Chile, the story of a fractured country

The country will face several elections this year in a climate marked by social divisions and political tension

A woman with a Mapuche flag celebrates the results of the referendum to write a new Constitution.
A woman with a Mapuche flag celebrates the results of the referendum to write a new Constitution.Sofía Yanjari
Rocío Montes

Chile is going through a time of great social and political unrest. The National Congress of Chile is very fragmented and faces more division as at least 16 people have announced they will be running as candidates in the presidential election in November. There are only three weeks to go before the Constitutional Convention election, where Chileans will choose 155 people to write a new Constitution, the first since the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. And there will also be parliamentary, regional and local elections on this date. But Chile, 31 years since the return of democracy, is facing this historic moment amid great uncertainty. The country is in pieces and there is not even consensus about when it began to break apart, nor if the new Constitution will be able to remedy the problem.

The political class is throwing around populist measures, while the conservative government of President Sebastián Piñera is struggling to stay afloat. Without control of parliament, the executive has not been able to bring an end to the crisis that erupted in 2019, when social uprisings – with no visible leaders – backed the government into a corner. But while most opposition groups want to oust Piñera, there are no potential contenders either or on the left or the right since the project for political renewal has barely happened. Instead, eccentric lawmakers polarize the debate and appeal for cheap applause. And social media is only adding fuel to the fire.

“Historical interpretation is broken in Chile,” says Ascanio Cavallo, a political journalist and the author of important research into the recent past of the country, which is home to nearly 19 million people. According to this journalist, Chileans have very different perspectives on the 2019 social uprisings, the first democratic governments and even on the Pinochet dictatorship. “We don’t even have a name for the [social] upsurge of two years ago. Some talk of uprisings and others of pre-revolution. There is no way to name what happened because there is still no way to understand it,” says Cavallo, who is the author of the book La Historia Oculta de la Transición (or, The Hidden History of the Transition).

The social protests of 2019 came to a complete stop when the coronavirus pandemic hit Chile in March 2020. Like almost all of the world, Chile was plunged into an economic and health crisis. This only compounded the political and social upheaval that had been raging in the country since before the coronavirus, which has officially killed 25,000 Chileans and infected more than one million people. The pandemic found Chile with a weak government. Even with its early purchase of Covid-19 vaccines – which has allowed 49.6% of the “target population” (nearly 16 million people) to receive the first dose and 37.8% the second, quite a record in the region – the government still hasn’t recovered its standing. And the population’s distrust is not only affecting the government, but also political parties from across the ideological spectrum, Congress and all state institutions.

A woman plays violin beside her child in Santiago, the capital of Chile.
A woman plays violin beside her child in Santiago, the capital of Chile.SOFIA YANJARI

For historian Sol Serrano, the promise of prosperity during the transition to democracy and the center-left governments of 1990 to 2010 was not just a mirage. She explains that Chile has modernized very quickly and undergone many changes in the last three decades since the return to democracy. “An open society emerged, with greater access to goods and resources. Not only was there a huge drop in poverty, but also a different, heterogeneous poverty,” says Serrano. “Chile has been one of the countries that has grown most quickly with respect to higher education.” But nowhere in the world is there a perfect formula to adapt to the speed of change, she explains, and “in the case of Chile, it went very quickly from a very hierarchical social structure to a transformation of class structures, which is different from inequality.”

Moving towards “active discontent”

Other experts also have opinions on the multiple crises facing Chile, such as the sociologist Rodrigo Márquez, who is one of the coordinators of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report, which has been warning of the social discontent in the country since at least 1998. “During the following years, there continued to be a strong demand from a society that did not have the conditions for basic security,” he says, referring to the period after 1999. “There were options to move ahead and have a better life than your parents and grandparents, but at a cost that fell short of the sacrifice,” says Márquez. According to the sociologist, what changed was not the sense of unrest but rather the degree of tolerance. “Certain issues became unacceptable,” he explains. “It went from a diffuse discontent to an active discontent over injustices and inequality.”

