When protesters first took to the streets of Chile a few weeks ago, the country’s president, Sebastián Piñera, responded by declaring “we are in a state of war” and deployed the Chilean military to repress demonstrations for the first time in almost three decades. But despite the brutal repression — which has led to thousands of arrests and the deaths of more than a dozen — the people have remained defiant.
On Oct. 22, Piñera said he would address the “legitimate demands” of the Chilean people, but that didn’t send the people back to their homes. More than 1 million people mobilized on Friday, prompting Piñera to reshuffle his cabinet on Monday. For critics, the president was merely attempting to buy some time, without presenting a clear legislative plan in response to protesters’ demands.
Chile is often considered an exceptional case in Latin America: a country with a stable electoral democracy, long-standing political parties and strong economic growth. However, Chile is also characterized by high levels of inequality, increasingly unaffordable education and housing, pensions that do not guarantee a dignified old age, and accelerated growth to the cost of living coupled with stagnating salaries.
But the worst and deepest flaw in the Chilean system is its institutional architecture. Chile is governed by a constitution created during the authoritarian government of Augusto Pinochet, who ruled the country from 1973 until 1990.
Before Pinochet took power via a U.S.-backed coup, Chile had been a democracy for 93 years. In fact, it was the most robust, stable, and long-lived democracy in Latin America. Pinochet was forced by widespread popular resistance to relinquish authority by the end of the 1980s, but not without ensuring at least three things: Pinochet would retain an irrevocable position of senator-for-life; the military would have amnesty and immunity from prosecution (for crimes including the killing of an estimated 3,000 civilians); and the constitution of 1980 would not be altered significantly by the transition to democracy.
The constitution itself makes any significant attempt at reform impossible, with supermajority requirements over a bicameral system. As a result, any attempt to change the system — in terms of the distribution of political power, the economic model, or the role of the state — requires the support of right-wing parties that supported the military regime. This rigidity has encouraged a political model monopolized by traditional parties, in effect marginalizing citizens in policy design. This has produced a growing distance between parties and society.
Many in the media have blamed radical young men wearing hoods and masks for the unrest — using the the president and the military’s rhetoric aiming to portray the protesters as “violent” and “terrorists.” However, despite some isolated incidents of property damage, the majority of protests have been made up of women and men of all ages banging pots and pans, chanting, and peacefully demanding meaningful change.
Today, the conditions needed to foster a true vibrant democracy are almost nonexistent in Chile. Curfews have violated the freedom of transit, prosecutors have been ordered not to provide information about the abuses committed by police and the military, and the government has steadily misled the population about the situation.
Similarly, social and alternative media have been censored, which has facilitated the mainstream media and the state in staging and televising falsified acts of looting and vandalism, sometimes committed by military police themselves, as caught on video. These portrayals and narratives aim to lend legitimacy to the militarization in the streets, but they have failed to stop the protests.
Short-term solutions are unlikely. Society demands profound changes to a political and economic model created by a dictatorship and insulated against change. A possible solution would be the design of a new constitution, but this seems unlikely under the current government.
Chile today is rising up to transform an institutional model that has increased inequality for decades and excluded the population in decision-making. For now, the government has three alternatives: maintain repression, yield to constitutional change, or submit its resignation.
We never thought we would say this, but Chile does not pass any democracy test, even using “minimalist” definitions. Our hope is that these days will become lessons for everyone.
Rodrigo Espinoza Troncoso is a professor of political science at Universidad Diego Portales in Santiago, Chile. Michael Wilson Becerril is a scholar completing a book manuscript on resistance to extractivism in Latin America.