Protests in Focus: A disconnect between citizens & institutions in Chile

by Mishellt Melgarejo   November 25, 2019

Protests in Santiago, Oct. 22, 2019. Photo by Carlos Figueroa for Wikimedia Chile,

The escalation of protests and the military deployment to stop social demonstrations in Chile has made international headlines in recent weeks — not only because protest has not broken out in the country since democratic transition in 1990, but because these protests coincide with a wave of protests, political crises and social manifestations taking place across Latin America.

What prompted these protests and what does it mean for a country previously considered one of the most peaceful in South America? How will this relatively young democracy fare? If we look at the drivers behind this protest, we can begin to understand what this historic uprising might mean and how organizations like PartnersGlobal and Partners Colombia can help to manage this conflict peacefully.

When citizens needs go unmet

The outbreak of the protests came as a result of the President Sebasti√°n Pi√±era’s announcement that Metro fares would rise by 30 pesos, or about 5 US cents. The fare hike, though relatively small, must be understood in a context of mounting inequality and social dissatisfaction. It was a drop in a bucket of social grievances that then spilled over into the streets. As the protesters stated: “It is not for 30 pesos, it is for 30 years.”

The grievances that motivated many Chileans to raise their voices in protest have their roots, according to experts on the subject, in economic and structural models of institutions that were created in the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Among them is the inefficiency of the pension system, which protesters claim does not provide pensions that are commensurate with the long working years they spend contributing to social security.

Likewise, many Chileans feel dissatisfied with the health system. They denounce the price increase in health plans, poor coverage, low quality of hospitals and specialists, lack of protection and long wait times for care. As Pi√±era himself summed up in 2018, “more than three quarters of citizens are not satisfied with government health management and there are well-founded reasons for this.”

Adding to the drivers of unrest, the country’s capital has witnessed the inefficiency of the Transantiago subway system, which has encountered problems since its inception in 2007.

For residents of Santiago, this translates into long waits to take transportation and travel delays, which falls far short of the service expected given the steep subway ticket fees. In a study of the subway systems in 56 countries, Diego Portales University in Santiago found that Chile had the ninth most expensive transportation based on the average income of its inhabitants.

In addition, the public demands for quality education and social mobility are not being met, although these issues have been on the public agenda since the 2006 protests known as the “penguin revolution” and the 2011 movement protests. Some Chileans say that disparities in basic and secondary education generates segregation and barriers to social mobility.

All these problems have been fueled and permeated by cases of institutional corruption, tax evasion and abuse by companies that arbitrarily set production prices.

Bridging a protest-government disconnect

With so many tensions running high and protesters on the streets numbering in the millions, what does this all mean for democracy in the country?

According to Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, this crisis is a sign of a stagnant democracy, which is evidenced by an increasingly dissatisfied citizenship convinced that official channels are ineffective in satisfying their demands.

We have seen this in Chile through the collapse of electoral participation—in 1989, participation in the presidential election was close to 90 percent; in 2017 it dropped to just 50 percent. Confidence in the government has dropped dramatically from 32 percent in 2005 to 13 percent in 2015. More and more citizens are untying their allegiances and futures to the big political parties. In 2005, 48 percent of people chose not to identify with any political party, compared to 81 percent in 2015.

When institutional channels are not serving citizen needs and responding to problems, citizens go out to the streets to raise their voices in protest. As Seva Gunitsky, a political scientist at the University of Toronto puts it, this pattern is more likely to occur in countries where citizens have enough freedom and power to demand a change but not enough to obtain. These countries are usually the most susceptible to riots and protests.

In addition, social networks have become a catalyst for social disagreements, which makes it easier for individuals and groups to find supporters for social causes, thus making protests more likely to start and increase in size. Although despite the growing numbers, social movement that gain their momentum online are often more difficult to unite and keep together and often lack a plan for what comes next when the protests end.

So, although social manifestations are currently on the rise, not just in Chile but around the world, the protests are becoming less successful. According to a study by Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, just 20 years ago, 70 percent of the protests that demanded a systemic political change obtained it, however, after the mid-2000s, protestors’ success rate had plummeted to only 30 percent.

Similar to in Chile, several social grievances have emerged in Colombia. On Thursday, Nov. 21, a national mobilization called “National Unemployment Against Paquetazo de Duque” brought hundreds of thousands of protesters to the streets to voice their demands for reform on labor, pensions, financial holding, privatizations, corruption, national tariffs, taxes, minimum wage, compliance with agreements and defense of social protest. A government issued curfew followed the day of protests, and unrest continues as citizens and the government look to determine what’s next.

If citizens do not see a place in political institutions to meet their needs, and protests, despite their growing numbers, are less effective at delivering change, then where do we go? Are we deadlocked into cycles of protest and repression? What process or institution can best respond to the needs of citizens?

We believe that although these protests constitute a challenge for democracy, it is in this context that organizations such as Partners Colombia, and in general the offices of the Partners Network in the world, become more important as facilitators and promoters of dialogue between different sectors. And where this conflict arises, as it inevitably will around the globe, we commit to continue working for dialogue, democracy and peace.

Mishellt Melgarejo is a Project Officer for Partners Colombia