The Santiago Metro as a Microcosm of Chile

A history behind Santiago's subway system and why a fare increase sparked massive protests. 

October 30, 2019

Pedro de Valdivia station, Metro de Santiago, Chile (Photo by Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz/Wikimedia)

Haz clic aquí para leer la versión en español. 

Over the past two weeks, massive protests rocked Chile, beginning with a student-led movement against a subway fare increase and quickly growing to encompass a nation-wide revolt against economic inequality, rising costs of living, and the neoliberal model that forms the foundation of Chile’s much-vaunted stability and economic success. The right-wing billionaire president, Sebastián Piñera, first dismissed the protesters as vandals and called soldiers onto the streets with tanks and machine guns.  On October 19, he instituted curfews and declared a state of emergency—Chile’s first in response to protests since the return to democracy in 1990. Meanwhile, the protests have spread far beyond Santiago. People of all ages are banging pots and pans to express their discontent at Chile’s political elite and to demand a more dignified future.

Given the longstanding inequalities created under neoliberalism in Chile, why now? And why were metro fares the catalyst? Although it is false to reduce the uprising to a single issue, it is worth asking why it was the metro that first set off the revolt and became an initial target of violence. The Santiago metro is South America’s largest system, has expanded rapidly in recent years with two new lines and another on the way, and is often held up as a gem of urban transit in Latin America. The popular outrage of the past week brought the system to a standstill for multiple days, inflicted damage on nearly 80 metro stations, and incurred financial damage totaling over $300 million.

If the metro system was so successful, why did it spark an uprising? Since it opened under Pinochet in 1975, the Santiago metro has served as a microcosm of Chilean society. The irony is that the more successful it has been – the more efficient, modern, and productive in the eyes of transit experts—the more pressure it has put on workers and passengers. The story behind the Santiago metro serves as a dramatic illustration of how everyday people are paying the price for the “Chilean miracle.”

Neoliberal Legacies

As protesters are quick to point out, this outpouring of indignation is not about thirty pesos, the amount of the now-abolished fare increase, but about thirty years of neoliberal policies that have made Chile a darling for international investors while everyday people suffer intense inequality. 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. Pinochet took power as part of a military junta that toppled the democratically-elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in 1973. The United States covertly supported the military’s efforts to undermine Allende and welcomed the new military regime, despite its severe human rights violations that included the killing of more than 3,000 people and torture and detention of thousands more.

It was in this climate of extreme anti-communist state violence that Pinochet brought in a new economic team, a group of Chilean economists known as the Chicago Boys for their training at the University of Chicago. They sought to radically reduce the role of the state and expand market relations throughout Chilean society. This entailed the elevation of profit as a guiding principle in deciding state investment, attacks on the rights of workers, and the privatization of education, healthcare, and pensions—areas that are still contentious in Chile today. When the new democratic government took office in 1990, it was convinced that this model had to be kept in place. Although the center-left Concertación coalition (1990–2010) introduced reforms and succeeded in reducing poverty levels, it deepened many aspects of the neoliberal model.

These observations are not new. Long before the uprising of this past week, it was clear to people on the ground, and to many scholars, that Chile was riven by deep tensions between the haves and the have-nots, and that the “Chilean miracle” had come at a steep price. The huge student movements of 2006 and 2011 highlighted the injustices of the privatized education model. In recent years, mass protests over poverty-level pensions, gender inequality, and the underfunded education system have drawn attention to the discontent of everyday Chileans.

Yet Chilean politicians have been blindsided by the revolt. Just a day before the students’ mass fare evasion spiraled into violent clashes and destruction of metro stations, banks, and supermarkets, Piñera called Chile an “oasis” in Latin America, untouched by unrest or recession. As the Santiago metro burned on Friday night, he was photographed dining at a pizzeria in a swanky part of town. The government’s response—sending military into the streets, arresting thousands of protesters, and criminalizing dissent—has summoned the worst memories of the Pinochet years and demonstrated a reluctance to address the root causes of discontent.

The History Behind the Metro

Long before the Santiago metro broke ground in 1969, Chile’s leaders recognized that transit was a complex social and political issue that could have far-reaching repercussions. In 1949, the revolución de la chaucha (penny revolution)—an uprising in Santiago set off by transit fare increases—demonstrated that urban transit was a volatile issue. This spontaneous protest has many parallels to today: it began with students, then spread to workers and other social groups. It also included violence against buses and other urban infrastructure, and the government blamed the unrest on agitators—in that case, the outlawed communist party—instead of accepting it as an expression of legitimate discontent.

Eight years later, another fare hike on urban transit set off the bloody Battle of Santiago. Like the penny revolution and protests from this past week, the 1957 uprising was also a response to economic pressures on working people: a group of U.S. economic experts, known as the Klein-Saks mission, had promoted economic austerity. These measures brought down inflation, while the poor shouldered the burden. Like the protests in recent days, the 1957 uprising spread beyond the capital and included cities such as Valparaíso and Concepción.

By the 1960s, urban planners in Chile and abroad employed the rhetoric of a looming urban transportation crisis to justify massive urban interventions, including the planned subway. Rural migrants were streaming into cities in Chile and throughout Latin America, pushed by miserable conditions in the countryside and hopes for a better future. In the midst of rapid urban growth, transit problems grew more pressing. One U.S. urban planner recognized this in 1965: “Popular discontent with respect to the transportation service is real,” wrote Melvin Webber, after visiting Santiago. “It is real because it expresses a very deep and potentially explosive dissatisfaction.”

