From Santiago to the Atacama, Chile Is a Country on Fire

Elias Arias/Santiago, Chile

I had been planning my trip to Chile for half a year before the writing of this piece. At the time, I was expecting to visit the politically stable, economically prosperous birthplace of lyrical poetry and literature from figures like Pablo Neruda, Roberto Bolano, Gabriel Mistral, and Isabel Allende. I wanted to see the surreal landscapes which inspired such brilliance and visit the poet Neruda’s homes along Chile’s coast.

Little did I—or the rest of the world—expect Chile to erupt into ongoing political turmoil last October, which has continued to the present.

Protests in Chile broke out over a 30 peso (4 cents USD) hike to metro fares, but were precipitated by decades of inequality—a side-effect of the economic miracle produced under the Chicago Boys’ guidance in the 1970s and 80s. Although Sebastian Pinera, the Chilean president, eventually abandoned the fare hike, anger boiled over and coalesced into violent protests on education, healthcare, and the pension system, among other matters. “It’s not about 30 pesos, it’s about 30 years” is what protesting Chileans have asserted. Chile is the most economically unequal country in the OECD.

As the protests and the police response both intensified, people began attacking or burning subway stations and vandalizing museums and churches with graffiti. The government declared a state of emergency, put a curfew in place, and brought in the military to enforce public order. Pinera attempted to placate the protestors by reshuffling his cabinet, boosting social spending, raising taxes on the wealthy, abandoning tax reform plans, and cancelling two high-profile international events that were scheduled to be hosted in Chile, but to no avail.

Sophie Zhao/Santiago, Chile – Baquedano Station

Pinera announced in November that the government will hold a plebiscite in April 2020 to determine whether Chileans want a new constitution (the vast majority do), and who will be responsible for drafting it. Protestors generally see the current constitution as too conservative. In the midst of the chaos, the UN Human Rights Office has released a report accusing Chilean security of violating human rights through torture, sexual abuse, and an excessive use of force. Roughly 350 people have suffered eye or facial injuries from pellets and chemical irritants like tear gas from security forces.

The protests aren’t equally spread across the country, but have been concentrated in urban hubs, especially in Santiago, the capital. As I visited different regions in the country, I realized the extent to which things like geography impacted the temperament of those who protested—and those who, for a variety of reasons, chose not to go into the streets.

Chile is divided into four regions:

Furthest north is the Norte Grande, the inhospitable, resource-rich “big north” of the Atacama Desert. Moving south, one comes to the Norte Chico, the “little north” which divides the dry north from the fertile central area; next follows the Valle Central, where most of the people, the capital, and most industries are clustered; finally, there is the Zona Sur, the southern zone of ancient forests, wind-bitten blizzards, and volcanoes at the end of the world. Chile also owns a section of Antarctica in addition to Isla de Pascua—Easter Island, otherwise known as the navel of the world with its gigantic moais, statues of volcanic stone.

The great Chilean novelist Isabel Allende—a relative of the socialist president Salvador Allende—described the Chilean mentality as insular. A rigid class system corresponds with race; the upper class descends from the Europeans and is relatively white, while the lower one descends the social ladder the more indigenous the characteristics become. Chile’s indigenous people constantly fight to maintain their identity.


My flight from Toronto arrived in the capital city of Santiago. Twenty-four hours after leaving home, I stepped off the plane around 6 a.m. and struck up a conversation with two Chileans, Moira and her daughter. Moira was well-dressed and well-spoken; her daughter is currently a graduate student in the United States. I would encounter many more like her, especially in Santiago. When they were younger, they were at the forefront of the push for democracy. Decades later, they have become comfortable in relative prosperity. Their tolerance for radicalism and street demonstrations has evaporated accordingly.

