Populism Comes to Chile

Protesters say the cost of living is too high and wealth is distributed too unequally.


When the Chilean government announced on October 4 that it was hiking subway fares by roughly 4 cents in the capital city of Santiago, high school students started jumping turnstiles en masse. Adults soon joined in, sparking protests that have injured more than 2,500 and killed 20.

Protesters have set subway stations on fire. They have looted grocery stores. And some have even raided La Asuncion, a Catholic church, dragging pews and statues of Christ into the streets and incinerating them. Many protesters are using cacerolazo, or the banging of pots and pans, a form of protest spawned in 1971 by food shortages during President Salvador Allende's administration.

The fare hike—since rescinded—kicked off the protests, but the movement is animated by deeper populist forces. Chile's economy has grown significantly in the past few decades and fewer Chileans now live in poverty than ever before. But protesters say the cost of living is too high and wealth is distributed too unequally. In June, for example, the price of electricity rose by 10 percent. Many poor Chileans say health care and education are prohibitively expensive and that pensions for the elderly are too meager. (Chile lacks the state subsidies that other Latin American countries provide to reduce the cost of living.)

Protesters are calling on President Sebastián Piñera to resign and demanding an end to Chile's "neoliberal" economic policies, which they claim are responsible for the disparity between rich and poor. It doesn't help that Chile's government, led by the right-wing billionaire Piñera, seems out of touch. When faced with escalating protests, he declared a state of emergency and used the military to restore order. He also implemented curfews in major cities and is closely surveilling protesters, undermining citizens' constitutionally guaranteed speech and privacy rights.

For many Chileans, Piñera's heavy-handed response is reminiscent of the tragedy they faced in 1973, when the U.S. helped overthrow the democratically elected Allende and replaced him with Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Though he sold off many state-owned companies and opened the country to free trade, Pinochet is better remembered for torturing, executing, and disappearing thousands of political opponents over 17 brutal years.

While most Chileans are better off thanks to the free market, Piñera's decision to meet their protests with military violence threatens to jeopardize the country's economic and humanitarian gains.

NEXT: Brickbat: We Didn't Start the Fire

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  1. Why do you care if Allende was democratically elected? The people chose wrong and Pinochet, while imperfect, saved Chile was being Venezuela. Fuck you guys for even questioning whether he saved these people.

    1. You might think that Liz Wolfe, who seems to be quite aware of her role as an influencer and a shaper of the narrative, would be aware of journalism’s self-identified role as “the first rough draft of history” and that history isn’t written by the winners, it’s written by the New York Times. If Pinochet is “better remembered for torturing, executing, and disappearing thousands of political opponents over 17 brutal years” I’m pretty sure it’s not better remembered by Liz Wolfe, unless she’s using a 30 year old picture as her avatar. I’m pretty sure she wasn’t even born in 1973.

      The fact is, Allende was the beta version of Hugo Chavez, a doctrinaire communist who appointed Pinochet as head of the military because Pinochet was actually loyal enough to the rule of law and the Chilean Constitution that he saw it as his duty to be loyal to Allende. It wasn’t until Allende went too far – note the reference to the food shortage protests under Allende – that Pinochet took action to defend the rule of law and the Constitution.

      Sure, Pinochet is a clear example of the corruption of power, but let’s not forget that Chile’s relative liberty and prosperity happened because of Pinochet and not despite him. If not for Pinochet, Chile would have been Venezuela before Venezuela was Venezuela. There are worse things than complaining about price hikes in the cost of electricity – ask the guy in Caracas sitting in the dark eating a raw cat.

      1. From what I recall, Pinochet wasn’t part of the military coup that ousted Allende. He just took over after it was successful. As far as “disappearing” thousands, we need to remember who were the communist actors in Latin America at the time. Maoist terrorists such as the Shining Path, FALN, FARC. Leftists want to pretend it was everyday school teachers and journalists.
        The difference between the opposition protesters in Venezuela today and the violent mob of leftists in Chile is striking. It is the leftist protesters that are smashing store windows and burning churches in Chile. It is the Venezuelan opposition protesters that are being beaten, shot, and run over with tanks.