A funny thing happened, however, between the subway’s planning process in the 1960s and the opening of the first two lines in 1975 and 1978. The metro went from being a system designed for working-class and middle-class users, to one that was primarily focused on the middle class. The implementation of neoliberal policies in the mid-1970s underwrote this shift. Rather than invest in the system to expand it out to working-class neighborhoods, as metro planners sought to do under Eduardo Frei Montalva (1964–1970) and Salvador Allende (1970–1973), metro leaders under Pinochet sought to balance the budget by focusing on wealthier users, who could pay higher fares. They also faced extreme budget cuts, which meant that only two lines operated up until 1990. The vast majority of people, meanwhile, continued to rely on the private bus sector, which Pinochet’s economists thoroughly deregulated. This led to expensive bus fares as a result of collusion by bus operators. And although metro leaders wanted to integrate the metro and the buses to serve a greater cross-section of the city, this was politically impossible under Pinochet.

By the end of the dictatorship, a two-tier system was firmly in place. Those who could afford it rode the state-owned metro, which military leaders upheld as a shining example of what could be accomplished under authoritarian rule. But most people relied on the private buses, which were criticized for being inefficient, dangerous, and a major contributor to air pollution.

When Chile transitioned to democracy in 1990, the metro shifted. It went from being part of the public works ministry to being a state corporation—a change that neoliberal economists had long pushed for under Pinochet. This gave management more power over workers by, for example, making it easier to subcontract jobs. Since the 1980s, the metro had not been allowed to receive state subsidies for its operations. Now, as a state corporation, it redoubled its focus on the bottom line. Leaders such as Oscar Guillermo Garretón—formerly a left-wing radical, now a “renovated” socialist—talked about the metro very explicitly as akin to a private company. Much like the new democratic governments themselves, the metro projected an image of being modern and financially sound. Yet the efficiency achieved in these years came, in large part, at the expense of workers—who were increasingly outsourced—and passengers—whose fares had to cover the metro’s operating costs.

This formula seemed to work, at least for the political leaders and experts in charge of the metro’s operations: squeeze more passengers in, subcontract workers, and protect the metro’s reputation for efficiency, which helped secure further funds for new construction. The metro expanded significantly in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the opening of lines 4 and 5. These new lines, too, had to do more with less. For example, they used elevated viaducts because this was cheaper than building underground lines.

But Santiago’s transit system was turned upside down in 2007, when the controversial Transantiago reform integrated the metro with the private bus lines. Overnight, the metro’s passengers doubled. Now, the metro could not be autonomous anymore—it had to subsidize the ongoing problems of the private bus lines, which struggled with high levels of fare evasion. The failed roll-out of Transantiago sparked protests among passengers and increased stress on workers. Rather than change things radically, though, Michelle Bachelet’s government continued to tweak the system. With Transantiago, the metro became the true backbone of the city, and its importance to Santiago has helped to justify further expansion.

The Metro as Microcosm

By focusing so intently on the bottom line—the neoliberal common sense that has been in place in Chile since the late 1970s—the metro’s leadership has ignored crucial lessons from the past. First, transportation is not just about having a well-run system from the standpoint of economists or engineers, but about people’s basic dignity. This is equally true for other arenas that have sparked protests in Chile: It is not enough for experts or politicians to decide that a system is efficient. It must also respond to the real needs and demands of the people who will be most affected.

Second, because the metro has long been a symbol of the Chilean state, it is a powerful target for protesters. Dissident artists and musicians in Chile recognized this during the Pinochet dictatorship. Metro leaders, for their part, have realized since 2007 how essential the system is to the city’s daily functioning. Precisely because of its importance—to passengers, as well as to the Chilean state and its carefully crafted image for foreign investors—the metro is a potent site of protest. Politics as usual, such as the expert panel that decided the now-abolished fare increase, is a poor substitute for real popular participation among those most impacted by urban transit in Santiago.

Finally, the Santiago metro has for years represented the contradictions of contemporary Chile. Proclaimed as a great investment to the outside world—most recently with the construction of lines 3 and 6 and plans for line 7—the success of the system came at the expense of workers and passengers. The metro, and the broader uprising of the past weeks, reveals the hubris of experts and politicians who are out of touch with everyday people and their daily struggles.

The situation on the ground in Chile is rapidly evolving. As protests enter their second week, massive demonstrations in Santiago, Valparaíso, and cities up and down Chile continue to call for structural change, while Piñera scrambles to respond. Human rights groups have documented cases of excessive use of force by state agents, and multiple videos demonstrate casual brutality by military forces. At least 18 people have now died in the violence of the past two weeks, while hundreds are injured and thousands have been arrested. While the future is impossible to predict, the protests have undeniably changed the national narrative. Political elites and experts can no longer pretend to be deaf to the demands of ordinary Chileans.

Andra B. Chastain is an assistant professor of history at Washington State University Vancouver and holds a PhD in Latin American history from Yale University. She is currently writing a book about the history of the Santiago metro system, drawing on over a year of archival research and oral histories in Chile.

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.