By BAS editor Robin Wallis.
Chile the modern, Argentina the muddled – so goes the conventional view of Latin America’s two southern neighbours.
We all know which one labours under recurrent high inflation, unmanageable foreign debts and the ineradicable corruption of its Peronist past. Contrast that to its skinny neighbour, whose fruit and wine is prominently sold in western supermarkets and whose minerals power a variety of industries. Chile – outward looking Pacific trader; Argentina – inwardly focused regulation freak, seemingly bent on deterring trade and investment.
There is some truth to these stereotypes. But lift the lid on the two societies, as I did in my February 2020 visit, and a different impression emerges.
I arrived in Santiago on a Friday. Driving me back to my city centre lodgings that evening, my local friends had to spin the car around when it became clear that rubble in the street and brawling protestors made it impassable. The next morning I found workers picking their way through a jumble of crowd-control railings to sweep up broken glass and bricks. Friday nights, it appears, are the main riot nights, but the legacy of the October 2019 estallido social continues to blight parts of Santiago most evenings. Protests are likely to intensify in the lead-up to the April plebiscite on drafting a new constitution.
In the zona de disturbios around Plaza Italia I sought out the Violeta Parra museum. This shrine to the Chilean folk hero was not just closed, it was boarded up and apparently abandoned. Returning towards the city centre, I found the Gabriela Mistral arts centre open, even if the tourist information booth outside was smothered beneath protest posters and graffiti. The centre’s theatre performances now start at 5pm rather than in the evening, so that theatregoers can get home safely before the trouble starts. This reflects the wider phenomenon of the city centre increasingly being abandoned to los indigentes, many of whom have migrated into the city. The middle class has increasingly relocated to the eastern suburbs such as Providencia, site of Latin America’s tallest building, the Gran Torre, and numerous shopping centres.
Indebtedness is a raw nerve for many. Salaries are low and the cost of living is high: the metro fare increase that sparked last October’s estallido represented a 22% increase in real terms over the past 5 years. However, a veteran journalist tells me that the demonstrations “were not about a 30 peso fare increase, but about 30 years of neglect. People fear getting old and getting ill: either one can mean a slide into poverty.”
“Everything is privatised”, laments Javi, a law student. “Only those who can pay have access to health services and a university education, and even then the education offered is not good. If we want to work outside Chile, a Chilean degree is not sufficient.”
The privatised pensions system pays out only about half the level promised when the scheme was set up, and mostly below the minimum wage. Fewer than half the workforce has consistently paid in contributions. Some analysts doubt the long-term durability of the pension funds.
“Look at the Gini coefficient for the two countries,” says Argentine Professor Nahman-Carlos Escudé, referring to the statistical model used for measuring a country’s income and wealth distribution. “Chile’s is around 50%: that’s high. Argentina isn’t exactly a role model for equality, but at around 41% that’s significantly better than Chile. The Chilean model has been much touted, but also oversold.”
Chile’s discontent extends into the political realm, as the slogan Evadir no pagar / Otra forma de luchar implies. Some call the uprising Chile despertó – an awakening from a socio-political model fashioned in the Pinochet era.
The violence is presumed to emanate from a loose confluence of anarchists, anti-capitalists and drug gang members. “Many low-grade graduates, in debt and with poor job prospects, gravitate towards such groups,” the journalist tells me. “There’s a lot of nihilism out there. And the consequences of the riots have been dire in many poorer parts of Santiago: people have lost their metro stations (over 20 were wrecked), their supermarkets and their pharmacies.”
President Piñera’s vision was starker: ‘estamos en guerra’, he declared last October, deploying security forces on to streets now plastered with bitter graffiti denouncing police brutality and government elitism.
The 26 April referendum may release steam from the pressure cooker, but even if the proposal to draft a new Constitution wins (as expected), there will be continuing division over the election of a Constituent Assembly, the two-thirds approval that each item of the new Constitution will require in parliament, and the eventual national referendum to approve it. In the meantime the estallido continues to dominate public discourse and to make Chileans – particularly in the cities – feel uneasy about the future.
For once, the Chileans might actually be envying Argentina’s political stability. The 2019 Argentine elections produced in Alberto Fernández a moderate president eager to avoid the excesses of his two predecessors, the populist Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and ‘neoliberal’ Mauricio Macri. Both government and opposition are functional. Buenos Aires has been cleaned up, the parks are well maintained and public transport is much improved. Despite the ever-present frailty of the economic situation, there is a sense of well-being in the city. The air is cleaner than in Santiago and the rains have been better. The country’s best fruit and wine is consumed in Buenos Aires, not in Europe or the USA. The ‘Leicester Square ticket booth’ equivalent opposite the obelisk offers accessibly priced tickets to a variety of theatre options (mostly performed from Friday to Sunday) – start time 9pm. Tango enthusiasts queue patiently for the free milongas held at the Kirchner Cultural Centre opposite the presidential palace.
“Argentina can’t escape populism,” says Professor Escudé. “Economically unsustainable, yes, but it also allows free health care and university education for all.” Some young professionals look with unease at their prospects and dream of making a living overseas, but most would accept the Argentine condition as un mal menor compared to the predicament of their vecinos transandinos.