Proposed economic reforms by Chilean President Sebastian Pinera have infuriated Chileans, who railed against the widespread inequality throughout the country. Pinera had initially proposed an increase in metro fare across Chile, in addition to a hike on electricity rates. Unrest across the country in the face of these policies was magnified in Santiago, where citizens and police clashed during demonstrations. The Chilean police have been accused of using heavy-handed tactics to deal with protesters, and with the death toll over 25 and rising, the United Nations sent a delegation of human rights investigators to the country. Riot police have used rubber bullets, water cannons, and tear gas to disperse demonstrators. Although Chile has a healthy economy, buoyed by a strong copper industry, inequality throughout the country is high, and living standards are not reflective of Chile’s economic position. In addition to the protests, there have been mass strikes called by worker rights groups, including the powerful copper union, which has paralyzed Chile’s workforce. Protesters have begun to demand the resignation of President Pinera, who failed to appease them with an apology statement. Pinera apologized for “decades” of problems, and pledged to address issues including health insurance, electricity prices, and pensions. In an attempt to combat the rising anger from its populace, the Chilean government enacted a curfew in Santiago, but that only served to reinvigorate protesters who do not appear to be letting up.
Recently, the pressure on President Pinera has forced him into appeasing the protesters’ demands, and he called for a constitutional referendum in April of 2020. The referendum will ask Chileans if they want the current constitution to be replaced, and if so, which governing body should author the new one. The vote on a new constitution comes because of the protesters’ demands for a state guarantee of healthcare and education, which is not in the current constitution. If Chile votes for a new constitution, it is likely that it will establish the state as a guarantor of education and healthcare for the entire country. However, in late March Chile’s government declared a state of catastrophe due to the outbreak of COVID-19. This forced the government to delay the vote until October.
Despite the referendum being scheduled, there has been a recent spike in violence during demonstrations. A supermarket was lit on fire and another protester was killed during clashes with police, which brought the death toll in Chile to 27. The Chilean government is expecting a fresh wave of protests in March prior to the referendum. Protests in March often occur in Chile to mark the anniversaries of people killed during the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1973-1990.
One of the largest protests to date occurred in Santiago on Labor Day, when police arrested 50 people for breaking the rule prohibiting mass gatherings during the pandemic. The protestors gathered in Santiago’s central square and decried mass layoffs and abuse against workers. Chile’s capital is under a partial lockdown, and the areas of the city not under quarantine have hosted sporadic protests during the pandemic.