Young Chileans and the Fate of a Nation

This article originally appeared in The Generation Spring 2020 print edition. The theme for this edition is “Youth Voices.” A link to our online version of the print publication can be found here: 

“But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us I say we will never forgive you.” Young climate phenom Greta Thunberg delivered this line in a speech at a Climate Action Summit at the United Nations on September 23, 20191. While Greta wrote this about the climate catastrophe that young people are doomed to inherit, this statement reflects an awareness that is spreading like wildfire (I am so sorry Australian and Californian readers) among young activists around the world. While older generations have had the luxury and the privilege of making decisions rooted in more short term reasoning, young people are constantly burdened by long term and structural issues that are quickly propelling them towards a variety of intolerable and even unsurvivable circumstances. This can be observed first hand in Chile. Recently, Thunberg shared a photo of current protests in Chile on her Instagram with the caption, “A beautiful sight. 1 million people in the streets of Santiago. My thoughts are with the people of Chile…”12 

Chile, a long narrow country that winds down the Western coast of Latin America, is a relatively new democracy and no stranger to corruption. When the transition to a democractic state began in 1989, marked by the presidency of Patricio Aylwin, he quickly created the National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation. In February of 1991 the Commission released the Rettig Report2 on human rights violations committed during the preceding military rule which counted no less than 2,279 proved and registered “disappearances,” which conveniently silenced dissenters and people who spoke out against the regime. In the decades since, Chile has seen several iterations of student led protests that illustrate that younger generations are not settling for old habits. 

The March of the Penguins – 2006

In 2006, students took to the streets in response to an announcement outlining an increase in fees related to their schooling and a restriction in the use of their transportation passes. The Guardian3 reported that these protests, referred to as The March of the Penguins, drew their strength from the internet and cell phones. The students had been using this emerging technology to “[rewrite] the rules of dissent with their ability instantly to organise marches and make collective decisions.” They also noted that the organizers had an average age of 16, with the youngest being no older than eleven, and all of whom “organise forums and debate the right to a free education, turning their break into a civics lesson.” The movement became much larger and ended up calling for structural changes in the Chilean education system. The protests grew violent and over a thousand students were arrested or injured. Public opinion about how the government handled the protests was highly critical and this paved the way for the students to ultimately be invited to join a presidential advisory committee where more long term changes could be discussed. Although there were no sudden or drastic changes, these protests were the first insight into what Chilean Youth could do when they united behind an issue. 

Chilean Winter – 2011 to 2013

In August of 2011, student led protests broke out once again. A mere 5 years after the March of the Penguins, students called for a radical overhaul of the education system. The Nation said numbers reached over 60,000 and similarly to the 2006 protests, “the root of current protests, at least in part, is Chile’s neoliberal economic model…”6 Neoliberalism is rooted in deregulation policies while de-emphasizing any kind of state welfare programs. In Chile, this led to a huge disparity in quality of education that was available to those who had access to wealth and those who did not. Student protestors were calling for more direct state participation in secondary education and an end to the existence of profit in higher education. The protests spread up and down the country but turned violent. On August 4th, more than 900 people were arrested and nearly 100 police officers were injured from the outbursts of violence. Ultimately, the government and the students were able to work out a deal that brought the protests to a close.

Unlike previous protests, this round depended on Facebook and Twitter to rally support. A legacy from the days of Pinochet, this younger generation, raised in a democracy, was watching policies that predated them create a future that they didn’t want. People across the country took to the streets for “cacerolazos”5, a form of protests in which pots and pans are banged together. This form of dissent hadn’t been used since Pinochet was President, and now was being revived for a new kind of protest.  Ordinary Chileans have staged nightly cacerolazos, or “saucepan protests”4 which was especially interesting because it complements the underlying dependency on technology that is needed to both organize and report on these protests. These protests mark a bridge between historical approaches to voicing dissent while combining with new forms of technology and communication channels that allowed the movement to gain momentum. 

