31 August 2007

PROTESTS IN CHILE LEAVE ONE SENATOR WOUNDED

From Southern Affairs
By Nathan Gill

Protestors clashed with police in Santiago, Chile on Sept. 29 leaving one officer shot, a socialist senator wounded and over 400 arrested. Chile’s Federation of Union Workers (CUT) called for market reforms, improvements in Santiago’s new public transportation system as well as social and educational reform.

The day began at 6am when groups of protestors began forming around the city. By 7:15am a Taxi Union had blocked off Avenida Pajaritos, a major thoroughfare into the city, to protest taxi zone restrictions. After brief skirmishes with police the roads were reopened, but by that point more protests were breaking out across the city. In Plaza Italia, one of the nerve centers of the city, large groups of protestors began forming during the morning rush hour. They were joined by special police force units who lined the street and filmed the crowds, preparing for the inevitable conflict.

Being in one of these marches is wild. Police Special Forces line up silently along the sidewalks, buses and tanks line the streets in preparation for the hundreds of protestors that will inevitably be arrested. Protestors chant their demands on megaphones and wave their flags, banners, and placards. As the city rush hour progress, more and more people joined the crowd while police gather silently, anticipating the coming battle.

At 9am, a large mass of high school students arrived at Plaza Italia adding their youthful rage to the protest. An hour later the protestors are joined by various national Senators, including Alejandro Navarro, Marcos Enr√≠quez Ominami and Sergio Aguil√≥. The senators join the CUT’s call for economic reform and ask for the resignation of the Finance Minister, Andres Velasco.

While the police try and keep traffic moving, the CUT’s president arrived with another group of protestors at Plaza Italia while its Vice-President negotiated with police to gain permission to march up La Alameda, the city’s central road. About 10:50am tensions broke and the protestors and police began to clash. The police launched an assault on the crowd, using teargas, water cannons, and clubs to keep protestors from advancing toward the center. In the resulting mayhem Senator Navarro was clubbed by police officers and carried off by the assembled legislators. Later interviews showed them covered in blood from the head wound received by Navarro.

This description stands in sharp contrast to the international press reports on the current state of Chile. Recent reports in the NY Times highlight the 6.1 percent growth rate in the second quarter and a recent by-line in The Economist states that “A country that pioneered reform comes close to abolishing poverty.” If this is true, why the protests?

Tuesday’s demonstrators called for macro-economic reform, higher pensions, better education, public transportation and improved health and housing services. So, while economic indicators point to improving financial conditions, why do so many Chileans remain skeptical about the values of the market reforms adopted in the 1980s?

One answer is that the average Chilean, while measurably better off today than in the early 1970s still remains relatively poor compared to other more prosperous countries they watch on TV every day. The Chilean protests seen throughout the entire Bachelet presidency reflect the impatience many left of center citizens feel with the slow pace of social progress in their country.

With the increase in higher-education enrollment, more young professionals are joining the workforce in a market largely controlled by a small group of national holding companies. The lack of market access for small and mid-size entrepreneurs contributes to the overall public discontent expressed in Tuesday’s march and helps explain why many Chileans are unhappy with the economic miracle that everyone thinks their country represents.

Finally, there is the question of the massive windfalls from the high price of copper. Chile is the world’s leading producer of copper and most is produced by the state—owned mining company CODELCO. The disagreement over how much to spend and save within the governing party has strained relations within the administration and led to much national soul-searching. While finance minister Andres Velasco conservative management of the nation’s savings is certainly preferable to irresponsible spending, many wonder why the government is not investing more money in education, healthcare reform and poverty reduction.

One solution might be to provide Chileans with more information about the government’s policy rationale. If their programs really are the wisest course for the nation the people ought to appreciate that fact if public officials would just take the time to explain in detail why they have chosen the course they are currently on.