A Facade Drops in Chile

A tide continues to sweep a mass social movement across the face of Chile, exposing four decades of economic injustice and challenging a legacy inherited from dictatorship, with United States participation at key junctions.

Behind the facade of a bustling economy, Chileans have suffered from increasingly precarious jobs, a public health system that allows people to die while on waiting lists for care, inadequate and costly public education, low wages, and even lower pension checks that obligate many retirees to take odd jobs to make ends meet. A 2017 government report found that the wealthiest 20 percent earned nearly nine times the salary of the lowest 20 percent—the most unequal income distribution among Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development nations. 

Moreover, in recent years, news of campaign finance scandals at both ends of the political spectrum, police corruption, and price-fixing among pharmacies, the poultry industry, and even toilet paper production companies has riled Chileans.

On October 7, hundreds of high school students began jumping subway turnstiles to protest a fare hike, tapping into a discontent simmering since the beginning of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship more than forty years ago.

In March 1975, University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman traveled to Chile, at the behest of military junta advisors, to assure Pinochet of the soundness of their radical neoliberal program, initiated eight months after the military coup catapulting Pinochet into power on September 11, 1973. Four months earlier, the U.S. Senate had approved an amendment sponsored by Senator Ted Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, to cut off military aid to Chile until it respected human rights. Friedman’s visit represented a pledge of continued support from certain sectors of the United States, notwithstanding Kennedy’s amendment. 

A broad cross-section of Chileans are gathering by the thousands each week in nonviolent rallies and neighborhood meetings in hopes of chartering a new, independent course for their country.

Before Pinochet’s power grab, President Salvador Allende had introduced significant social welfare improvements and nationalized industries, notably, the largely American-owned copper mines. The dictatorship rolled back those measures through deregulation, decentralization, and privatization, coupled with labor laws that severely hindered unionization and a regressive tax system that favors the wealthy.

By then, scores of people had been murdered or forcibly disappeared, thousands jailed and tortured, with thousands more forced into exile. The economic measures added insult to injury; 57 percent of Santiago residents plummeted into poverty by 1976. By 1982, unemployment reached 22 percent in the Santiago area and 30 percent in the provinces. 

Ignoring collateral effects such as these, Friedman coined the phrase “Miracle of Chile” to describe Chile’s economic success stemming from market reforms beginning in the mid-1970s. By 1990 the system was fully in place; the new governments sustained and continued the trend. 

In April 1976, Orlando Letelier, former Foreign Relations Minister and Ambassador to the United States under Allende, described how the drastic changes in the Chilean economy introduced by the military junta were only possible in the context of ruthless repression. 

Upon his release from prison, Letelier had become a formidable and effective critic of the dictatorship’s flagrant human rights violations, convincing European countries to halt the sale of arms to Chile. In September of that year, Letelier’s contention was tragically confirmed when he was assassinated in Washington, D.C., with a car bomb planted by an American collaborator of Chile’s secret police.

Four years later, in 1980, civilian ideologues drafted and implanted a new constitution, designed to extend the neoliberal economic and political model beyond the dictatorship. That constitution, still is in effect today, lies at the heart of the protests unfurling in recent weeks in Chile, a country saddled with a legal framework that perpetuates authoritarian rule.

The lifting of the Kennedy Amendment in 1990, after the inauguration of Chile’s first democratically elected president in twenty years, renewed ties with the United States, leading to a bilateral Free Trade Agreement between Chile and the United States in 2003. In 2018, the United States was the second major destination, after China, for Chilean exports. Likewise, the United States ranks second—again, after China—in products shipped to Chile.

In September 2018, a few months after inaugurating his second term in office, President Sebastian Piñera visited President Donald Trump in the White House, bearing a gift: a printed American flag with an interlocking Chilean flag with its single star. Trump smiled at Piñera’s explanation that Chile is “at the heart of the United States,” but many in Chile were not amused. “I’m not willing for my country to become one more star of that flag,” tweeted Communist Party Congresswoman Karol Cariola. 

The broad cross-section of Chileans—professionals and blue collar workers, families with children, students, and senior citizens—are gathering by the thousands each week in nonviolent rallies and neighborhood meetings to discuss the constitution in hopes of chartering a new, independent course for their country.

The national referendum on whether or not to write a new constitution, set for April 2020, with broad political consensus, would have been unthinkable six weeks ago. Newfound awareness of the profound inequities built into the Pinochet-era constitution was kindled in October, when Piñera declared his government at war against “an implacable enemy” and sent troops to patrol the streets. Instead of subsiding, public demonstrations mounted.  

Amnesty International, the International Red Cross, and Human Rights Watch report systematic human rights violations, including torture and sexual abuse. In the first 30 days of protests, military and police caused twenty-three deaths and more than 2,000 injuries, with at least 285 severe eye injuries from pellets fired directly at people’s faces. Gustavo Gatica, a twenty-one-year-old psychology student and photographer, lost both eyes after police fired at point-blank range. 

As the military and police exercise a brutality not seen since Pinochet’s rule, Orlando Letelier’s denunciation of repression at the service of the neoliberal economic model has gained new relevance. 

Manuel Riesco, noted economist and co-founder of the Center for National Studies on Alternative Development, foresees a short-term drop in trade with the United States, and the rest of the world, with a development model centered on Latin America on the horizon. 

“The long-term consequences will be seen when the gigantic re-balancing of forces that has already occurred, unfolds into a new constitution,” said Riesco in an interview. “Many things will shape the new balance of forces but undoubtedly the neoliberal madness of a completely open market—which only favors bankers—will come to an end.”

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