Protests in Chile and the Government’s Response

The country is struggling to decide what role the armed forces should play in domestic affairs.

By Allison Fedirka

Earlier this week, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera issued an apology for not foreseeing the recent unrest that followed a hike in metro fares and introduced a series of social measures in an effort to subdue protests that have been raging for nearly a week. But prior to the announcement, the government also introduced a military-enforced curfew and declared a state of emergency. The government’s swift and heavy-handed response to the protests, which included a heavy military presence to quell the unrest, just added more fuel to the fire. For many, seeing troops and tanks on the streets of Chile’s major cities provoked flashbacks of the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The situation has raised a key issue that many South American countries are grappling with: What role should the armed forces play in a post-dictatorship country?
How It Began
An increase in metro fares on Oct. 14 was the initial spark for Chile’s protests. The price of one metro fare during peak hours in Santiago went up by 30 pesos (about 4 U.S. cents) to 830 pesos. (For reference, the new monthly minimum wage introduced as part of the relief package following the protests is 350,000 pesos, about $485.) The price hike would affect millions – on an average day, just one line on Santiago’s transit system transports 1 million passengers. As is often the case in Chile, students led the charge, organizing protests and voicing their disapproval of the move, and things quickly snowballed from there. By the end of the week, protesters were demanding changes to basic services and decreases in the cost of living, and the demonstrations spread to major cities nationwide. On Oct. 18, Pinera declared a state of emergency and deployed the military to try to clear the streets; the next day, he repealed the metro fare raise, but the protests continued. The government engaged in dialogue with whoever was willing to talk to try to resolve the dispute and ultimately had to introduce a package of reforms to appease the protesters.


Thus, protests that began over transportation fees ended up being about general economic conditions and inequality in the country. Many believed that Chile had a relatively well-performing economy, and so were surprised at the level of unrest over the past week. But it shouldn’t be a surprise. As many nations around the world see signs of economic downturn on the horizon, Chile too is feeling the pinch. Its economy is particularly sensitive to a global downturn and the U.S.-China trade war. Exports account for roughly 29 percent of Chile’s gross domestic product, and China and the U.S. are the country’s top two trade partners. China has been a major market for Chilean copper (among other things), and as the Chinese economy slows and consumption declines, the ripple effects will make their way to Chile. The price of copper has already declined this year, reflecting lower Chinese demand. The economies of Chile’s other major trade partners such as Japan and Brazil have also seen low growth and stagnant demand in recent years. These impacts have slowly accumulated over the past couple of years, with one consequence being that higher transport fees or electricity tariffs are no longer as tolerable as before.

The roots of Chile’s inequality can be attributed to its colonial past. As a colony, Chile had captaincy status, meaning there was a premium placed on security over trade and the colonial government had more autonomy over domestic affairs. But wealth in the colony was still concentrated in the elite – a common condition among Spanish colonies. This has greatly affected the country’s social structure and economic development to this day. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s most recent figures, the wealthiest segment of society earns 25 times more than the poorest. While inequality in Chile may not have seemed as pronounced as it was in other South American countries, these longstanding conditions, the current global economy and Chile’s history of strong civic activism led to the unrest we’re seeing today.

The most striking and geopolitically significant element of the Chilean protests has been the government’s response. Protests – involving vandalism, arson and street blockades – erupted in at least 10 of the country’s 16 regions, with the largest easily numbering in the thousands, if not tens of thousands. From the government’s perspective, the situation necessitated a strong response. Pinera charged the military (supported by other security forces like the Carabineros) with restoring public order, but scenes of tanks rolling down the streets and anecdotal reports of live gun fire and people in military uniform physically restraining or assaulting civilians drew comparisons to dark times in Chile’s past. Much of the population lived through the Pinochet era (1973-1990) and doesn’t want to see the country go down the same path again. Younger generations that didn’t live through those times themselves have been taught the importance of civil liberties and the right to protest by those who did.
A Complicated History
But Pinera nonetheless turned to the military to try to calm the unrest, at a time when the government is trying to reform its relationship with the armed forces. In fact, many Latin American countries, having experienced brutal military dictatorships in the latter half of the 20th century, are now reconsidering the role of the military in domestic affairs. During these dictatorships, disappearances, media censorship, restricted movement and suppression of civil liberties were common. But as democracy took hold across the region, the armed forces in many South American countries were marginalized. Governments sought to reduce the military’s influence in public affairs, and the general public adopted an increasingly unfavorable view of the armed forces. As these countries developed into more established democracies, the question resurfaced of when it’s appropriate to use military force, and to what extent.

