Chile’s 2019 Social Uprising: Social Movements as Drivers of Public Opinion

Ignacio Urbina

October 18, 2019, marked the start of the largest wave of protests experienced in Chile in the last 30 years. After one week of protest, more than a million Chileans marched along the main avenue of Santiago, the capital of Chile. Hundreds of thousands more joined protests in the country’s main cities and towns. In December 2019, at least two out of ten citizens declared having participated actively in joining protests, and more than half of the country expressed support (Centro de Estudios Públicos, 2019). In parallel, the right-wing government of President Sebastián Piñera had fully deployed the police, with the special aid of the military corps, all around the country to quell the dissenters. Injured and detained citizens piled up dramatically within days while the press and social media documented brutal human rights violations at the hands of state agents. Tanks and armed soldiers marched through the streets, vividly reminding Chileans of the horrors of Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973-1990).

Protesters at Baquedano Square, or “Dignity Square,” as protesters symbolically renamed it

The so-called “estallido social” (social uprising) lasted about five months, but its sequels still influence the country’s political trajectory to this day. Many have called the wave of protests a turning point in the country’s political and social landscape. Among many consequences, the most salient one is its effect on delegitimizing the current constitution, which was born from the minds of the neoliberal ideologues that backed Pinochet’s dictatorship. The uprising triggered a process of constitutional change that was formally concluded in September 2022. Although it concluded unsuccessfully, as a majority of Chileans rejected the proposed draft in a national referendum, it continues to unfold in hopes of a definitive constitutional reform. In fact, after it ended, politicians have been bargaining for its continuation, as approximately two-thirds of Chileans think the country still needs a new constitution (CADEM, 2022). In this article, I examine the causes of the Chilean social uprising, its development, and impact on Chilean society to highlight lessons and reflections that can inspire our tactics and mobilizing actions.

As members of GSEU, there are several reasons why studying the 2019 Chilean social uprising is relevant. First, the Chilean case vividly illustrates the effects and contradictions of capitalism, in its neoliberal form, as a model of wealth allocation in society. As workers living in precarious conditions, we understand the hardships imposed by a resource allocation model that favors structural inequality. Then, by learning more about this social movement (and others), we express our solidarity and can find inspiration from the mobilization efforts carried out by others who share our pledge for dignified and fair living conditions. Seeking inspiration and collective learning should not be underappreciated. We get stronger if we realize that we are not alone, given that millions of others worldwide share our struggles against structural inequality, oppression, and power asymmetries. 

A second reason, perhaps even more important, is that we should study social movements to inspire and inform our discussions about our own mobilization tactics and strategies in the campaigns we are currently engaged with as members of GSEU.

Figure 1: Monthly Count of Contentious Actions in Source: Centre for Social Conflict and Cohesion Studies (COES, for its acronym in Spanish). Note: the dashed black vertical line is placed at one month previous to the starting month of the uprising.

The social uprising originates from a student-led evasion boycott campaign to oppose a $0.04 metro ticket raise (30 Chilean pesos according to the exchange rate at the onset of the uprising). Over the third week of October 2019, high school students organized a massive fare evasion, sit-ins, and some vandalism across multiple metro stations around Chile’s capital (Santiago). The protests were met with fierce police repression, which caused an escalation in the disruptiveness, support, and attendance of the protest. On Friday (October 18th), unauthorized marches happened across the city to express support for the movement. That day students’ boycotts were so disruptive that the whole metro network in Santiago had to close early during rush hour, resulting in massive commuting chaos. Later in the day, news reports revealed that unidentified arsonists had attacked several metro stations. Multiple stations and metro cars had been torched, and similar levels of violence happened in other parts of the city, with extensive public and private infrastructure losses.