Moira commented that the protestors have destroyed Santiago and Valparaiso, a formerly stunning seaside town now covered in burns and graffiti. They asked me where I planned to stay. When I replied central Santiago, they seemed disappointed, and told me that protests are terrible there, that I should live in nicer, northern parts of Santiago instead, where there are no protests. Either that, they noted, or I should fly south to Patagonia where the sociopolitical situation is calmer. “Young people are ruining everything in the violent protests,” Moira warned, as she gave me her phone number in case I needed help.

As I journeyed through the city in those early hours, though, it was remarkably peaceful. The traffic inched forward as the morning sun enveloped the streets in a golden haze. The first thing which struck me about Santiago was the graffiti. Angry graffiti coated the city like a thick layer of grime: on the statues, shops, homes, streets, and trees.

Sophie Zhao/Santiago, Chile – Church covered in graffiti

Chileans learn English as a second language, and a Chilean student at the airport told me that the young know more English than the old—a familiar situation around the world. I walked to the University of Santiago, wandering around a mostly empty campus of barred up buildings looking for people to talk to. At the library, I met a professor, J, who was eager to speak to me about the political situation.

Like Moira, she noted that protestors are mostly young people seeking less expensive education and health care. People are dying in hospitals, waiting years for treatment in a broken public system, while the wealthy opt for expensive private care. Pensions are difficult to live on, J told me, and she needs to support her aging mother financially. For instance, her mother needs two types of medication monthly under the private healthcare system, one of which costs over a third of her monthly pension (55,000 pesos out of 160,000 pesos).

J explained the trials created by high living costs. “To live comfortably, you need about 500,000 pesos per month (about 644 USD), but the old people here receive only 110,000 to 150,000 pesos a month. It’s not enough for this country. We have European prices but a South American minimum wage. Only people in the army receive good pensions,” J told me.

She opposed the protests, asserting that youth must respect order and the arduous work it takes to find societal stability. “The protests have gone too far with the violence and defiance of police. If Pinochet were still in power, he’d put them down right away,” J noted. “The protestors have destroyed the beautiful Plaza Italia where the old people used to gather, filling it with graffiti. It’s like a war…are we in a war?” J thought that conditions were better under Pinochet’s regime, where she experienced more personal liberty given the law and order; there also seemed to be less economic inequality for the people. She was disappointed after waiting for democracy for 17 years, and living in it for 30, only to see it descend into unrest.

Sophie Zhao/Santiago, Chile – Literario cafe, destroyed during the protests

I was surprised to see an apparent affinity for Pinochet from an academic, particularly a younger and urban one. But as I spoke with people, I found this was not that uncommon. While outside Chile, Pinochet is almost universally vilified, and remembered as a ruthless dictator whose regime killed over 3,000 political opponents, views inside the country tend to be more nuanced. The generation of Chilean liberals from the ‘80s, who became adults as Chile changed around them, is seen by many of the protestors as too often voicing a qualified toleration of Pinochet—but a toleration nonetheless. One of the most apt summaries of this liberal attitude came from a protestor speaking to New York Magazine: “Of course, I’m not for the human rights violations, but the dictatorship created an economic miracle.”

Pinochet still has a small but ardent group of right-wing supporters who regard him as a hero. But this, too, is being swept aside by generational changes. A survey by CERC suggests that three-quarters of Chileans polled consider him a dictator, while 9% consider Pinochet as one of the greatest leaders in Chilean history. The sort of moderation once considered respectable has decisively given way to harsher judgements by a generation raised in the democratic era.

In 1973, Pinochet ousted elected socialist leader Salvador Allende in a CIA-sponsored military coup and ruled with an iron first. Some 3,000 left-wing militants “disappeared” and thousands more were tortured. In 1988, Pinochet lost a referendum, and in 1990, stepped down as head of state but remained on as commander-in-chief. Later in 1998, he was arrested abroad on murder charges but allowed to return to Chile due to poor health before eventually being placed under house arrest in Santiago over allegations of tax evasion and corruption.

