Tuesday, October 29, 2019

October Rising

In the late 1970s I spent a year living and studying in Chile. Ever since, I have followed news from that country with great interest, and to this day, I maintain contact with some of the people I knew there.

You might think that this would mean I have some insight into the country’s current turmoil, yet I am totally perplexed and not certain exactly what to think about it. I guess this should not be surprising. After all, I was born and have lived most of my life in the United States, and yet current events in that country are completely baffling to me. The funny thing is that I know many people who have never lived in U.S. who are absolutely much more certain about what is going on there than I am. Go figure.

Chile's then-unused La Moneda presidential palace in 1977
Here are some things that I do know about Chile. (Conveniently, I have lately been revisiting many of my old memories, as the novel I am currently writing has a couple of chapters set in Santiago in the early 1980s.) Unlike much of the rest of Latin America, throughout its history Chile has mostly been a stable country with a truly democratic political system. There have been, however, periods where this was not true. Between 1927 and 1931 General Carlos Ibáñez del Campo headed an authoritarian government. In 1973 General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the government of Salvador Allende and led a military dictatorship that lasted until 1990.

My own personal first-hand experience with the country was during the early years of the Pinochet regime. Even though it was a dictatorship and there was a suspension of many civil liberties, I did get a clear sense of the divisions in Chilean society. Supporters of the government, that is to say, conservatives were quite vocal about their views. Alternative views were, not surprisingly, less forthcoming, but non-supporters of the regime were more than willing to share their opinions once I gained their confidence. What was striking were the completely disparate accounts of what life had been like a mere couple of years earlier under Allende’s government. It was difficult to believe that people were all actually talking about the same country. What was consistently clear, though, was that there was much turmoil. In the early 1970s the middle classes were out in the streets and banging their pots on their apartment balconies in protest of the left-wing government. Under Pinochet, of course, there were no protests, and a military night-time curfew ensured no one was out late at night.

What do we know about the current series of protests? We know they began as a student-led protest against an increase in fares of the Santiago subway system and that they then exploded into violence that included looting, vandalism, arson, and fatalities. One million people turned out which works out to about one out of every seven Santiago residents. As a result, conservative President Sebastián Piñera declared a state of emergency and then initiated a government shake-up.

The city center of Santiago in 1977
Wall Street Journal columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady notes the irony that this has happened at a time when Chile’s economic statistics are very positive. The official poverty rate has recently declined to under 9 percent, down from 68 percent in 1990. Furthermore, public transportation is heavily subsidized, and student fares were not actually affected by the recent increase. As a way of explanation, she cites a heavy leftist influence in Chilean schools to explain the young’s readiness to take to the streets. She also points to Cuban and Venezuelan influences.

Is it a paradox that instability should strike Chile when it is doing better economically than its neighbors? No. There was strong growth in the post-Pinochet 1990s, but in this century the middle class has seen its fortunes slip with rising prices and stagnant wages. Also, Piñera (who last year succeeded Socialist Michelle Bachelet as president) is one of the wealthiest people in the country and so makes a convenient target for student protestors. Objective commentary on the ground there suggests that the people’s grievances are real and justified while at the same time being exploited by the hard political left. Some also talk about intellectual and political laziness of millennials fed by materialism born of the years of economic prosperity.

Where will all of this lead? I for one do not have a clue. The political hard right had its way with an authoritarian hand for the better of two decades in the last century.

Is the hard left now gearing up for its turn?