At the Intersection of Public Transit and Political Movements

Mandatory curfew, scores of tanks, and armed policemen on the street: these are some of the most iconic symbols of the Chilean dictatorship that lasted from 1973 until 1990, which remain a sharp memory in the minds of many Chileans. The dominance of those familiar images in national and international news coverage of Chile this fall was not historical remembrance but coverage of the events taking place in Chile right now. Today’s military action is in response to protests that have grown to include millions, making history as Chile’s largest-ever demonstrations. How did the country, touted as the one of the most stable in South America, fall into such chaos? The story begins with a student’s joke and 30 Chilean pesos (CLP).

After the government announced that the Santiago metro fare during peak hours would be raised from CLP800 to CLP830, an increase of roughly $0.04, an Instagram account called CursedIN, a meme page for students at the Instituto Nacional, promoted jumping the turnstiles at the Universidad de Chile station on October 4. This campaign would soon become #EvasionMasiva, a massive fare evasion. Though proposed in jest, the idea spread like wildfire. Over the course of two and a half weeks, #EvasionMasiva grew, with turnstile jumping and platform sit-ins taking place at metro stations across the city.

The protests reached a fever pitch on October 18 when the government announced it would be employing a dictatorship-era law, La Ley de Seguridad del Estado (Law of State Security), to re-establish order. The invocation of this policy is central to understanding these protests and modern Chile at large. Today, Chile takes great pride in its transition from a 17-year dictatorship to democratic rule. However, much of the political and economic structure of the repressive Augusto Pinochet regime has remained in place since Pinochet himself was removed from power. These protests are not simply about 30 pesos on the metro fare—a restriction on mobility in Santiago—but about 30 years of failure in upholding democratic rule and a lack of social mobility throughout the country.

The dictatorship began on September 11, 1973, fueled by fear that the economic failure of the Socialist President Salvador Allende’s government was driving the country to ruin. When Pinochet came to power, he replaced the politicians in the government and brought in a group of economists known as the Chicago Boys, who completely restructured the Chilean economy. Trained by Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago, the economists made radical free-market policy the norm in the country. With CIA backing, the team of economists had supported the coup before it could even take place, providing Pinochet and his cronies with blueprints for such an economic transformation.

"Today, Chile takes great pride in its transition from a 17-year dictatorship to democratic rule. However, much of the political and economic structure of the repressive Augusto Pinochet regime has remained in place since Pinochet himself was removed from power."

Early in Pinochet’s reign of terror, the government forcibly relocated people living in poblaciones, low-income housing settlements, in eastern Santiago to poorer areas in the south and west of the city. A direct consequence of this is visible today in Santiago’s extraordinary socioeconomic stratification.

This geographic gradient underlies the metro protests and embodies socioeconomic immobility in Santiago. The stratification of the city is so stark that everything from a person’s monthly salary to their scores on fourth-grade standardized exams can be guessed with a fair degree of accuracy from just one piece of information: the metro stop closest to their home. When your address can determine so much about your life, it’s easy to see why upward mobility in Chile is uniquely difficult. It is these disparities that form the basis of much of the discontent today.

There are groups within Santiago who are perfectly happy with the status quo. A proposal for a new metro line that would extend further east encountered considerable resistance from wealthy communities that lived there. In a statement characteristic of this isolationist sentiment, the president of a neighborhood association in the area where the new line was planned said, “With the metro come the delinquents.”

Activists on social media and out in the streets have worked to dispel the notion that the Santiago metro protests are just about the metro. Rather, they claim that this is a stand against a failing neoliberal experiment that has brought grave consequences—a fractured school system, a private pension system that Chileans are mandated to pay into without receive a living retirement, privatized resources that go to corporations before citizens, and a wildly unequal private healthcare system.

For wealthy Chileans, however, privatization isn’t particularly problematic. Their children go to glitzy private schools; they receive top-notch healthcare at private hospitals while on the highest tier plan of ISAPRES, the private health insurance; they have enough money to save for retirement outside of AFP, the public pension system. Aguas Andinas, the private company that provides water to the city of Santiago, would never think of shutting off its water from wealthy Chileans the way it did to some areas of the city in 2016 when floods contaminated the water supply.

"The stratification of the city is so stark that everything from a person’s monthly salary to their scores on fourth-grade standardized exams can be guessed with a fair degree of accuracy from just one piece of information: the metro stop closest to their home."

But, of course, these privileges apply to only a select few. The top 10 percent of Chileans earn 26.5 times more than the country’s average income. Sebastián Piñera, the current President, earns 42.5 times the minimum wage; senators in the Chilean congress, 40.5 times. Eighteen percent of Chileans earn minimum wage, which translates to less than $500 per month. Moreover, 70.9 percent of Chileans earn less than CLP550,000, or about $750 per month. While $0.04 on each additional metro ride might not seem like much, it’s another punishing increase for a population already running on an impossibly tight budget.

Essentially, Chileans operate in two separate worlds that run parallel to each other. The metro protests drew this divide into stark relief. As protestors were killed by the military that marched through the streets and rolled out tanks in a manner unseen since the end of the dictatorship’ and as the national electrical building went up in flames, Piñera was found putting out a different fire: He was photographed blowing out his grandson’s birthday candles in an upscale restaurant in the wealthiest sector of Santiago.

While protestors have called for the resignation of both Piñera and the Interior Secretary, who invoked the dictatorship-era security law, the protests have presented little in the way of clear leadership or demands. It’s hard to imagine a quick solution to the inequality present in everything from housing to healthcare. Also concerning are growing reports that the military is torturing people in closed metro stations, reviving memories of the worst aspects of the dictatorship.

Two potential solutions would address the root cause of the protestors’ grievances: a flawed Chilean democracy. First, Chileans should consider rewriting the Constitution. When Pinochet came to power, he created a new constitution to crush dissent and bolster his designs for a neoliberal state. After the country returned to democratic rule in 1990, the Constitution remained; to this day, Chile’s primary governing document is one penned by its most notorious dictator. Though rewriting the Constitution cannot erase past or present inequality, it would be a long overdue step in exorcising Chile’s Pinochet-era demons. Another option that has been proposed is the creation of a Constituent Assembly, a body of representatives with seats typically reserved for underrepresented groups. The hope is that both of these solutions would work to include voices of groups that have remained socially marginalized in spite of the country’s “democratic” governance.

Ultimately, it’s unclear what lasting impact the protests will have on Chilean policy. But one thing is clear: At the intersection of public transit and social immobility, Chile has reached a day of reckoning.

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