In Chile, heavily armed troops and police are out on streets again, exerting brutal repression against those demonstrating peacefully against one of the more brutal neoliberal policies, similar to those of Margaret Thatcher.
Chile is the richest country in Latin America, but equally suffers from one of the worst income distributions in the region or beyond.
However, carrying out these brutal economic measures forcing the population into a continuing impoverishment, has been only possible under the current Political Constitution, drafted – in a hurry, in 1980 – by two individuals, ideological pillars of the dictatorship. A widespread scale of privatisations of key state-run enterprises soon followed, most notably the huge and highly profitable mining industry.
Chile’s version of the British NHS, founded in 1952, was also privatised, along with the state pension system whereby the state, the employer and the individual worker contributed towards the pension pot. Today the health service is being run on the principle of profit-making and unaffordable health insurance – along the lines of the American model.
Health insurance only accessible by those on higher income level, about 17% of the working population, with the other 73% relying heavily on an ailing and impoverished public health service, rapidly deteriorating.
The return of democracy, so hard-fought on the streets, did very little to improve the conditions and standard of living of the general population. The alternating governments from the centre-left coalitions respected Pinochet’s constitution straitjacket and managed only some tepid social and economic reforms.
People who fought to rid of the military in power had big expectations of important structural economic changes under democracy will occur. Those were never met. In order to have the 1988 plebiscite, which eventually led to the military dictator Augusto Pinochet ceding power in 1990, important conditions were imposed upon the future democratic governments.
It’s alleged that the US State Department on one side and the Chilean dictatorship on the other, pressed the Concertación (an alliance of Christian Democracy, the Socialist Party, the Radical Party, and others) to accept those conditions or get nothing.
Over the years, the masses felt let down or even forgotten by their leaders. In 2007 the first mass revolts — by the students, against college fees and the cost of living — took the country by surprise. Then, a few years later, broader mass rallies followed up, demanding an end to Pinochet’s constitutional legacy and a fairer pension system which would stop pensioners going into a growing pauperism.
Different centre-left governments kept privatising what was left of the state assets, including utility companies and the running of the country’s motorway network. They imposed unpopular toll bridges, closed down coal mining, and left the mining of highly-valuable lithium in private hands. Those companies paid virtually no corporation tax, not even on their royalties. That saved them huge sums of money — money needed to meet public expenditure demands.
The new Conservative-led government of Sebastián Piñera, from 2018, embarked on a massive austerity programme and further tax cuts for the higher-income earners, starving essential investment funds for health service, housing and pensions.
The anger and frustration brewing for many years, and the latest price hikes on utility and public transport, triggered the current social uprising.
Its spontaneity and good organisation has surpassed the main political parties from the traditional left.