SERGIO BITAR

Ingeniero Civil y político chileno. Director Programa Global Trends and Latin America´s Future, Dialogo Interamericano, Washington, Ex ministro de Estado de los presidentes Salvador Allende, Ricardo Lagos y Michelle Bachelet. Además fue Senador de la República.

 

CHILE: THE GREATEST SOCIAL UPHEAVAL SINCE THE 1973 MILITARY COUP

SOME REFLECTIONS ON HOW TO RESPOND TO STRONG MOBILIZATION AND REVOLT IN UNEQUAL SOCIETIES AND WEAK REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACIES.

Having devoted many years of my life to fighting for equality, justice and democracy, to defeating a dictatorship and to building a democracy since 1990, I have now witnessed in 2019 the greatest popular uprising of our history.  In a few days, all political parties and organizations were perplexed and paralyzed.  After 30 years of democratic governments, 24 years of which were conducted by center left coalitions that worked to build a growing economy and a solid democracy, Chileans woke up one morning, perplexed and astonished, feeling that an earthquake was shaking everything.  What happened? Where is the society leading? What should we do now?
Many reasons may be argued to explain the events that are still unfolding as I write these lines. Images of the past returned to our memory, mind and heart. The consequences of the military coup in 1973 and the subsequent brutal dictatorship, brought back instinctive reactions, especially in the older generations. This time, massive protests and violence provoked surprise and fear. Young people, however, saw and felt this in a different way.  They reacted by marching in the streets, demanding social changes and expressing new values and goals.  

The causes of this upheaval are complex. This massive movement is composed mostly of young people between 18 to 25 years, men and women of all social classes, with no leaders, no flags, no organized political parties nor social organizations, no speeches. In parallel, and amid the masses of people marching peacefully, small groups, with their faces covered, unleashed an unseen violence, setting fire and destroying public places, subway stations and trains, large and small shops, municipalities, hotels, public buildings, even churches.

How could a 2% increase of the subway´s tariff in Santiago trigger such and enormous and violent reaction nationwide.  Was that reaction unavoidable?  How responsible is the present conservative coalition? How important are the underlying factors, mainly inequality, in explaining what happened?

Such events cannot be explained with traditional political lenses. To the first question, I would answer that these events were indeed avoidable.  It probably would not have occurred if the government coalition had continued a series of reforms aimed at social inclusion and political participation instead of trying to reverse tax, education and pension reforms initiated in the previous Bachelet government. And also, the public unrest could have been tempered with a closer, compassionate and less arrogant attitude of the president and most of his ministers.

However, the main underlying structural factor is the perception of unjustified inequality. Chile has succeeded in reducing poverty (from 40 percent to 10 percent) and also has reduced inequality, although modestly.  But, the perception of a vast part of our citizens is that incomes and pensions are unacceptably low. The people have complained for years about bad health services, high costs of drugs and public transportation, discrimination and unequal treatment. And many persons and social leaders felt that they have not been heard by elected authorities and bureaucrats.  The majority rejected the elite, denouncing them for governing to benefit themselves and not caring about the grievances of the poor and the more vulnerable middle sectors. 

Notwithstanding, this is happening in a country where many advances have been achieved.  Chile is one of the strongest economies, with highest coverage of tertiary education in Latin America, longer average life expectancy in the region and the lowest level of poverty.  But in politics, data is one thing; perceptions are what really count. 

Perhaps Alexis de Tocqueville’s insights apply to this case: the French Revolution was stronger in those cities and regions where standard of living was improving.  Democracy and economic growth satisfied needs and at the same time expanded aspirations.  Democratic progressive governments and parties called always for fighting inequalities, improved access to education and expanded connectivity for all.  Those transformations have awakened expectations, but many of those aspirations were unfulfilled. In fact, people faced low social mobility, poor pensions, bad public health and public education and low paid jobs. Members of the new middle classes that had recently left poverty, felt vulnerable and unprotected. Individualistic values, the notion that each one must solve his own problems, and the lack of social organizations and trade unions made people feel alone. Desperation and frustration became anger and sparked violence.

A key factor is that the predominance of a market culture changed attitudes and behaviors. A market economy developed into a market society. Economic rules dominated over the will of majorities.  People have been considered consumers, not citizens. In Chile, in spite of major progress, the logic of the market continue to prevail over public interests, and individual capitalization over solidarity in pensions, health and education. For many years, electoral participation has been declining, a symptom of apathy towards democracy. We know that when the institutions of representative democracy do not respond, politics is perceived as irrelevant, and social mobilizations and violence may emerge.  As representative democracy loses legitimacy, parties are challenged and trade unions become debilitated.  Political parties and social movements will have to change, and we will see new developments.
Additionally, globalization increased the income gap between those with better education (human capital) along with more wealth (financial capital) and the rest of the workers. Marginal groups, mainly young, with lower education, started to revolt against a system that condemned them to stagnation. The ideology of the 'subsidiary state', which is a concept in the Constitution which minimizes the role of public responsibility for social conditions, damaged the legitimacy of democracy and its capacity to deliver.  In fact, to the contrary of this concept, the State needs to be reformed and expanded in order to protect lower income groups and provide better education and health essential for social inclusion.

Traditional analysis underestimates the magnitude of changes that are taking place now. Social values, technology, communications and social networks create new realities and challenge the capacity to govern. 

The social explosion in Chile is happening in many other countries.  It is a new phenomenon that will continue to propagate, amplified by intensive use of communications technologies.    Big gatherings are shaking the system with different demands, ideas and aspirations, insisting on equal opportunities, solidarity and universal rights. But those movements are cyclical, not permanent, and are not capable of governing.   Governments, parties, parliaments, municipalities and social organizations have to collaborate and lead. In our case, the answer is to agree on a new social and constitutional pact, approved with wide participation and with transparency.
Chile is facing now a big challenge and the opportunity to initiate a new transition.  Based on previous progress, Chileans should be able to correct inequalities and increase participation. Democracy needs more cohesion, solidarity, stronger civil society organizations and local power.

Social change also requires public order and peace. Violence has reached levels never seen before. Democracy will need to reform the police and the intelligence services, and ensure that all procedures respect human rights. Fortunately, Chile forbids the possession of fire arms; otherwise violence would have reached much higher numbers of deaths.

One major and positive consequence of social mobilization was the opening of new horizons and the defeat of complacency, beyond right and left. Fortunately, an historical agreement has been reached by almost all political parties in Congress to put an end to the Pinochet Constitution, and create a new one with wide participation of all sectors of society. These agreements may open a new horizon. A new social and political pact may give birth to a new period of Chilean history, towards a more cohesive and democratic society. I hope that the new generations will succeed in this endeavor.

 

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