Latin America is rising up.
It has been several weeks since the biggest popular uprising in Chile’s history began. The trigger was something seemingly small: a rise in the subway fare in Santiago, the capital. It went up 3.75%—about 30 Chilean pesos ($0.05)—a small hike, but consequential for low-income families.
Chile wasn’t the first country in the region to be roiled by unrest. Just days before the Santiago protests began, sections of Peru had risen up to protest against a political crisis over anti-corruption efforts, and the Ecuadorean people had taken to the streets demanding an end to austerity measures. The protests evoked surprise, especially in countries that—like Chile—belonged to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The 36-member club of mostly rich countries had long hailed Chile’s prosperity.
Chile ranks high in terms of per capita income, but shares the following trait with Peru, Ecuador, and other Latin American countries: Extreme income inequality.
While the country’s per capita income would give Chileans over $2,000 a month, most make $550 a month or less. A 2018 government study showed that the richest Chileans had an income nearly 14 times greater than the poorest. Chile is the most unequal of OECD countries, with an income gap that’s about 65% higher than the OECD average.
But Chile is within the regional range on the GINI coefficient, the indicator used to measure income inequality.
That’s why not everyone is surprised by the protests.
Victoria Murillo, director of the Institute of Latin American Studies at Columbia University, told Quartz that political scientists had long warned about the growing disconnect between Chile’s political elite and the rest of the population. She noted that a 2017 report from the United Nations Development Program (pdf, Spanish) found high levels of discontent due to unequal access to healthcare and education, and further inequality in the way people were treated once they accessed the services. Ordinary Chileans, the report found, felt that the elite were treated better and this had led to pent-up anger.
‘There was a sense that something could explode for a while,” says Murillo. The breadth and depth of the discontent is obvious from the protests. They were spontaneous, had wide-ranging demands—a new constitution, better health services, lower education costs, improved pension payouts—but found common ground in rallying against the elites. While in other Latin American countries there are more than one fronts to the protest, says Murillo, “what’s interesting about the Chilean case is that […] it’s everyone against the elites.”
Murillo likens the protests in Chile to what is happening in the US with the 99%, which is to say everyone but the wealthiest 1% of the population. People are protesting against levels of inequality that Chile shares with its neighbors, but it is Chile’s prosperity—much higher than that of its neighbors—that is pushing Chileans to protest. “The people know that the money is there, that they can have better education, or health care,” says Murillo.
“In some ways it’s a classic issue of rising expectations,” says Robert Kaufman, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, who has studied Latin American politics for decades. The commodities boom experienced by Chile and much of Latin America at the beginning of the century led to reduced poverty. “Many people were moving into circumstances that were middle class,” says Kaufman, “but there was an element of vulnerability, and a risk of sliding backward.”