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Transition in Chile


Three weeks of massive civil protests, some peaceful, others violent, have left parts of Chile, especially its capital city Santiago, looking like a war zone.

Chileans too often have faced costly and deadly disasters, but lately, except for the military coup d’etat in 1973, they have been of natural causes, mostly earthquakes and tsunamis. The one affecting Chile now is a man/woman-made social earthquake, suggesting that Chile’s transition to political, economic, and social development just got a lot longer

Santiago’s iconic underground metro system, the initial focal point of the protest, has been terribly debilitated.  Thousands of citizens (including police officers) are injured and in hospitals, hundreds are in preventive detention, over a thousand await processing for crimes related to the public protests…and at last count twenty are dead, from gunshot and fire. This number will go higher. An early report identified at least thirty national monuments and close to forty municipal offices throughout the country that have been defaced, damaged, or totally destroyed. Many supermarkets and small businesses have been looted and burned.

That is only the material damage; the costs to workers, store owners, and students kept out of their places of work or study for weeks is high, and in the end more important to society than the material loss.

The protests that at first blush stemmed from an announced fare increase for the iconic metro began as a massive fare-evasion incursion of mostly students into metro stations in central Santiago. When fires broke out in several metro stations simultaneously, the protest appeared to be spreading and increasingly more violent, so President Piñera called out the army to assist the national police, the carabineros, repel the protest.

So what had to happen, happened. A State of Emergency was declared, and the army, not especially trained in urban crowd control, began to back up the police in their attempt to quell the protest and protect property. A curfew was established to control the crowds including vandals who increasingly were going into the streets at night, and continued to in spite of the curfew.

Undeniably, many Chilean residents and owners of businesses and retail shops in Santiago welcomed, in fact called for, military presence in the streets. The President has constitutional authority to do this. Predictably, though, with the first gunshot, and then death, the deep and generalized allergy Chileans have for military presence in their streets, stemming from their experience with General Pinochet’s dictatorship over three decades ago, this decision was roundly criticized by the opposition; instead of helping, the military presence added fuel to the fire.

Piñera shortly was coaxed into the realization that his early declaration that “We are at war against a powerful enemy” was probably exaggerated if not wrongheaded. He now says that he meant violence and crime were the enemy, but his detractors profess that he meant “the people”, and the people for the most part agreed.  He apologized for that statement, or at least expressed regret it was misinterpreted, and reversed his decision to put troops in the streets. However, the back and forth on how serious and what kind of confrontation the government was facing, first an overreaction, and then capitulation, suggested a highly vulnerable administration, and weakened the President. 

Whipped up by instantaneous social media networking, the protests continued into several days and nights of demonstrations against a litany of real social and economic problems. The movement seemed to peak in an impressive gathering in Plaza Italia of a million plus mostly young Chileans. The mass of protesters that day extended far into each street (Providencia, Bustamante, Vicuña Mackenna, Alameda) and Parque Forestal, that radiate out from the plaza where a mounted General Manuel Baquedano sits. The scene was truly moving. So many people for the most part peacefully gathered to protest legitimately the socioeconomic conditions of the country. Wishful thinking led some to hope that maybe this would be a turning point in the protest. 

Most protests and demonstrations that I have witnessed in Chile over the past fifty years have featured a rolling sea of political party flags and banners waving over the heads of the crowds (plus Che’s revolutionary profile in black and red, of course). It seems from the pictures that this manifestation was different, featuring mostly the Chilean national flag, alongside many Wenufoye, the Mapuche flag. A conclusion you could draw from the absence of political party flags is that the population represented in this massive crowd was expressing their low level of esteem, or interest, in these political institutions. Public opinion polls would confirm this low level of regard; around 50% of Chileans claim no allegiance to a political party.

Moreover, the impressive number of Mapuche flags in the whole protest movement this time is consistent with intensification, rather than resolution, of the continual struggle between the Chilean State and the Mapuche and other native people for their rightful access to land, political participation, and especially, respect. 

