As you will know, there has been considerable unrest in Chile over the last month or so, with large scale protests and riots taking place. In Santiago there was a mass protest in which over a million people took to the streets, and there have also been riots and violence.
The flash point was a rise in Metro fares, but this unrest comes from a deep-seated resentment at the huge inequality between rich and poor in the country. Chile has a two-tier system in both health and education, a blend of public and private, with far better results for those who can afford to pay. The privately-run pension system makes a steady profit for the fund managers but provides low and often delayed payouts to pensioners. The people are demanding change, and one of the main issues for them is the constitution. Chile’s constitution was created in 1980 by General Pinochet following the 1973 coup with a few later reforms and although it was approved at the time in a national referendum, it is viewed by Chileans now as a ‘Dictator’s Constitution’ which keeps power in the hands of a select few.
Constitutional reform is much more common in South America than it is in Europe, so there is an existing model for this. Typically the reforms focus on:
- A commitment to greater equality
- Recognition of civil rights
- Acknowledgement of indigenous groups and their languages
- Re-establishment of the Catholic church and greater equality between religions
In practical terms what is also being discussed is an increase in pensions, an increase in health spending and a guaranteed minimum wage. These provisions have been agreed in parliament and are now progressing through the legal framework.
At the same time President Sebastián Piñera is facing a Constitutional Accusation, broadly similar to impeachment in the US. Opposition parliamentarians are trying to hold him accountable for human rights violations during the crisis, as it is generally believed that the military and the police used excessive violence against ordinary citizens during the protests. So far 22 people have died and many hundreds of others have been injured, including loss of sight from rubber bullets. There are allegations of arbitrary detention, abuse and torture by the authorities.
There is another darker side to these protests with arson, looting violence and vandalism taking place. It is being reported that there are Anarchist groups behind this, taking advantage of the unrest to further their own cause.
The cost to Chile has been huge. Many businesses have not survived, either because of physical damage or simply because they have not been able to trade. The COP25 climate conference which was being hosted by Chile had to be cancelled, as was the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. There has been widespread damage to infrastructure, and less visibly, the social and emotional damage of being affected by or witnessing violence.
There is now hope for reform, but there is still a great deal to pray about.