2019 Chilean Protests

As of writing this, in November of 2019, protests focused on income inequality have been pervasive throughout the country for roughly two months. Similarly to proceeding protests, the inciting action that spurred the protest is a microcosm of what the larger trends and issues at stake. It all started with a 0.30 peso ($0.04) raise in the cost of metro fare but protestors’ list of grievances includes the poor quality of public health care and education, low wages and rising cost of living, and meager pensions that Chileans receive in old age.13 These are not new issues. The problems faced in Chile are the result of policies that have been in place for decades. Ali H. Soufa, chief executive of The Soufan Group, a security intelligence agency told the New York Times, “It’s young people who have had enough. This new generation are not buying into what they see as the corrupt order of the political and economic elite in their own countries. They want a change.”7

Students have resorted to mass fare evasion by jumping over metro turnstiles and sometimes even destroying them.8 These protests have crippled a vulnerable vein of Chilean infrastructure. Some two million people have been prevented from going to school or work9 – the protest has been all consuming throughout Chile. 

These protests mark a bridge between historical approaches to voicing dissent while combining with new forms of technology and communication channels

The protests are not confined to a particular socioeconomic group. Hugo Millacoy González, a father and a mechanical engineer, said he was protesting the hike “so my son sees that [the government] can’t mock the people.”10 

On October 25th, protestors marched in Santiago, the nation’s capital. Karla Rubilar, Mayor of Santiago, said the official crowd estimate was one million, and added that the crowd seemed to be feeling a mixture of sadness and hope.11 This feeling seems to be echoed by movements around the world. 

Young people continue to step up to fight battles bestowed upon them by preceding generations. Chile had previously been hailed as “one of the most orderly and stable countries in South America.”4 More recently, the New York Times has noted that “prosperity has accumulated mostly in the hands of a lucky few. As a result, Chile has one of the highest levels of economic inequality in the developed world.” And therein lies the source of the conflict. The $0.04 was the final paper straw. Ultimately, the people in power continue to be more and more disconnected to the population at large and this has caused significant and lasting unrest among the disgruntled civilians. 

The current president, Sebastián Piñera, is a billionaire who was elected in 2017. When the protests broke out, he initially declared that the government was “at war” with the people. Since then, he has revised his positioning and said that his administration and its predecessors had failed to address the protestors legitimate grievances.13

For older Chileans, these issues may lack urgency in comparison to how Pinochet had treated people under his regime. But the young people who have instigated this mass protest have never known anything but democracy in the country. As such, their metric for what is normal and the standards they hold their government to are different than citizens who matured in the time of Pinochet. While empowered by this newfound freedom, the protestors have also learned from the mistakes of those who came before them. Unlike in 2006 and 2011, these protests remain peaceful. Additionally, the force of technology is stronger than it has been in the years of previous protests and functions as a check on the actions of the government. Any misconduct would spread instantaneously on social media channels and only further exacerbate existing critiques and frustration. The world is watching. And young Chileans continue to spearhead a movement that functions to reform structural failures that existed long before they did. 

E N D N O T E S :

  1. Thunberg, Greta. “If World Leaders Choose to Fail Us, My Generation Will Never Forgive Them | Greta Thunberg.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, September 23, 2019.
  2. “Report of the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation.” United States Institute of Peace. September 23, 2019.
  3. Franklin, Jonathan. “Protests Paralyse Chile’s Education System.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, June 7, 2006.
  4. Long, Gideon. “Chile Student Protests Point to Deep Discontent.” BBC, August 11, 2011.
  5. Christoff, Stefan. “Tactic: Cacerolazo.” Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution, 2019.
  6. Langman, Jimmy. “Chile’s Explosion of Protest.” The Nation, October 12, 2011.
  7. Walsh, Declan, and Max Fisher. “From Chile to Lebanon, Protests Flare Over Wallet Issues.” The New York Times, October 23, 2019.
  8. McGowan, Charis. “Chile Protests: What Prompted the Unrest?” Al Jazeera, October 30, 2019.
  10. Vergara, Eva. “Chile’s President Rolls Back Subway Fare Hike amid Protests.” ABC News, October 19, 2019.
  11. “Chilean Protestors Say Government Concession Is Not Enough.” The Washington Post. Accessed November 4, 2019.
  12. Thunberg, Greta (@gretathunberg). 2019. “A beautiful sight. 1 million people in the streets of Santiago. My thoughts are with the people of Chile. Horrific to follow the recent days’ developments….” Instagram, October 25, 2019.
  13. “Chile Learns the Price of Economic Inequality .” The New York Times, October 22, 2019.
  14. “Chile Is Ready for a New Constitution.” The New York Times, November 18, 2019.

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