Around the world, 2019 has been a year of public protest, and in some countries it’s not hard to understand why. In Hong Kong, demonstrators want to preserve the city’s autonomy within a repressive Chinese political system. In Algeria and Sudan, the issue is frustration with decades of dictatorship. In Ecuador, Nicaragua and Haiti, it’s poverty and bad governance. In Iraq and Lebanon, the protest focus is endemic corruption.
But what’s going on in Chile, one of South America’s most peaceful and prosperous countries? Earlier in October, a team of government technocrats announced that a weakening currency and higher fuel costs demanded an increase from 800 to 830 pesos in the cost of rush-hour public-transit fares in Santiago, Chile’s capital. That’s a rise of about 4 U.S. cents. In protest, younger commuters began dodging the fares, prompting a police crackdown and a wave of arrests.
The public anger, and the protests, then boiled over. Demonstrations spread to other cities, and some turned violent. Shops were looted, fires were set, and the government declared a state of emergency. Curfews were established in the country’s largest cities. Startled Chileans have seen nothing like this since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship nearly three decades ago, and President Sebastián Piñera seems slow to recognize the public anger as legitimate.
This surge of public fury didn’t come from nowhere. Chile’s new middle class has expectations for improving living standards. There have been protests in recent years over the cost and quality of education and health care and over pensions that don’t help the elderly make ends meet, but little has changed in response. There is also the reality that Chile has one of the widest gaps between rich and poor of all the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries. But to understand why Chile’s unrest is especially worrisome for other middle-income countries, look to the larger problem of unfairness.