Plaza Italia. General Baquedano

The iconic statue of General Baquedano, which up to just recently had persevered stoically in the center of Plaza Italia where daily rallies begin and end, finally became a target of violence. It seemed simply ironic when protesters first draped Mapuche flags on the General, and spray painted everything including his horse’s tail. After all, he was one of the many Generals who were sent into the southern Araucanía region south of the Bío Bío River (1861-1883) to “pacify the region”. A sort of delayed justice, he carrying the Mapuche flag.

The protests continued unabated, and Baquedano’s punishment did too. Physical dismemberment of the monument included bringing down the smaller statue of the “Unknown Soldier” that accompanies the General. This seemed illogical in part since Baquedano also led Chilean troops in the victorious War of the Pacific. Maybe there were resentful Peruvians or Bolivians in the plaza that day to blame (their countries suffered the indignity of losing that war to the Chileans).  More likely the perpetrators of the desecration of this national monument were either ignorant of Chile’s national history, indifferent to it, or possessed by a deep gut desire to wipe out emblems of Chile’s checkered military past, or even the Nation itself.

As the protests spread into the third week, and into secondary cities throughout Chile and into middle class neighborhoods of Santiago away from the now unstately remains of General Baquedano. Piñera made changes in part of his cabinet, bringing in younger, apparently less ideological Ministers of Hacienda (Treasury) and Interior (Internal Affairs), the key officers needed to deal with public safety and the country’s allocation of budget for social programs. He also named a high profile mayor to be the administration’s spokesperson.

He did not, however, replace any of the Ministers who were in charge of the controversial education, transport, and health sectors where many of the protests are focused and where most reforms are expected.

There is broad consensus that what the protesting Chileans want to see, before the protest can end, is concrete attention to a whole (growing) litany of social benefits: higher pensions and salaries, lower taxes, lower public transport fares, lower costs for education, and quality health care along with lower drug prices. So, putting forward the new younger, more simpatico face of the administration, even though it was too partial for some, Piñera did attempt to set in motion the revitalization of a series of social legislation that had been languishing but which now must be negotiated in Congress. To accomplish this, he and his new ministers will have to work closely with a broad group of legislators to amend the obviously unacceptable content of most of these bills, and come to agreements with a congress, still more opposition than supportive, to act urgently and help end the civil strife making life increasingly more difficult for many Chileans.

Looming over the convulsed political situation in Chile, and over the President more directly, is the ex President and now UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet (see prior posting). The historically intertwined relationships between Michelle Bachelet and Sebastian Piñera, and with Chile, even before either have finished their journeys, has the elements of a really interesting Greek tragedy. But that is a subject for another time.

What is relevant now is that Piñera, under the pressure of knowing how sensitive the issue of human rights violations is, and given the street “warfare” he knew would stir up unending accusations of abuses by officers of the law and soldiers, asked Bachelet to send a team of her human rights observers to watch over the situation as it evolves in Chile. Not surprising that she was more than ready to respond.

The UN human rights observers are finding many others in Chile with the same writ: the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, The Chilean National Human Rights Institute, and other less well known groups.  Piñera has so far shown an openness to meet with and have his security people work with most of these groups, especially the one from the UN and Chile’s own national group.

But, wait a minute! Are we in a time warp?

Wasn’t Chile recently touted as an “oasis” of socioeconomic growth in an otherwise chaotic and under achieving Latin America? Didn’t Chile reduce poverty from 43% to 8% in the thirty years since the return to democratic government? Doesn’t the main indicator of wealth distribution (GINI coefficient) suggest that over that same period distribution, although not good, improved, so became more equal, while GNP per capita also grew?