As the hours went by, additional news reports came from various parts of the country, revealing that civil unrest had also diffused across Chile’s main cities. In response to these events, Chile’s right-wing President issued a full national deployment of the police with the special aid of the military corps. Additionally, the President declared a nationwide curfew. The next day, in a press statement, the President declared, “we are at war with an invisible enemy.” However, there was no real enemy to point out as responsible, as it was that the Chilean people had been “awakened,” and their actions were fueled by their anger about the country’s state. What followed next was an unprecedented and large-scale wave of peaceful demonstrations, boycotts, strikes, and civil unrest (including riots and vandalism). The most intense period of civil unrest happened between October to December of 2019, and the civil unrest finally dissipated in March 2020. Although the initial spark was the protest to oppose the rise in the metro fare, the movement’s grievances quickly coalesced into a profound critique of the stark and persistent social and economic injustices that had plagued Chilean society for years. The problem was not 30 pesos but 30 years of indignity and injustice.

How unequal is Chile? While Chile’s GDP per capita sits at approximately $25 thousand (measured as PPP dollars), ranking Chile as a middle-income country, its inequality indicators reveal a completely different story. According to the GINI index, a standard measure of the concentration of income distribution within a country, Chile belongs to the top 10% of countries with the highest inequality. In fact, a Chilean who places in the top 10% of the income distribution earns approximately 9.6 times more than a Chilean who belongs to the bottom 40%, on average. Hence, it is no surprise that most Chileans do not believe the country provides enough conditions for social mobility. According to a nationally representative survey conducted by the Catholic University of Chile (Encuesta Bicentenario, 2019), only 16% of respondents stated that a poor person has a “very high” or “quite high” chance of getting out of poverty. Furthermore, only 24% of respondents stated that a middle-class person has a “very high” or “quite high” chance of reaching a very good economic situation. The reality is that most Chileans live under relentless vulnerability, a consequence of persistent structural inequality that arises as a symptom of an economic and social model that systematically reproduces class inequalities.

In the first two months of the protest, the civil unrest and the mobilization actions had extended massively across the country. Large-scale actions such as marches and labor strikes were coupled with localized actions such as plaza meetings, municipal decentralized citizen-run assemblies, pot-banging coordinated actions, political street art paintings, and others. At the same time, although peaceful demonstrations represented the vast majority of participant turnout, there were also some disruptive and more violent actions, such as riots, destruction of public infrastructure, and improvised barricades made of burning tires and wood. Notably, the protest efforts rose organically under a bottom-up and decentralized structure characterized by the movement’s lack of singular leaders. Thus, communications of heterogenous and diverse activist groups via social media and private networks, in the context of a diversified repertoire of mobilization strategies, provided support for the movement. Figure 1 shows how the count of protest actions and labor strikes sharply peaks in the first two months of the uprising. The figure reveals that Chile had around 200 monthly peaceful demonstrations before the uprising on average. However, in the first two months of the uprising, these actions rose to almost 1,000 actions on a monthly average. 

Moreover, the social uprising not only disrupted the normal functioning of cities and public services. It also induced a substantial temporary shift in the political conversation across the country, influencing fundamental political attitudes and increasing interest in politics. Figure 2 illustrates the google search trends in Chile for some of the key terms related to the grievances associated with the social uprising. Most notably, google searches for “constitutional assembly” experienced an 80-fold increase in average search popularity at the peak of the uprising compared with its search popularity prior to the protests. The same pattern happened for the term “constitution,” which also experienced new localized peaks in search popularity in 2020 and 2022, related to the constitutional reform process triggered by the uprising. Also, other key terms, such as “Dignity,” “Human rights,” “Inequality,” and “Pensions,” experienced a temporal increase in search popularity between 190% and 290%. Hence, not only did the social uprising cause massive civil unrest, but it also swiftly shifted the political conversation and public opinion.

Figure 2: Monthly Google Search Trends of Political Keywords in Chile.

Source: Google Trends Data. Values represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart for the given region (Chile) and time. A value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term. A value of 50 means that the term is half as popular compared to a term that reached peak popularity. Hence, the figure illustrates relative search popularity trends among the included terms.

