“It's not 30 pesos – it's 30 years”: The Battle for the Heart and Soul of Chile

Chile's protests aren’t about the 30 peso rise. They are about the 30 years of ‘democracy’ suffered since the official end of the dictatorship and a direct result of a growing extra-parliamentary left.

The army is on the streets. At least 1,500 people have been arrested. Activists claim a minimum of 16 deaths. The National Institute of Human Rights (INDH) reports the “excessive use of force in arrests, abuses of children, mistreatment, blows to the face and legs, torture, undressing of women, and sexual abuse, among other violations..”

Meanwhile, the president, Sebastián Piñera, elected with the support of just 13% of the population in the first round, declares “we are at war with a powerful enemy… I ask all my compatriots to join in this battle.”

In this, amidst a cloud of mystification and disinformation, Piñera is correct. A battle is raging in Chile. Indeed, it is a battle for the heart and soul of the country, a decisive battle for the future of the second most unequal country in South America, the most unequal in the OECD.

This is a country with a minimum wage of less than $400 a month and a pension of $200. Yet, Santiago is a city where the average rent for a one bedroom apartment alone is $400. The monthly cost of living for a family of four in the city is estimated at $2000.

Water is privatised. Health is privatised. Transport prices are the highest in Latin America. Education is governed by an oppressive law dating from the dictatorship. Imprisoned activists have been killed year after year – the INDH reports widespread violence by guards and police. This is a country long waiting to explode and it seems the time has come.

On Allende and Pinochet

In 1970 Chile elected its first socialist president, Salvador Allende, , the result of a mass, highly organised campaign of working-class groups. This is where the story of everything happening today begins – from the state repression to the use of violence by demonstrators. Allende did not finish his term. Capitalists withheld goods causing widespread shortages of basic necessities. The CIA launched a campaign of subversion. And on the 11th of September, 1973, the military invaded their own capital, seizing power, killing Allende, and handing the reins to a general, Augusto Pinochet, who would rule for the next 17 years.

During his time in power, the Chilean state would murder at least 2,279 people. Over 200,000 were forced into exile. At least 27,255 individuals were tortured – electrocuted, raped, beaten, starved. Still more remain ‘disappeared,’ unaccounted for to this day.

But the bureaucratic brutality of the regime is not its only story. The Pinochet regime was first and foremost an economic ‘experiment.’ As soon as the general came to power with the backing of the United States, he imported a famed group of economists called the Chicago Boys. Trained by Milton Friedman, among others, they launched the first test-run of modern neoliberalism, privatising nearly everything the Chilean state owned. These assets were sold off at a fraction of their value, with some literally given away for free, predominantly to foreign capital. Wages, meanwhile, were slashed, along with spending, and consistently repressed. By 1988, the income of the top 10% had doubled. 45% lived in poverty.

By the late 80’s, Pinochet was becoming a strain on the foreign policy of the United States. Their policy of endless brutality and dictatorship had achieved its primary aims in Latin America, the physical and organisational elimination of the threat of imminent revolution and, in Chile, the radical restructuring of the economy from above. The continuation of the murder, torture, and disappearance was no longer deemed necessary. Moreover, it was causing Reagan’s appeals for democracy in Eastern Europe to appear ever-more of a stretch. .

Under these conditions, a campaign of change began, of re-legitimisation. Pinochet was still valuable economically. He was a close friend of Margret Thatcher and presided over a key US Latin American ally. However, a veneer of democracy was needed. The argument began being peddled from Washington and, more directly, London that the Chilean people wanted a dictatorship. A plebiscite was organised for 1988. The question was whether the people wanted the dictator – the answers were yes or no. The hope was that a mix of ideological propaganda and the fear of repression would deliver the result for Pinochet.

As it came to pass, this was not enough. Pinochet, to the surprise of nearly every observer in the world, lost the referendum. The right began scrambling for a new direction. “Negotiations” were opened. An agreement was reached. Pinochet would indeed step down as president. However, he would remain the commander in chief of the army and become a senator for life – free of pesky elections. His constitution would remain in effect. Many of his laws would remain in effect. And most importantly for the right, the military and police personnel would remain the same.

‘Democracy’ in Chile was built to be a veneer and has remained a veneer – it was made clear that if the civilian politicians ‘faltered,’ the army was all-too-happy to step back in.

“It’s not 30 pesos – it’s 30 years”

A new cry has joined the traditional leftist chants in the streets of Santiago “No son 30 pesos – son 30 años.” “It’s not 30 pesos – it’s 30 years.”

The present revolt was sparked by a hike in the metro fare in the city of Santiago – a city whose metro system is already the most expensive in Latin America. At about $1.10 per journey, it doesn’t seem like much. However, for many citizens living on the outskirts of Santiago, a bus is necessary before the metro – another $1.10. This leads to a daily transport cost of $4.40. That’s $132 a month. If you are living on $400, this totals a full 1/3 of your income.