Much of the Chilean population was loyal to Pinochet throughout his regime. But as novelist Ariel Dorfman noted, Pinochet will be remembered as the man who inaugurated a new leap in the concept of human rights: after Pinochet, heads of states no longer have impunity for crimes against humanity under international law. Since its transition from a military dictatorship to a democracy in 1990, Chile has continued to have significant economic growth; in 2010, the country became the first South American country to join the OECD and has one of the highest per capita incomes in Latin America.

I asked J about the police brutality. She replied that Pinera had to make difficult decisions and that, even so, the army merely maintained order when faced with those protesters whom J called “fighters.”

“The youth are out wearing masks and headbands, voluntarily battling with the police, so it’s partly on them that they’re getting shot,” J said. “We’re not talking about people disappearing, like under Pinochet’s regime,” she continued. “And the police are young, too. They’re not prepared to deal with a situation like this, since they didn’t grow up in Pinochet’s time.” Pinochet’s legacy is, once again, socially divisive.

J continued: “The president is right-wing, so most people oppose him. But the political left also signed many laws detrimental to the Chilean people.” J recounted how, when the protests began in October, it was difficult for her to travel from her home to the university with the metro destroyed, not to mention the decimated supermarkets which made finding water and bread difficult. “The young people were fighting daily, setting fires, causing people who have businesses to purchase guns because they were afraid of looting,” she recalled.

Although J observed that the situation has calmed down now, she is sure that young people are gearing up for more fights. She always used the word “fight” instead of protest. Chile has experienced protests and strikes everywhere, with Santiago as the epicenter. Family tension between the young and old is widespread in this tense sociopolitical climate.

J is cautiously optimistic for the new constitution after April 2020. She thinks that young Chileans need to realize what they already have—education is fine; housing is expensive, but a young person could live with parents until they get married; and even in her own time, it was a long journey to get to the position she occupies today. She calls herself an ordinary citizen, like everybody else. I silently noted that she has the economic privilege of relying on the private healthcare system, is highly educated, and has the luxury of a professorship in Santiago; I wondered what protestors might think of their country and what drove them to fight so hard.

From the university, I headed to my hostel. Despite December—the Chilean summer—being high season, the highly-rated hostel was almost empty. The Chilean front desk manager assured me that protests only take place on certain streets. She pulled out a city map and circled the streets of Cardenal Jose Maria Caro and Vicuna Mackenna, putting two Xs through them as places to avoid if I wanted a peaceful time here.

I joined a tour hosted by L, a young sociology graduate. We walked around Santiago, including to Plaza Italia, now renamed Dignity Square—ground zero for the protests. L has participated in the protests before and took a small group of visitors through the peripheries of a protest occurring at Plaza Italia. He warned that there might be teargas. We needed to stay together. “The Chilean government has been blaming other countries—Cuba, North Korea—for  interfering with the domestic situation to intensify the protests, but it is not about foreign interference,” L said. “The protests ultimately result from economic inequality.”

As we walked through Plaza Italia, men in bright yellow vests stood in the middle of the street directing traffic, as protestors had destroyed the traffic lights. They took coins from passersby as cars rushed past them with a margin of only inches. There were statues in the park covered with paint, layer upon layer, such that it was impossible to see the original metal. Vendors were selling bandanas, so protesters could conceal their faces.

Sophie Zhao/Santiago, Chile – Statue in Parque Forestal

But many did not. Those pouring onto the streets wouldn’t be out of place in similar protests in U.S. cities, although they were braving a harsher response. The ages mostly leaned younger, and they were dressed for the occasion, but clearly used to life in the more expensive urban center. There were older faces present, too, from the working population which has joined the uprising. More establishment figures from Chile’s labor institutions have used the event as an opportunity to make their voices heard, with the president of Chile’s Walmart union refusing to condemn protests, despite the destruction rained on Walmart and other stores.

I started building a better picture of what exactly was going on. The sense of many protestors was that the democratic hopes which a younger Moira might have championed had not been fully achieved. The older generation’s comfort was increasingly viewed as neoliberalism with a human face, a failure to completely exorcise the ghost of Pinochet.