But not only that, wasn’t the Chilean government just a month ago putting the finishing touches on plans for a major summit of national leaders of APEC, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, at which the world was hoping China and the US would agree to temper their trade war that is detrimental to countries like Chile which have opened up their markets to world trade? And wasn’t there going to be a huge gathering (COP25) in Chile in December to launch the Paris Climate Change Agreement of all nations minus one embarrassing laggard?

Well, all of that is literally quite true. But the people in the streets have a different message. They say they are unhappy, can’t make ends meet, need better health care, want their children to go to school for free including the University and maybe also get a Masters degree, don’t want to work as hard as they do for so little pay, and more; that’s their truth. You can tell them the numbers show they have made progress over the past thirty years, if they don’t feel it, or don’t believe you, and are told constantly by popular opinion leaders that it’s not true,  then they will not agree. Their Chile is not the Chile shown and described on the pages of the Wall Street Journal, in the videos of the National Tourism Bureau, the brochures of Wines of Chile, the investment promos of the Chilean-US Chamber of Commerce, or admittedly in most of the postings on this daveschile blog. It’s a different place for them.

President Piñera had his Chile in mind, not theirs, when he spent time and valuable resources on the Colombian/Venezuelan border trying to help Juan Guaido in his so far futile attempt to unseat Maduro in Venezuela. Why wasn’t the President instead in La Pintana, a neighborhood in Santiago which has real basic resource needs. He energetically engaged in the escapism of international affairs to prepare Chile for hosting the APEC meeting that has now been canceled. His belief in the value to Chile of this event is understandable, and had he, and Chile, been able to pull that off, it would have been very positive for Chile. But they could not do it.

He went way out over the end of his skis when he helped Brazil, the original host which withdrew, off the hook for the COP25 meeting in December, now also canceled and headed instead to Madrid. Having that important global gathering would have been wonderful for Chile. Besides the opportunity to show off a beautiful country that specializes in natural landscapes of global renown, it would have been free advertising for the country’s renewable energy sector based on unlimited wind and sun. It would also have focused attention on some of Chile’s environmental shortcomings like toxic air pollution, industrial and mining contamination, and soil erosion due to poor land management, maybe pushing local authorities and legislators to enact more effective public policies as a result.

So where are the winds of change blowing?

If you listen closely, filtering out the din of broad discontent lubricated by anger and hate, you hear voices suggesting that maybe, just maybe, now the way is open to once and for all free the struggling mass of hardworking, well meaning Chileans from the constitutional “straight jacket” inherited from the military dictatorship, the suffocating indebtedness of the economic “model” defended and perfected over the past three decades by all administrations, leftist and rightist, and the denigration of an en-rooted class system, the top ten percent of which clutches over three fourths of the wealth, up to now unwilling to share even a bit of it. The argument of these people is that Chile’s ills still flow essentially from the Pinochet dictatorship, the “neoliberal” economic model it imposed on the country, and the constitution it devised in 1980 that defines politics and public policy four decades later, three of which have been governed in a democracy administered by both leftist and rightist administrations (note: more left than right).

If you keep listening closely to the street (everyone in Chile, politicians, academics, reporters say they are “listening” now) what you hear loud and clear is the chant for a new “social  pact“, and how do they propose to express that? Through a “new constitution“. And how do you get to a new constitution? Through a “constituent assembly”. Public trust is at an all time low in Chile (and elsewhere as well) in institutions that have heretofore exercised moral, political and economic authority, especially the church, corporations, politicians/political parties, legislature, public sector service agencies, the military and police, well, almost everybody. They have all seemed to fail the people through corruption, abuse, self enrichment, corporate collusion, and straight out theft. So it would appear that this proposal may end up worth trying. A plebiscite to agree to this process may be the only way to get out of the vicious downward spiral Chileans have put themselves in.

Of course there is the counter voice, meek in the face of such disorder, that cautions against rushing to enact costly programs or make significant institutional changes under the coercion of violent protest. The argument that most changes in the constitution could be done within the present institutional structure may be logical and even correct from a constitutional sense, but at this point it is looked at as being just another delaying tactic to the Conservatives who don’t really want change.

