“Dignity and justice” were demanded by Chilean protesters while protesting in October 2019. Right now, this is more relevant than ever. Although national and international media went silent for months about Chile’s social unrest, small demonstrations continued throughout the following months. Citizens were anticipating further unrest in March. However, by then COVID-19 reached the country, social isolation became the new reality and life was put on hold.
In April, a national referendum would have taken place to decide whether the Constitution would change or not. Because of the circumstances, it got delayed until October 25th. It is now June, and the future of the referendum is still uncertain. For now, all Chileans are asking for is an efficient response to the pandemic from those who are in charge. An equal and decent public health system, regardless of people’s socioeconomic status. This was once a demand in the October protests but it is now needed more than ever.
The pandemic was an opportunity for our government to strengthen its compromise with the population, to make redemption from last year’s shortcomings. A country with a manageable level of COVID-19 cases, enforced lockdown restrictions, and a healthcare system that could support this would have equalled a greater belief in the authorities’ competences and trust in its public institutions. However, this is not the case; Chileans, including healthcare workers, were protesting online using #CuarentenaTotalChile (#TotalQuarantineChile) for weeks. The government did not listen and the Ministry of Health did not implement complete lockdown. Despite ignoring the people’s demands the government also dismissed scientists such as Dr Izkia Siches, the president of Colegio Médico de Chile. Back in March, she suggested that president Sebastian Piñera must declare a national quarantine.
Today, only some Chilean regions are in lockdown and the Minister of Health, Jaime Mañalich, has recently resigned after months of ignoring the depths of the healthcare crisis. Although the number of cases are rising, there are citizens that still go to work and use public transport daily; risking themselves and their families.
The credibility of Sebastián Piñera’s administration only declined since the pandemic entered the country. In May, authorities decided to launch the campaign ‘Alimentos para Chile’ ‘Food for Chile’ to provide food for those in need. However, the produce has not reached every disadvantaged family, which means part of the population still lacks basic necessities. According to elmostrador.com, even though 90% of the food baskets have been handed out in the Metropolitan Region, only 35% of the food baskets have arrived at people’s homes in the rest of the country. The program has been under criticism by both politicians and citizens.
What are the main problems in Chile right now? Could this crisis hint at a new wave of mass demonstrations? I remotely interviewed four nationals from different settings on these matters.
Alondra, a young activist and territorial coordinator of ‘Que Chile Decida’, an organisation that promotes constitutional change. In the capital, Santiago, she expressed her concern about current issues. “Some (small) protests are happening now, since this government’s management of the pandemic, and because people are starving”, she says. She thinks that this collective discontent might help change the Constitution. “We hope that this accumulated discontent translates to high citizen participation on the ballot boxes”. On a new wave of protests, the activist hesitated: “It will be hard having demonstrations now… but it is a possibility, because of the common unrest.”
Rodrigo Cuevas, Doctor of Social Sciences, considers that the social unrest never stopped, but rather changed its intensity since 2019. “There is still a tension (between people and the authorities), but the second wave of protests is yet to be seen”, he said. Attending the COVID-19 context, he expressed: “The pandemic has exposed the contradictions that we had as a society. It is being particularly tough on the outskirts of Santiago (where the most vulnerable of the population lives)”. On the constitutional reform process, he contemplated that “there might be a risk of attributing to the Constitution many issues that it might not be resolved by changing it”.
Yasna, a nurse and an activist in ‘Que Chile Decida’, is concerned about the healthcare system: “it is (the system) working to all its extent possible, but it is not enough”. She criticized authorities’ for the lack of adjustments when it came to public health administration: “There could have been a more noticeable effort to better health in Chile before the pandemic. The political class never had the intention to do this, because only now (out of nowhere) the supplies are appearing”. When it comes to a new massive social uprising, she is sure: “People will return to protesting with more eagerness than before if there is no change. The demands will expand because (after the pandemic) there will be more people without an income, mainly in most poverty-stricken sectors”.
Rodrigo Karmy, an academic from Universidad de Chile, has been invited numerous times to analyse the social unrest in the country. When asked about the connection between COVID-19 and a future of massive protests, he believes that is a possibility. “Right now, Chile is enduring a dual problem: a crisis of political legitimacy, on one side, and an economic recession for the other”, he said. “Chileans have not seen yet a democratization of their living conditions”, thus, he remarked that “while popular and middle-class sectors continue gathered, social upheavals will keep occurring”.
It all seems to point to the neglecting nature of Sebastian Piñera’s government. Alondra recounted how “there was this debate: people’s health or the economy? And the government said ‘well, quarantines will be interchanging because we cannot stop the economy'”. Cuevas also mentioned something along those lines: “It is good to protect the economy. But it gets to a point when it (the government) is so keen on protecting it, that it ends overlooking the population”, and then added, “the credibility of Chilean authorities, in general, is not high right now, and it shows. (During these times) it is when it is much needed.”
It is crucial to understand that Chile’s deep-rooted socioeconomic inequalities come from our dictatorial past, but have been reinforced by the administrations that came after that period. Karmy mentions that “the transitional period (from Pinochet’s dictatorship to a democratic regime) did not resolve the democratization of Chilean society. It confused ‘democratization’ with ‘neo-liberalization’, deepening the inequalities, power relations, and an essentially unjust system”.
Both activists presented similar reasoning on this issue. “The pandemic has shown the disparities that we have manifested against since October 18”, Alondra said, “The main demand now is healthcare, because people are dying. Yet, the background is the same: the social inequality of Chile. There is still a lot to do about things like gender equality and education”. In-kind, Yasna suggested: “After this pandemic, there could be a bigger health crisis, so public healthcare needs to be understood as a basic right (…) The same goes for the education system. It must be seen as a social right, not as a business.”
All in all, the healthcare interviewee seemed to be the most convinced of a new Chilean uprising. Given that she is constantly near people, in and out of the hospital, during her shifts, she has been able to observe social needs during these difficult times. “There are ashes of the fire that was October 18th”, she says. “I have heard from people that they are returning to protest. Maybe not right now, but next year”.
Citizens’ observations show that, first, the imminent October 2020 –or next year’s– plebiscite for constitutional change may not be enough, and second, the pandemic has only manifested how unequal our country is. The future is uncertain, and how people will protest may vary, but the fight for people’s rights seems to be nowhere near over. Dignity and justice. Chile is desperate for both.