The answer is complicated by the fact that most South American countries have minimal need for military forces as they are historically used, in warfare and foreign deployments. In most countries around the world, the purpose of the military is to protect the homeland from foreign threats or to protect the nation’s interests abroad. But due to the rugged terrain in much of South America, interstate warfare is rare and difficult to carry out, especially compared to other regions like Europe. The continent’s location in the Southern Hemisphere means it also faces minimal military threats from outside the continent. These countries still need to defend themselves, of course, but the threats they face often come from domestic actors or foreign elements that have already infiltrated the country. They primarily include non-state actors, such as organized crime groups that can operate across borders and rely on cooperation from local organizations for daily operations like crop cultivation, drug production and trafficking. Local police forces are ill-equipped to handle such threats, and even national police forces can be ineffective. Given these constraints, the idea of relying on the military, which is often better trained and funded than police forces, to defend against these threats sounds reasonable. This puts the government and military in a bit of a predicament. On the one hand, many of these governments want to find a way to effectively use the military and to modernize relations with the armed forces. On the other hand, the public and the governments themselves are wary of the military’s involvement in domestic affairs.

Chile’s military modernization efforts come at a time when the institution is going through a sort of transition. The first post-Pinochet generation is now rising in the upper ranks of the armed forces. Nearly all of the country’s current top brass – rear admirals and brigadier generals – started their careers toward the end of the Pinochet regime and will be retiring in the next few years, so the ideas and practices of that era will be eliminated. The modernization efforts will be focused on professionalizing the military and changing its funding structure. Until July, for example, the military had received a cut of the profits from state-owned copper company Codelco. After years of debate, Chile finally passed a law ending this financing. Other countries in the region are also going through changes in relations between the government and military, particularly with respect to operations. Peru is a major location for cocaine production and the main groups in control of drug activities have past links with insurgent groups. The government now uses the military to crack down on narco-terrorists. Argentina is not a producing country, but rather a transit country. As such, the government is starting to experiment with using the military to support the gendarmerie in securing the country’s borders, primarily from drug organizations. In Brazil, the military has recently been used to help control the country’s vast territory and increase government presence in some of its more far-flung regions. It supported anti-drug operations in Rio de Janeiro in 2018, helped manage the influx of Venezuelan migrants into Roraima and helped contain the fires in the Amazon this past summer. In all of these cases, the governments are looking to the armed forces to help solve security problems that arguably fall outside the traditional role of the armed forces, which includes fighting wars and dealing with foreign threats.

Chile’s recent bout of unrest appears to be declining, but the changes Pinera introduced this week address only the economic grievances of the protesters, while the underlying question of the role of the country’s armed forces remains unanswered. Pinera raised the basic pension by 20 percent, backpedaled on a 9.2 percent hike in electricity tariffs, increased the minimum wage, introduced more taxes on high-income earners and introduced measures to improve the accessibility of health care and medicine. And yet, he didn’t pull back security forces, saying he needed to guarantee that the country remains peaceful. Chile, like many in the region, doesn’t have a clear vision of what role its armed forces should play. So, it uses an ad hoc approach, deploying troops when the government deems it necessary. It may develop a clearer path forward in the future, but for now, we have only a vague indication of what that might look like.

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