Revolutionary Beginnings in Chile

Written by: Elena Cata

It was a small spark that ignited the flames of revolution in Chile in 2019. When the government increased the subway fare by a modest 4% in early October, high school students began jumping turnstiles at metro stations in the country’s capital, using the hashtag #EvasionMasiva (Mass Evasion) on social media. By October 18th, mass protests broke out with citizens of all social strata calling for economic reform, better health care and education, and even the removal of President Sebastian Piñera. Violent retaliatory action including arbitrary detentions by the government further aggravated protestors. At the peak of these demonstrations on the 18th, more than one million Chileans were gathered in Santiago, the nation’s capital. 

Chile has long been regarded as a Latin American success story, serving as a model for economic revitalization post-dictatorship. However, upon a closer look, inequality in Chile is rife. For many, paying 30 additional pesos for public transportation threatened their livelihood. Chile has the highest rate of income inequality among thirty-five of the world’s wealthiest nations, with fifty percent of Chilean workers earning less than 400,000 pesos (roughly $550) per month. The beginnings of revolution are present; socioeconomic conditions in Chile fostered a collective set of personal grievances among citizens, an acute political crisis sparked an uprising, and the counterrevolutionary response delegitimized the government. 

Popular uprisings grow from specific grievances that threaten the livelihood of peasants and workers. The livelihoods of many Chileans were at stake when they were suddenly forced to pay an extra 30 pesos every time they used public transportation, a social reality the government failed to predict. 

Chilean protestors shared with reporters from the Guardian why they were in streets demanding change. Stephanie Díaz, a 28-year-old sports teacher from a working-class neighborhood in Santiago, told reporters she was protesting because she wants the everyday needs of citizens to carry more weight in the decisions made by the ruling class. Juan Ángel, an elderly school teacher noted “I’m not afraid. I have nothing to lose. I’m doing this for my granddaughter who is six months old.”  Melissa Medina’s justification for protesting against the government reflects the social memory that characterizes revolutionary movements. The 25-year-old makeup artist said that her grandmother fought against the dictatorship, her mother fought in her time, and she is the mother of a six-year-old girl and now it is her turn to protest. Medina was inspired to take to the streets because her family members had done so before her, reflecting a value system that encourages resistance. The passions of these people that grew out of disenfranchisement and a denial of dignity at the hands of the government served as the impetus for the beginnings of a revolution. 

The psychological model of revolutionary war illustrates that when social, economic, or political change occurs that has the potential to better the citizenry’s quality of life but fails to do so, the disappointment that follows as a result can be destabilizing. When Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship came to an end in 1990, the installation of a democratic republic served as a beacon of hope for all Chileans. The revitalization of the economy led people to believe that inequality would diminish and that their lives would significantly improve. Decades went by and Chileans who were subjugated and ignored during the Pinochet regime were discouraged by the total lack of social and economic transformation they experienced at the personal level. Monica de Bolle, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, noted that Chileans had seen “a whiff of a better life” but that it has not been enough for what people aspire to. The stage for revolution has been set in Chile as those seeking economic security and social stability are primed to demand the change they expected to see decades ago. 

The fall of a regime begins with an acute political crisis brought on by the government’s inability to deal with a problem. The four percent increase in subway fares certainly serves as an example of an acute crisis that reflected the government’s larger inability to address economic concerns in Chile. Access to transportation affects all Chileans, meaning the hike in subway fares was a driving impetus for collective anger. This modest crisis brought popular grievances to life in Chile and opened up a dialogue for dissent. Julio Pinto, a professor at the University of Santiago who studies social movements, notes that Chile’s economic growth has been uneven over the past three decades. Pinto said, “what’s really new this time around is that all of these tensions flared up together in an explosion that covered the entire country and almost every social sector with a unison that hasn’t happened before.”

The brutal crackdown in response to protest effectively delegitimized the government and led Chileans to side with those seeking change. No matter what the status quo government does in response to revolutionary beginnings, its lack of popular support will hinder its governance capabilities. In response to demonstrations, the government pledged to introduce social reforms and economic services, but it was too little too late for many Chileans. Direct, violent action against the insurgent group can lead to the “opening of Pandora’s box” and drive ordinary citizens to side with the revolutionaries. Because the “insurgent” group’s cause had widespread appeal and garnered mass publicity, the direct approach of counterinsurgency failed epically. 

However, while the stage may be set, a true revolution in Chile has yet to come to fruition. The conditions for an effective uprising are not present as those demanding change lack cohesive organization. The key element to a successful revolution is the replacement of the existing regime based on a specific ideology. The use of small-scale violence against the government by protestors may be inspired by guttural passions but has not been justified by a particular ideology. Furthermore, unlike previous successful revolutions in Chile and across Latin America, there is no clear political leader expressing the demands of the aggrieved and outlining a different form of governance. 

Chileans continue to call for drastic political change and while a violent revolution seems less likely today, if those demanding change were to organize militarily and ideologically, a successful uprising is not inconceivable. A generation of workers, students, and laborers alike feel abandoned by a regime that was supposed to deliver prosperity and the promise of equal economic opportunity to all. If the Chilean government continues to use violence against dissidents and fails to introduce effective economic policies, the subsequent steps of revolution may be carried out by this emboldened generation.