In this March 6, 2020 photo, anti-government protesters walk past a mural denouncing Chile's President Sebastian Pinera in Santiago, Chile. (Photo: AP)
The southern hemisphere summer has come to a close, and Chileans say they fear — or welcome — the prospect that the turn of the season could herald a renewal of the vast protests that shook the nation late last year over the government’s failure to channel one of Latin America’s best economies into well-being for the working and middle classes.
After the protests, which drew as many as 1.2 million people into the streets, the government promised reforms, the massive demonstrations grew smaller and the country went on summer vacation.
The government increased some social benefits, and set a nationwide vote for next month on whether to write a new constitution. But Chileans returning to work and school as vacation ended told The Associated Press they felt that none of the fundamental causes of the country’s eruption had been resolved.
Some said they believed conditions were ripe for a possible new explosion of unrest at any time.
Small protests by violent groups of masked youths continued regularly even during summer vacation and led to regular vandalism of businesses and clashes with police. After several thousand people demonstrated peacefully early this month, a small group clashed with security forces and incinerated a police vehicle with a firebomb.
By far the biggest — and largely peaceful — recent demonstration came Sunday when some 800,000 people, by government count, turned out for International Women’s Day.
Some of those interviewed in recent days by The Associated Press said that for the first time in months, they were thinking of returning to the streets. Others said they worried that that protests and attacks on shops and infrastructure by the masked demonstrators could swell and grow out of control.
Juan Carlos González, 42, said he receives slightly more than the minimum wage of $367 a month from the factory where he works as an electrical technician. To make ends meet, he said, he works as an Uber driver at night and on weekends.
“I’m angry at what’s happened,” González said. “With the resources this country has, these problems should have been solved many years ago. I went out to march and if I have to do it again, I will.”
From afar, Chile has been a regional success story — under democratically elected presidents on the left and right, a free-market consensus has driven growth up, poverty down and won Chile the region’s highest score on the United Nations Human Development Index, a blend of life expectancy, education and national income per capita. In 2010, Chile became the second Latin member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, after Mexico.
But a 2017 UN report found that the richest 1% of the population earns 33 percent of the nation’s wealth. That helps make Chile the most unequal country in the OECD, slightly worse than Mexico.
After the protests that began last October with the burning of metro stations and hundreds of businesses, President Sebastián Piñera responded with a basket of relatively small-scale reforms like raising retirees’ pensions from $134 to $201 a month, freezing domestic electrical rates and raising a tax on the wealthy,
Other measures awaiting Congressional approval include a hike in the minimum wage from $367 to $427 a month, a cut in legislators’ pay and additional benefits for retirees.
Cristián Ramírez, a 34-year-old building contractor in Santiago, said he also expected to return to the streets in coming days.
“Up until now they’ve been giving us crumbs. A retiree who lives on $134 a month, even if they raise it 50 percent, they won’t have money to eat, to pay bills and, above all, to buy medicine.
“I’m optimistic and I’m confident that if we keep protesting the government will have to make real changes,” he said. “I think I’m going to protest until we win.”
The possibility of large new protests worries those lives were disrupted by last year’s protests and fear the potential for even greater violence similar to episodes suffered under the brutal military dictatorship from 1973 to 1981.
“I feel powerless, I don’t think that there will be a way to stop the violence and I have a nervous sensation that the young people who didn’t live through the dictatorship don’t realize it could end up getting out of control,” said dental surgeon Gonzalo Alvarez, 62.
“I’m not going to protest but I understand why people do, because their lives haven’t changed. They are still in debt, with low salaries and pensions.”
The continued protests by masked youths with a taste for attacking police and property pose a risk to the plebiscite on writing a new constitutional next month, warned conservative politician Jacqueline van Rysselberghe.
“It won’t be possible to produce a new constitution or vote on one with the levels of violence we see today,” she said.
Hugo Rivera, a 17-year-old college student, said his grandmother struggled to buy medicine with her pension and his mother couldn’t pay all her bills with her minimum wage of less than $370, which the government has yet to raise as promised.
“That’s why,” Rivera said. “My brother and I are going to keep protesting.”′