On October 25, an estimated 1.2 million Chileans gathered in Plaza Italia—now designated as “Dignity Plaza”—in the capital of Santiago to protest ingrained socioeconomic disparity, vast systemic corruption, and other government abuses. Ever since Augusto Pinochet imposed Milton Friedman’s “free market” ideology of privatization on Chile during his military dictatorship, the country has pursued neoliberal economic policies. Chile is one of Latin America’s most prosperous countries, but it also ranks among the 20 most unequal nations on the globe, with the top 1 percent holding 33 percent of the country’s wealth, according to the World Bank. This has led to deep social and economic divisions.
The October 25 expression of people power was largely peaceful, but since the protest movement exploded on October 18—triggered by an increase in subway fares and led by Chilean students—vandalism, looting, rioting, and the burning of metro stations and other buildings and businesses have become an almost daily occurrence in Chilean cities, along with many other forms of opposition to the status quo. The security forces have responded with great violence: In the first month of protests, 22 people were killed and more than 2,000 injured—many by police brutality. Over 200 Chileans have been blinded by rubber bullets fired by police at point-blank range, and more than 6,000 have been arrested. As the protests continue, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, the Organization of American States, and Amnesty International are all investigating evidence of human rights abuses committed by the government of conservative President Sebastián Piñera. The Chilean Congress is now weighing a motion to remove him from office.
During a visit to Santiago on November 22, Nation contributor Peter Kornbluh sat down with award-winning Chilean journalist Mónica González Mujica to obtain her unique perspective on these dramatic events. González has had a long, prolific career as a writer, editor, and investigative reporter in Chile, exposing the human rights crimes of the Pinochet regime and documenting political and economic corruption in the post-Pinochet era. In 2002 she founded and directed a weekly magazine, Siete+7; in 2005, she founded and became executive editor of the daily newspaper Diario Siete. In 2007, she cofounded (with US journalist John Dinges) the Center for Investigative Journalism (CIPER), where she was executive editor until earlier this year. González just received Chile’s highest media honor, the National Journalism Award, in recognition of her 40-year career that, according to the award committee, “has honored the profession” and “supported the return of freedom of expression and democracy in Chile.”
Peter Kornbluh: One of the dominant battle cries of the dramatic protest movement in your country is “¡Chile Despertó!” (Chile Awoke!) Can you share with us what that means?
Mónica González: It means just that. People have made a connection between the quality of their lives and the systematic corruption of Chilean businesses and the multinational corporations and the systematic fraud in Congress that involves all politicians—which is why there are no political party flags waving in the demonstrations.
The eyes of the Chilean people have opened; they are acting accordingly. Some are protesting. Others are involved in permanent town hall meetings [cabildos]. This last week I have been invited to attend 25 cabildos in Concepción, Antofagasta, and Valparaíso, and others in Santiago. The people are mobilized. They have found each other again, and they don’t want to go back to their homes alone. That is beautiful. Chileans have found their identity with people they didn’t even know. Some families, of course, have had conflicts and have broken apart. But this fracture is much less ideological than in 1973 [when the US-backed military coup took place]. Now it is the people against the elite.
PK: How do you think President Sebastián Piñera has handled this crisis?
MG: Piñera is completely paralyzed, overwhelmed, and outnumbered. He does not have the capacity to deal with this. But I don’t know if there is anyone who would have that capacity.
Let’s be clear: This popular rebellion, whose dimensions we still do not understand, caught us all by surprise. This caught us completely unprepared, some more than others.
PK: So, the fact that all hell broke loose in Chile in mid-October was completely unexpected?
MG: Yes and no. First, I’ll tell you why it wasn’t a surprise. I have been working intensely over the past 12 years, since we founded CIPER [Chile’s leading online investigative news outlet], on corruption. I knew that it was a problem, but I had not realized how systematic the problem was, and how profoundly Chile’s institutions were corrupted across the board.
The corruption of the system is the mother of what is happening to us now. The relationship between politics and private money has corrupted the republic and our democracy, and, finally, the very soul of this country. People believe in nothing, and they believe in no one. That’s where we are.
PK: And the depth of anger among Chilean citizens? Did that surprise you?
MG: The level of discontent does not surprise me. Since 2011 there have been a series of huge, multimillion-dollar financial scandals involving the major economic actors in this country. These scandals have resulted in no jail time for anyone. So you have this series of scandals that shook people, and the impunity provoked great indignation. The cumulative effect of that indignation resulted in this current social explosion.
What I didn’t realize was that people had reached such a level of clarity about the putrefaction of Chile’s economic system. I underestimated the indignation and frustration of the people of Chile. Santiago in some areas looks as if it has been bombed, and getting from one sector of the city to another is incredibly difficult.
There is a tremendous level of violence—rioting, looting—which provokes great fear. But that fear is much less than the anger and the rage that people feel; much less than the desire to say “Enough!”
