The Rise of Civil Society in Chile or a Puppet on a String

First posted on Futurechallenges.org

 

When it comes to social conflict, Chile has always stood apart from the rest of Latin American countries , given its liberal society and vigorous economy. However, 2011 brought widespread social discontent in Chilean society to the forefront. First and foremost, the  government of the first rightist President in office for the past 20 years lost the confidence of the people in the first year of its tenure. It makes me wonder what made civil society wake up suddenly and take on the government on issues that have been unaddressed for many years? Is this now the global trend, or is it the policies of the new government or is civil society just being used for political mileage by the opposition?

2011 will go down in Chile’s history as a year of social upheaval and protests. Many sections of society took to the streets to voice their demands, the major two being the student movement for education reform and the environmentalists against the ‘HidroAysén’ energy projects in the south of the country. Alongside these, there were also protests against the rise in fuel prices, protests by victims of 2010 earthquake against delays in housing reconstruction, protests by the Mapuches for indigenous rights, and – my personal favorite – protests by television actors and actresses for payment of royalties.

Such widespread protests are not something you might expect from Chile, which is one of South America’s most stable and prosperous nations, leading the way in human development, competitiveness, per capita income, globalization, economic freedom, and the country with the least corruption in whole LATAM region. Unemployment in Chile stood at7.1% in 2010, a very low rate if compared with some of the neighboring countries.

Perhaps the government of Sebastian Piñera has not been up to the job. But it is also trying hard to match the expectations of the people who chose him over leftist parties which have ruled the country for the past 20 years. Piñera’s government has taken many steps to meet the demands of the people including:

  • Reaching an agreement with the Magallanes Citizens’ Assembly and lowering the hike in fuel prices to 3% from the originally planned 17%;
  • Putting forward three proposals to the representatives of protesting students between July and August 2011; Education Minister Felipe Bulnes himself was involved in the negotiations.
  • In the case of ‘HidroAysén’, President Piñera is trying to earn the trust of the people by approval from Chile’s regional Environmental Commission and the ruling of the Appeals Court in favor of HidroAysén, though the case is still pending with Chile’s Supreme Court.

A careful analysis of all this year’s major protests in Chile shows us that these issues have deep roots in Chile’s socio-economic system, roots dating back to the days of leftist rule, and even back to Augusto Pinochet’s regime.

Chile has always had an energy shortage; however, nothing much was done over the last 20 years to deal with the situation under the opposition’s rule. The concerns of environmentalists are no doubt valid; even so, at the same time if the right choices are not made now the growing Chilean economy will have to pay a much higher price.

Similarly, take the demands for reform of the education system which are causing such an outcry and receiving support from all sections of society. These demands are a result of an education system which has one of the world’s lowest levels of public funding for higher education, and some of the longest degrees with no reasonable system of student grants or subsidized loans. The roots of the latest students’ movement go back to the Penguin Revolution that occurred during the government of Michelle Bachelet. Nothing has been done to reform the education system or to fund and support it in such a way that it addresses the needs of the masses instead of making profits for a few rich people. And the story is the same for other issues like the indigenous Mapuches people too.

Social media and the rising awareness of civil society both fuel public protests in many parts of the world and Chile is no exception. On the other hand, it also interests me to consider the role played by the political environment of the country and how the political opposition can instrumentalize popular sentiment for their own benefit.

Civil society consists of smaller groups each of which has its own interests and aspirations that sometimes bring them into conflict. The fractious nature of civil society makes it very hard to gain greater co-operation and also exposes it to misuse for the political gains of someone or other, whether right or left.

The only possible solution is to focus on these smaller civil groups and foster real co-operation among them for greater results. We will now see how events unfold in 2012: Will it be possible to strengthen civil society in Chile in order to achieve a long term goal of development and prosperity? In other words will civil society reach “THE GREATER WE” or will it once again become a puppet that moves as the political puppeteer commands?

 

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