A version of this article originally appeared on CNN Español.
The stories are making headlines in Chile: the former ministers of foreign affairs are concerned with the country’s image. After a wave of protests, the government has just canceled two big international gatherings: the meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group (APEC), with its anticipated commercial war between China and the US, and COP25, the 2019 United Nations climate summit, where Chile was meant to lead the charge against climate change.
What worries the political elite is actually a mirage manufactured for the outside world, an illusion that is far from reality. Chile is not a Latin-American “oasis;” that’s a good publicity slogan that has been falling apart before our eyes. On October 18 this year, a social movement exploded in a developed, OECD-member country that is the statistical envy of the region: a GDP of nearly $25,000 per capita, with constant growth over the last few decades, per the World Bank. It draws immigrants like a magnet with the promise of attaining the Chilean dream.
But there is no Chilean dream. No hay tal sueño chileno. For the vast majority, we’ve been living in a nightmare ever since the Chicago Boys forcibly installed their model of savage capitalism and privatized our rights in the 1970s. After the rule of Augusto Pinochet, democratic Chile has maintained the status quo, rarely correcting for social necessities.
I come from extreme poverty. My mother was older. She was single. Because she didn’t get married, I’m a huacho, orphaned on my father’s side. A few years ago, the current minister of justice wholeheartedly defended the legislation that left me and all illegitimate children with fewer rights than the offspring of married parents. These ministers who defend inequality publicly and shamelessly are now part of a government that claims to have listened to the message of this year’s protests.
My mother was sick, and we lived for 20 years as guests in other people’s homes, moving from house to house. I’ll say it again: I come from extreme poverty. I had to take out a government loan to pay for my higher education at the public University of Chile.
The current president, the billionaire Sebastian Piñera, was able to go to college for free in the Chile of his youth. Since then, the country has been destroyed by Pinochet’s 1973 coup d’état, then revived for the benefit of certain economic interest groups by people like the president’s brother, José Piñera, inventor of the much-criticized AFP (Pension Fund Administrators). The AFP is one of the targets of the current protests.
In today’s Chile, I’ve only just paid off my education loan at the age of 43. I’m in debt from buying an apartment, and like all Chileans, it took a lot of effort for me to pay my taxes this year. I chase after my debts anxiously, hoping to wipe them out, while Sebastian Piñera still hasn’t apologized publicly for evading 30 years of property taxes.
Don’t ask me about my pension. I don’t think about it because I’m realistic. With things as they are, there’s no future in Chile for old people: The highest suicide rate is among people over 80. Pensions average 259,000 pesos ($347 US) a month, and you can’t live on that — only die slowly.
This cruel model gives nearly monarchical privileges to just 1% of the population, a group of millionaires and billionaires (11 of whom are on Forbes’ 2019 Billionaires List), who own nearly 30% of our riches. The rest of Chileans, the vast majority, earn miserable, third-world salaries and pay a European cost of living. That’s why a 30-peso price hike in the Santiago metro was enough to crack, then break, the spell.
Chile woke up. It opened its eyes, angry, weary of the corruption of its political, economic, and military elite: collusion between private institutions, laws dictated by companies, billions of pesos of fraud in the army and police force. Add to this decades of abuse, the unraveling of the social fabric, and the creation of an individualistic ethos, and you have the explanation for the current discontent, rage, and explosive violence.
And what was Piñera’s response? To eat pizza in a bougie restaurant while Santiago burned. Later, desperate, he let the military out into the streets and performed one of the best cosplays of a dictatorship ever organized by a democratic president. The numbers of human rights abuses rise daily, and the brutal repression includes sexual violence and 157 people with eye injuries from being shot by the police. I find it incomprehensible that Piñera’s troops would target an observer of the INDH (National Institute of Human Rights), who was hit by six or seven rubber bullets, depending on the source. (Chilean media reported seven; the New York Times reported six.)
I’m not justifying the looting or the destruction of public property, such as the metro. These acts should be condemned. I’m only trying to explain the brutal violence of this apocalyptic scene, where the elites claim they’ve understood the message from the streets, from the peaceful, million-person march: “No more abuse, no more privileges.”
We’ve been sending the message for a while; there were large student protests in 2006 and 2011. But the little Versailles that governs and rules over all aspects of our lives, this Versailles says it’s listening but keeps going as if it hasn’t heard a thing.
To mitigate three decades of abuse, we’ll need more than a discreet presidential apology, or economic crumbs, or an expensive pizza enjoyed above the flames of a social inferno. We’ll need much more than an improvised cabinet change, where the new minister of the interior was selected at the last minute, on live TV.
To the former ministers of foreign affairs and the rest of the elite: I have a new image for Chile. Ready? Look at this: An old, sick woman, who worked her whole life only to receive a miserable pension, agonizes in a public hospital. This old woman is my mother. Behind her oxygen mask, she is crying because she knows she is going to die and leave me alone in this bloody, spartan Chile that belongs to the 1%. She can’t tell me this with her voice. She can only just about breathe. In her last moments, she writes, trembling, in a green notebook:
“Take care of yourself, son, since no one else will.”
This happened 20 years ago. I was poor, and despite the passing of time, I can confirm sadly that nothing has changed. Nothing.