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Will neoliberalism die in Chile?

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Image: Carlos Figueroa/Wikimedia Commons

Chile has found itself in unexpected turmoil since October 18, when high school students began a mass mobilization against a subway fare increase.

The international media has published impressive images of recent events in Chile. The photographs and press reports reveal the result of accumulated anger over the years that began with the military dictatorship in 1973. This is the corollary of the flagrant violation of the social and political rights of Chilean people for many decades.

On Sunday night, I talked with my old friend Carlos Torres who, as I suspected, is in the middle of the massive uprising of 1.5 million Chileans protesting not only the regime, but the entire system of neoliberalism. Torres says another mass protest is planned on Tuesday to surround La Moneda, the seat of government in Santiago, Chile.

The protests are not about changing the government, Torres told me, they are about changing everything. Things have been getting worse for decades and people worry it will get even worse for their kids. Almost everything is privatized in Chile, including health care. Chile is like neoliberalism on steroids, which is why the slogan "neoliberalism started in Chile and will die here" has spread across the demonstrations.

The Chicago School, led by economist Milton Friedman, dreamed up this extreme form of capitalism to turn back the "excess of democracy" coming out of the youth rebellion in the 1960s. Neoliberal economists like Friedman used Pinochet's Chile as a testing ground for their theories of shrinking the state, using its resources for policing and repression, and privatizing all other public sector functions, including health care and social services. Neoliberalism has continued, regardless of the government in power.

President Sebastián Piñera's desperate attempt to fire eight ministers won't appease protesters, says Torres, because the masses are saying "we want them all gone."

The massive actions in Chile over the past week were entirely spontaneous, sparked by young people who jumped the subway turnstiles to protest a significant transit fare hike. Many of the young protesters were treated brutally by the police, and people reacted to defend their children. The protests spread through social media.

Torres says that the ruling elite has stolen from the people for more than three decades, exhausting the citizenry's political understanding and approach to traditional politicians. The fare hike was the last straw.

The protesters demands are related to minimum wage, pension plans, free education, health care, the well-being of retirees, the privatization of water, student loans, Indigenous autonomy, anti-patriarchy, fishing issues, children's rights and protection, forestry problems, corporate tax evasion and elusion, and the role of the state in the economy, and more.

No one, and everyone, is leading this Torres told me. The issues are what drives the mobilization. I've never seen anything like this, masses in the streets everywhere. This is the largest protest since the fall of the dictatorship, vandalizing primarily multi-national corporations like Walmart. Torres counts 40 demands of the protesters. Every movement in Chile -- from the the labour movement to the women's movement, the student movement, the Indigenous movements, and the environmental movements -- have been working to support their shared demands through a social network. But these movements are not coordinating or organizing these protests: they are truly spontaneous. And although all this is true, the recently organized Social Unity Platform, encompassing the above sectors and many other social organizations, is becoming the forum for some form of coordination and has recently called for a general strike on Wednesday, October 30. 

As of today, the UN Human Rights Commission is in Chile. Meanwhile, the Chilean government has ended the state of emergency and curfew, and has reorganized all the ministries, while preserving the hardcore neoliberal politicians in office. In any event, Piñera and his devoted team will be accountable for the massive and brutal human rights violations perpetrated in the past 10 days by the army and the police. Thousands have been detained, hundreds were tortured, and more than 20 people were killed.

Where will it end? No one knows. But Chile does not look the same anymore, although neoliberals continue to try to save the best part of the pie for themselves. When I ask if there is any political entity that can take up these struggles inside the electoral system, Torres says no, but he is optimistic something will emerge.

In 1970, Salvador Allende inspired the youth of the world by establishing a truly socialist democracy through an election. He died resisting the coup that took power on September 11, 1973. Once again almost 50 years later, Chile may again inspire the world.

Judy Rebick is the author of Transforming Power: From the Personal to the Political and was the founding publisher of rabble.ca. She also holds the CAW Sam Gindin Chair in Social Justice and Democracy.

Image: Carlos Figueroa/Wikimedia Commons

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