Santiago, Chile, October 22, 2019. Photo by Miguel Kaiser Colivoro.


On Friday October 25, 2019, an estimated 1.5 million people converged on Santiago’s main boulevard in a stunning defense of democracy.  In a nation of just 18 million people, the action marked the largest civilian protest in Chile’s history and proportionally one of the largest in the world.  It capped over a week of protests that spread across the country in opposition to the Chilean government’s declaration of a State of Emergency and its deployment of the armed forces to quell arson and looting, which had erupted on October 17 in response to a hike in metro fares.  This was the first time that the army had been used to police civilians since the fall of Chile’s military dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990).  The imposition of nightly curfews and President Sebastión Piñera’s declaration that “We are at war against a powerful enemy” reminded Chileans of the worst days of dictatorship and directly echoed Pinochet’s pronouncement following the overthrow of socialist president Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973 that Chile was “at war” against  an “internal enemy of Marxist terrorists.”  Even more traumatizing were the mass arrests of protesters, extensive use of live ammunition and rubber bullets, and documented reports of torture, including sexual abuse. During the ten days it was in effect, the State of Emergency resulted in over 4,000 arrests, 1,000 injuries (mostly from gunfire), 20 deaths, and over 800 formal denunciations of human rights abuses.

Yet this was not a military coup or a repeat of September 11, 1973. It is a national reckoning over the meaning of Chile’s democracy that emerged in the aftermath of dictatorship.  This time the army was called in by a democratically elected president (Piñera) rather than acting on its own initiative to attack a democratically elected president (Allende). Chilean citizens immediately contested the State of Emergency as a gross overreach and mobilized to protect civil rights. (One reason for the extensive reports of human rights abuses is that there are now formal legal procedures for registering and investigating such complaints; several military and police have already been formally charged.) Chilean democracy showed its strength rather than its fragility as boisterous but overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations erupted across Santiago—in middle-class, working-poor, and even rich neighborhoods– to condemn government actions and redirect the terms of debate. Signs proclaiming “We are not at War! Chile Woke Up!” and  “It’s not about the 30 pesos [metro-fare hike], but about the 30 years!” underscored the legitimacy of public outrage over the inadequacies of Chile’s 30 years of civilian government since the end of military dictatorship in 1990.  Each night of the curfew, people leaned out of apartment windows and stepped onto front sidewalks to loudly bang pots and pans, a traditional form of collective protest known as the cacerolazo (literally, “the big casserole”).  Pot-banging in protest of the military’s presence on the streets was especially symbolic.  One of Pinochet’s most repeated justifications for the 1973 military coup was that Allende’s socialist government had faced huge protests and cacerolazos by women, who Pinochet claimed had “begged the armed forces” to save the country.  In 2019, the cacerolazo has been used to defend democracy and to hold elected leaders accountable for their failures.

The outrage in Chile today is fueled by the historical legacies of the dictatorship and the unwillingness of Chile’s political classes to sufficiently address them.  The protests are indeed about the last “30 years” of democratic governance, but they are also about the 17 years of military rule that set the terms for how democracy has been rebuilt.  One of that 17 years’ most important legacies is economic. Under Pinochet, Chile became the most privatized economy in the world.  What is now commonly glossed as “capitalist globalization” or “neoliberalism” happened on a national scale first and most profoundly in authoritarian Chile. Beginning in the mid-1970s, publicly-owned industries were sold, protections for domestic manufacturing and agriculture ended, and the welfare state entirely gutted as education, healthcare, housing, social security, and retirement pensions were all reorganized around privately-managed, market-driven models.  In the 30 years since the return of democracy, Chile’s successive elected governments (most of them coalitions of centrist and leftist parties) have largely kept intact such hyper-privatization and minimal state regulation.  As a result, a handful of Chilean corporate conglomerates and foreign enterprises has amassed phenomenal concentrations of wealth and monopoly control over electricity, telecommunications, water, and gas.  Even copper mining, the one industry not privatized by Pinochet, has been increasingly subcontracted to multinational companies. Today, most Chilean citizens finance their own retirement pensions and healthcare through mandatory individual savings accounts managed by private firms (similar to 401Ks), to which neither employers nor the government financially contribute.  Highways, ports, parks, mass transportation, and much of the K-12 education system are not “public” but privately-owned or privately-managed and expensive to use. That the October protests were sparked by a hike in metro-fares stems from the fact that almost half of Santiago residents spend 10 percent or more of their income on “public transportation.”

Santiago, Chile, November 1, 2019.  Photo by Miguel Kaiser Colivoro. 