And yet, as the protesters themselves insist, these protests aren’t really about the 30 peso rise (about 4p). They are about the 30 years of ‘democracy’ the country has suffered since the official end of the dictatorship and they are a direct result of a growing extra-parliamentary left dedicated to changing the situation.

Deep-set inequality, the widespread repression of activists, and dictatorship-era laws have continued uninterrupted. The country’s political system was run for years by a cross-ideological coalition which changed very little. The election of the country’s first Socialist Party president since Allende, Michelle Bachelet, in 2005 brought hope. She served from 2006-2010 and again from 2014-2018 (the Chilean constitution bans consecutive terms). However, the promise of a better country was broken. While her time in office would see minor symbolic reforms such as the state donation of books to poor families and the awarding of free computers to high-performing poor students, it included little more. Simultaneously she would resist calls to use Chile’s vast copper revenue (Chile is the world’s largest copper producer) to address social problems, instead preferring to create a sovereign wealth fund subsequently utilised to bail out the economy in 2009, and oversee the lowest year-on-year increases in the minimum wage in recent times.

What did change during this period, however, was the degree of popular mobilisation and militancy among the Chilean population. By 2006, a Socialist was in power, Pinochet under house arrest in London, and a new generation too young to remember, and thus fear, the former dictator, was coming of age. Demands for a new ‘social contract’ became widespread on a number of fronts – demands for more equality, a more equitable economy, a more inclusive society, and the end of dictatorship-written laws among others. These, and, eternally, the demand for cheaper access to the metro system.

In May of that year, these demands blew up. Secondary school students, many struggling to afford to reach their schools where the instruction itself was controlled by the “Organic Law of Education,” an ideological measure passed on Pinochet’s final day in office meant to ensure the far-right indoctrination of future generations, revolted. By the end of the month, at least 320 schools were occupied, hundred more on strike. The initial demand was for free transport passes for students. This soon grew to include the abolishing of the aforementioned Organic Law and the expansion of access – only 58% of Chileans finish secondary school, 16% university.

Following the initial student uprising of 2006, Chile would witness additional uprisings on a nearly annual basis, with particularly major incidents in 2008, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2015. Each time a mix of repression, promises (ultimately unrealised) of change, and summer breaks would cause the movement to lose steam. However, the reputation of militancy and independence amongst the student body would grow with each new wave of demonstrations. At the same time, as students graduated, they became increasingly involved in other struggles they had often first come into contact with during the schools revolt, including those of the Mapuche indigenous peoples, the feminist movement, the trade union movement, and general anarchist and communist agitation.

Their presence, and the renewed confidence that the presence of the student demonstrations generated, would lead to the rapid growth of the left, with struggle after struggle growing at an ‘alarming’ rate. The students, viewed very differently than they are in, say, the UK, began to be seen as the most advanced section of the working-class. This is evidently reflected in the many statements of support during this years demonstrations as commuter after commuter argued that the students were doing what those of them trapped by work, debt, and familial commitments, could not.


About two weeks ago, the host of class-based political issues constantly bubbling away in Chile, once again came to the fore. Piñera’s decision to raise metro tariffs was very much the proverbial ‘straw that broke the camel’s back.’ A decision made with little economic rationale or necessity, it was widely perceived as a slap in the face to a working-class utterly fed up with its subordinate position in Chilean society.

Student groups quickly returned to their vanguard-esque position in the struggle, as secondary school students called for a ‘massive [fare] evasion.’ This refusal to pay for the fundamental need for transportation in a city far too large to navigate by foot or bicycle was well received by the people as a whole. Videos depict students cheering as one passenger after another refuses to pay – ducking under turnstiles or else vaulting them.

Subsequent police attacks on teenagers in the tunnels, including extensive use of tear gas in enclosed spaces and severe beatings captured on camera, only served to increase this support.

As confrontations rapidly spiraled in number, so too did the violence utilised by both sides and the property destruction by the protesters. Numerous metro stations were symbolically destroyed and on October 18th, the government declared a state of emergency, suspending civil liberties and sending the army into the streets to suppress demonstrations on a major scale for the first time since Pinochet. General Iturriaga, whose father served as an officer in Pinochet’s army and was trained in the United States , seized day to day control of Santiago and a curfew was declared.

The unrest, however, did not abate. Soon, in fact, it had reached nearly every corner of the country, demonstrations spreading through a mixture of social media and apparently spontaneous solidarity, as citizens in smaller cities and towns headed to their central plazas for “cacerolazos,” traditional noise protests with pots and pans, notably undermining the narrative that this anger was focused only on a transport hike. While the media bemoaned the looting of supermarkets, society witnessed the most widespread and violent wave of oppression in 30 years, with the results noted in the introduction of this article. The state of emergency continues to be extended day-on-day and tensions seem beyond breaking point.