But as events unfold, it’s hard to ignore the fact that a quest for political meaning animates those coming into the streets. This is an important part of what ties events in Chile in with protest movements all over the world. Many of them are happening in countries which are objectively quite wealthy on the whole, but where opportunity, wealth, and optimism are seen as having diminished compared to the previous generation. Children who grew up in comfort and perhaps even had some of the better opportunities in their countries are restless. In the Chilean context, the transition to democracy was a significant event. For J and her peers, it was a milestone. Many of those in the streets were born afterward, during better times. They have not had a similar milestone. Perhaps the search for one is as important as any debate about fares and pensions.

I stood across from the protests on the other side of the Mapocho River. Fierce stray dogs circled a torn Chilean flag by the river’s shore. An hour later, as I looked back at the Plaza Italia, police vans had arrived as the crowd of protestors grew thicker. Soon, hundreds of people were dashing down Cardenal Jose Maria Caro, a road going through Parque Forestal beside where protests were taking place. Law enforcement was driving down the park spraying the protestors amid screeching sirens in the background.

Eventually, I retreated from the pandemonium, moving downriver away from the protests. As I traveled, the ripple effects of the protests caught up with me one last time. At some point, I realized that I had missed my station. As I strained to hear the announcements, I realized what was happening: when the train passed a station which the protests had destroyed or made unsafe, it would simply speed by without a word. Was it assumed that most people would already know where to avoid? Did it reflect the intent of many professionals to studiously ignore the chaos outside, as they simply tried to make it home from work? It was hard to say.

I made it off at another station and trudged back to my hostel, exhausted.


The day before Christmas, I took a bus from Santiago to Valparaiso. The journey took two hours through brown hills with skeletal shrubbery which gave way to a landscape with palm trees next to conifers. Valparaiso is a city on the hills with a downtown core by the Pacific Ocean. The core is lined with straight, chaotic streets buzzing with vendors selling cheap plastic toys and herbal medicines promising to cure every heartache and ailment. It’s impossible to move quickly; one may as well give in and slow down to observe the surroundings.

Graffiti and burn marks cover most buildings downtown. Many of these buildings are nothing but hollow façades with the insides destroyed. The storefronts have metal covers with small rectangular holes through which a person can duck to enter the stores. The upper classes established their lavish and eclectic homes on the hills overlooking the ocean. Different ethnic groups built their communities on different hills.

Chile sits along the Ring of Fire, a belt of active volcanoes and earthquake epicenters bordering the Pacific Ocean. Buildings in Valparaiso are sturdy enough to withstand Chile’s many earthquakes; the strongest earthquake ever recorded happened in Chile on May 22, 1960, near Valdivia—it had a magnitude of 9.5. Pablo Neruda, Chile’s beloved Nobel laureate, described in his memoirs that sometimes Valparaiso twitches like a wounded whale. It founders in the air, suffers in agony, dies, and comes back to life. Every native of the city carries in him the memory of an earthquake. Valparaiso is also covered in lively street art, much of which is in protest of ocean privatization and economic inequality.

My guide, Alvaro, asserted that political protest is an act of hope. He has taken part in five protests. Again, the familiar refrain: “it’s not about thirty pesos, but about thirty years.” At first, only students were protesting, but after the police tried to quell the conflict, more people—parents, workers, and himself—joined. The government responded by sending the special forces and the military.

Unlike the wealthier students of Santiago, Alvaro’s roots were in the country’s working class, and his features displayed a more visibly indigenous heritage than many people I spoke with in Santiago, on either side. Alvaro had originally studied to be a fish farmer, but couldn’t find a job in the south of the country—the world’s second largest exporter of salmon. So, he came up north to work in tourism. He noted how the minimum wage in Chile at 301,000 pesos a month ($387 USD) is too little to live on. Pensions are worse. His elderly mother has to keep working to survive. Rates of elderly suicide are high.

