Santiago

Dubbed by some “Chile’s Winter,” fierce demonstrations in recent months have transformed one of Latin America’s most stable countries into an epicenter of protest. Marches involving tens of thousands over education cutbacks and a Patagonia dam project have become regular events since May, shaking this country’s long-held image abroad as an island of good governance.

The first protests were against plans to build a series of five large-scale hydroelectric dams in the country’s Patagonia region. When a Patagonia environmental commission voted nearly unanimously on May 9 to approve a scheme to dam two of the country’s most treasured rivers, Chileans reacted with a fervor against their government on a scale not seen here since a 1988 plebiscite to unseat former dictator Augusto Pinochet.

The HidroAysén project—co-owned by the Spanish electric utility Endesa and Chile’s privately held Colbún energy company—would not just heavily damage wild rivers. It would clear a path two football fields wide and 1,300 miles long to install an electric line containing towers as tall as twenty-five-story buildings. Aptly dubbed by one writer a Great Wall of Deforestation, the world’s longest transmission line would clearcut its path through six national parks, eleven national reserves, twenty-six sites deemed priorities for conservation, sixteen wetlands and thirty-two private protection areas.

On the day the project was approved, several thousand people were organized to protest in more than a dozen cities and towns, primarily through social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Four days after the government approved the dams, more than 30,000 people marched through the center of the capital, Santiago, to La Moneda, the presidential palace. The organizers, accustomed to having at most a few thousand at past environmental protests, were astounded. One week later some 60,000 marched in the capital demanding Patagonia Without Dams.

HidroAysén and some of its supporters place much of the blame for the protests on foreign backers. But while it is true that some funding has come from foreign environmentalists and foundations, this is overwhelmingly a Chilean grassroots phenomenon. In fact, most of the Chilean groups organizing against the dams are vastly underfunded. The government’s ham-handed actions have been more effective in mobilizing Chileans than have foreign money, social media or beauty shots of Patagonia’s rivers.

In a pattern often repeated in countries like Brazil (which is pushing the massive Belo Monte dam project in the Amazon, which if completed would be the world’s third-largest), Chilean officials disrespected public opinion and Chile’s environmental institutions to ram through approval of the $10 billion investment. More than 11,000 observations, mostly negative, were filed by citizens in a public consultation period, and a third of the thirty-two government agencies that reviewed the dams found serious problems and recommended rejection of an environmental permit. Regional employees from Chile’s forest service openly complained to press and politicians that their superiors in Santiago changed their negative evaluations of the dams to help grease approval. Said center-right Chilean Senator Antonio Horvath: “The environmental institutions of this country have been violated. Unfortunately, the central government…made clear they wanted regional authorities to vote in favor, and that’s what has happened.”

Taking a page from HidroAysén’s propaganda campaign (in one TV commercial, the lights go out in a hospital while surgeons perform an operation), right-wing Chilean President Sebastián Piñera has argued that without the dams Chileans will face severe power outages by the end of the decade. But this vastly exaggerates the country’s energy needs. Under the president’s forecast, Chile’s per capita electricity use would surpass the state of California’s in 2020 and that of the entire United States by 2030.

Also in May, historic student protests closely followed on the heels of the dam protests, with even greater force. By late June more than 100,000 students and their supporters were marching in Santiago against reduced government funding for colleges, which has brought about one of the most expensive higher education systems in the world and spiraling student debt. Demonstrators shut down the remainder of the school year for dozens of schools. Chile’s government has tried just about everything to quash the protests, including often violent responses from police using tear gas, water cannons and clubs, along with proposed legislation to prevent student uprisings by criminalizing “takeovers” of schools or public buildings.

Five years ago, high school students demonstrated en masse to protest crumbling secondary schools and their role in perpetuating one of the world’s largest gaps between rich and poor. The “penguin revolution,” as it was called for the black-and-white uniforms of the younger students, ultimately spurred the center-left government of President Michelle Bachelet to boost education budgets, but Chile’s Congress blocked attempts to adopt systemic reforms and avoided higher education altogether.

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At the root of current protests, at least in part, is Chile’s neoliberal economic model, introduced by the Pinochet dictatorship in the 1980s. For too long the economy has been managed by an elite political class and large corporations more concerned with economic growth and profits than what that growth is based on. In the case of the dams, when Chile privatized its energy utility in the last year of the dictatorship, it handed over to Endesa more than 90 percent of rights to the country’s rivers, subsidizing a highly profitable dam industry that does not come close to paying the full costs to the country’s economy and environment. For Chile’s education system, privatization through a subsidized voucher system has led to an increasingly stratified society, with underfunded, underperforming public schools.

Neither controversy seems close to resolution. In early October an appeals court rejected anti-dam lawsuits filed by several politicians, environmental groups and citizen organizations; now the case has landed in Chile’s Supreme Court. And recently a dialogue between students and the government broke down. “They keep backing the same model where the market rules, where the funding first goes to private universities through subsidies, scholarships, vouchers, loans and more debts. And we will not tolerate it,” said 23-year-old Camila Valejo, one of the student leaders.

Despite economic growth of more than 6 percent since he took office last year, President Piñera has an approval rating of just 26 percent. A week after the dams were approved, La Tercera, Chile’s second-largest newspaper, published a poll in which 74 percent of Chileans said they opposed the dams and would be willing to spend more on their electric bills to protect the environment.

Whatever happens in the months ahead, it’s clear that the country has changed. Chileans of all ages are rebelling against an economic system that brings prosperity to a few and widens the gap between rich and poor. Thanks to a new generation that grew up unscarred by the Pinochet dictatorship, Chileans are challenging the destructive social and environmental consequences of a flawed development model—and shaping a more equitable and sustainable future.