    2. Hitler was elected democratically. You’d think people might remember that example also, and realize that how some was elected doesn’t control how they functioned afterwards.

    3. More deaths for Capitalism, but then we’ll feign willful ignorance.

      1. Utterly baseless and stupid assertion. Or maybe you’re just high and hallucinating.

        1. Maybe you haven’t read this thread? Free republic is that way, I hear they cater to your more violent fixations.

  2. You would think that a libertarian publication might want to discuss Chile’s retirement system.

  3. “Chile’s economy has grown significantly in the past few decades and fewer Chileans now live in poverty than ever before. But protesters say the cost of living is too high and wealth is distributed too unequally.”

    Socialism will take care of both of those things for them. Everyone will be poor and hungry.

    1. Winning! (?)

  4. Does Pinochet have any descendants? Looks like Chile’s idiot socialist population needs another culling.

    1. More death and slavery for muh markets, yum!

  5. There is a lot more going on in Chile. Chile has one of the highest per Capita growth in GDP among all of the South American countries. And much of that has been due to free market reforms. As happens when you have an expanding economy, most people are getting better off, while some get rich.

    This is intolerable to the other countries in South America, who are having a bit of trouble getting their more socialist economies to drive growth.

    It is a crying shame because the media and all the other leftists are trying to snag defeat from the jaws of victory in Chile because it does not comport to their socialist planning. They are ginning up all this classist resentment as they always do, despite the fact that Chileans have been getting significantly better growth than the rest of the country.

    1. Er, despite getting significantly better growth than the rest of the countries surrounding them.

      1. (Chile lacks the state subsidies that other Latin American countries provide to reduce the cost of living.)

        Chile obviously needs to raise taxes so they can afford to pay for government programs to offset the cost of higher taxes.

    2. Seriously- the South American and Caribean average per capita GDP is around $14,400, per the World Bank. Chile is at $22,900. They have blown the curve. Socialists have been doing everything in their power to tell the Chilean people that this remarkable prosperity is bad for them. And it is working.

      1. Socialists would rather be equally poor than unequally rich.

        1. Correction: socialists would rather have everyone besides them be equally poor than unequally rich.

  6. My wife and I have spent time in Chile, as well as other South American countries. The growth of the economy in Chile is remarkable, raising it to the level of most European countries. Judges are not routinely bought as is common everywhere else on the continent. Just as in the US, there are attempts at corruption, sometimes successful. The last President was a socialist and handed a lot over to her supporters in a longstanding Latin American tradition.
    It might be pointed out that Pinochet called for an election, lost, and left office. How does that compare with the rest of the bloody dictators?

    1. Not only that, but consider why Pinochet fought dirty: because he had to. He had enemies who could not be gotten at by ordinary means. So Pinochet engaged in asymmetric warfare, which works from the top down as well as from the bottom up.

  7. dang I really wanted to ski the Portillo glacier.

  8. Populism has been in Chile for a while. Like their South American neighbors, the majority of Chileans were never that fond of small-government capitalism to begin with. And the only time they had it was when it was forced on them by a dictatorship.

    So what can I say. Let them have their non-“neoliberal” socialist policies and drag themselves down to where their neighbors are. They deserve it.

    On a side note, while I’m theoretically open to immigration on economic grounds, this remains my main worry when it comes to Latin American immigration and their big government proclivities. Chileans and Argentinians have this especially nasty propensity to take the streets every couple of months to demand more free stuff and benefits like the French do. I don’t want us to be overwhelmed by these people.

    I know Bryan Caplan addressed this particular concern in his immigration book. And just for the sake of open-mindedness, I’m going to get it and give it a read just for this part. I may or may not be convinced by it, but at least I’ll be more settled on the issue once I hear both sides of it. And if Caplan can’t bring me over to the “mass immigration won’t kill freedom” side then no one will.

    1. “On a side note, while I’m theoretically open to immigration on economic grounds, this remains my main worry when it comes to Latin American immigration and their big government proclivities.”

      Good call.

