Why are Chileans complaining? And the shift in development we all need

By Bernardita Muñoz

While coronavirus is spreading around the world, threatening and destroying our normality, as a Chilean, I can’t help thinking about what else could happen now. Our “normality” is teetering for a while now, societies are changing and we are all called to review our understanding of how the dynamics that have shaped the order of our countries and the world, have failed, could be improved, or changed for a system that effectively satisfies the needs of the most and not the few. During the last year “normality” in many countries has ceased, the world has witnessed several different protests across the globe. A quarter of the world’s countries have lived some sort of civil unrest in 2019, and this will likely to continue in 2020 (Verisk Mapplecroft, 2020).

The reasons for these civil manifestations are diverse but many of them point to the same underlying causes: corruption, political abuse, lack of trust in institutions, and income inequality, among others. According to the Civil Unrest Index (Verisk Maplecroft, 2020), Chile is the riskiest location of the sample (along with Hong Kong) in terms of experiencing civil unrest, and the one that has seen its indicator deteriorate more rapidly than any other since 2019. One of the main factors for this situation, according to the index, is the lack of effective mechanisms for managing discontent.

But what is generating such discontent? Until recently Chile was considered an example of economic growth and a vigorous economy within the Latin American region. A beacon, or even an oasis – as the President of Chile, Sebastián Piñera, mentioned in an interview days before the explosion of the crisis– in the “desert” that apparently is Latin America for many. This idea is, or was, based on the supremacy that the economic model has in terms of politics and development. It is scary to realise that this, now more than ever, seems to be all that matters. These social crises have made less ambiguous an awkward truth that we all knew but now no one even bothers on hiding: economic growth is the one and only concern for most of politics, policymakers and the elites in general, the owners of the monopoly of power.

The different crises, and particularly the one that has taken place in Chile, have unveiled not only structural issues, that were hidden under the curtain of economic thrive, but the lack of political ability and will to contain the social discontent. The failure in giving voice to the common citizens and the use of excessive violence by the government against the protesters and civilians (the Government of Chile has been accused by different organisations[1] of severe Human Rights violations) has aggravated the intensity and depth of this crisis, which is, unambiguously a social crisis. However, what happens when the focus is changed and moved from the social aspect to the economic one?

Recently I read an opinion column in the New York Times, stating the importance of protecting the “Chile brand”, meaning, the stability of our democracy and the openness of our economy to global markets. In front of the eyes of many, the main concern right now is how this could affect the economic activity, the investment and the possibilities of new economic ventures in the country. And although this is a reasonable concern, should it be the main one? This conception of the problem is not an isolated phenomenon, and in fact, is the reflection of the origin of the crisis. For instance, the relentless defence by the government of the pension system (created by Piñera’s brother), a privatized scheme which has 80% of pensioners receiving less than the minimum wage ($400). This is one example of many other situations that illustrates the precarious equilibrium of social development in Chile. This is what happens when a country is first perceived as a brand, an enterprise, rather than as a society with needs and rights.

The big figures of the Chilean economic success have concealed to the rest of the world the poor living conditions of most of the population. The neoliberal economic measures implemented during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, and sustained since the return to democracy in 1990, have allowed extreme participation of the market in matters of public services and basic social rights and increased the disparate concentration of wealth, promoting high levels of inequality on income distribution. Although the economic stability accomplished during the last three decades has made possible to improve the poverty levels, decreasing from 40% to 8.6% (World Bank, 2004 and 2020), this model has promoted high levels of inequality. According to ECLAC, currently in Chile, the richest 1% of the population owns 25,6% of the country’s wealth, while the poorest 50% concentrate only 2,1% of the wealth. Furthermore, the extent of the neoliberal measures reaches all sort of social rights. The principle of Subsidiary State, stipulated in the current constitution (created by Pinochet), establishes that the economic matters are a concern of the privates and therefore the state should only intervene in case these are inefficient in accomplishing this task or if they simply don’t want to. This premise has given space to the market to enter in all kinds of areas, resulting in the privatization of health, pensions, education and even water, among others, and although the state provides public options for many of these basic needs, these tend to be of poor quality and/or access.

The accumulation of these and other underlying conditions have fueled the general discontent, ending up in the explosion of the social crisis on October 18th. Now Chileans are on the streets asking for -as their motto says- Dignity. While this word is meaningful in itself, in the Chilean context it refers to a series of structural reforms which are deep and complex to address, and that given the lack of political will and organisation of the social power, are hard to develop in the short term.

This is what it happens when economic development overpowers social development and when the economic interests are the ones that dictate the benefits society gets. It seems an outdated idea to think that the second is just a consequence of the first, and the problem grows when policymakers, politicians and privates don’t understand that investment in social development is crucial for economic development as well (Birdsall, 1993). When you don’t invest in people, you are calling for civic discontent, which most likely will end up with protesters on the streets asking for the recognition of their rights.

Chile today is an example for many other global south countries, and not because of our years and years of economic success, but because today Chileans feel powerful enough to challenge the sacred model and to demand no less than what most of the citizens in the global north already have, dignity and decent living conditions. The popular uprisings seen during the last year, and the Chilean one in particular, should be a wake-up call. This is not people being greedy or asking for more that they deserve or need, this is people asking for what they feel is just. Through this crisis, academics, development practitioners and policymakers are being called to re-think the way we understand the connection that exists among the economy and society. The renowned economist Ha-Joon Chang (2003) writes that the paradigm that economy and politics are separated matters -upon which the whole Chilean economy is based – in reality, is not met; and Thomas Piketty (2014) defends the idea that inequalities should be addressed by the coordinated action of the states – through a tax over the capital at a global level- which entails the necessary intervention of governments over the markets. Like them, many others are putting these discussions on the table. But are scholars and politicians the only ones that should be taken seriously in this discussion? Ignoring common voices is precisely what has taken us to where we are today. Authorities and policymakers cannot longer avoid incorporating people’s will into their policy decision-making process, otherwise they would be fueling an eternal loop of civil unrest. For us, the “common voices”, the responsibility is not only to manifest our discontent but to be reflexive and critical in terms of what we accept and what we can demand from our authorities, and to understand how economy and society converses and determines the shape of the country and world we want to have.


[1] Instituto Nacional de Derechos Humanos (INDH – Chile), Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International (AI), Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR – OAS)

Photo credits: Aton

Other References:

Birdsall, N. (1993). Social development is economic development (Vol. 1123). World Bank Publications.

Chang, Ha-Joon (2003). Kicking Away the Ladder. Development strategy in historical perspective. London: Anthem Press pp13-32

Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the twenty-first century. Harvard University Press.


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