PK: Share with us some of the specific grievances of the Chilean public that have fueled the protest movement.
MG: I’ll give you a list. The list has to do with the system, which is not a free-market system but a system of accumulation and monopolies where multinational economic groups play a huge role.
For example: One focus of discontent is the system of retirement pensions. Chile doesn’t have a social security system like the majority of Europe. We had a social security system before the  coup. But the dictatorship [of Augusto Pinochet] eliminated it, and in subsequent decades of democracy we have not been able to recover that social security system. The majority of the accumulation of capital is held by seven private AFPs [Administradoras de Fondos de Pensiones, five of which are controlled by US banks and insurance companies, including Prudential and Metlife]—the creation of the military dictatorship which [the Pinochetistas] tout as one of its greatest economic successes. That’s a total lie.
This privatized retirement system is one of obligatory savings; it is not voluntary. It was created in the 1980s and was implemented by force. The system currently has over 10 million participants. All workers must participate. It was sold to the Chilean public on the claim that people would retire with 75 percent of their most recent salaries. A lie.
In fact, the pensions that people receive are truly miserable. An average pension for a man is $492 per month. For women, on average, $295 per month. It’s lunacy!
Education is another problem. In 2011, there was a huge [student] uprising to protest the poor quality of education and the profits being made off of university students. Eight years have passed and there is still no legislation addressing those issues. At CIPER, we exposed how each university was taking money from profiteers, how their educational systems were substandard, how the universities purchased their accreditation, and how students were becoming deeply indebted to pay for tuition, in order to obtain a degree that is worth absolutely nothing. But the prosecutors who undertook that investigation were not able to punish anyone because, in the end, it is legal fraud.
A third, widespread grievance is the crime of collusion—price-fixing. There has been price-fixing in the supermarkets, on the cost of chicken, and collusion in fixing inter-urban bus fares. There was the major scandal of the Matte Group, which controls paper production in Brazil and in Chile, where they colluded with a Swedish company for years to artificially raise the price of diapers and toilet paper.
In the middle of the Matte Group scandal in 2016, the Chilean Congress passed a law to increase the punishment for those who engaged in price-fixing, but of course no one from the Matte Group was sent to prison. Indeed, since that law was passed, not a single criminal case has been brought forth to the National Economic Prosecutor. Zero! Not one.
But the most egregious criminal price-fixing cases involve the pharmaceutical industry. Three multinational companies dominate the Chilean market. And they have colluded to keep the prices of medicine extremely high. This scandal provoked a high level of public indignation. Just in the past 48 hours the Fiscalía Nacional Económica released a new report stating that the cartel of pharmaceutical corporations that control the Chilean market allocates $200 million per year to bribe doctors to prescribe their products. Because of the lack of penalties and regulations, you have medications that go from 100 percent more than their value up to 400 percent more.
Only now, in the middle of this uprising, has the Chilean Congress focused on approving a law enabling the government to regulate the prices of medications.
PK: One concrete result of the demonstrations has been an agreement between the government and the political parties to replace Chile’s Pinochet-era Constitution, which safeguards the privatization of the economy and impedes socioeconomic change. The accord calls for a referendum in April for the Chilean people to vote on how to proceed in drafting a new Constitution. How do you see this process and the success of accomplishing it?
MG: I see it as very dangerous and uncertain, and also as hopeful. Everything related to the chastity belt they—the military regime—put around this democracy is spelled out in the Constitution. For example, the AFPs [that control retirement funds] are tied to the Constitution. All labor union activities were destroyed during the dictatorship, and the Constitution prohibits them from reorganizing. Collective bargaining is prohibited.
For the first time, the Chilean people are making that connection, but they also see the long process of arriving at a new Constitution as distant from their needs and demands. They want action now! They want to see the electric bills go down, they want to see water bills go down, they want to see pensions increased.
But I also see the rich as very fearful, I see the economic groups as very fearful, and so I imagine there is forceful pressure on the government to restore order in the streets.
PK: Let’s talk about the government’s attempts to restore order in the face of daily rioting and looting. The shadow of Pinochet’s human rights atrocities hangs over Piñera’s efforts to confront the social upheaval. At the same time, the Chilean police, known as the Carabineros, have engaged in egregious human rights violations, including shooting young protesters in the face with rubber bullets, deliberately blinding or partially blinding hundreds of them. These abuses have become a worldwide symbol of Chile’s new repression.
MG: It is a very powerful symbol of the repression, but of course it is much more than a symbol. When you see young people who have lost an eye, in some cases both eyes, it’s a brutal thing. So we are talking about 60,000 Carabineros stationed throughout Chile, and they are very dangerous. Because they feel free to kill.
What is clear is that the police knew that they weren’t supposed to shoot the pellets at a range of less than 20 meters, but they have violated that policy over and over again. Not only do we have 220 people who have lost an eye, we also have over 1,000 people who have been severely injured and hospitalized as a result of the pellets. On top of that, there are an additional 400 people injured by bullets. If you add all this together, this is huge catastrophe. These abuses must be punished.
