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Populism Comes to Chile

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When the Chilean government announced on October 4 that it was hiking subway fares by roughly 4 cents in the capital city of Santiago, high school students started jumping turnstiles en masse. Adults soon joined in, sparking protests that have injured more than 2,500 and killed 20.

Protesters have set subway stations on fire. They have looted grocery stores. And some have even raided La Asuncion, a Catholic church, dragging pews and statues of Christ into the streets and incinerating them. Many protesters are using cacerolazo, or the banging of pots and pans, a form of protest spawned in 1971 by food shortages during President Salvador Allende’s administration.

The fare hike—since rescinded—kicked off the protests, but the movement is animated by deeper populist forces. Chile’s economy has grown significantly in the past few decades and fewer Chileans now live in poverty than ever before. But protesters say the cost of living is too high and wealth is distributed too unequally. In June, for example, the price of electricity rose by 10 percent. Many poor Chileans say health care and education are prohibitively expensive and that pensions for the elderly are too meager. (Chile lacks the state subsidies that other Latin American countries provide to reduce the cost of living.)

Protesters are calling on President Sebastián Piñera to resign and demanding an end to Chile’s “neoliberal” economic policies, which they claim are responsible for the disparity between rich and poor. It doesn’t help that Chile’s government, led by the right-wing billionaire Piñera, seems out of touch. When faced with escalating protests, he declared a state of emergency and used the military to restore order. He also implemented curfews in major cities and is closely surveilling protesters, undermining citizens’ constitutionally guaranteed speech and privacy rights.

For many Chileans, Piñera’s heavy-handed response is reminiscent of the tragedy they faced in 1973, when the U.S. helped overthrow the democratically elected Allende and replaced him with Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Though he sold off many state-owned companies and opened the country to free trade, Pinochet is better remembered for torturing, executing, and disappearing thousands of political opponents over 17 brutal years.

While most Chileans are better off thanks to the free market, Piñera’s decision to meet their protests with military violence threatens to jeopardize the country’s economic and humanitarian gains.

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