Márquez, however, does not believe that the average person in Chile is polarized because there has been a “constant and majority call” for change for a long time. According to the sociologist, this is reflected in the results of last October’s referendum where eight in 10 people voted to replace the 1980 Constitution passed during the dictatorship. Marquéz says that divisions in Chile are the result of differences between the part of society “that is calling for transformation and those in power who govern for their convenience and do not want to understand.”

A child plays in San Bernardo, a makeshift settlement home to more than 50 families.
A child plays in San Bernardo, a makeshift settlement home to more than 50 families.Sofía Yanjari

The tension is evident in the language being used. Opposition parties in Congress, for example, used the hashtag #estallido2020 (or #uprising2020) to call for more protests after President Piñera announced last week that he had appealed to the Constitutional Court to stop a bill allowing citizens to withdraw a third 10% tranche from their privately held pension funds. Adriana Valdés, the director of the Chilean Academy of Language, who is active on social media, warned in a message on Twitter that “they are throwing about several powerful words, including ‘genocide’ [to criticize Piñera’s handling of the pandemic]. When these words are needed, they are not going to mean anything. Careful.”

Polarization is not new, says playwright Guillermo Calderón, who is renowned for work focused on Chile’s contemporary history. “It appears as a political expression in the segregation of education, health, cities and the transportation system, which in Chile is ordered by design,” he says. Calderón is not surprised by the rising political tensions and does not mind that they are coming to light. “Before, the entire project was based on a kind of collaboration between a business elite that would bring development to the country and the rest of the country that had to wait for some of the success to reach them,” he says, a situation he describes as a “dishonest trick.”

Contradictory arguments

Karina Nohales, the spokesperson of the Women’s Day march, also has no problem with Chile’s divisions being exposed. According to Nohales, during the transition to democracy an effort was made to build “an image of the country at peace with its contradictions” through language. But since the social uprisings of 2019 “everything is tense and this gives way to a language that is chemically pure of the social antagonisms that existed before,” she says. “They [the elite] begin to say how they really see us.” This is a reference to statements made by Ricardo Ariztía, the head of the National Agriculture Society (SNA), who said that people were not going to work “because they received handouts from the government” as part of coronavirus relief.

A woman takes part in an event in Santiago to mark this year‘s Women‘s Day.
A woman takes part in an event in Santiago to mark this year‘s Women‘s Day.Sofía Yanjari

Anthropologist Pablo Ortúzar speaks of a “ruptured middle class” made up of “politicians, businesspeople and priests marked by the signs of corruption and abuse” and of an “upper class in civil war.” “The fight for power, domination, appearance has become increasingly unforgiving in the context of the elite,” says Ortúzar. “Then, the possibility of pragmatically moving forward down the path that the middle class needs – i.e. the gradual construction and consolidation of a social state with greater guarantees – is blocked from above by the delirium and fury of the dominant groups of all sides.” According to Ortúzar, the populist messages of political leaders are both a way to punish the insolence of the elite and give voice to the middle class.

Resurgence of violence

The call for street protests has not been completely silenced. Violence erupted once again last Tuesday when President Piñera announced that he had appealed the latest pension withdrawal at the Constitutional Court. The decision to allow citizens to withdraw 10% of their pensions had been approved by Congress, and has popular support, given that, according to the government’s critics, economic aid has not reached the people during the pandemic. But experts from across all sectors warn of the difficulty of breaking this system without first having a replacement. Facing opposition from even within his own coalition, Piñera is now negotiating against the clock to overcome this latest political setback.

But the call for street protests has already raised alarm bells in the government. “We are calling on all political groups, on all leaders, not to make calls that incite violence, and instead, to call for calm among citizens at a time when we are in a pandemic,” said Juan Francisco Galli, the undersecretary of the Interior Ministry.

The tense climate in Chile now threatens to tarnish a year in which the South American country will head to the polls to vote in several different elections. On May 15 and 16, Chileans will elect mayors and municipal councilors, the Chilean Constitutional Convention, and for the first time, regional governors – a position previously appointed by the government. In November, there are parliamentary and presidential elections, and in 2022, the text of the new Constitution will be put to a referendum.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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