Chile rising and the fight for true inclusive democracy

Demonstration in Santiago de Chile. Photo by Susana Hidalgo on Instagram (@su_hidalgo).

For those who don’t grasp what’s going on in Chile, a few notes. 

Chile was one of the first “laboratories” of new-liberalism in the world. Most policies heralded by the “Chicago School” were implemented there first. For those not familiar with the “Chicago School”, “Investopedia” defines this school as: “…a neoclassical economic school of thought that originated at the University of Chicago in the 1930s. The main tenets of the Chicago School are that free markets best allocate resources in an economy and that minimal, or even no, government intervention is best for economic prosperity”. This is what came to be known as “neo-liberalism”.

In Chile, a group of economists known as “The Chicago Boys”, because they were trained there (and at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, which has an exchange programme with Chicago), were able to attain high positions in Pinochet’s dictatorship government, creating one of the most “business friendly” countries in the world, at the expense of much unemployment. massive privatisation of pubic assets and pensions, and marked rise in inequality. 

Pinochet’s dictatorship was one of the bloodiest dictatorships in Latin America, infamous for its brutality, disregard for human rights, disappearances and cultural repression. 

After Pinochet, under the terms of redemocratization in Chile, no real reform was implemented, but an agreement was reached between the governing and economic elites, American big investors and other sectors of the Chilean society. A “limited democracy” was created, in which elections happen, and institutions may operate with a certain degree of independence, but old structures of oppression and exclusion persist.

This kind of “watered down” redemocratization is common in Latin America and what it means is that a limited kind of democracy is created, some progress is made to appease progressives and social movements and demobilise them, but oppression of a large part of the population continues. 

So, to be clear: this limited form of democracy works only for a part of the population, while a large part of citizens remain unable to exercise their civil rights and access the fruits of prosperity .They are allowed to vote, as universal voting rights is a mark of modern democracies, but several institutional, legal, cultural and other mechanisms are used to disenfranchise them. Take for example blacks in the United States: they are the victims of systematic state violence, massive incarceration, voting disenfranchisement, structural poverty, poor-quality education, and other means to keep them excluded of structures of citizenship. A great article about this process is “Redemocratization in Chile” by Garreton Merino, available here:

This limited form of democracy was also attempted in Brazil, but there the Worker’s Party unexpected success and business friendly attitude meant that it was allowed to carry out limited social reform and democracy started to be “enlarged” to include all citizens (as a true democracy should ), including them in structures of citizenship and civil rights. By structures of citizenship I mean for example access to good quality education and health services. But there is much more to this. In summary, democracy is much more than the right to vote in elections, although universal voting might bring unexpected challenges to the new-liberal project. 

This project of democratic enlargement is deeply upsetting to the neo-liberal project, and to the elites who benefit from that limited form of democracy. The Brazilian experience was quashed through the election of someone very similar to Pinochet himself, Bolsonaro. Let me just remind you that Bolsonaro was elected on an “anti-communist”, anti-Worker’s Party, platform, through the manipulation of the media, and especially of social media, through instruments such as Whatsapp and Facebook sewing an extraordinary amount of fake news.

So, Chile, Ecuador, Argentina and other countries in Latin America are rebelling against this form of democracy. They are saying “this doesn’t work”. Chileans are protesting against inequality and exclusion, and against neoliberalism. The continent is rising, and maybe we are heading towards true democracy, but it is very difficult to predict what is going to happen now. The forces supporting neo-liberalism and that limited form of “controlled” democracy are very very powerful. They won’t allow Latin America to truly democratize, because the continent is like a “reserve” of resources, cheap labour and obedient consumers. Moreover, a lot of well-off Latin Americans believe in this neo-liberal project as a matter of “religion”.

And talking about religion, the new Evangelical churches that have become so popular in Latin America provide the (pseudo) spiritual/ (pseudo) ethical fundament for neo-liberalism. Their belief system is built around justifying the neo-liberal way of thinking though celebration of material success, monetary achievement and the so-called “meritocracy”. Evangelicals are much more likely to accept and embrace the neo-liberal ideology. This is what’s happening in the United States as well. So, what ensues is a huge battle between progressive sectors of society who want to expand and deepen the democratic project, and the ones who benefit and believe in the neo-liberal project of “limited democracy”, exclusion, inequality, oppression and never ending consumption of the world’s resources and spaces.

The take-away from my text is: Neo-liberalism and true democracy are incompatible. This is because Neo-liberalism presupposes very small or no governments, and a total supremacy of the market. But democracy relies on justice and the market does not work for everyone.



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