2020 will see historic developments in Chile. In the wake of the protests, the fate of an unprecedented democratic re-structuring process will be defined.
The serious political and social crisis that engulfed Chile in the final months of 2019 took many by surprise, starting with Chile’s political class and economic elites, who proved unable to see the signs that the social pact underpinning the democratic transition that began in 1990 was beginning to fall apart. Today, the incompleteness of this democratic transition has been laid bare by the fury of the social protests and by the violence perpetrated by the state against demonstrators. The chain of dramatic events that began on Friday 18 October, when unknown assailants (who remain nameless today) set fire to about ten metro stations, plunging Santiago into chaos, brought before the eyes of the world and of much of Chilean society the disintegration of the social fabric in this Andean country, the weakness of its state apparatus, and the contradictions in its development model.
What went wrong, then? Let’s start by saying that the Chilean crisis was a long time coming. Over the last thirty years, Chile has often been celebrated as a unique Latin American success story thanks to its uninterrupted development, sound institutions, and macroeconomic stability. Nevertheless, somewhere along its path towards development and deep integration into the global economy Chile’s society began to fall apart under the blows of acute socio-economic inequality, resulting from an economy model that systematically relegated the state to a subordinate role (known in Chile as the “subsidiary” state) vis-à-vis market actors. In spite of turnover between centre-right and centre-left governments, the political class has proven unable to address the growing frustration of broad sectors of the population who have been left alone to fend against market forces, and have been allowed to take on private debt to purchase access to health care, education, and pensions. In other words, the poverty reduction and partial social mobility achieved by Chile since the turn of the century have resulted from market forces acting in the absence of rules to ensure the essential balance between private profits and public goods that helps maintain a cohesive social fabric and democratic stability.
And yet, over the last two decades there have been plenty of hints that a crisis was on the horizon for the Chilean model. One need only think of the vibrant student protests for access to high-quality public education that began in 2006, and which became the driving engine of social mobilisation against the inequalities created by the economic model inherited from the dictatorship. Another example is the constant mobilisation against a fully privatised pensions system outsourced to the Administradoras de Fondos de Pensiones, which have earned massive profits while paying out pitiable pensions. Finally, the centuries-old “Mapuche question” pits the demands for autonomy of the native indigenous people of south-central Chile against the centralist repression of the Chilean state in a spiral of violence that has shown no hints of slowing down, and which has now become the main symbol of rebellion against the neo-liberal system.
In order to understand the nature and causes of the current crisis, we must identify the threads tying together the tensions that have accompanied Chile’s economic growth and geopolitical rise from 1990 to the present. These include (i) demands for a more equitable distribution of wealth, and for a greater role by the state in the provision of public goods and services; (ii) the state’s violent and systematic repression against any form of dissent aiming to modify the economic model and the political and institutional framework inherited from the dictatorship; (iii) the absolute disconnect between the vast majority of the population and the political class, which arises out of a degree of socio-economic segregation that is nearly unmatched in Latin America. These ingredients have created an explosive mix that has brought about massive mobilisation on the part of the population; for the first time, the demands of the most vulnerable sectors of society and those of the middle class have come together in a protest movement. This mobilisation took place while public trust in institutions is at an all-time low and the political class is being increasingly delegitimized (it is interesting to note that the protest movement is free of any party affiliations or symbols), typical indicators of the collapse of a political system, and which show that Chile has been hit by a “perfect storm”.
What can we expect for 2020? After a month and more of mobilisation and violence, Chile’s political parties have come to an agreement for reforming the 1980 Constitution. This is thought to be a crucial step to change the country’s political and institutional framework and economic model, so as to leave behind the legacy of the military dictatorship once and for all. The agreement calls for a referendum to be held in April on whether or not to adopt a new Constitution, and it will define the composition of the constituent assembly (50% or 100% of which will be comprised of civil society representatives).
It is expected that the vote will be in favour of a new Constitution, and will thus be followed by many months of work to draft this Constitution, which will have to be approved by two-thirds of the constituent assembly before being once again subject to a referendum that will sanction its approval by the people. The way out of the crisis remains long and tortuous. Historically, constituent processes are complex and subject to political clashes that can delay their completion or even scuttle them altogether. The real problem is that Chile simply cannot afford such delays, let alone a failure. Social polarisation, a population on the brink, and the serious economic and social consequences of the destruction wrought by the protests could fuel a new social explosion should the changes demanded by the majority of the population be put off. In parallel with the constituent process, crucial importance will be placed on the ability of the government and of congress to pass reforms (such as an increase in the minimum pension, a salary cut for members of parliament, improved health care coverage, fiscal reforms, etc.) that begin to concretely address the population’s needs. Nevertheless, government reforms risk running aground in the face of divisions between the main political parties in congress and the legal barriers placed by the current Constitution, which was drafted by the military regime for the express purpose of hindering structural change.
Such a scenario casts a dark shadow not only over Chile’s political and macro-economic stability, but also on the democratic viability of the country, especially in a regional South American context that appears to be increasingly tolerant of attacks on democratic processes. The first few months of 2020 will thus be of historic importance to Chile, as they will determine the fate of a democratic “restructuring” process of unprecedented complexity in the country’s history.