On October 2, a police officer pushed a teenage protestor off a bridge in Santiago, Chile. This is only the most recent act of brutality in the now yearlong pro-democracy protests in Chile. Citizens took to the streets in October 2019 after President Sebastián Piñera announced an increase in subway fares. Many people resented this move for making daily necessities even more inaccessible, rather than addressing the country’s deep social inequality. Now, protestors are in the streets, calling for a new constitution. For the past year, Chile has been locked in a battle over democracy, equality, and the future of the nation.
Many blame selfish and inept President Piñera for the violence. Others point their fingers at the reckless and violent protestors. The real culprit, though, is an entirely unexpected one. Tracing its history of imperialist intervention, it is clear the United States is responsible for sowing the seeds of inequality that fuel the current crisis in Chile.
The roots of the modern protests began in 1970. Under the backdrop of the Cold War, the Chilean people democratically elected the first socialist president in Latin America. As GDP growth stalled and costs of living skyrocketed, Salvador Allende offered the people a vision of a more just and equal society. He vowed to end dependence on foreign nations and reclaim Chile’s independence. In office, Allende enacted his socialist agenda through expanding education, housing, and food assistance. All children received free milk every day. Primary school enrollment doubled under Allende. He also ordered the construction of the Santiago subway system to prioritize working-class neighborhoods.
However, the continent’s first democratically-elected communist leader posed a grave threat to the United States. During the Cold War, U.S. policymakers believed communism would inevitably corrupt the entire world and pursued a relentless policy of containment. Henry Kissinger directly told President Nixon: “Allende as President of Chile poses for us one of the most serious challenges ever faced in this hemisphere.”
Immediately after his election, U.S. intelligence officials started plotting Allende’s overthrow. They launched a political, economic, and military assault against Allende. In total, the U.S. funneled eight million dollars to opposing political parties, news organizations, and private sector groups. Nixon famously commanded “make the economy scream,” and the U.S. cut off almost all aid to Chile, spurring an economic crisis. These actions, scholars such as Russell Crandall argue, are evidence of U.S. imperialism in Latin America that destabilizes democracies and makes life for citizens “worse, not better.” Furthermore, the U.S. collaborated with insurgent officers in the Chilean military, offering advice about coup timing and logistics and promising U.S. support.
It was no surprise to the U.S. when, on September 11, 1973, a military junta stormed the Presidential Palace and overthrew Allende. Less than three years into his presidency, Allende and a new vision for Chile were lost.
General Augusto Pinochet, leader of the U.S.-backed coup, soon seized power. Thus began 17 years of dictatorship in Chile. The country did not regain its democracy until 1990.
The U.S. facilitated Pinochet’s creation of a repressive and violent military dictatorship. After the coup, the U.S. sent Pinochet $100,000 in supplies, including riot control equipment. It stood steadfast in its support even as Pinochet banned all political parties, imposed strict censorship laws, placed Congress in indefinite recess, and cancelled all elections. Moreover, the U.S. turned a blind eye as it received reports of 4,000 coup-related deaths within the first month. The Pinochet years were marked by the internment of thousands, brutal stories of torture, and an unknown number of forced disappearances. Pinochet established authoritarian security institutions to perpetuate violence and uphold his repressive regime. “However unpleasant,” Kissinger persisted, “this government is better for us than Allende.”
In direct opposition to Allende, Pinochet steered the economy toward a path of unimpeded neoliberalism. Aided by a group of U.S.-educated Chilean economists called the “the Chicago Boys,” Pinochet’s policies prioritized profit above all else. He crafted a new constitution that privatized almost all goods, including water. Under these policies, Chile became “a darling for international investors” at the expense of the Chilean people.
When Chile finally restored its democracy in 1990, the new moderate governments upheld Pinochet’s economic system. Under subsequent presidents, laissez-faire economics prevailed and neoliberalism flourished. For example, the Santiago subway became a state corporation in 1990. Historian Andra Chastain summarizes: “since the return to democracy, Chile’s governments on both the center-left and right have consolidated the free-market model first implemented by force under General Augusto Pinochet.” As scholars such as J.M. Cruz warn, the survival of authoritarian institutions drives crime and violence. Since Pinochet’s departure, a small group of elites have gained while most have not.
As a result, almost 50 years after Allende’s election and 30 years after Pinochet’s departure, the same problems of inequality, exploitation, and dependency plague Chile. Today, 1 percent of Chileans hold 27 percent of the country’s wealth, while the entire bottom half holds only 2 percent. Chile has the largest gap between the rich and poor of any country in the OECD.
In this way, the U.S. imperialist intervention that overthrew Allende and backed Pinochet is the root of the current crisis in Chile. “No son $30, son 30 años” (it’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years) has become one of the most popular rallying cries of the protests, a direct reference to the three decades of continuous capitalist expansion since Pinochet’s departure. People aren’t in the streets over a 30 peso increase in subway fares; they’re outraged over decades of deepening social inequality.
The protestors’ main demand is a new constitution that expands the role of the state. Health, education, and pensions, they argue, should be considered basic rights rather than market commodities. In response to immense pressure, last year Piñera called for a national plebiscite over a new constitution. The vote has been postponed several times, most recently due to COVID-19, but is scheduled to occur on October 25.
The recent protests in Chile echo the same problems and explanations brought forth by Salvador Allende in the 1970s. As such, Allende’s vision for a more just, equitable society remains central to Chilean political discourse today.
The current crisis in Chile exemplifies the dangers of U.S. imperialism. The reverberating effects of Allende’s overthrow 50 years ago continue to drive day-to-day violence, unrest, and the fight for democracy in Chile today. For centuries, U.S. policy has been shaped by imperialism, destabilizing democracies and provoking conflict around the world. It’s time for the U.S. to be held accountable.
Hi Zina! I thought your post covers a really interesting topic! I’m really interested in how a country’s past experiences play a role in shaping its current institution and in contributing to its problems. I thought you did a really great job laying out your argument and showing that these protests are a result of inequality that was exacerbated by US imperialism. I’m a bit curious about why governments following Pinochet’s rule still chose to upheld neoliberalism even when it was causing such deep social inequality in Chile. It might make your argument even stronger if you explain the reason behind this and relate it to US imperialism.