Commemorating Chile’s Social Explosion and Its Origins in Public Transport

By Maxwell Woods

Today, 18 October 2020, Chile celebrates the one-year anniversary of what has come to be known as the Chilean social explosion [estallido social]. A bottom-up challenge to the foundations of the Chilean political, social, and economic landscape, the ‘social explosion’ is the name given to the five months of political mobilizations by citizens and residents in the streets across the country during late 2019 and early 2020. Brought to a premature close due to the COVID-19 pandemic on 18 March 2020, the unrest has nonetheless continued with occasional protests still occurring under quarantine.

Protest in Santiago, Chile on 25 October 2019.
Photo by Marcelo Hernandez

The social explosion has in large part, though not exclusively, been a response to the economic inequality resulting from the neoliberalization of the country starting in the 1970s. As Andrew Richner and Abigail Gutmann-Gonzalez wrote in October 2019, the protests were “fed by dissatisfaction with thirty-plus years of…neoliberal consensus.” As they summarize, “Chilean society is deeply divided between the rich and poor. Income inequality is worse in Chile than in any other OECD nation. Meanwhile, public services ranging from the pension system to water remain privatized.”

To demonstrate this thesis, a series of ‘major’ appeals by protestors are usually listed off: a rise in the minimum wage, a new constitution, a new pension system, universal health care, and so on. This popular narrative quickly mentions and then subsequently dismisses as a ‘minor’ demand the origin of the social explosion: the protests began when high-school students organized massive fare evasions in early October in response to a subway-fare raise. According to many popular narratives, these protests were the spark that lit the larger fire of social unrest and therefore form merely the ‘prehistory’ or the ‘lead up to’ the social explosion rather than being a substantial element of the movement. Indeed, the start of the social explosion is usually dated on 18 October 2019—the first day that Chilean president, Sebastian Piñera, announced a state of emergency in Santiago—even though the fare evasion protests had started more than a week earlier.

Students evading metro fares in Santiago, Chile.

It should be unsurprising, however, that the subway became a central point of contention regarding anti-neoliberal discontent given that, as Sebastián Ureta shows in his book, Assembling Policy: Transantiago, Human Devices, and the Dream of a World-Class Society, the Santiago public transport system functions on a “growth with equity” model that does not allow “the government [to] directly provide any kind of surface public transport service” or to “set any kind of temporary or permanent subsidy, so perforce [the system has] to be autonomous in the long run. In practice this [means] that the business model [has] to enact a financially self-contained system, a system whose revenues covered, at least, all its cost” (80). Barbara Schmucki’s note that early twentieth-century tramways were “neither fully public nor wholly private” (60) seems to apply just as well to this postmillennial neoliberalized subway system. Given that its financial structure is a direct consequence of neoliberalism and negatively affects especially the lower and lower-middle classes of Chile, it should almost be expected that Santiago’s privatized ‘public’ transport system was the first target of the social explosion.

Subway ticket office on fire during a protest in October 2019 in Santiago, Chile.
Photo by Ramon Monroy, Reuters

The first steps of the social explosion therefore represent the transformation of this “neither fully public nor wholly private” transport network into a public space of insurrection. High-school students hopping turnstiles, destroying fare-collecting devices, opening exit doors for people to pass through without paying, holding open traincar doors so that evaders could escape the clutches of repressive police forces, and so on all point to how in the early weeks of October 2019 public transport was being used as a public space. Moreover, the very insistence on the publicness of public transport speaks to the social explosion’s broader rejection of the privatization of public works under neoliberal policy; the very act of the fare evasion was already the first step in the formation of a collective consciousness beyond the hegemonic neoliberal logic of the Chilean socio-political landscape.

In some way, this dismissal of the fare evasion protests as merely the spark that lit the social explosion is not uncommon. As another PUTSPACE visiting fellow, Laura Kemmer, notes, such use of public transport as a public space of insurrection dates back to the early twentieth century in Brazil; and PUTSPACE team member, Tonio Weicker, has similarly argued that marshrutka transport networks in Rostov on Don and Volgograd are another example of the use of public transport as a public space of protest. As these examples demonstrate, there is a tendency to see public transport protests as pre-political movements that lead to ‘proper’ forms of protest in ‘true’ public spaces like the plaza rather than themselves having already accomplished that task. The fare evasion protest, alongside these other protest forms found in public transport as identified by Kemmer and Weicker, require a reconfiguration of our understandings of insurgency, public transport, and public space.