29 October 2019
Why have the Chileans taken to the streets?
Chile has been a model for many Latin American countries. After 17 years of a cruel dictatorship, the Chilean political elite developed a democratic process that lowered poverty rates, consolidated economic growth and modernized urban infrastructure. However, during democratization the so-called ‘Miracle of Chile‘ (Milton Friedman’s conceptualization of the economic policies implemented in Chile by the dictatorship) did not substantially change the levels of economic and political concentration of power.
Chile’s urban population has grown steadily since the 1980s. In fact, urban growth was a key element of the so-called “miracle”. Chilean cities were the main beneficiaries of economic stability and sustained public policies. However, spatial segregation became a mark of the process that in turn brought about social tension. As mentioned by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and Development (OECD), “public support for housing markers and the tendency towards home ownership has produced urban sprawl, disconnected communities and reduced mobility, which not only makes it hard to reduce inequality, but also hurts labour markets in more dynamic urban areas”.
Segregation has multiples faces. Poor communities located on the outskirts of main cities, such as Santiago, have higher poverty rates and insecurity levels along with lesser public and private infrastructure and public spaces. Transportation is the second housing expenditure as the Family Budget Survey showed, surpassed only by food. Transportation involves long hours moving across highly segregated communities, which creates constant grievances for the local population and daily commuters.
“Police presence is highly concentrated in areas that are more affluent in socioeconomic terms and policing strategies are more reactive and violent in poorer communities. “
The latest data on victimization from 2019 showed that 39% of households in the higher socioeconomic levels had at least one member who was assaulted or targeted for assault, while in the lower socioeconomic distribution the figure reached 42%. Most notably, for those same socioeconomic groups, the number of people who claimed to have a high fear of crime was 14% and 25% respectively. But insecurity is built out of many situations that go beyond crime, for instance the percentage of people who constantly heard gun shots in their neighborhood ranged from 46% of those residing in San Bernardo, to 8% in Santiago city and 0% in Vitacura. In less than 25 kilometers, the reality of every day life changes almost entirely from poor to upper class communities.
Police presence varies too, depending on spatial segregation. In fact, police presence is highly concentrated in areas that are more affluent in socioeconomic terms and policing strategies are more reactive and violent in poorer communities. Paradoxically, the police are not deployed in areas that need security the most and every day practices have impacted on lower levels of trust.
“The development of the Chilean “miracle”, far from consolidating a cohesive society, has built two profoundly different realities.”
Can any of these elements explain the urban riots that Chile has been facing since last week? Normalization of inequality, limited expectations of well-being, non-empathetic political elites and a general sense of abuse are elements that arise from segregation and fragmentation. After almost four decades, the “miracle” has built two countries that see each other with suspicion and contempt. The development of the Chilean “miracle”, far from consolidating a cohesive society, has built two profoundly different realities. In practice, two countries live together and face an increasing gap between them. In fact, most people in Chile feel that their life remains precarious and vulnerable and incrementally mistreated by a small economic and political elite.
Last week, Chile saw a younger generation frustrated and furious with the abuses it has been suffering at multiple levels. In some cases, violence has been witnessed at subways stations, perhaps because the spark that initiated the recent social unrest was due to the increasing cost of subway tickets. We will never be certain of the explanation for such actions, but there is ample evidence that spatial segregation, ghettoization and social fragmentation are elements of a divisive city. Elements that in the end advance the construction of a two-faced country that will continue to be haunted by violence and social unrest in the years to come.
Dr Lucia Dammert is an Associate Professor at the Universidad de Santiago de Chile and a Global Fellow at Wilson Centre’s Latin American Program. Her research interests include public security, organized crime, and governance in Latin America. You can follow her on Twitter @LuciaDammert.