Chile is one of the most industrially advanced economies in the Latin American region, but recent violent protests illustrate the social cost of a development model that has brought wealth to the country, but not prosperity to all its citizens.
Chile illustrates the paradox of redistribution in the 21st century: though there have been major improvements in life expectancy, access to health and education, and significant poverty reduction, such gains are highly uneven. There are significant pockets of poverty even in middle- and high-income countries. We have witnessed a deepening of inequality between and in countries, as many people struggle to secure jobs and afford the bright future that linear narratives of development promise. These trends run alongside increased wealth, technological innovation and ever more integrated global production.
Part of the difficulty in understanding this paradox lies in the fact that debates about development tend to focus on single macroeconomic indicators, such as the income of the “average citizen”.
The redistribution paradox speaks of the failure of governments to protect populations from the pervasive workings of unmoored capitalism. As politics has weakened under the fear of disapproval from corporate power, it becomes subservient to capital and not to citizens. Governments increasingly adopt measures that make international donors and creditors happy while making their own populations surplus to the needs of capital. This approach not only alienates citizens, but also pushes electorates to appoint and support populist politicians and wildcards across the political spectrum.
Chile’s average gross domestic product per capita is 40% higher than the Latin American average. Having the 44th-highest human development index in the world would place the Chilean economy closer to the standards of living found in high-income economies such as those of Europe and North America. Not only does the average income of Chileans seem to be higher than that of several Latin American countries, but their wealth seems to surpass countries such as Mexico, Brazil and Argentina. So, why are these protests happening? Why are Chileans outraged? Protesters seem to be those who fear falling back to a past of dispossession, being left out of the future that open and unregulated economic growth promises.
Whereas income levels seem to be good in comparison with other countries, one must also consider the costs of services and goods as the “average” Chilean struggles to afford electricity, transport and the like. Salaries for most of the population are not enough to cover their expenses; this means that six out of 10 households go into debt to pay for food, transport, health and education. For decades Chile has been one of the most unequal countries in Latin America, which is, in turn, the most inequitable region in the world.
Thus, although the increase in costs of transport and electricity might have been reported as the reason for the protests, they link to deeper structural factors that limit social mobility and the prospect of a better life.
The protests can also be explained by the recurrence and deepening of unheard grievances. Protests are not new: about 11 000 took place between 2011 and 2017. What is new is the violence. The rationale behind the use of violence has been succinctly voiced by some protestors: “If we don’t fuck shit up, we don’t exist to them.”
Violence was also exerted by the armed forces. The initial declaration of “war” by the president illustrates that for some sectors of the elite and of the establishment, citizens in Chile are seen as voiceless tools. Chile remains a country in which lines of race and class intersect, and create an unofficial system of social segregation similar to a caste system, that restrains social mobility and prospects of making a living. Consequently, when citizens revolt to expose the inequality of the status quo, their voice is not seen as a social thermometer that puts the system under scrutiny. It is instead read as a subversive reaction that should be disciplined and restrained, a response that restricts democracy.
The loss of legitimacy of the state and trust in institutions explains the emergence of riots. This mistrust has been exacerbated by the corruption scandals linked to the police force, high levels of tax evasion by elites, including the current president, as well as manipulation of the judicial system. While wealth ends in the hands of a few, and elites make decisions that protect and expand their privileges, the legitimacy of the political systems will weaken.
The evidence of the extent of inequality, next to the unattainable promise of self-improvement and shared prosperity, informs the rage behind protestors in Chile — and of those in Argentina, Ecuador, Lebanon and Hong Kong. As the world economy seems to come closer to another recession, deepening inequalities and precarity — and now climate breakdown — discontent is increasingly driven by the perception of politics as a rigged game.
Fabio Andrés Díaz Pabón is a Colombian political scientist, a research associate at Rhodes University and a researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies. María Gabriela Palacio is an Ecuadorian political economist at Leiden University