The government has its principals already engaging on the important issues. But it doesn’t appear that the protesters are being led, nor that the opposition legislators and political party leaders have so far been given, or assumed, the authority to represent the protesters. 

It is hard to see how this evolving tragedy ends. So, I conclude this part of what might turn into an epic story with many chapters, with a couple of themes to consider: Violence and the Araucanía.

Violence.  Although everyone states their rejection of violence, it’s not true. From the start this “peaceful” protest has been violent. The continuing wave of destruction is violent. Most protests are meant to be disruptive, or they don’t produce change. Generally, the opposition, focused on beginning the process to confect a new constitution, sees the best, maybe the only, route to that end via this disruptive protest, which they and everyone knows brings with it violence, destruction, and vandalism. For them the costs to society are necessary.

The people who are supporting Piñera (don’t forget, just a year and a half ago he won an election with 54% of the votes, 3.8 million Chileans), while tending towards increased support for a more aggressive social agenda, right now in the midst of the civil unrest that is affecting their lives, is possibly more interested in bringing a stop to the violent protests. And, even though they say they are against abuse of “human rights”, they are supportive of what others call repressive action and are unsympathetic to the hooded looters, rock and molotov throwers and fellow travelers who end up injured by the security forces. Again, if this type and level of police force is necessary to quell the rioting and looting and burning, then so be it, they say. The social cost is worth it.


It is encouraging, in a way, to see so many Wenufoye flags flying in Santiago and throughout the country in these protests. In the Araucanía region the Mapuche present a face of Chile’s present social dilemma. It’s a face of poverty but unlimited wealth of character, of culture trampled but not lost, of schools turned into police stations but education of pichi newen provided by mothers and grandmothers, of eroded land and disappearing water but deep respect for nature and the gods which watch over the earth. It’s also the face of force begetting force, hate begetting hate, with no end in sight.

It is in the Araucanía where Chile faces the real test of what comes out of the chaos they have chosen as a way to move forward. If it is a new social pact, it must start with reconciling the differences between all its people. If it is a constituent assembly, it will only succeed if it includes a significant number of indigenous people. If it is a new constitution, it will have to address the nature of the Nation, and consider a “plurination” arrangement as appropriate for a country with over 10% of its population claiming native american heritage. 

I have a very good Chilean friend with whom I exchange views regularly, sometimes daily, at least weekly. When confronted with my comments, ideas, but mostly questions asking for his explanation of the meaning of what is happening in Chile, he often politely but curtly reminds me:

“It’s complicated, Gringo.”  It sure is.

A final note: 

This time Chileans don’t seem to have outsiders to blame, although there have been some suggestions to the contrary. If there were outside participation and pressures, one would hope the Chilean intelligence services should have detected it. No CIA to blame this time. (Well, hold that thought. This isn’t over.)

Another final note:

When I started writing this blog,, almost ten years ago after experiencing the earthquake of February 27, 2010, I introduced it with this statement which is still on the masthead:

A place to share thoughts, issues, impressions, and experiences related to Chile. Postings celebrate a half century intimate relationship with the lovely but enigmatic people of Chile

I stand by this statement, but want to insist on the description of the people of Chile as “enigmatic”. Nothing over the life of has dissuaded me from that qualifier. When I wrote it, I think I thought it was clever. As I try to make sense out of present day Chile, I do not think there is a better way to describe these people I love. Enigmatic, to a fault.

Posted in Leesburg, Virginia, on November 8, 2019.




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David Joslyn
David Joslyn, after a 45-year career in international development with USAID, Peace Corps, The Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and private sector consulting firms, divides his time between his homes in Virginia and Chile. Since 2010, David has been writing about Chile and Chileans, often based upon his experience with the Peace Corps in Chile and his many travels throughout the country with family and friends.
David Joslyn

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