What the hell is (still) going on in Chile?

Interview conducted by Guilherme Becker

Since October 2019 Chile is (almost literally) on fire. Just to have an idea of the situation, let’s start taking a look at some numbers regarding the protests that since then erupted against the government and the whole social and economic system in the South American country: At least 30 dead as well as thousands injured and jailed. Among the injured, many went blind because of rubber bullets shot by police – it is estimated that more than 200 people have got eye problems. The demonstrations have also affected the daily life, the public transport and the political spectrum. Monuments, buildings and historical places have been constantly damaged, as the streets are still full of people angrily protesting.

That is the summary of something that might have been postponed for decades.

During my internship at Deutsche Welle, in Bonn, I had the opportunity to meet people from different newsrooms. DW has newsrooms in more than 30 different languages, so imagine that it is a piece of the world inside its own world. One of the journalists that I met was José Urrejola, from Chile, who has been covering the whole situation and its developments. With a local perspective but also through an international coverage of the facts, in this interview he explains what is going on in his country, and explicitly argues that “the protests will continue until this president resigns or a ‘miracle’ happens, and he decides to make the changes that people are asking for.”

Euroculturer Magazine: What is actually happening in Chile? Tell us a little bit about the paths that the country took in the last decades and also why the protests erupted now, by the end of last year.

José Urrejola: Firstly we have to put it into context. From my perspective as well from the perspective of many other political experts and scientists, the current problems of Chile originated mainly in the periods of dictatorship and post-dictatorship. During this dark period in Chilean history, with Augusto Pinochet in power, the country established a constitution in which, among other things, gives the country’s economic elite the power to buy and sell whatever they want. Private property is stronger and more protected than what belongs to the state. That has led, for example, to the fact that even something as basic as drinking water supplies belongs to private companies. Even though Chile has actually grown economically speaking after the dictatorship, the wealth has been accumulated among families of the economic elite, and only a small percentage of this money goes to other social classes. The people in Chile are not protesting because of lack of food or because they cannot buy shoes for their children. Chileans are protesting because of a thousand abuses featured by the economic and political elites that have ruled the country over the last three decades, after the return to democracy, in 1990. People are demanding “dignity”, that is, systems that cover basic needs, with a decent health system, a decent pension system and qualified education, among other things. It is hoped that with the plebiscite for a new constitution new systems can be established for the society.

EM: The government has already pointed out signs for reforms, but the protests continue. Do you believe in a possible deadline for the protests?

JU: It doesn’t matter which reform this government establishes, nothing will satisfy the demands of the people. The president Sebastián Piñera, one of the richest men in Chile, represents the questionable economic elite. He is not the right man to solve this crisis. Basically, if he was up to accept the reforms claimed by the citizens and subsequently change the system, structurally speaking, he and other rich people would be affected and would have to give up the power. Therefore, the protests are going to continue until this president resigns or a “miracle” occurs and he decides to make the changes that the people are asking for.

EM: Do you believe that the riots were already predicted by all sides of it, government and students, unions and the social classes most affected by liberal policies? I mean, they all knew that one day it was going to happen?

JU: Personally I don’t believe people who say “we didn’t see it was coming” or “we didn’t know this could happen”. This social outburst was foreshadowed some years ago, but no one really took it seriously. We can agree that it took long for Chileans to show their dissatisfaction, that they were “asleep” and allowing these abuses for a long time. However, I would describe this as a ticking bomb that sooner or later was going to explode and the trigger was those 30 Pesos in the transport (the demonstrations started after the Chilean government has raised the price of public transport tickets).

EM: How do you face the fact of students now having migrated the protest to the intellectual part of the process? In this case, in Chile, you have to take a test to get into universities, and the students said that this year they will not take this test. What do you think about this and which can be the consequences of this act?

JU: Well, the first people that started doing something regarding the price of the public transport tickets were high school students. It’s the young people who started moving the country. And we could say that this social explosion was “agglutinating” because it binds up all the demands of the citizens: health, education, pensions etc. In the case of the education sector, young students are aware that the Prueba de Selección Universitaria (University Selection Test) is part of the bad Chilean education system. This test endorses social segmentation: while the richest have a better education through a private system, those with less income do not get high scores and have no options to study. In addition, they are forced to get into debt if they want to study. Therefore the problem is not the final test, but the education system that results in enormous differences through income levels. Regarding the actions taken by young people, unfortunately they could not manage to change anything by boycotting the test. Perhaps they managed to get people talking about it, but the underlying problems are rather structural in society. The fault is not the test itself, even though I don’t think it’s good either because it only measures knowledge and not skills.

EM: More liberal sectors have said that the situation in Chile could be even worse if liberal policies had not been launched in recent decades. In this case, these people want to say that Chile could be in an even worse financial situation. What do you think about that?

JU: Part of the society is asking for an overall change in the country’s economic system. I don’t think that’s possible. To me it seems that it is not arguable that Chile has grown through liberal policies in recent years. Meanwhile the wealth has mainly remained with the economic elite, as I mentioned earlier, and just a small percentage of that went to the rest of the society. Chile still has a neoliberal or capitalist system, whatever you want to call it. Nevertheless the country is not growing anymore. It is stagnated, though that meets the current financial situation in a global context. So it is not because the system in Chile is effective or not. Anyway the problems of the Chilean economy are different: it is not dynamic, it is an old-fashioned economy, in which the exploitation of raw materials such as copper, lithium, agriculture and wine are its main markets. If Chile is not capable of developing in terms of innovation, technology or industries, it does not matter what model it has: it will not grow economically. In modern times, it is also necessary to aim at a circular economy, with a focus on the environment. Chile is far away from this and it does happen precisely because of the country’s economic elite. Most of these people are concerned in accumulating more wealth for their personal well-being.

EM: In your point of view, what is the future of Chile and Latin America?

JU: It’s hard to answer this question. In Chile, I don’t see a possible short-term solution. The first thing the country should do is changing the constitution, which was idealized during the dictatorship. Otherwise the economic elite will continue to rule the country. But even if a new Magna Carta is written, there is still a long way to define which society the country wants to build, which pension system, which health system, which education system, among other important ones. In Latin America, I believe that we should focus our efforts on promoting policies that are aligned with the global context, that is, adopting a circular economy, concerned with the environment, and also fighting against the continent’s economic inequality. However, I do not imagine that this will happen soon, unfortunately.

Picture: Nelson Anguita, protestas Santiago, Flickr

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