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In Chile, Protests Show No Signs of Dying Down

4 MINS READNov 8, 2019 | 21:35 GMT
Riot police officers stand guard in front of a burning barricade during a protest against the government of President Sebastian Pinera on Nov. 7, 2019, in Santiago, Chile.

Riot police officers stand guard in front of a burning barricade during a protest against the government of President Sebastian Pinera on Nov. 7, 2019, in Santiago, Chile. It won't be easy for Pinera to please the country's broad protest movement.

(MARCELO HERNANDEZ/Getty Images)

With Chile's protests poised to enter their fifth week, the prospects for a timely and tidy resolution are dim. Already, the sustained demonstrations in Santiago and other cities have led to at least 20 deaths, cost the economy an estimated $1.5 billion and forced the government to cancel the mid-November Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit at the last minute. Following the spread of demonstrations into Santiago's wealthier neighborhoods earlier this week, President Sebastian Pinera unveiled a carrot-and-stick approach on Nov. 7: While announcing plans to enhance the government's ability to monitor and punish violent protesters, he also heralded the beginning of "citizen dialogues" next week.

The Big Picture

Chile's protests have caused massive disruptions across the country, resulting in the cancellation of the APEC summit. It will be difficult for the government of President Sebastian Pinera to easily resolve the unrest given the fragmented protest movement's deep, wide-ranging grievances.

But government concessions and efforts at dialogue will be hard-pressed to resolve the factors fueling the protests for two reasons: the deep-seated nature of the grievances and the fragmented nature of the groups voicing them. And for businesses operating in Chile, that will mean continued disruption to operations and transportation in urban areas, as well as the threat of more arson and looting.

Sweeping Demands

To date, a range of presidential measures aimed at placating demonstrators has failed to dampen the protest momentum. Two weeks after the protests began, Pinera reversed the Santiago metro fare hike that triggered the unrest; he has gone further since then, unveiling a package of social support measures, lifting an inflammatory state of emergency in which troops had begun patrolling the streets, ending a mandatory curfew, reshuffling his ministers and pledging to raise the minimum wage. None of these measures, however, has quelled the unrest or elicited a positive response from demonstrators. 

Instead, the diverse array of groups participating in the demonstrations has mobilized around much deeper, structural grievances about Chile's longstanding pro-market economic policies, relatively profound levels of inequality and the high cost of living. The demands on the government are sweeping, and include calls for an overhaul of the country's Pinochet-era constitution; Pinera's resignation; the nationalization of key sectors; an end to private control of water and pension funds; an amnesty for student loans; and wage, cost of living and labor rights measures. While the president has already made some concessions on some of these issues (and might offer more yet) meeting all of them would entail a radical overhaul of the Chilean government — and come with some severe economic consequences. 

While Pinera has already made some concessions on some issues, meeting all of them would entail a radical overhaul of the Chilean government — and come with some severe economic consequences.

A Diffuse Movement

While some have compared Chile's protests to the recent unrest in Ecuador, they more closely resemble the ongoing protests that have wracked Hong Kong or the long-running Yellow Vest protests in France. Ecuador's protests, although widespread, were driven by indigenous activist groups with which the government managed to negotiate, halting protests within 11 days and establishing a dialogue process that has so far lasted four weeks. Hong Kong's unrest has dragged on because the government simply cannot concede on the demonstrators' demands and because the protest movement is driven by a diverse set of interest groups, making any negotiation process challenging. In Chile, the Social Unity Board is one of the key forces behind the unrest, but it features a kaleidoscope of 150 activist, labor and student groups — and even then, it does not fully represent the scope of the movement. Instead, the Chilean government may be considering what Beijing has so far pursued in Hong Kong — efforts to curb the more violent aspects of the protests, moderate concessions to placate less radical demonstrators and a move to wait for the movement to gradually lose steam. In Chile's case, one precedent might be the country's 2011 student protests against the government's plans for private education; at the time, protests dragged on for four months as Santiago slowly offered concessions before it eventually capitulated on its policy.

Going forward, the future of Chile's protest movement — and its government — could hinge on whether Pinera's administration cedes ground on the one demand that unites demonstrators, namely, constitutional reform. Alongside further concessions on bread-and-butter issues, such a move would allow the government to make the case that it is open to deeper structural reforms. That said, such a process could provoke periodic upswings as negotiations continue — all as more radical protest participants, like anarchist groups, remain out on the streets. 

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