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"The uprising in Chile is the product of forty years of neoliberal orthodoxy"

For the historian Olivier Compagnon, anger finds its roots in the gap between a strong economic growth and glaring social inequalities.

Interviewed by Aude Lasjaunias Posted today at 10:50, updated at 12:41

Time to Reading 3 min.

In the face of the uprising, soldiers were deployed in the streets of the Chilean capital Santiago on 21 October.
In the face of the uprising, soldiers were deployed in the streets of the Chilean capital Santiago on 21 October. PEDRO UGARTE / AFP

A country " in war "According to its president, Sebastian Piñera, where eleven people died in riots over the weekend: Chile has been experiencing an unprecedented social anger for the last few days since the end of the dictatorship in 1990. An explosion of violence whose spark was the announcement by the Conservative government of the rise in the price of the subway ticket, which revealed the reverse of the medal of a country presented as a model of success in Latin America. The historian Olivier Compagnon, director of the Institute of Advanced Studies of Latin America (IHEAL), returns to the origins of this rebellion.

Read the testimonials: "President, Chileans want change, not words"

Chile is often presented as a model of economic success in Latin America. A few days ago, President Piñera described it as an "oasis" in a crisis-ridden region. In this context, how to explain the current uprising?

Olivier Companion: What is happening today is not surprising. Chile is the first state in which the revenues of the neoliberal doctrine carried by the "Chicago Boys" were applied. Under the dictatorship of General Pinochet, these disciples of Milton Friedman (American economist, Nobel Prize in 1976 and ardent defender of liberalism) have been tasked with straightening the country with privatization, a reduction in the role of the state and almost complete liberalization of the economy.

Thanks to these principles, the "Jaguar of Latin America" ​​or the "virtuous oasis", according to the formula of President Piñera, shows growth whose rate would make any European country pale. But, domestically, the consequences are more complex. Chile is, in fact, the champion of inequality in the region, with Brazil. The current uprising is the product of forty years of neoliberal orthodoxy.

Read the analysis: "In the processions in Chile, we hear:" We do not fight for 30 pesos, but against 30 years of liberal politics ""

Has not the country experienced a drastic reduction in the number of poor people?

In the 2000s until around 2012, the rise in the price of commodity exports led to an economic boom in many Latin American countries. In Chile, which has large copper resources, it has been accompanied, as in Brazil, by a reduction in poverty. But this is not synonymous with a reduction of inequalities, which necessitates the implementation of a redistribution policy.

It is also interesting to see that the doctrine promoted by the "Chicago Boys" has never been questioned, despite the return to democracy and regardless of the political orientation of the government – even under the socialist Michelle Bachelet.

The Chileans do not beat the pavement to obtain salary increases, they ask today to be able to benefit from benefits allowing them to ensure a personal dignity. What set fire to the powders is the increase in the price of the metro ticket, and if we listen to the protesters' demands, they also affect access to water and electricity …

The form of this protest, which combines protest and riot, is reminiscent of the "caracazo" of 1989 in Venezuela. At the time, the president, Carlos Andrés Pérez, had announced a series of liberal reforms, following the recommendations of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) after discussions to renegotiate the country's debt. Already at the time, a sore point was the increase in transport prices. Today as then, looters are attacking the symbols of the consumer society.

A protester in Valparaiso, Chile, on October 20, 2019.
A protester in Valparaiso, Chile, October 20, 2019. JAVIER TORRES / AFP

President Piñera, who is among the richest men in the world, was elected in 2018 after a first term from 2010 to 2014. Is not this surprising in light of the current movement?

If many young people are on the streets today, that does not mean that other parts of society do not support the head of state. Members of the elite, but also minors, among others, approve of his action. And there are nostalgic for the dictatorship, not in the "Bolsonarian" sense of the term, but people who grew rich at that time and appreciate the stability of authoritarianism. Chile is a country that is extremely divisive, socially but also politically.

What surprised me the most is the power of repression. The head of state speaks of "War", point to an inner enemy … We are close to a pinochian rhetoric where the "delinquent" has taken the place of the "communist". And here we only mention the speech, but the tanks were also deployed in the streets. Consolidated democracy appropriates methods inherited from its dark hours.

Update on the situation on October 22: In Chile, the president will gather the parties after a new night of curfew and demonstration

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