Crackdown, Concessions Fail to dissuade Chile protesters

Those who tend to deny the larger political reverberations from the domestic protests in different parts of the world in 2019 as hyperbole may better think again. The spiralling protests against the now rescinded subway fare hike have forced Chile to withdraw as host of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation trade summit later this month, as well as the annual COP25 climate summit scheduled in December. The global significance of the two events cannot be exaggerated, just as the disruptive potential from Santiago’s unrest to combat inequality cannot go unacknowledged. Hong Kong, Ecuador, Peru, Sudan and Algeria all saw a similar surge of public anger in recent months where protesters demanded reforms and accountability. Chile’s centre-right President Sebastian Pinera is having to contend with the seemingly insatiable expectations of a populace fed on progressive socialist policies of the post-Pinochet dictatorship. According to official figures, some 1.2 million demonstrators took part in a rally in Santiago on October 25, hailed as the largest in the country’s history. The loss to businesses due protests is estimated at $1.4 billion. Protesters have won significant successes in recent days to safeguard and consolidate their hard-won democratic guarantees of 30 years. They have forced the centre-right President Sebastian Pinera, a former airline and media magnate who is now in his non-consecutive second term as President, to withdraw the emergency measures he clamped within days of the outbreak of opposition to the subway fare hike. Mr. Pinera initially described the mass mobilisation as the enemy’s declaration of war on the state, call the military on to the streets, impose night-time curfews and extended the emergency to counter large-scale destruction of property. At least 20 people have been reported dead in the crackdown that followed, with hospitals unable to cope with medicines and equipment to treat the wounded.

Promises of reforms

Many activists have been denied legal recourse, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet. In a sign of a climbdown, the government has reversed the commuter fares, announced a guaranteed minimum wage, subsidised medicines and promised reforms to the pension system. In an attempt to ease tensions, Mr. Pinera had the entire Cabinet resign in a sweeping reshuffle. The newly appointed Finance Minister is expected to raise taxes on the rich in a bid to redress entrenched inequalities in society, without jeopardising the country’s growth. But the reform package, estimated to cost $1.2 billion a year, is not big enough to meet the challenge, say economists. No less significant is the offer of dialogue to resolve the continuing deadlock. As the movement has expanded to include wider political demands, the government seems to have recognised the long-drawn nature of the campaign. But the demonstrators are no longer content with extracting piecemeal concessions from the centre-right government. Foremost among their demands are calls for a new Constitution to replace the charter from the Pinochet-era. Another is the expansion of universal education to the tertiary sector. A member of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the South American country is emblematic of stability and prosperity in the region. That could no longer be taken for granted unless the right lessons are drawn from the continuing unrest.

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