Several factors of this movement are in need of explanation for an outside audience: the political character of the revolt, its willingness to utilise violence, and the widespread looting of supermarkets and pharmacies

The media, both Chilean and otherwise, has struggled to attempt to present the events in Chile as grounded in short-term ‘economistic’ demands. There is even some evidence that the government itself believes this is largely true. However, it is an utterly false presumption – evidenced most clearly, among other phenomena, by the movement’s continuation and growth, including to many far-flung regions unaffected by the fee change, after Piñera announced the retraction of the fare hike.

As explained above, the extra-parliamentary left in Chile has grown rapidly in the past decade and a half, driven by the failure of legislative reform and the growth of revolutionary groups. The Evasión Masiva protests themselves emerged directly from a call out made by student groups at the Instituto Nacional, a state secondary in Santiago. This call was taken up by other students, both members of official groups and otherwise and spread rapidly throughout networks built up through previous rounds of struggle.

Chilean media, in its attempts to depoliticise the struggle, has latched on to several banners proclaiming marchers ‘neither left nor right.’ However, these slogans are being widely and perhaps willfully misinterpreted. The Chilean student movement has an extremely strong anarchist element with long-running historical tensions with the Communist Party (which remains important in Chile). This association of ‘leftism’ with electoral reformism is particular to specific tendencies within the specifically Chilean situation and does not reflect, as has been suggested, a depoliticised march. Much the opposite.

The use of violence also reflects these critical, political roots. In the west, popular violence in recent years has become something of an anathema, particularly in the English-speaking world. And it is quite true that such mass violence is being practised on a wide-scale in Chile. However, regardless of one’s opinion of the effectiveness of political violence in general, there are three key factors which explain its perceived necessity in the Chilean context:

First, state repression is to such a scale that the right to self-defence is held sacred by protesters and activists and defended as such. In a country where prisoners are tortured and murdered, it is very difficult to justify allowing oneself to be arrested. Note, if you watch any televised coverage, the cries of names as protesters are dragged away. This is based upon a very real fear of disappearance once within custody. Lists are being circulated online attempting to locate missing prisoners as we speak.

Second, the election of 2005, in which a socialist won on a socialist platform, and struggles since, have confirmed to the Chilean people that their modern state is incapable of adjusting to their demands. This generates the revolutionary character we are witnessing – revolution being seen by some as the only realistic or viable option.

Third, in 1970 Chile elected a Marxist. That Marxist was brutally overthrown, killed, and his supporters tortured, exiled, and murdered en masse . It is unsurprising given this history that few join in a hope for ‘democratic’ electoral change. Ultimately, after all, it was not a failure of ambition, but a failure to reckon with the machinery of the bourgeois state that destroyed Allende’s government.

What is important to note here is that the very presence of violence that has been used by many media outlets to justify the narrative of vandalism and depoliticisation is in fact evidence of the opposite. Not only does it reflect a revolutionary consciousness, but a historical consciousness as well based on an analysis of historical patterns of state violence and the ineffectiveness of previous reform attempts.

The looting, while having a more ‘popular,’ less organised character than anti-state violence, nonetheless also reflects this historic, political, and class consciousness. First and foremost, that the looting has largely taken place in pharmacies and supermarkets speaks profoundly as to the state of life of the looters to begin with. These are not people stealing TVs or mobile phones. However, it is also not merely hungry people taking the food and sick people taking the medicine that they need. The looting cannot be reduced to apolitical, economistic motivations and understandings.

Following recent earthquakes, widespread price gouging was reported by supermarkets and pharmacies, taking advantage of crises in which thousands were desperately in need of water and medicine. There were reports, following the 2010 quake, of bottles of water being sold for as much as $15. This has left supermarkets widely despised amongst the population as a whole and thus identified as legitimate targets.

Additionally, as evidenced by a number of leftist publications over the last 72 hours, there is, at least among elements of the Chilean left, a critical understanding of looting as an act of direct redistribution in opposition to property rights. As comrades from Agitación Inmanente argued yesterday “we have done nothing but expropriate that which belongs to us and which has robbed us of our lives and that is something that they cannot stand.” It also appears evident that the “small number” of looters reported in the Chilean press is a wild under-statement, given that the majority of supermarkets in Santiago, including 80 Walmarts, have reportedly been sacked.

Ultimately, the deeply militant, radical, and proletarian nature of these demonstrations has determined their tactical outcome. To hold a moralistic opinion on such things is misguided. The Chilean proletariat and the Chilean left are acting based upon the analyses of their present situation they have formed through years of difficult struggle throughout the last decades. Elements have bet upon a strategy of immediate confrontation, and the very fact that the world is talking about this country of 18 million today, that the state is so panicked it has sent in the military, and that the trade unions on Monday announced that, far from condemning the movement, they were declaring a general strike in its support, seems to bear it out, at least for now.

What happens next can only be decided through mass social struggle. Many fear that the state reaction indicates a slow return to dictatorship. Chileans are not pleased to have generals on their television, troops on their streets, and presidents declaring war on a “very organised” “powerful enemy” within. It rings of Pinochet. But they have not been cowed thus far. And the movement shows every possibility of winning.