      Pew research: Hispanics Want Bigger Government Providing More Services over 3 to 1

      Latin American voting is a much bigger problem than Latin American welfare state use. When a guy like Pinochet represents relatively good Latin American government, your civilization has a problem.

      Import Not Americans, Become Not America.

  9. Since we know this publication doesn’t just report news of interest to us any more, we have to ask what the purpose of this article is. (Damned if I don’t have to read HyR now the way I used to read the NY Times: not for news, but to see what they are saying, what they are trying to do to us!)

    Is Ms. Wolfe trying to say the populists in Chile are right? No, HyR wouldn’t be that brazen at this point. So it must be to tar, rather than praise, the side she identifies as “populist”. You know who else is getting called “populist” these days?

    1. Best place to talk with local German ladies is at ao sex so come and have fun time

  10. ” when the U.S. helped overthrow the democratically elected Allende”

    This is a common assertion, but does the author have any evidence that it is true? I’ve generally taken the success of the coup as evidence that it was not a CIA operation.

  11. It appears that Reason has taken the NY Times view of events in Chile – not exactly fair and balanced. First, it is certainly true that Piñera made some missteps in his handling of the crisis here, but I’m not sure what his alternatives were. The carabiñeros (police) almost certainly over-reacted in some cases to assaults by rocks and Molotov cocktails, destruction of property and a massive shutdown of all forms of transportation. Yet there is little or no international reporting of the injuries incurred by the police in the face of these assaults.
    In the aftermath of the international reporting of these protests, almost all of the talk is of “derechos humanos” (human rights) violations by the government and the police. There is almost no talk of the loss of individual liberties of millions of Chilenos, who, for long periods of time lost the ability to move freely, to work, and to rely on the protection of their property. Hundreds of thousands of people, either temporarily or permanently, have lost jobs as a result of the protests and looting. This loss of liberty was at the hands of the protesters and the looters they enabled, not the government.
    Finally, the author might have done a bit more homework on the Allende-Pinochet era as it is still relevant to what is happening here today. What is not mentioned is that while Allende was starving his own people and confiscating their farms and businesses, he was also working on an unconstitutional Marxist takeover of the entire Chilean government. There is no doubt that Pinochet was a ruthless dictator (although some here will still argue the point), but to say “Though he sold off many state-owned companies and opened the country to free trade” is an incredible understatement of the turn-around effected by the Pinochet government guided by a group known as “the Chicago boys”, economists trained at the Chicago school of Economics, some under the tutelage of Milton Freidman.
    I’m not always sure what someone means by populism, but I think the term really misses the point in this instance. There are no populist leaders here and no really specific populist causes, only a large number of unhappy people that don’t really know what they want. These “causes” morph and are added to on a weekly basis. Metro fares, freeway tolls, retirement income, minimum wage, health care, women’s rights, indigenous rights, education and a new constitution is the current lineup. It’s like a “whack-a-mole” of complaints. As one is addressed and concessions are made, another pops up to take its place and people once again start banging pans, honking horns and taking to the streets.
    As one who has walked the streets of Santiago, before, during and after these “protests”, the last paragraph of this article is particularly disturbing being so far from the truth of what I have seen here. Good and just people here have been robbed of their livelihoods, had their property destroyed and even been humiliated (known as “baile y van”) by these so-called protesters . If there had been “military violence” here, there would have been blood in the streets, but the fact is that over the years, the strength of the police and military has been deliberately reduced in a backlash to events of the 80’s and 90’s. It wasn’t that long ago that in our own country, in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, looters were shot, and not with rubber bullets, so what I saw here, I believe, was an enormous amount of restraint. It is never mentioned in the press outside of Chile, that the first 4 people to die (of the 20 deaths cited) were killed in fires set by looters or that close to a thousand police, in Santiago alone, have been seriously injured since the middle of October.
    I moved here almost 2 years ago, loving this country and its people and I am sickened by what I have seen happen here. The people who have been and will be hurt most by these disruptions are, of course, the poorest and least advantaged. What’s truly disheartening is to see an article like this one, from a publication I respect, do no more than what appears to be a Google search and get it so wrong .

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