Santiago, Chile—I woke up early on October 20 after the city’s first night with a curfew since 1987. When I stepped outside, no one was in the streets, and the remains of a crude barricade and a traffic light lay piled near my apartment. A couple of blocks away, a pharmacy had been looted and the burnt husks of six buses sat in the middle of the road. When a tank with a soldier peeping out from the hatch passed in front of me, I almost cried.
For someone who grew up during a military dictatorship, the idea of the Army patrolling the city is terrifying and heartbreaking. That Sunday morning, as I walked through my neighborhood, I wondered: What was wrong in Chile?
I stopped at Plaza Italia, the heart of Santiago, where every big demonstration takes place. A group of students was there, hanging a sheet with a scrawled message: Por Una Vida Digna, No Más Negocios Con Nuestras Vidas—“For a dignified life, no more business with our lives.” To me, that sentence summarizes the protesters’ demands.
What sparked the unrest may sound trivial, but it speaks to the core of the anger. After the analysis of a panel of experts, the government announced in early October that the price of a subway ride was going to increase by 30 pesos (4 cents). The fare rise triggered the protest of high school students, who began jumping subway turnstiles. By October 18, there were massive fare dodges that were treated by the government as crimes, not protests.
That day, after the subway stations closed in the middle of the afternoon, the riots started. In the evening, when the demonstrations had spread across the city, someone shared in social media a photo of President Sebastián Piñera dining in a restaurant in an expensive neighborhood. The fury increased.
Protesters burned subway stations and looted supermarkets. The government declared a constitutional state of emergency and gave control of the security to the Army. Since then, tens of thousands of citizens have gathered every day to rally against the government.
How did a small increase of the subway fare spark the biggest crisis since the return of democracy in 1990?
The keyword is inequality. “Chile awoke” is one of the most popular slogans of the protests, signaling that the population is finally reacting to social injustices. Social discontent is fueled by inequality and an economic system that allows private businesses to profit from and control public resources.
It was during the dictatorship that the government built many of the pillars of the current system. Under the advice of University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman and his “Chicago boys,” the military government privatized various public institutions, started to push public education toward a voucher system, and sucked resources out of the the health system by allowing rich people to rely on private insurance. Even the water was privatized.
These maneuvers help explain the current crisis. Despite economic growth and a decrease in poverty, a sense of unfairness persists. In 2017, the United Nations Development Program published a report called “Unequal. Origins, changes and challenges in Chile’s social divide.” The inequality data contained in that research gets to the heart of the anger.
After Mexico, Chile is the second-most-unequal country among the 36 members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, according to the Gini coefficeint, a commonly used measure of inequality. The gap is huge: 0.1 percent of the richest Chileans capture 19.5 percent of the country’s income. Despite statistics that show a decrease in inequality, polls show an increase in the percentage of Chileans who feel that the gulf between rich and poor is too wide. From 2000 to 2016, according to UNDP data, that number jumped from 42 percent to 52 percent.
While there are subsidies to help vulnerable citizens, salaries remain low. Half of Chileans earn less than $550 a month, too little for expensive cities like Santiago. About that same percentage of Chileans do not earn enough to sustain a family, according to UNDP metrics.
In 1982, the military dictatorship privatized the retirement system with the promise of better conditions for the elderly. Today, half of retired Chileans earn less than $193 a month, which is less than half the monthly minimum income of $400.
Inequality has consequences beyond income. A UNDP poll showed that 41 percent of the people acknowledge having experienced some kind of mistreatment, mostly based on class and gender. In interviews, Chileans declared that the way you look determines the way people treat you: If you are dressed as a blue-collar worker in a shopping center, people look at you as a criminal, one man told the UNDP.
To some extent, race and class are linked because of segregation. Rich people in Chile tend to be whiter, and the poor are more likely to have indigenous roots. Because of a lack of social mobility, the ethnic wealth gap has endured through centuries.
In cities like Santiago, social segregation is dramatic. Rich and poor neighborhoods are clearly divided, and people with different backgrounds do not mix as peers.
Educational segregation is even more stark than in housing. The international Pisa test shows that kids who attend public schools perform slightly better than Mexicans, while Chilean kids in private schools perform as well as German or Finnish students, which is significantly better than the average US student.
Beyond data, the feeling among a large swath of the Chilean population is that rich people get special privileges and that private companies with high profits control their day to day life. People feel constantly abused. That is why dignity is a strong word these days.
At start of the unrest, the authorities focused on violence and vandalism, ignoring the root causes. It took President Piñera five days to announce a social agenda, which included raising the monthly minimum income to $480 and a 20 percent increase in the lowest pensions.
But Piñera’s plan does not change the underlying structures of the system. Except for a marginal tax increase for high incomes, privilege remains untouched.
As I write this piece, the statistics of recent days are dramatic: 19 deaths, 2,840 detainees, 295 people wounded with firearms.
We are starting our sixth night of curfew. Every evening, before the start of the curfew, people coordinate to open their windows and play a song by Víctor Jara, a folk singer killed during the regime of Augusto Pinochet. The song is called “El Derecho de Vivir en Paz”—The Right to Live in Peace. To achieve that long-term peace, we need to first address our unequal society.