I asked Alvaro about the protestors’ violent tactics, like setting fires and throwing stones. ”The media manipulates what people see,” he replied. “They only show the looters and rioters.” In all five protests he has taken part in, Alvaro notes, things were almost perfectly peaceful. “There were strollers, families, and the elderly. It was only when the police became involved two blocks away from Valparaiso’s congress that things became messy. The police are not supposed to shoot at people’s heads, but because they use birdshot, over 350 people have lost their eyesight.” Alvaro has seen a teargas capsule fall on his neighbor’s balcony.

With four universities in proximity, Valparaiso is highly left-wing. The city is stunningly beautiful and enjoys prosperity and regional influence. Accordingly, the students are at least the economic equals of those in Santiago. Many historical political figures have ties with the city, including both Allende and Pinochet. It’s not difficult to imagine that in the case of some students, they are protesting against their own parents or relatives. Many people I spoke with pointed out this generational divide.

The differences between Alvaro’s economic concerns with the loftier search for meaning probably colors the protestors more generally, I realized. Like all movements and parties, it’s those with more resources who can devote themselves to deep searches for political meaning. Until you can make the rent and be sure your grandmother has groceries, it’s pretty difficult to spend much time on more.

It’s hard to start mass protests over pure ideals. People don’t crowd the streets, unless there’s some more concrete catalyst. And maybe this throws light on why exactly Chile, and a lot of other countries, have entered optimal scenarios for protests and populism. The Millennial and Gen Z age brackets are young enough to be idealistic, wealthy enough to not be starving, but also face barriers to several of the major markers of prosperity that their parents took for granted: expensive houses, student debt, and the exorbitant cost of health care, etc. In other words, they are not impoverished enough to prevent political engagement, but they are getting worse off enough on the margin to feel it and spur such engagement. If we want to find a unifying spark to protests and populist movements challenging neoliberalism in developed countries, this is probably key.

About two hours after I arrived in Valparaiso, inky smoke began rising in the otherwise clear sky from the other side of the city. A loud, wailing alarm emerged from an unidentifiable point in the city while aircraft flew overhead towards the smoke. Over several hours, the smoke expanded into a dark cloud, opaque in the center and hazy on the edges, hanging over Valparaiso. The government cut power to 90,000 homes.

Sophie Zhao/Valparaiso, Chile

I was shocked. Surely, these kinds of stopgaps are the purview of the more corrupt and chaotically misgoverned cities of the world, such as San Francisco.

As I continued walking through the city, restaurants and ice cream shops closed mid-day without power. The streets emptied as alarms began to buzz from the phones of everyone on the walking tour. Parts of the city were forced to evacuate.

The Chilean government and my guide both suggested that the fire had been intentional, with the latter suggesting that protestors may have been burning tires again. Valparaiso was ominously silent on my way back, aside from the stray dogs barking as they wandered the streets.

Atacama Desert

Ariel Dorfman wrote in Desert Memories that the Atacama Desert, as a landscape devoid of human habitation, will force you into solitude and extreme introspection to face truths about yourself that you can find nowhere else. There are no shadows to hide behind. In the desert, the same barren land that makes people compete to the death for scant resources also demands solidarity if they want to survive. It whispers to them to draw closer if they wish to overcome the sun and the endless stone. It tells them to trust one another or die.

For Dorfman, the best and worst of our humanity are heightened in such a place.

As I flew from Santiago to Calama of the Atacama Desert, a cloudless, cerulean sky burned above brown hills dotted with dark shrubs. The hills became swirls of golden, brown, orange, red, and yellow sand, smooth and strident beside barren mountains rising from nothing. Endless desert soon swallowed up all vegetation. The Atacama Desert stretched silently into a sky out of a Salvador Dali painting, utterly devoid of humanity save for the fading scars of a few nitrate mines. There are no distractions in a void like this; the Atacama Desert will outlast us all.