The international image of 21st century Chile as an “oasis of prosperity” is rooted in the older claim of the dictatorship having created an “economic miracle” that distinguishes Chilean modernity from the “chaos” of other Latin American nations. Such jingoist hyperbole obscures a more complex truth of profound inequalities and the systematic erosion of the public sector. It is not that “nothing has changed” in Chile since the end of military rule. When Pinochet left power, almost half of Chileans lived in extreme poverty; today, less than 20 percent live below the poverty line, and less than 10 percent in extreme poverty.  Both rural and urban working-class people, including most of Chile’s indigenous population, have meaningfully better access to food, housing, education, and healthcare than they did under dictatorship, and their children usually have better jobs.  The policies of democratically-elected governments have mattered a great deal to creating these improvements.  But they have done so primarily by raising wages and expanding credit so that people meet social needs through existing market mechanisms. This has done little to stem inequality or create a public safety net. Today Chile spends the least money per-citizen on social benefits and public services of any member country of the OECD (capitalist democracies) and ranks near the very bottom of any country in the world in income distribution (15 out of 156 tracked by the US government). 

The other major legacy of dictatorship is political:  Chile’s current constitution was written and  enacted under military rule in 1980 for the explicit purpose of institutionalizing the regime’s economic model and permanently crushing Chile’s historically strong left-wing political parties and labor movements.  It is still the law of the land.  Acceptance of the 1980 Constitution was the central condition of Chile’s return to democracy in the late 1980s.  The main coalition of pro-democracy forces used the constitution’s provision for a national plebiscite, meant to extend military rule, in order to organize a successful “NO” campaign that resulted in Pinochet losing that plebiscite in 1988 and agreeing to hold elections. But the 1980 Constitution also set the terms for restoring Congress; it guaranteed the military and right-wing political parties a disproportional share of legislative power that allowed them to easily block reforms.  Over the last 30 years, many of the most undemocratic aspects of the constitution have been gradually amended or abolished; but, the constitution still limits Congressional power and allows for easy suspensions of civil rights through “State of Siege” and “State of Emergency” provisions, such as that used by President Piñera in October 2019.  Perhaps the most detrimental and lasting consequence of the 1980 Constitution has been the steady erosion of public faith in the political system and the ability of elected leaders to pass laws that respond to people’s well-articulated demands.  Only 46 percent of Chileans bothered to vote in the last national elections, and only a third of young people under age 30 voted.  With a few exceptions, most political parties are led by cliques of dynastic insiders who have done little to expand and empower a new generation of leaders.

Chileans are fed up with electoral politics but they are not politically quiescent. These kinds of protests are not new. If the size of the October 2019 protests took the international community by surprise, mass mobilizations and spirited condemnations of inequality have deep roots in Chilean political culture and have gained particular momentum over the last decade. Between 2006-2012, high school and university students led waves of massive protests across the country against the privatization of public education and the crushing debts required to pay for college.  Known as the “Penguin Revolution” (for the dark-blue and white uniforms worn by K-12 students), the demonstrations involved hundreds of thousands of young people and prolonged occupations of school buildings that ultimately forced the center-left government of Michelle Bachelet to enact modest reforms to curb costs. (It is no coincidence that this October’s protests were begun by students.) More recently, there have been mass mobilizations against the private pension system, lack of affordable housing, and appallingly inadequate healthcare.  Last May 2018, hundreds of thousands of women, LGBT activists, and their supporters took to the streets in Santiago and seized control over major universities to protest sexual violence, gender harassment, and bans on abortion. Bare-breasted women wearing ski-masks (a nod to Russia’s Pussy Riot), occupied the conservative elite Catholic University for the first time since the pro-democracy protests against Pinochet.  In southern Chile, Mapuche activists have repeatedly challenged the lumber industry’s encroachment on indigenous land, condemned government use of dictatorship-era laws to repress them, and called for Chile’s recognition of aboriginal people’s rights to cultural autonomy. The multi-colored Mapuche flag, with a drum circle representing the earth, now flies alongside the Chilean flag in every protest and mass rally and has become especially important to the growing environmental movement.

Chile’s fractious reckoning over its post-dictatorship democracy is likely to continue and opens real possibilities for transformation.  The sheer size of the protests and the world attention they have received will make it difficult for Chilean political leaders to go back to business as usual or continue to project an international image of singular prosperity. In recognition of that impossibility, President Piñera cancelled Chile’s scheduled hosting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit (November 2019) and the UN Convention on Climate Change (December 2019), two major global forums intended to further bolster Chile’s international reputation. Chile will better shine as a global leader by demonstrating how its elected leaders and political parties can respond to citizen demands for greater equity and profound structural change. Legislation has already been proposed to expand public pensions, raise taxes, and create a guaranteed monthly minimal income. There is growing Congressional support to enact a Constitutional Assembly to write a new constitution that would finally replace that of the dictatorship.  Chilean civil society is more vibrant than ever, buzzing with serious political debate, creative expressions of solidarity, hope as well as outrage. This is an opportunity for democracy to work.


Heidi Tinsman is Professor of History at the University of California Irvine and a member of the RHR Editorial Collective.  Her books include Buying into the Regime: Consumption and Grapes in Cold War Chile and the United States (Duke, 2014) and Partners in Conflict: The Politics of Gender, Sexuality, and Labor in the Chilean Agrarian Reform, 1950-1973, (Duke, 2002).  She is co-editor of Radical History Review issue 124, The Other 9/11: Chile, 1973:  Memory, Resistance, and Democratization (Winter, 2016).

[1]See Gini-Index tabulations published by the CIA: