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ChilE. Living and dying during a pandemic and a "progressive" neoliberalism

July 2, 2020


by Franck Gaudichaud, Professor in Latin American history and civilisation at the Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès (FRAMESPA). Published in the Institut des Amériques collection.



"At a time when thousands of families were unable to say goodbye to their loved ones, it's difficult watching the country's supreme authority abuse the protocoles yet again".


On Monday, June 22, 2020, the Chilean congresswoman Claudia MIx, member of the Frente Amplio (left-wing), has not calmed down. She repeats the images that are going around in a loop on social media. One can see the President Sebastián Piñera participating at his uncle Bernardino Piñera's funeral, with his wife Cecilia Morel and close family members, but also priests, the ex-minister Andrés Chadwick, photographers, musicians, as well as the funeral parlor personnel. Not only exceeding the number of authorized people, the chief executive goes further in his breach of the health measures: even though the old archbiship of La Serena died of Covid-19, he can be seen leaning into the casket, opened for him, in order to contemplate the deceased. The deceased was however placed behind glass.

Source: CNN Twitter account (June 22, 2020)
Source: CNN Twitter account (June 22, 2020)

Because of the controversy, broadcasted by traditional media, the Health Undersecretary Paula Daz was immediately charged with lighting counter fires, stating that the Health Minister's protocole was strickly enforced: "I give you my word 100%, the glass [of the casket] was sealed". A statement that was widely disbelieved by journalists, forcing the new Health Minister, Enrique Paris, to give further explanations on the TV channels, Chilevisión and CNN, not convincing either. But it's the President himself who sparked large sectors of the population's indignation a little more. Summoning a press conference the day after the funeral, which most of the observers thought would help end this contentious episode, M. Piñera skillfully avoided the topic. Rather than attempting to apologize for this "VIP funeral", he preferred to openly criticize Congress and especially the bill proposals he considers "unconstitutional" and that his administration is trying to stop by any means possible (the presidential majority controls the lower house, but not the Senate). Implicitely, it's certain "emergency" bill proposals that are being targeted by the President, of which the inability to cut basic services (water, electricity) during the pandemic, even if unpaid, and also the extension of maternity leave until the end of the state of exception decreed for health reasons. Laws that had been requested for weeks by many social players and, finally, defended by the opposition groups. The top representative, while lecturing the members of parliament, reminded them that "in a legally constituted state, we must all abide by the law, it is the same for all" and also that "[we], the authorities are here to give the example". Bam! These statements were seen as a renewed affront, not only by several congressmen who shared it in the media, but especially by many Chileans.



According to the polls, the approval rating of the President has been under 14% for several months. It had even gone under 10% at the end of 2019. A historically low rate. At a very difficult time for the country, the striking disconnect - and its perception by the population - between, on the one hand, the government, the institutions, the main parties and, on the other, the large majority of the citizens and the working classes, is at the core of the defiance that has settled in. On top of this, the coronavirus arrival has exposed, as in other latitudes, the tensions and the injustices of the "Chilean model". Since the first case was reported on March 3rd, 2020, the health personnel has considered the Health Minister Jaime Mañalich's management of the crisis disastrous. So, the president of the Medical College, Izkia Siches, has been on the forefront in national politics. She has proclaimed many times the lack of a strict quarantine, regretted the lack of inclusion of health professionals in elaborating a plan good enough to slow the spread and has unceasingly highlighted a hospital infrastructure that is unprepared, widely privatized and strongly segmented at the social level. 

Source : Twitter du Collège des médecins du Chili – COLMED (chiffres du ministère de la santé), 29 juin 2020
Source : Twitter du Collège des médecins du Chili – COLMED (chiffres du ministère de la santé), 29 juin 2020

Because of the wave of criticisms, the Health Minister was pushed out, mid-June, by  Sebastián Piñera. Jaime Mañalich had previously publicly admitted his dismay at the "magnitude of poverty" in certain areas of Chile, which he hadn't until now "been aware of"...In fact, the health system, which had been presented by the same minister as "one of the safest in the world", is today completely overwhelmed by the extent of the pandemic: on June 29, 2020, there were officially over 5500 deaths (some specialists say more likely 5700 deaths) and about 276,000 cases. With a population of about 18 million, Chile is in the front of the pack in terms of Covid 19 mortality rate in Latin America, with Brazil.


It must be said that the fall of the legitimacy of the Chilean political system goes way back. It is in no way specific to the presidential person and cannot be reduced to simple "communication problems". For over 10 years, there are a multitude of publications warning of the "Chilean angst" and on the "neoliberal model" crisis of the Andean country. We know how Chile was one of the first countries to establish neoliberalism in the world, driven by the Chicago Boys during General Pinochet's dictatorship[1]. Since the 80s, the country is also lifted up as the champion in all categories of modernity in Latin America by the people whom committed historians such as Sergioj Grez define today as a "caste" (economic, political, media). Indeed, reports substantiate, day after day, a completely different reality: among the most regressive distribution of revenues in the continent, a "competitive" individualism absent of moral standards and a factor of many psycho-social problems, an institutional architecture inherited to a great extent by the dictatorship, untenable family debt levels, an ecological impact from the extractivist matrix that keeps growing, etc. In other words, "the oasis" President  Piñera boasted about a few days before the October 2019 social explosion was in fact a real powder keg[2]. These "cracks" in chilensis neoliberalism, sometimes named "progressive neoliberalism or "mature", have gotten wider and wider these past few years[3], leading to the inauguration of a cycle of social conflicts unheard of since the post-authoritarian transition of 1990.