Sophie Zhao/Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert did not belong to Chile for most of its existence, having been wrestled from Peru and Bolivia in the Pacific War of the late 19th century. Nitrate is abundant in the Atacama Desert. Europe and America at the time were addicted to nitrate, which was used in gunpowder and served as fertilizer at a time when the industrial revolution demanded a higher yield from increasingly depleted fields and orchards meant to feed burgeoning urban populations. Whole towns sprouted due to the nitrate boom which then went bust in the 1920s. Workers in the nitrate mines had fathered the first Chilean democratic and socialist movements, the first social groups and trade unions in Latin America which, even before the Mexican revolution, had mapped out a strategy to bring their conception of freedom, justice, and national autonomy to the country. Influential political figures of the Chilean 20th century like Allende, Alessandri, Frei, Recabarren, and Pinochet all had ties to the north of the country, giving the Atacama Desert an out-sized impact on contemporary Chile. The region also has a strong indigenous history and identity.

I spent several days exploring the area, including biking through the Valley of the Moon, a landscape punctuated by gigantic sand dunes. There are flamingos in the salt flats, hidden valleys filled with green and purple rock formations, and mummies over 7,000 years old. Indigenous peoples—the Atacameno—have left their mark on the stones in addition to cultivating crops such as corn, beans, quinoa, and squash with the aid of irrigation. They herded llamas and alpacas and spoke Cunza, or Lincan Antai, of which a vocabulary of around 1,100 words has been recorded. To this day, there are llamas and guanacos in lush riverbeds which flooded earlier in 2019.

I interviewed an Argentine hostel worker, Gustavo, who has been working for more than two and a half years in San Pedro de Atacama. Unlike the rest of Chile, Gustavo noted, San Pedro has been largely unaffected by the protests. All sorts of people seek the city—some to stay forever, others just a few days before they cannot bear the desert anymore. Between 2017 and now, however, there have been tremendous changes via the development of large-scale mining enterprises in salt flats. Such developments have negatively impacted tourism in those areas for the sake of economic expansion. Mining companies pay some families to look the other way despite some protests, but Gustavo does not understand why people sacrifice the future here for money. There is a water crisis stemming from the privatized and mismanaged water resources in the most arid desert in the world. It only rains in January and February here, but this year, the rain was destructive, and the rivers—the San Pedro and Vilama rivers—flooded. During such floods, people lose a part of their lives. There are now fewer flamingos here than just two years ago.

The populations of well-off students and urban dwellers don’t exist here. The locals are involved in hard work. Success means the chance to work in something other than mining. People put up with terrible housing conditions and poorly maintained, isolated roads. They’re engaged in heavy and dangerous work with little to show for it, and endure much higher prices for food and fuel due because of the region’s isolation. The expensive locales are reserved for tourists. To be a tourist here is to be an outsider—and not a well-liked one. You get the sense of passing through other peoples’ lives. It was more difficult to speak with people, and conversations ended with a strange finality, as if we were departing back to different worlds. We were. This is even a different world from the hubs of Santiago and Valparaiso, despite the connections of so many of Chile’s “decent people”—the great men and respectable women of its old stock elites—to this place.

In terms of protests in late 2019, there was nothing more intense than some scattered, nonviolent protests in the city. Indigenous and other protestors targeted copper mines, but haven’t impeded business for the most part. It’s a far cry from the chaos of Santiago. Gustavo despises how the government and its politicians are betraying their own people after 30 years of such economic inequality. The people are losing their dignity. He thinks that violence is necessary in the protests because peaceful protests accomplished nothing; change always happens in the world through violent protest.

With the protest rhetoric so centered around economic issues, what explains this much lower level of protest in one of the country’s most destitute regions? Sure, maybe the sparser population has a lot to do with it. But it was once a hub of worker radicalism. Perhaps Gustavo’s affinity for the rougher, more confrontational tactics of the protests displays a touch of the region’s psychology: sometimes, you just have to do what it takes. A risk-tolerance born of hardheaded pragmatism.

