Chile Protests: The Fiery Passion of Chile’s Working Class

Editor’s Note: The views reflected in this article do not reflect the opinions or endorsements of Horizon’s newspaper or Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. 

In a brilliant display of anti-capitalist frustration, workers firebombed energy company Enel Chile’s Santiago headquarters on Friday night, Oct. 18. In videos, the flames can be seen all along the high rise from the first floor to the top. In response to the escalating violence during protests this month, Chilean President Sebastian Piñera has declared a state of emergency in several key regions of Chile, deploying the Chilean Army to handle the unrest through force. This month’s protests have been the most violent since the end of Augusto Pinochet’s brutal military dictatorship in 1990 – and they will not be stopping any time soon.

In Piñera’s announcement following the Oct. 18 firebombing, the president handed the responsibility of law enforcement to the Chilean Army. In dictatorship-era fashion, soldiers began patrolling city streets and enforcing curfew. They chase peaceful protestors off the streets with guns, batons, and water cannons. As of Oct. 24, 2019, 18 people have died, nearly 2,500 have been injured, and 5,000 have been arrested, according to Al Jareeza.

These protests in Chile began on Oct. 7, when Santiago secondary-schoolers and university students started a mass fare-dodging campaign to challenge a four percent raise on the city’s transit fares. Tele 13 reports that rail transit fares in Chile are already the second highest in Latin America and take up an alarming 13.8% of the country’s minimum wage. As time passed the protests grew increasingly violent, and on Oct. 18 all of the Santiago’s 136 metro stations had been closed down, according to the South China Morning Post.

By then, the protest had already moved from the subway and into the streets. Massive amounts of people began protesting nationwide to express their anger over the country’s rising cost of healthcare, education, and public services, while wages remain unchanged. Even though Chile is Latin America’s wealthiest country, it is the most unequal. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean states that 1% of the population in Chile controls 26.5% of the country’s wealth, while 50% of low-income households access a measly 2.1%. 

“The cost of living in Chile has no logic when related to the paychecks you receive at the end of the month, unless you’re a part of the upper class. The system has favored too few for too long,” Cristían Castro, director of the history department at Universidad Diego Portales, told NPR. “I think there’s a big feeling of injustice that goes beyond the thing about the metro and buses.” 

The hike in transit fares was the spark needed to ignite a massive fire for Chilean working-class solidarity. Trade unions across the country have instructed workers to conduct general strikes. The unions hope to disrupt Chile’s economy, which produces the world’s largest amount of copper. During the protest, people stand in unity upon their balconies and brew a cacophony of noise by banging their pots and pans together, which is a traditional cacerolazo protest. Popular protest in this manifestation began in 1971 Chile, during the widespread shortages of food under President Salvador Allende’s administration.

Finally, on Tuesday, Oct. 22 Piñera made an apology to the nation for failing to anticipate the outbreak of civil unrest, as if the billionaire and former airline owner was unaware of Chile’s growing class divide. The BBC reports that along with cancelling the transit fare increase, the President vowed to increase the universal basic pension by 20 percent, cancel a recent 9.2 percent increase in electricity bills, and even proposed a law that would see the state cover the costs of expensive medical treatment. 

However, this apology will do little to extinguish the burning hearts of Chile’s working class. The state of emergency is set to last another two weeks, which will bring another two weeks of violence between the government’s enforcing arm and the Chilean people. At nightfall, Chile is haunted by the sight of iron-clad military vehicles deploying teargas to enforce curfew, an image many still associate with the dictatorship. “For many years there’s been an abuse of power,” Daniela, a 20-year-old student, told The Sunday Telegraph. “It’s not just students who are affected, it’s workers, it’s all the population. In truth, it affects everyone.”