Ignacio Moya Arriagada is a Chilean-Canadian doing his PhD at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont.
The streets of Chile are on fire. Barricades light up the night sky, soldiers patrol the streets and thousands of people defy curfew. In a world of unrest, the crisis in Chile is unique in that it calls into question not just the unfair wealth distribution, but also a very specific way of doing politics.
For a long time, Chile was held up as an example of what good governance can accomplish. This is particularly true in the context of Latin America where successive crises in Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Venezuela and Honduras have helped to reaffirm the long held image that Latin America is a place where corruption and instability are a part of everyday life.
But Chile, as President Sebastian Pinera recently said, was an oasis of peace and stability. Almost 30 years of uninterrupted democratic rule, economic growth and social peace seemed to prove him right. But Chile is no longer an oasis.
What went wrong? A metro fare increase sparked the outcry, but any serious analysis will conclude that the fare hike was but a catalyst for much deeper problems. On a superficial level, the problem was that, as a study published by Diego Portales University shows, people in Santiago spend up to 7 per cent of their income on public transportation – making it the ninth most expensive system in the world.
But on a deeper level, the problem is that unequal wealth distribution and huge inequalities in access to health services, pensions and education have finally reached a point of eruption. People are fed up – fed up with economic growth that goes only to the top 1 per cent, and fed up with pensions that fall below poverty lines (average pensions are the equivalent of $450 a month).
But the problems are deeper yet. The revolt in Chile is a revolt against the rule of technocracy, against the rule of so-called impartiality, of cold expertise and objective decision-making. To be clear: The issue is not with impartiality or objectivity itself, it is with how these concepts are used in order to perpetuate a system of exploitation that only benefits those in power.
Since the infamous Chicago Boys allied themselves with the Pinochet dictatorship in the early 1980s, in order to impose economic measures that essentially reduced the role of the state to a bare minimum, Chile has functioned on a sort of auto pilot, moving forward and implementing policies based almost purely on objective analysis of various economic indicators.
Take the metro-fare hike that started the revolt. This raise was decreed by an independent committee of experts that periodically meets to analyze and review the state of the economy. Inflation, commodity prices and other factors are looked at objectively in order to determine if a hike is necessary and by what amount. The decision of this committee cannot be appealed. No authority, not the President, not Congress, can overrule them.
In this way, expertise and technocracy rule over politics. This is why, during the first days of the protests, the government kept saying that they were powerless to cancel the fare increase. This only angered people more; it was pouring fuel onto a fire. Finally, the government was forced to send to Congress a proposal that would allow the government to overrule the decisions of the committee.
This was the first, and quite late, concession that the government made. Although they have proceeded to make further concessions (the minimum pension was raised by the equivalent of $35 a month), Chileans have rightly understood that this does not address the deep structural problems, which is why the people continue in the streets.
The magic of all this is that politicians are not to blame for these decisions. These politicians and public figures are not held accountable because these difficult decisions are made by supposed impartial actors. The decisions are presented as objectively valid, not politically motivated and, it is assumed, no sane person can oppose these conclusions.
Decisions in Chile are made this way in many areas: Utility prices and highway tolls are other examples, and public representatives play no role, which allows the decision makers to decree hikes without taking into account the social ramifications. This way of doing politics, of conducting the affairs of the nation, has lasted for close to 40 years. Will it ever end? Who knows? But at least Chileans are now awake and have realized that the public square belongs to them.
Ultimately, this revolt is in the name of humanity. It is a call to reclaim politics, to put people in the centre of all decision-making.
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