Not that misery loves company, but if you pay attention to news from overseas, you’ll see that some of the problems that plague American society today are making people miserable in other parts of the world too. Communications specialist Larry Checco of Silver Spring, Maryland, saw this firsthand on a recent business trip to South America and in this Boomer Opinion piece can only say, It Can Also Happen Here.
Not exactly what an aging boomer signed up for, but…
As we hurriedly skirted the burned-out buses, the looted shops, the rubble burning in the streets, the protesters rhythmically beating on pots and pans, and as we got a whiff of stale tear gas still lingering in the air from the night before in Santiago, Chile, it occurred to me that this could happen in my country— the United States of America— as well.
We, members of a training team, arrived in Santiago a day before the unrest began, to conduct workshops for influential NGO and private sector leaders on self-governance. No one expected the riots. Two weeks later we were invited to help these same leaders come up with a plan to help stabilize their government and make positive changes to their society.
Ostensibly triggered by an additional four-cent rise in the price of a subway ride, the rioting in Chile is actually the result of 30 years of depressed wages, increases in the prices of basic goods and services, inadequate pensions, and lack of access to quality health care, education and affordable housing. And much of this is related to wealth and income inequality in a country touted as the most prosperous in Latin America.
How unequal is it? More than 40-percent of Chile’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of just 10-percent of the population.
Chileans are not alone in their quest for a more fair and equitable society. There is unrest across Latin America— Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Haiti, Guatemala, Ecuador, Columbia, Honduras, Mexico, and elsewhere— as well as in Africa, Asia, Europe, and yes, even the United States. Much of this is due to what many on the lower end of the spectrum consider unfair tax and fiscal policies, heavy-handed governments, and institutionalized corruption.
The lesson to governments everywhere should be this: You can only squeeze people so long and so hard before they act out. But although Chile might be on the extreme, few governments seem to be listening.
Instead of giving his people a legitimate voice to air their grievances and making the changes necessary to improve their lives, Chile’s billionaire Harvard-educated president, Sebastian Pinera, did just the opposite.
He declared a state of emergency, unleashing the army with its tanks and water cannons, which took to the streets only to exacerbate an already inflamed situation. He imposed curfews, which only brought more people out to protest.
Within a week at least 20 people died in the riots, hundreds more were injured, and more than 2,000 detained (and the counts have gone even higher now.) Allegations of abuse against detainees has only made things worse.
Chileans are in shock.
“The people of Chile have not seen this display of public force since the days of Augusto Pinochet,” one NGO leader told us. “We thought we were beyond this. But we see this crisis as an opportunity to peacefully make the changes our country needs.”
After overthrowing the democratically-elected president Salvador Allende in 1973, Pinochet, then an army officer, ruled Chile ruthlessly until 1990. His years in power were marked by inflation, poverty, and the ruthless repression— including torture— of anyone who opposed him.
The current president, Pinera, perhaps reflecting on history, has since reversed the subway fare increase that sparked the unrest. He also has eliminated a hike in electricity charges, boosted minimum wages and pension benefits, raised taxes on the wealthy, and reshuffled his cabinet, according to the Washington Post.
Yet the protests continue. Many Chileans want nothing less than a new constitution and the ouster of this president.
In the meantime, the damage to public infrastructure from the rioting so far is estimated at more than $1 billion.
Also, as a result of the rioting, Pinera cancelled two major international conferences Chile was scheduled to host this month, one having to do with climate, the other with trade, which would have brought in millions of dollars.
But these riots aren’t only about money. They’re about dignity and respect for all people, regardless of their class in society. They’re about offering people opportunities to get ahead so they can see a better future for themselves and their children.
They’re about wanting peace and prosperity for all. I hope our U.S. politicians are paying attention.
© Larry Checco 2019