurred during the protests and their “root causes.”

In the meantime, members of Chile’s Communist Party, as well as the leftist Broad Front coalition, are pushing what is known as a “constitutional accusation” against Pinera, a congressional process tantamount to impeachment. It needs majority approval in the Chamber of Deputies and a two-thirds majority in the Senate. This week, the lower house is also convening to begin a constitutional accusation against Andres Chadwick, the recently sacked interior minister, who many blame for the crackdown, and who also happens to be Pinera’s cousin.

Despite his belated efforts to address the demands of unprecedented protests, it appears that Pinera cannot help but make mistakes, starting with his ill-fated crackdown. Even if Pinera does institute sweeping changes, the biggest one may be yet to come: Someone else occupying his office.

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