"Artivism" on the walls of Santiago, January 2020, author: Paloma Rodriguez – (Photo credit: Franck Gaudichaud)
"Artivism" on the walls of Santiago, January 2020, author: Paloma Rodriguez – (Photo credit: Franck Gaudichaud)

Despite the magnitude of the repression and police violence (condemned by a number of human right groups[4]), the protest is still burning under the ashes of the pandemic. For sure, the virus stopped it, but certainly only temporarily: in the past few weeks, it's hunger strikes that have been moving about the poor sectors of the capital, such as at La Pintana and El Bosque: on improvised barricades, the despair of families that didn't have enough to "cook a pot", unable to go to work, intermingled with a societal anger that had been growing for several months. While the economic depression is only beginning, entrepreneurial pressures to restart activites no matter what, the absence of a social protection system that could provide minimum "security" in life trajectories, the widespread informal work and the choice of the government to throw the "responsability on the individual", are all ticking time bombs. In this situation, protests against the "insecurity of life" put forward by the powerful feminist movement and the Coordinadora 8 de marzo are finding allies in wide levels of society. The administration is hoping the spread will be under control by August so that the October 25 referendum (already pushed once) can take place, in order to begin the constitutional process that would enable them to announce that the 1980 Constitution page has - finally - been turned (though many doubt it). A reminder that the foundational base of the carta magna that regulates the Chilean institutions is still the one that was enacted during the military regime, after the disappointed hopes of the transition to democracy of 1989-1990. And though there have been debates since then on the need for a constituent assemby, only the power of the recent protests have been helpful in forcing the government to promise a referendum, dealing with political personnel favorable to a "consensus democracy" and alliances between elites.


Thanks to this future electoral deadline, M. Piñera's strategy has been to channel some of the opposition's criticisms, while preparing his majority for the first round of presidential elections, planned immediately after the referendum in November 2021. It's really about finding an institutional exit that would "pacify the streets" and shatter the impressive radical and massive social movement. The political right-wing is divided though on how to approach this next period, and it's also true for the parlementary opposition (from Christian-Democrat to the Communist Party, with the Broad Front and the Socialist Party in between). Following Antonio Gramsci's writings (used a lot in theses times of global uncertainty), some observers put forward that the Chilean model seemed to be having a "hegemoneous crisis", others saw a "collapse", which would have infected all social spheres[6]. We think this diagnostic - though providing solid arguments - is quite exagerated at this stage. We know that the famous Chilean "model" still has a number of resources, adepts and adjustment capabilities. But the social-political polarizations are quite in motion and the future "constitutional convention", if it takes place, will not alone be able to seal the numerous gaping holes that are surfacing. 50 years after the election of Salvador Allende and three decades after the end of the dictatorship, Chile is boiling again. However, none of the current political forces seem able to carry a clear and coherent alternative project. And that is one of the prevailing problems, as much for the current administration (and its allies) than for those who have claimed the event a "post-neoliberal democratization", as expressed by some of the protestors since last October.

[1] Manuel Gárate, La revolución capitalista de Chile (1973-2003), Santiago, Ediciones Universidad Alberto Hurtado, 2012.

[2] Cf. PNUD, Informe Desarrollo Humano en Chile. “Los tiempos de la politización, Santiago, PNUD, 2015.

[3] Franck Gaudichaud, Las fisuras del neoliberalismo maduro chileno, Buenos Aires, CLACSO, 2015.

[4] Read for example the 2019 Amnesty International report.

[5] For more reading on the "October rebellion" and its consequences, you can read the IdeAs special Journal: "Le Chili s’est réveillé… et après?" (coord. Damien Larrouqué), March 2020.

[6] Alberto Mayol, Big bang. Estallido social 2019. Modelo derrumbado – sociedad rota – política inútil, Santiago, Editorial Catalonia, 2019.

Franck Gaudichaud is a doctoral student in Political Science and a Professor in Latin American History and Civilization at the Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès (FRAMESPA). He is a specialist on Chile and contemporary Latin America. He has published in the Institut des Amériques collection "Des Amériques", PUR: Chile 1970-1973, Mille jours qui ébranlèrent le monde. His latest work is an essay co-written with Massimo Modonesi and Jefferey Webber: Fin de partie. Les gouvernements progressistes dans l’impasse (1998-2019) (Syllepse, 2020). On this same topic, he will publish in January 2021, with PUR, a collective book coordinated by the political scientist Thomas Posado: Gouvernements progressistes en Amérique latine (1998-2018). La fin d’un âge d’or.