In 2019, as an autumn of popular uprisings erupts around the globe, the most dramatic revolution of the moment is taking place in the shadows of the towering mountains of Chile, where as many as a million people flood the streets of capital city Santiago by day, and harrowing street battles have erupted at night. What set off this political conflagration? A subway fare hike that — converted to U.S. money — amounts to less than 5 cents.
But to massive numbers of Chileans, those 30 extra pesos were literally the last straw, and not just because transit fares in the South American nation had doubled in 12 years to take a toll on lower-income families. The fare hike touched off much deeper anxieties about income inequality in a nation often held up as an economic success story because of its rapidly rising gross domestic product (GDP), yet has seen much of that wealth flow to a narrow sliver at the top. That’s in addition to social unease over fewer opportunities for Chile’s browner-skinned indigenous and mixed-race people, often packed into outskirts barrios.
At first, students began protesting by hopping turnstiles and dodging the fare, chanting: “Evading, not paying, another way of fighting!” But things escalated. More than a dozen subway stations burned. The government of President Sebastián Piñera responded with a repressive crackdown, then a retreat of rolling back the fare, announcing new measures for the working class, and lifting a curfew. Yet on Saturday, more than a million people flooded Santiago’s Plaza Italia for the largest protest yet, and no one knows how all of this will end.
Americans should be paying a lot closer attention to all of this — and not just because 50-plus years of U.S. meddling in a capital some 5,000 miles south of Washington have played a key role in getting things to this point. After taking the advice of America’s conservative economics professors for decades, Chile now has — according to one survey — the world’s highest level of income inequality. No. 2 on that list? The United States. No wonder this nation’s billionaire oligarchs are so worried about the 2020 elections. They ought to be terrified.
This is the somewhat optimistic view. The other side of this, as we have seen in the U.S., is that a combination of media propaganda, religion, whiteness, and nationalism can also take people unhinged by neoliberalism and yoke them to a right-wing racist like Donald Trump. Yes, what is happening in Chile is the same process of disillusionment that is fueling support for Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, which combined is half the Democratic Party. So there’s potential. But it’s hardly predestined that these protest movements turn out well or the energy ends up targeting billionaires instead of minorities.