Economic Inequality Fuels Violent Protests in Chile

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — Thousands of Chileans took to the streets again Monday to demand better social services, some clashing with police, demanding an end to economic inequality even as the government announced that weeks of demonstrations are hurting the country’s economic growth.

Police spray tear gas and water at anti-government protesters in Santiago, Chile, on Monday. (AP photo/Esteban Felix)

The latest protest came after a short break in the weeks-long wave of demonstrations in which 20 people have died in clashes amid looting and arson that forced the cancellation of two major international summits in one of Latin America’s wealthiest countries.

Chileans last week were on a long holiday weekend and Monday’s protest was relatively small compared to earlier demonstrations. But the thousands who turned out showed that protest movement did not appear to be fizzling.

Most demonstrators supporting the leaderless national movement marched peacefully, but some threw rocks and firebombs at riot police officers, who responded with volleys of tear gas and water cannon blasts. The government said at least six police officers were injured, including two who were set on fire with Molotov cocktails.

The demonstrations began in October after the government announced a hike in subway fares and transformed into a leaderless national movement with broader demands on education, health services and economic inequality. Santiago’s subway system has said it has suffered nearly $400 million in damages, and businesses in Chile are estimated to have lost more than $1.4 billion in damages to arson, looting and lost sales.

Before the marchers gathered, Finance Minister Ignacio Briones warned that economic impacts from the protests in the world’s leading copper producer forced officials to lower their 2019 economic growth prediction to between 2% and 2.2%, from 2.6%.

His announcement was met with disdain by protesters who said they have not shared in Chile’s economic prosperity.

Police officers tend to one another after being hit with a Molotov cocktail in Santiago, Chile, on Monday. (AP photo/Esteban Felix)

Marcos Díaz, a 51-year-old teacher protesting in the capital of Santiago, said big corporations have been the biggest beneficiaries.

“Through all these years of democracy we’ve been living with a minimum wage that puts 60% of the workers below the poverty line,” he said. “Growth is a fallacy invented by this model to hide the inequality of this country.”

Accountant Veronica Gonzalez said even though she believes people are losing money from the protests, they’ll get it back later and that “this fight has to go on anyway.”

Protesters have slammed the neoliberal economic model that on the surface makes Chile look like a Latin American economic success story — masking a widely criticized pension system and hybrid public and private health and educations systems that give better benefits to the rich, who can afford to pay more.

Many protesters are demanding a new constitution to replace the 1980 charter written under Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s 1973-1990 military dictatorship. It allows many social services and natural resources, including water, to be wholly or partially privatized.

From afar, Chile has been viewed a regional success story under democratically elected presidents on the left and right. A free-market consensus has driven growth up, poverty down and won Chile the Latin America’s highest score on the United Nations Human Development Index, a blend of life expectancy, education and national income per capita.

In 2010, Chile became the second Latin member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, after Mexico.

But a 2017 UN report found that the richest 1% of Chile’s population earns 33% of the nation’s wealth. That helps make Chile the most unequal country in the OECD, slightly worse than Mexico.

In the United States, the richest 1% own 40% of the nation’s assets, according to numerous economic surveys.

President Sebastián Piñera is a billionaire and one of the country’s richest men. Piñera has replaced the heads of several ministries with generally younger officials seen as more centrist and accessible and introduced a series of economic reforms, including increases in the minimum wage and the lowest state pensions. But he has failed to contain the protests and is facing calls to resign.

“The challenge for the movement is to keep the pressure on Piñera. As the government and the opposition are now negotiating reforms and Congress is advancing some of those reforms, there are high chances of the movement splitting into the more radical and the moderate wings,” said Patricio Navia, a political scientist at New York University.

“The radical wing wants Piñera to resign and the more moderate groups want to cash in and get some reforms passed that will have a positive impact on the lives of people, especially increases in pensions and the minimum wage,” he said.

Thousands of Chileans took to the streets of Santiago again Monday to protest economic inequality and demand better social services. Police responded with tear gas and water cannons. (AP photo/Esteban Felix)
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