Still, it’s a trait which has not manifested into larger protest. And this seems to highlight the importance of the educated, urban, and younger demographic in actually sending people onto the streets. The cumulative impacts of increasing living costs have hit this demographic on the margin, making their lives worse off than the year or the decade before. When you have the time and resources to engage politics, that pressure hits you in just the right way to tip you over the edge. But if your life is one of grinding and ongoing poverty, you’re going to need something tougher backing you—a union, a party, a political opportunist giving you the means and coordination you need. Twitter just doesn’t cut it. Like in other countries, organized movements and parties are involved in Chile’s protests as participants, and perhaps ultimately as beneficiaries, but not as leaders. That’s not to say that political actors aren’t playing a key role, just that the role is neither hegemonic, nor formalized.

This also means that it’s much less clear what victory looks like. It’s not as if there is a single actor, able to act on behalf of the protests as a whole, and whose victory will be seen as a victory for everyone involved. As with the Arab Spring protests at the beginning of the decade, and the Yellow Vest protests in France, the lack of any unified entity to act as an agent for the overall movement means that it’s difficult for any concessions to be seen as benefiting everyone universally. There will always be someone more radical, some key segment feeling overlooked. In a strike, the union can decide when actions begin and stop, and it can exercise discipline over uncooperative or disgruntled members in the ranks. But no such authority exists for the sort of popular protests underway in Chile.

The apparent inseparability of the young urbanite demographic and the protest movement implies that the social meaning question is fundamental to what’s going on. It’s not a topic which is being discussed at the end of the protest arc, but has probably been central since the beginning.

Chile’s story is central in the story of neoliberalism’s rise. Economic growth has been achieved while social institutions have been gutted, and with them many avenues for non-economic forms of social meaning. But when the rising lines of economic measurement begin to slow, or even turn down, then the vacuum suddenly becomes obvious. Having created a population whose tie to the broader system is purely economic—consumer, taxpayer, employee—every stumbling block on the road of economic prosperity becomes a potential trigger for upheaval.

Returning to Santiago

I returned to Santiago from the Atacama Desert and struck up a conversation with a Brazilian former army officer who had been working in Chile for over a year. His name is Francislei Bebiano Perera; after growing up in the countryside, he studied endlessly to enter the military and has spent years training in Amazonas—an enormous state in northwestern Brazil covered almost entirely by the Amazon rainforest. “Chile’s liberalism works well,” Francislei told me. “It’s the most developed country in South America! But many things are unfair. The protests began for legitimate reasons.”

Francislei has never seen this level of violence, despite his years in the Brazilian military. The police are using plenty of tear gas in their overreactions—Francislei saw police punch out a man in the street who hadn’t been doing anything at all. People are setting fire to everything, stealing things in supermarkets, and being more violent than they need to be.

Sophia Zhao/Santiago, Chile – Police in unusually sunny mood

Francislei was sure that the government has been planting people in the protests to steal and break things. “It is not that a small group of people are violent, but rather that the government’s thugs are setting fire to things. They’re trying to look as violent as possible to influence the media narrative.” Such people are known as agent provocateurs, secret agents hired to incite suspected persons to some illegal action or outbreak that will make them liable to punishment.

The protests also appear to be a source of more general resistance to laws about public order and the Chilean police, the Carabineros de Chile. Francislei has seen people drinking in the streets for the first time even though doing so is illegal: the protests have been socially liberating. Tourism in Chile, from what Francislei has seen while working in the industry, has dropped significantly. Hostels close to the protests, especially those in Plaza Italia, have mostly closed their doors. “Now, we wait for the constitution to change and keep our mouths shut most of the time,” he said. Neoliberalism has made Chile what it is, and Francislei fears that too much political upheaval will turn Chile into Venezuela. Venezuelan immigrants in Chile continue to face prejudice, whether being asked to go back to “where they came from,” or being told that Venezuelans are taking Chileans’ jobs.

