Pandemic and Protest: An Up-to-Date Timeline of Chile’s Civil Unrest
Illustration credit: Rachael Banks

The current pandemic has left no country unscathed, but in many nations, existing crises have been worsened, and divisions and flaws deepened. One such country is Chile, which has been dealing with severe unrest and protests since last October. Before going into how Covid-19 has affected the protest movement, and illuminated the very issues people denounced, it is important to understand the protests that took place in October, what triggered them, and the government’s response. 

The protests were initially triggered by an announcement to raise metro rush hour prices on 6 October. This came just weeks after the government declared a 10% increase in electricity bills. In response to the outcry at increased fare prices, the then-Economy Minister Juan Andres Fontaine said that people could simply wake up earlier to avoid rush hour times and pay a cheaper fare.

“Alguien que sale más temprano y toma el metro a las 7 de la mañana tiene la posibilidad de una tarifa más baja que la de hoy”. [1]

Just one of the many infuriated social groups, Chilean high school students organized and refused to pay fares, jumping turnstiles and vandalizing stations. Police were sent in and tried to contain the students with the protests eventually spilling into the streets.

This sparked nationwide demonstrations. For many Chileans, the increased price was the tip of the iceberg and protestors flooded out in force, demanding change. Chile, while having one of Latin America’s best economies has “one of the highest levels of inequality among industrialized countries”. This situation was met with a variety of demands from demonstrators, including changes to the pension system, increased minimum wage, President Piñera’s resignation and a new constitution.

On October 25th, 1 million Chileans marched in the country’s capital, Santiago, the biggest protest since they began on the 18th. The President initially declared a state of emergency the following day, limiting movement and assembly and deploying military forces.

Piñera said, “El objetivo de este estado de emergencia es muy simple pero muy profundo: Asegurar el orden público, asegurar la tranquilidad de los habitantes de la ciudad de Santiago, proteger los bienes tanto públicos como privados, y por sobre todo, garantizar los derechos de todos y cada uno de nuestros compatriotas que se han visto seriamente conculcados por la acción de verdaderos delincuentes que no respetan a nada ni a nadie, que están dispuestos a destruir una institución tan útil y necesaria como es el metro”

“The objective of this state of emergency is very simple yet very serious: to ensure public order, to ensure the peace of residents of the city of Santiago, to protect both private and public property, and above all, to guarantee the rights of every one of our compatriots who have been seriously violated by the actions of true delinquents with no respect for anyone or anything, who are willing to destroy an institution as useful and necessary as the metro”  

However, a few days later, on the 22nd of October, Piñera publicly apologized for not having seen the genuine issues behind the protests and made several proposals. He offered to start raising the top rate of the income tax, boost pensions introduce a minimum guaranteed monthly income and develop a mechanism to write a new constitution.

Protestors were still not satisfied with these proposals and continued marching for several months.

Since then, Covid-19 has exposed the flaws in the healthcare system and placed even more emphasis on the severe inequalities present in the country. In November, Chile’s health minister claimed that the nation had one of the best health care systems in the world, but the pandemic has shown many that the country needs to reevaluate its care provision and find a way to bridge the gap between private and public resources. The disparities between hospitals in poorer neighborhoods and rich ones is huge and only serves to heighten the issues highlighted back in October. Alejandra Fuentes- Garcia, a sociologist from the University of Chile said: “When this is over and people return to the streets, we are going to see a greater emphasis on healthcare at the protests because this crisis will deepen the inequalities” .

Along with exposing flaws in the healthcare system, the pandemic also forced the government to postpone the constitutional referendum, which was one of the key calls from protestors. Lawmakers voted in March to hold a referendum on a new constitution, then postponed till October. The intent here was to demonstrate publicly that Covid-19 was the first priority.

The leader of the Christian Democrat party said, “es el momento de la responsabilidad, de la conciencia” and, like many other politicians, that the priority was on the health and wellbeing of the people. [2]

In Mid March, Piñera announced a 90 day “state of catastrophe” in an attempt to control the spread of the virus. Mere hours after the announcement, protest art and sculptures were removed from Santiago’s main square which had been a key place for demonstrations. This removal sparked outrage, with many worrying that the government would try and eclipse anger with a quarantine and pull momentum from the protests. This has not been the case.

While politicians all sprang say that the health and wellbeing of the population was their top priority, many Chileans disagreed and riots and protests have erupted throughout Chile’s poorest neighborhoods due to food shortages.  In mid May, protests broke out in one of Santiago’s poorest neighborhoods; protestors threw rocks and burned piles of wood as well as shouted near the El Bosque neighborhood because many families were going hungry due to being unable to work under lockdown.

In response, President Piñera said his government would be supplying 2.5 million baskets of food and cleaning supplies to people’s homes. The program began on the 21st of May and by the 29th, 122,000 baskets had been delivered

While the pandemic may have put a stop to large gatherings, the protestors have still found a way to protest. People are still hesitant to trust Piñera and unhappy with the way things are run and have found innovative forms of protest. For instance, Rodriguez, an artist who’d previously put her political art on the streets during protests, has now created “virtual murals” which have been shared by thousands. The mural criticized the country’s response to corona virus.

Similarly to the virtual murals, there have also been online protests. Every Friday, people tweet criticism at the government. People have also resorted to the more traditional “cacerolazo”, also known as “the pots and pans protest”. Every Friday night, Chileans stand outside their houses or in their gardens or balconies to demand the release of prisoners arrested due in the recent unrest.

Another tactic has been the projection of images onto buildings throughout Santiago. This was notably employed by Coordinadora 8M, a feminist advocacy group. They projected images of victims of state oppression on buildings throughout the city on March 29.

Protestors have also refocused their energies into helping those left most vulnerable in the current crisis. The Health in Resistance Movement (MSR) , an organization formed in November of 2019, is made up of various health and legal professionals and is focused on protecting human rights. MSR aims to provide first aid “as an act of protest” . Recently, they’ve turned their focus to sanitizing public spaces and educating people on the coronavirus. They also coordinate with neighborhood emergency committees in order to work on preventing infections and transmission in vulnerable areas.

Overall, the coronavirus crisis has not stopped the momentum of the protests. People have found ways to continue to make their voices heard and when it is finally safe to protest again, Chileans will soon be back on the streets. If anything, the crisis has vindicated the demonstrators, and ratified their belief. It has laid bare the country’s flaws and proven to many that fundamental change is needed. There will be an even greater emphasis on healthcare reform, increased minimum wage, and bridging the class divide as more people than ever become victims of Chile’s harsh inequalities.

[1] Someone who leaves earlier and takes the metro at 7 in the morning has the possibility of a cheaper tariff

[2] It is the moment of responsibility and conscience.