A few days after we arrived in Santiago, the capital of Chile, violent protests erupted overnight, triggered by an increase in rush hour metro fares from 800 to 830 pesos. Protesters burned metro stations, an energy company, banks, pharmacies, and grocery stores.
Glass was smashed everywhere, including streetlights. Traffic was barricaded by burning trash in the middle of the street. In short order a military curfew was imposed. Pots and pans clanged late into the night, a protesting tradition inherited from Pinochet’s dictatorship when people were not allowed to assemble outside, so they banged pots and pans inside their homes instead.
In a matter of days the Chilean president rolled back the metro fare hike and announced an increase in the minimum wage, but protests continued, with violence escalating at night.
Early in the mornings, the police cleared the streets of burnt trash and crews of Haitian laborers power washed the main square, cleaning up after the protesters. I found it most sad that graffiti had been sprayed all over Santiago’s beautiful old buildings.
One day, we ventured to Plaza Italia, the epicenter of the protests, during an authorized daytime march. When we arrived, a bank was on fire in broad daylight. Most of the protesters were young and fairly well dressed. When we went deeper into the crowd, our eyes started burning from residual tear gas in the air so we had to leave.
The metro shut down after suffering millions of dollars in damage. It’s actually a really great subway system, fast and clean with two brand new lines.
Schools and museums closed. Banks and grocery stores were broken into and looted or burned. The Lider chain of supermarkets, owned by Walmart, was especially targeted, which was unfortunate because Lider has the best prices.
Many small businesses pulled down their metal gates the second they heard a protest coming down the street. Commercial activity ground to a complete halt.
Most recently, a protester threw a homemade bomb at the military and lit two women on fire.
Valparaíso is an industrial port town built on hills with colorful buildings, street art, a craft brew scene, and anti-establishment hipsters. It’s also a city that’s been in decline since its heyday as the largest port in Latin America 100 years ago. Today, it’s the epicenter of anti-capitalist sentiment. The Chilean Congress convenes here.
Every single grocery store has been looted or burned. We walked by the skeleton of one, completely hollowed and charred, emanating a noxious smell.
Our tour guide, a college student, said she loved that all the grocery stores had been burned, which was quite alarming.
Shops remain shuttered, the currency is tanking, and tourism has taken a hit. Infrastructure damage will cost the economy dearly.
Viña del Mar
One afternoon, protesters marched into Viña del Mar, an affluent coastal city, pushed dumpsters into the center of several intersections, and lit them on fire. They ripped plywood from a boarded up bank to fuel the fire, then smashed the glass walls and security camera of the bank.
After the military cleared through, residents went outside to sweep up the debris left behind and right the dumpsters.
A few blocks away protesters looted a Burger King and a Kia Motors dealership, smashing brand new cars and emptying the Burger King of all its furniture.
Chile has the highest income inequality among OECD countries along with a high cost of living. Food prices in Chile are almost as high as in the US. Chileans also pay a hefty 19% sales tax on everything, including food, medicine, clothes, and hotels.
But why the violence?
Here’s what others (Chileans and expats) have said about contributing factors.
- It’s important to remember that the protests began with violence.
- The explosion of anger and civilian violence is indicative of something toxic in the culture.
- An early video of a police officer pushing a subway fare evader who then tumbled down two flights of stairs inflamed many.
- Chileans are equating the current government with the Pinochet dictatorship 30 years ago, even though in reality they’re far from analogous.
- The violence was quickly legitimized. 85% of Chileans support the protests.
- There’s a lack of work ethos in this country.
- Chileans were not politically engaged in the last election, just a year and a half ago, when the current president was elected. Voter turnout was only 47%, ranking at the absolute bottom of OECD countries.
- The left lacks leadership and has not put forth a strong candidate.
- Education is terrible in Chile.
Our view is ever evolving. So far, we have a few opinions.
- This is a classic case of what happens when people don’t feel a sense of ownership. If you own anything at all – a car, a house, a business – you know how much it pisses you off when someone so much as leaves a Cheetos stain on your couch. You would never graffiti the walls of someone else’s shop or set a building on fire.
- Most (perhaps all?) of the violence is being carried out by young people who don’t care about the consequences. They don’t have a family to feed so they don’t need grocery stores. They don’t have jobs so they don’t need the metro to commute to work.
- Schools closed, leaving too many students with nothing productive to do.
- The police and military response has been ineffective. Despite reports of excessive force in certain instances, only a fraction of violent protesters have been arrested.
- Chile lacks a longstanding tradition of peaceful protests and civil disobedience to draw from. 30 years ago its brutal military dictatorship ended, and since then it rose to become the richest and most politically stable country in Latin America.
Death Toll and Economic Damage
Out of 20 deaths to date, 5 have been killed by the military and 15 by civilian violence.
- 10 people died in fires caused by protesters.
- One man was accidentally shot and killed by his father-in-law who was trying to stop looters.
- Another was shot by his tenant who feared looting.
- Two protesters were hit by a car and killed.
- One man electrocuted himself while looting a grocery store.
The currency has devalued by 5% in a month. Prior to the protest, economic activity grew 3% in September, 2019 year over year. October’s growth will be negative.
November 11, 2019 Update
Things are getting weirder. A university building in Santiago was burned, a church was looted, and its religious relics were burned in a street barricade. The first shooting by a civilian also occurred in Viña del Mar, though we just learned it was by an anti-Communist American.
November 30, 2019 Update
We’re now in the lakes district of Chile, in the towns of Pucon and Puerto Varas. The latter especially is a sleepy little town with real life gingerbread houses, but even here some businesses have boarded up their storefronts. Compared to the Santiago metropolitan region though, there’s not much damage, much less graffiti, and only a few shattered glass windows. However, we were surprised at how empty Pucon was at the beginning of peak tourist season. Summer tourism is a significant part of the Chilean economy, but news reports are saying it simply isn’t going to happen this year.
The protests have calmed down since a new constitution was signed recently, but the economic effects are really starting to kick in now. When we arrived in Chile on October 16, the exchange rate was 1 USD to 709 Chilean pesos. Today, on November 30, it’s 1 USD to 858 Chilean pesos. The currency has devalued by a whopping 20% in just 6 weeks.
December 31, 2019 Update
We arrived in Puerto Williams, the southernmost city in Chile and in the world. It’s an up and coming travel destination due to this designation and a 5 day trek through the island’s mountain range that avid hikers from all over the world fly in for. This year however, tourism has come to sudden halt due to the protests. The owner of our hotel said this time last year, his hotel was full, but this year, we are the only guests. Everyone else cancelled, unsure if the protests would continue, if airports would remain open.
The tourism season is short here, only a few summer months. Our kayak guide seemed uncertain whether he’d make enough this season to last him the rest of the year. We’re sad for these small business owners who are so far removed from the protests up north, yet seem to be the hardest hit.
If you’re planning a trip to Chile, I would advise avoiding Santiago, Valparaiso, and Vina del Mar until the protests are over, and instead heading to the south of Chile, where the lake district and Patagonia are.