A new and deep discontent has settled over Santiago, the Chilean capital. At bus and subway stops, in blue-collar neighborhoods like La Victoria (a trench for resistance against the dictatorship), in public hospital hallways and school doorways, voices are being raised to express a new consciousness of Chilean problems. The country's leaders are being called to account for the fact that the country's neoliberal model, el modelo—which left and right-wing politicians still brag about—is showing clear signs of exhaustion.
During its 15 months in office, President Michelle Bachelet's government has seen problems break out along various fronts. To begin with, there was the massive and muscular protest headed by high school students against an education law inherited from the dictatorship. The mobilization brought to the fore the problem of profit in education, an issue that most government loyalists refuse to address. The student protests, in effect, were a watershed that highlighted the root issue of representation, or lack of it, in Chile's political system.
When the clamor of the student assemblies had not yet died down, the implementation of Transantiago, a new private transportation system, triggered a political crisis that might spoil the Concertación Democrática, the alliance between Christian Democrats and Socialists that has dominated elections in the country since 1990, when Gen. Pinochet left the presidency. Popular discontent peaked even higher in the beginning of May, when a forestry worker was killed by government troops in the south, where Mapuche Indians also are simmering with ancestral complaints.
For the first time in years, politicians appear troubled by the course of events. The Chilean economic "model" has developed leaks. A recent study by two Universidad de Chile economists, Orlando Caputo and Graciela Galarce, says that in 2006 there was record capital flight from the country: 25 billion dollars, or 17% of GDP (Gross Domestic Product). The experts state that Chile's economy is suffering from "exhaustion" and "only the contribution of the state-run mining company Codelco is staving off a crisis." In other words, in a country which like no other has glorified the private sector, it is the state sector which is saving the situation.
Most of the capital that has fled the country comes from mining companies that benefited from the copper industry's privatization. As union leader Pedro Marín told the newspaper Clarín, "Codelco has 30% of the business and foreign firms, 70%. But in tax contributions, these figures are reversed: Codelco contributes 70%, while the foreigners give 30%, despite their profits." It seems that the economic fortunes of the "model" hang by a string, but one made of copper: in 2003 copper was fetching 80 cents; this year the price hit three dollars. The flight of capital in 2006 was equivalent to 84% of the national budget, and if it continues it threatens to stop economic growth dead in its tracks.
The issue of Transantiago is even graver, because it bared the model's perversion to the entire population. The government charged the remodeling of the capital's chaotic transit system to private interests. The Transantiago was inspired by Bogotá's Transmilenio: large vehicles circulate along separate lanes, following principal and secondary routes. The system was launched in February, and chaos ensued. There's a lack of vehicles because businessmen don't want to risk their resources in the system. In the poorest neighborhoods, where there's less profit to be made, the buses don't arrive or do so with enormous delays. People must walk kilometers to a stop, where they must then wait up to an hour for their buses. Thousands have lost their jobs for tardiness. And the subway is so congested it can't keep up with demand.
Following the initial anger, which triggered some spontaneous protests, there was a growing crest of indignation once it came to light that businessmen were speculating and cashing in on the mess. Since the system generated losses (30 million dollars in April alone), the government has decided to bail out private operators.
The efficient state-run metro was forced to loan money to the Transantiago and now Bachelet's government has proposed in parliament a loan of 290 million dollars to a private company that failed to meet its contract obligations. Ex president Eduardo Frei, a neoliberal Christian Democrat, even asked for the establishment of a "state-run transport system like those in the great cities of the world." Such a proposal would have been unthinkable a few years back.
Some weeks ago, a sector of the governing Concertación disseminated a document titled "The Dilemmas," in which they request, among other things, "corrections to the present development model, a confrontation of inequalities, and progress in the construction of an integral system of social security." The government must feel the ground sinking beneath it. But the document goes even further: it criticizes a model in which "the level of fiscal reserves are more important than a country's social cohesion"; it denounces "grave problems in the quality of education, health, housing, environmental protection, job security" and a long laundry list of categories; it warns about the "precarious quality of our democracy" and censures the "enormous injustices and inequalities." It nearly reads like the leftist opposition's manifesto.
In reality, the problem lies elsewhere. Currently, the energy of social protest is reaching beyond the sectors—such as the Mapuches and insurgent youth, marginalized and repressed—that always went against the grain of the Chilean neoliberal model. The long labor strike in the south, where some 7,000 forestry workers successfully arm-wrestled with the powerful and arrogant impresarios of the Angelini Group, is itself a symptom of changed times. The workers used the company's heavy machinery to resist the government troops, and the result was several wounded and one dead. At some point, the protests of workers, residents, Mapuches and students might converge. We all know what happens when the lower strata of society isn't dissuaded by repression: those who are on high begin to think about making changes in order to touch up their makeup.
Raúl Zibechi, a member of the editorial board of the weekly Brecha de Montevideo, is a professor on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de America Latina and adviser to several grassroots organizations.Translated from the Spanish by Marcelo Ballvé.