PK: What will the impact of this protest movement be on Chile? Is this a turning point in Chilean history?
MG: Chile will not, for better or for worse, be the same as it was before. We are used to earthquakes, and they usually last a maximum of five minutes. We say OK, it’s over, and we begin to rebuild. This situation, however, is like a hurricane. Chile will never be the same because this hurricane is not ending anytime soon, and I don’t know where it will take us.
I believe that this explosion of protests—which reminds us of the dictatorship because of the violence involved—has shown us a face of Chile that we didn’t recognize. I never witnessed anything like this during the Popular Unity government [of Salvador Allende in the early 1970s] or even under President Eduardo Frei in the 1960s.
As we are speaking today, the hurricane has become harsher; it has developed more powerful winds. We are in a very delicate period, because the social violence has become even harsher, and much of it is orchestrated by organized crime. In order to rob gun factories, the looters used weapons typically used by organized crime. They set off fireworks in [Santiago’s] Plaza Italia, and these are typically used by narco-traffickers to announce that a shipment is arriving or leaving. The narcos are one of the main winners of this month’s protests, because not every burned-out and looted supermarket, pharmacy, and bank will be rebuilt in those peripheral poblaciones, where poor people reside. That vacuum will be filled by the narcos. I am sure that they are there and they are present in all those lootings. It’s become a territorial and very unequal struggle, because we are fighting for more democracy, not for destruction. So we don’t know where this will lead us.
This is the first time we are confronting a power that is different from what we have confronted in the past. Today, there is an “elite” that represents the real power of the multinationals, which are complicit with those who hold local economic power [the 1 percent]. Piñera is one of 11 billionaires in Chile. Essentially, we have multinational corporations and the 1 percent of the richest against the majority of the people.
I have watched the rich put on their war paint, because they are terrified. They’re not buying anything. They’re taking their dollars out of the country, because they also do not know where this will end. We are in uncharted territory, where everyone is trying to measure their strength, but no one knows what they will ultimately confront.
PK: Historically, Chile has been a pioneering nation. Are Chileans capable of creating a new model for change that addresses the problem plaguing so many nations—economic inequality? What is your hope for a model that Chile could create for the rest of the world?
MG: You know, yesterday I heard the song of the Chilean music group Prisioneros called “El baile de los que sobran” (“The Dance of the Leftover People”) being sung during protests in another Latin American nation, Colombia. [This song, which became popular in Chilean protests against the Pinochet regime in the 1980s, has now been revived as an anthem of the current protest movement.] I shuddered. It reminded me that after the  coup I started hearing “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido” [“The People United Will Never Be Defeated,” the 1973 song by Sergio Ortega and Quilapayún that was an anthem of the Allende government] being sung in so many other countries. And that I don’t want. But I like “El baile de los que sobran” because of that phrase, “No one really wanted to help us.” In truth, that’s how it is. Now these young people sing these lyrics: “No one really wanted to help us. Join the dance of the leftover people. Take my hand, look at me, touch me, we are together.”
We will see if we are capable of constructing and engaging in dialogue, of finding each other, and to have the patience to engage in dialogue to achieve a new Constitution, and to strongly press for a new social agenda so that people do see actual change.
I see three scenarios:
1) The rich will say, OK, it’s over, the narcos and thugs are in control of the streets, this is no longer feasible, we will declare a state of emergency and bring the military back into the streets in order to ensure order for as long as necessary. So I see the possibility of a military coup, but one where nobody could say, “Yes, there was a military coup.” That is the worst-case scenario.
2) Things calm down, with continued isolated incidents. Young people become tired, and older people have to go back to work, because people have to eat. Everything gets postponed until March, when we have a new explosion because of capital flight and the dire poverty that results from the collapse of the economy amid this ongoing upheaval. That is a very possible scenario.
3) We start to rebuild. Despite the fact that we will continue to see isolated incidents because young people have lost their fear, we start to advance in preparations to vote in April to change the Constitution, with a constituent assembly—an independent elected body voted for with 100 percent of the citizenry participating—and progress in setting a new social agenda. In other words, a democracy with all its ups and downs, but constructing a true democracy.
In Chile today you find many young people participating in the protests who say, “I am doing this for me and my parents, or for me and my grandparents because they don’t make enough to eat or to cover their medication.” And that is the truth. I have never heard of anything like this in my entire life, even when I was a young girl, the daughter of a worker. We have actually seen cases of grandparents committing suicide. They don’t make enough to survive. And that is why I have a seen a rebirth of a word that my father, who was an important labor leader in railroads, used—that is the word “dignity.”
That is a word we lost in 1973, when the military coup took place. And we have not been able to recuperate that term again. But now “dignity” reemerges in its glory and majesty. In other words, we will continue to struggle until that word becomes the norm, and the reality.