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October has delivered a few stunning defeats not only for Washington’s allies in Latin America, but also for the model it has viciously enforced in the region.
“I was at the march in Valparaiso, there was a lot of people, really peaceful until we got to about 2 blocks from the National Congress, where the police were waiting,” my brother Alfredo tells me over voice message.
“We don’t have the right to protest here, but what can you do, we have to keep fighting.”
Watching hundreds of thousands of protesters continue to pour into Chile’s streets in spite of intense police repression, it was hard not to be overcome with a sense of nervousness and joy.
Anxious Chileans in and out of the country were receiving messages like this one, or at least watching images of the rivers of humanity filling the country’s avenues and plazas. Along with the vindication that many felt at seeing a united cry against how the country has been run, there was also an unavoidable dread that set in at the sight of military patrols in the streets, live rounds being fired at unarmed protesters, batons cracking the heads of seemingly innocuous pedestrians, and police rounding up students in their homes.
This wasn’t the first time Chile saw scenes like this.
The US-backed military brutality of the Augusto Pinochet regime laid the foundation for a restructuring of the country in the image of free-market crusaders imported from Chicago. By the time they were done, Chile had achieved what they called a ‘miracle,’ the private sector was involved in every sphere of life, free from the legal and ethical constraints under socialism, but with an economic decline not seen in the country since the 1930s. GDP fell by 14.3%, and 1 out of every 4 Chileans was left unemployed.
After the first wave of Chileans fleeing the bloody aftermath of the right-wing coup, families like mine were part of a second large emigration in the 1980s who left to look for work.
When Chileans voted to end Pinochet’s rule in 1988, it was clear that the expectations were an end to state repression as well as a change in the institutions, laws and norms created under his regime. But in almost 30 years of civilian government, 20 of which were under purportedly ‘left’ governments, people saw the signs of wealth around them without being a part of it.
As Claudio Bravo, goalkeeper for the Chilean national football team and Manchester City, tweeted in the initial days of these demonstrations, “They sold our water, electricity, gas, education, health, pensions, medicines, our roads, forests, the Atacama salt flats, the glaciers, transportation into private hands. Anything else? Isn’t this too much? We do not want a Chile for the few.”
The sentiment expressed by Bravo, hardly a leftist in his own right, summarized the situation and sentiment in the streets.
The post-dictatorship consensus of Chile’s political class has been to continue administering the neoliberal state set up by Pinochet and Co. but under the auspices of Washington. While the privatization of services and deregulations certainly began under Pinochet, the governments of the ‘Concertación,’ comprising the Christian Democrats, Socialists, and others, did little to detain and reverse these, and in many ways continued them.
It is no coincidence that these protests started in Santiago’s Metro system. Rapid transit in the capital has been increasingly built out under private-public partnerships, and the privatization of the Metro itself began under socialist president Michelle Bachelet.
When these fares hikes were announced by the government of Sebastian Pinera, they were justified on the basis that ‘an expert panel’ determined fares should increase. Transit users were told that if they could not afford the increases, then they should get up earlier and go home later in order to avoid paying fares during peak hours.
It’s this ‘let them eat cake’ attitude under the guise of technocracy, coupled with the shameless corruption of politicians of all political stripes, that has fueled the frustrations of daily living and finally caused this anger to hit a fever pitch.
The right-wing Chilean government has scrambled to present ‘remedies’ to this anger, including a pointless cabinet shuffle and meagre increases in minimum wages and pensions. But these measures are insufficient, and things have gone beyond the point where people will be pacified by them.
In the streets, Chileans are saying “this isn’t about 30 cents (the increase in fares), it’s about 30 years” under the neoliberal state, which was also promoted by Washington and its appendages as a model to emulate and then exported across the region by brute force.
US business interests’ long standing ties in Chile, which was one of the principal reasons for Washington’s involvement in the 1973 coup and support for the dictatorship that restored the place of US capital in the country, are central to shaping Chile’s political role in the region. The dutifully promoted US business interests are integral to the neoliberal model pushed by successive Chilean governments in the region, and go hand-in-hand with Washington’s foreign policy imperatives (as can be seen with attempts to topple the government of Venezuela and the transparent oil interests involved).
After more than three decades, the majority of Chileans have now woken up from the neoliberal model and told the world that this model isn’t as advertised. What is taking place in Chile’s streets is neoliberalism’s death knell, in the very place where it was birthed at the barrel of a gun.
But Chile isn’t the only Latin American battleground for this fight.
Earlier in October, Ecuadorians led massive protests against the austerity measures implemented by the government of Lenin Moreno under the terms of his agreement with the US-dominated International Monetary Fund. Later in the month, Evo Morales won another election in Bolivia, and US ally Mauricio Macri suffered a stunning first round defeat in Argentina.
It may be too early to characterize this as a second ‘Pink Tide’ or something of the sort, but there is no doubt that something big is taking place that goes well beyond the streets of Santiago. This is bad news for Washington’s allies in Latin America, and for the model they have attempted to force down people’s throats across the region.
By Pablo Vivanco
Pablo Vivanco is a journalist and analyst specializing in politics and history in the Americas, and served as the Director of teleSUR English. Recent bylines include The Jacobin, Asia Times, The Progressive and Truthout. Follow him on Twitter@pvivancoguzman