How Thirty Pesos Became Thirty Years

A unifying theme that I saw throughout the protests was a sense of urgency in securing the future. This came through in the economic side of the protest rhetoric. Strong neoliberal policies and reforms from Pinochet’s dictatorship in the 70s and 80s transformed Chile’s labor market, privatizing public services in cities and beyond. As the sociologist Jen Beckert notes, all these reforms increased economic uncertainties for individuals by lifting collective protections and exposing actors more directly to the vagaries of markets. As in many Western countries, neoliberalism borrowed from the future in its expectation of economic, cultural, and individual payoffs to come. Beckert adds that the general economic promise associated with these reforms was that they would bring Western capitalist societies back to a path of steady growth, low inflation, and higher profits. And this worked well enough, as long as growth continued for enough of the population. But as the protests have shown, it only takes a downturn in order to make clear that life quickly becomes arduous when social supports have been gutted.

But as I increasingly realized, the economic aspect of these protests acts as a vehicle for a deeper search for meaning—and it’s done this from the start. These students and urban professionals are not braving police lines in fear of starving the next day. The economic challenges have caused people to develop a sense of collective grievance, and thereby collective agency through the experience of protest. Protest leaders are generally already political activists with some kind of ideological agenda, and this sort of person is on the lookout for circumstances which they can put to political use. But once underway, the sorts of mass actions seen in Chile are large enough to draw in people from other backgrounds. For those with the resources to devote time to protest, and perhaps to further political involvement, the collective experience can become a personal awakening. Explicit visions and programs might be the product of a few highly resourceful and organized actors, not necessarily tied in to the particular grievances faced by individuals. But the collective experience becomes the bridge between the two.

To borrow the words of Bayard Rustin, when an individual is protesting society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him. The protests in Chile are the final straw in a sequence of occurrences which began with political actors taking advantage of circumstances: from the lack of affordable high quality healthcare, to insufficient pensions for sustaining a basic quality of life.

Who will benefit from these protests? Almost certainly, some of these participants will find themselves propelled to a higher stage of politics once the major wave passes. Protests have calmed down from their peak in October and November of 2019, but the damage has been done: dozens of lives lost and the landscape of the country—particularly Santiago and Valparaiso—changed indelibly. Once a country has arrived at this stage of popular uprising, it can no longer pretend that things will go back to normal. The event is now a shared memory, and a political and cultural Schelling point.

And party politics? The particulars of a new constitution remain to be fought out. In all likelihood, the Moiras and the Js will play a role in determining the future of Chile’s party politics. A number of the protestors have commitments to the country’s political left, including the Broad Front. But not all. In particular, the urban professional classes have both been on the streets and the receiving end of the disruptions created by protest. It remains to be seen whether forces on the right are able to capitalize on the resulting discontent. Chileans were split nearly half and half on the decision to use the military to control protests, but around 90% say they oppose the destruction of private property and businesses. A canny rightist with an eye on South American politicians like Bolsonaro could easily see an opportunity to paint leftist forces as obstructionist.

Sophie Zhao/Santiago, Chile – Santiago Museum of Memory and Human Rights wall display

Western countries would be wise to pay attention to Chile’s transition over the next few months, for Chile’s problems of healthcare, pensions, and education in increasing economic inequality are relevant for countries like the U.S., among others. The political formula of middle class stability undermined by both short-term economic burdens and long-term gutting of non-economic social institutions is the fuel of populism around the world. Many forces have capitalized on the phenomenon, but no one has managed to solve the root problem yet. The problem of rebuilding social sources of meaning which can counterbalance economic ones—and guide society through times of economic upheaval—might still fall to social technologists of the future.

My last glance at Santiago was of graffitied eyes bleeding from walls as the airport bus sped away from the city.

Sophie Zhao is a student at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. She focuses on criminal and constitutional law.