Santiago, Chile - October 24: Protesters gather in Santiago, 24 October 2019. (Photo by Muhammed Emin Canik/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Chile’s October Surprise


  • Assistant professor of political science at the University of Chile; Senior Visiting Fellow London School of Economics and Political Science

  • Article
  • 12 Mar 2020
  • 11 min read


  • Assistant professor of political science at the University of Chile; Senior Visiting Fellow London School of Economics and Political Science

Revolutions are never easy to explain. Was the French revolution the result of the rise of the Enlightenment, or of poor wheat harvests during much of the 1780s, which led France’s ruling class to ultimately encourage the poor to ‘eat cake’? Was the Russian Revolution the result of the tsars’ ineptitude or the pressures of the First World War?  Understanding the causes of tragedies helps to avoid repeating them.

In the case of Chile’s current uprising, which began as a revolt against a 30-peso (roughly three pence) metro fare hike, understanding the root causes is key to providing some kind of solution. Here both government authorities and civil society have thus far failed quite badly.

The government of president Sebastian Piñera determined in the first instance that the protests and violence that erupted on 18 October, and have continued with greater or lesser intensity ever since, were the result of foreign intervention. Piñera took to the airwaves, flanked by armed forces officers, to declare that Chile was facing ‘a powerful and implacable enemy’.

Piñera was never specific in identifying who that enemy was, although the government was so obsessed with finding foreign influences that it tried to commission local academics to use social media to prove these links. When they said this was not possible, a Spanish firm was hired, producing a report which, presumably, used big data analysis to draw links between protesters and groups outside of Chile. Almost five months after 18 October, however, no official information is available on who, if anyone, was behind the arson attacks on metro stations, supermarket looting, or protest organization.

For much of civil society – including academics in Chile and abroad – the cause of Chile’s social unrest is clear.  The conventional wisdom is that the upheaval is the almost inevitable result of forty years of neoliberalism and its effects, most importantly, inequality. A New York Times editorial published less than a week after the outbreak of protest was titled ‘Chile Learns the Price of Economic Inequality’.

There is one small problem with this hypothesis. Inequality has actually been dropping in Chile, from a GINI coefficient of 57.2 in 1990 to 46.6 in 2017. Although still high by OECD standards, to claim that an indicator that’s falling explains the sudden outbreak of such violent discontent defies logic. Indeed, if one wished to explain an abrupt event, one should look for an equally rapid shift in some other variable. Although many rushed to blame Chile’s economic model – which, although clearly maintaining a heavy market orientation, cannot still be considered strictly neoliberal – by almost any measure economic figures for Chile have been improving for a generation. From growth to life expectancy, from years of schooling to home ownership, Chile, which after 1990 (perhaps too) slowly moved towards a more mixed economic model, has indeed been a success.

The one area which appears to have been getting worse, however, is institutional trust. For years scholars have understood the importance of trust for democratic wellbeing. Adam Pzeworski’s pithy definition of democracy – a system where parties lose elections – suggests democracies depend on voters trusting parties to respect election results. Winners trust losers to let them govern in good faith. Losers trust winners to hand over the reins of power once their terms are over (which is why the institutional engineering of populists is so damaging).

For many years Latin America is a region where trust levels – both interpersonal and institutional – have not been high. According to the 2018 Latinobarometer poll, interpersonal trust in Chile was at about the regional average of 14%. Trust in certain political institutions, moreover, such as political parties or congress, historically have been dismal. This is true in Chile as well, where these institutions have consistently polled below 10%. In 2008 only 8% of Chileans said they had some or a lot of trust in political parties; by 2016 that number was 4%, rising to 6% a year later. Congress fared worse, dropping from 20% in 2008 to 6% in 2017.

Yet it is the drop seen in trust in other institutions that tells the story. The Catholic Church fell from 47% in 2008 to 31% in 2017. Trust in the Armed Forces fell from 56% in 2008 to 40% in 2017. The national police force, Carabineros, fell from 63% to 37% in the same period. Needless to say, since the 18 October  revolution, trust levels in many of these institutions has plummeted further. This most recent general drop in trust may have been spurred by a series of corruption scandals that have emerged in recent years, in areas as diverse as corporate financing of political parties, abuse in the Catholic Church, and the misuse of public funds in the upper ranks of the Armed Forces.

These high-profile scandals, amplified by traditional and social media, have reinforced views on corruption in Chile, where personal experiences with corruption – corruption victimization – are few and far between. Very few Chileans claim to have been victims of corruption, one of the lowest rates in Latin America. Yet, according to the Latin American Public Opinion Project, Chileans are amongst those who most cite corruption as the major problem their country faces.  According to this study, it seems that wealthier, better educated and better informed citizens are more likely to complain of corruption.

This leads to a final point. As countries develop, so do expectations. As a result, the institutional explanation does not mean that socio-economic causes are not present; they may in fact be related. The vast improvement in living conditions for most Chileans may, paradoxically, produce discontent, as they contribute to an increase in expectations which are often hard to meet. They expect more from their leaders and their public institutions. They expect better treatment as citizens and as consumers. Most of all, they expect that the promise of a better future be met. The massive expansion of post-secondary education in Chile means that about half of all students are the first generation in their families to continue with their studies. This has been made possible by the introduction of a controversial financing system, involving heavy debt burdens. Yet parents are willing to finance these debts on the promise of a better future for their children. Similarly, workers have for years paid into private pension funds expecting to benefit from decent pensions, which all too often do not materialize. This explains why both education and pensions have been at the centre of protesters’ demands.

All of this suggests that demands for more equality do not necessarily arise from a complaint about income inequality as such, but rather a call for better treatment overall, or ‘dignity’, as the protesters often put it. From interpersonal relations to regulating private sector abuse, from representative democracy to ensuring female and minority representation in boardrooms, the October revolution is a call not to overturn the system, but rather to modernize the rules of the game.  No surprise, then, that a protest that began as a rejection of a small increase in the price of public transportation has become a broad movement for a new constitution for the country.

Assuming that a new constitution is drafted and passed, will Chileans be satisfied? Yes and no. Chile’s current constitution has seen hundreds of amendments, and therefore cannot truly be considered to still be ‘Pinochet’s constitution’. At the same time, it contains certain definitions that circumscribe the state’s capacity to respond more fully to social demands, most notably the notion of the ‘subsidiary state’, the idea that the state should not get involved in activities that can be offered by other social actors, and the market in particular. Symbolically moreover, most Chileans continue to associate the constitution with the regime which imposed it, imbuing the document with a legitimacy problem which contributes to and exacerbates the general dissatisfaction with political institutions mentioned above. A new constitution designed with public input, during a democratic regime, will go some ways towards addressing these issues.

However, the crisis of expectations affects the constitutional sphere as well. A Cadem poll last December showed that Chileans expect a new constitution to improve healthcare, pensions and education. The ‘Approve’ campaign is exploiting these expectations, producing pamphlets that claim that a new constitution will result in ‘decent housing’ and ‘dignified old age’. However, even if a constitutional convention is approved, these results depend on the makeup of the convention itself, the document it produces, and most importantly, public policy debates that will be years down the line. Reality, in other words, will clash with expectations once again. The risk is further disenchantment and deepening crisis. The risk of doing nothing, however, is far greater.