The call for a fundamental change in the constitution operated as a focal point for the heterogenous and abstract demands claimed by the citizens who participated in and supported the protests. While many of the authoritarian enclaves of Pinochet’s constitution had been reformed over the last 30 years of sustained democracy, still some structures persisted that provided the foundations for Chile’s neoliberal capitalism. A strong bias for a laissez-faire and market-based approach in the provision of public goods persisted deeply in the constitution’s institutional arrangement (e.g., in areas such as pensions, education, and health insurance). In addition, the constitution imposes high quorums for introducing amendments, thereby giving the right-wing politicians in Congress a historical veto power that protected the neoliberal capitalistic economic and social model inherited from the dictatorship times. All in all, the uprising influenced citizens’ alignment around the need to curb the country’s inequality, and changing the constitution was perceived as a means necessary to that end. A poll by the Center for Public Studies (December 2019) found that 55% percent of respondents claimed that high-income inequality was the first or second most important reason behind the uprising. In addition, respondents pointed to low pensions, high costs of living, and poor quality of public health and education as further reasons.

Undoubtedly, the most disturbing aspect of the social uprising was the state agents’ brutal and widespread repression. A report by the Senate’s human rights commission revealed that between October 18 and December 2019, more than 25,000 people were arrested and more than 3,500 injured by state agents, with 347 of them suffering from eye injuries from the weapons employed by the police. The National Institute of Human Rights filed 3,151 lawsuits against state agents to provide legal support to the victims. Of these, 551 were associated with torture, 660 for unnecessary violence, 2,232 for unlawful detentions, and 8 for deaths by state agents. However, as of October 2022, only 9.5% of these have been indicted, and only 38% of the victims have even taken their statements.

In November 2019, the President faced himself cornered against the wall. His efforts to curb civil unrest coercively had failed, and a mounting pile of human rights violations by state agents had his head on the line. With an approval rating that fell from 31% to 13% and a disapproval rating that rose from 55% to 79%, Congress filed an impeachment vote that turned out to be unsuccessful. However, the country was in a state of general disarray, and an urgent solution was needed. A worsening factor of the crisis was that Chileans long mistrusted their political leaders. A poll by the Center of Public Studies in 2017 revealed that 91% expressed “low” or “almost zero” trust in Congress, and 92% expressed the same attitude toward political parties. At the same time, up to 73% of respondents did not identify with any political parties. In desperation, on November 15th, Congress approved the bill “An Agreement for The Peace and a New Constitution.” Congress approved the bill in record time and set a path to rewrite the constitution from a “white slate” by a fully democratically elected body of representatives, meaning the constitutional writing starts from scratch, only requiring a quorum of 2/3 for articles approval. In the bill, Congress included unique dispositions to allow and foster the election of women, pure independents, and indigenous groups. Current congress members were banned from participating in those elections.

The initial national referendum that kickstarted the constitutional reform process resulted in 78% of voters expressing their approval for a constitutional change in October 2020. This result was notable but not entirely unexpected, as the new constitution had turned into the focal point for the hopes of meaningful future reforms. Turnout, as is the norm in Chilean elections, was voluntary and reached 50.95%. Elections for members of the soon to be established Constitutional Convention happened in May 2021, in which the traditional political parties, especially the right-wing parties, faced a catastrophic defeat. Hence, after a rough and troublesome article-writing process, a proposed draft that would replace the new constitution was to be ratified by citizens in a national referendum. Nevertheless, in September 2022, 61.89% of voters rejected the draft in an election that had mandatory voting, in which voter turnout reached 85.86%.

The reasons for which the constitutional reform failed are multiple, and their examination merits a detailed and profound analysis that falls out of the scope of this article. Nevertheless, the social uprising crystallized a consensus among Chilean society that the current constitution’s legitimacy is over and needs urgent change. The extent to which Chilean politicians will deliver on these expectations is uncertain. Most probably, new waves of mobilization will be needed to catalyze the process to a satisfactory end. Generally, those who hold power are not particularly inclined to give away their power willingly. 

In conclusion, several insights can be suggested as we study this case and others. First, social movements can dramatically influence public opinion. Second, while the volume of attendance of protests matters, a diversification of mobilization strategies and communication channels are also of importance to exercise pressure. Third, inclusive grievances and claims can ignite transversal support among heterogeneous groups of people, especially among non-participant supporters. Fourth, social movements can influence the societal perceptions of the target of the claims (e.g., diminish support to the government). Five, repression can induce backlash and fuel even stronger unrest. In the end, powerful elites care about the public opinion of their relevant constituencies. Hence, by shifting public opinion, social movements can induce intense pressure on elites who otherwise favor the status quo.