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  • Writer's pictureAmy Erica Smith

Will Chile's Protests Turn Out Like Brazil's? Not Necessarily.

Hint: The reason rhymes with “smarties.”

By Amy Erica Smith

Chileans protest in the Plaza Baquedano in Santiago. / Source: Carlos Figueroa

Observers of Latin America fear they may have seen the “Ghost of Brazil Past” in the protests occupying the streets of Santiago, Chile over the past few weeks.

In June 2013, Brazil exploded in protests across many major cities. Initially triggered by a transit fare hike in São Paulo, what Brazilians have come to call the “June Protests” marked the start of a multi-year, countrywide wave of protest against elite corruption and poor economic performance. The wave crested in the months leading up to President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016, and likely contributed to the victory of far-rightist President Jair Bolsonaro in October 2018.

Recent events in Chile—historically considered one of the stablest and strongest democracies in Latin America—have seemed to echo this pattern. In the past few weeks, protests against a small hike in transit prices in Santiago triggered a countrywide wave of instability. We have seen the burning of buses, widespread repression, various deaths and hundreds of injuries and arrests, the resignation of government ministers, and day after day of massive protests that have brought over a million people into the streets of a country with just 18 million residents.

What does the future hold for Chile? Are the past six years in Brazil a harbinger of political instability to come in Chile?

Only partially, I suspect. The path out of the Chile’s crisis is yet unmapped, and it will certainly be rocky. But it is likely to look quite a bit different from the path leaders forged in Brazil. The reason—not surprisingly, for regular readers of Mischiefs of Faction—has to do with political parties.

But first, how did we get here? The sources of the instability in Chile and Brazil share obvious parallels—parallels also found in the Ecuadorian protests in recent weeks.

Excellent recent articles by Jenny Pribble, Patricio Navia, and Moisés Naím and Brian Winter trace the tangled roots of Chile’s troubles. Those roots include economic stagnation and extremely high inequality—but, more importantly, failures by president after president to redress those problems and to help lift the middle and working classes into more dignified lives.

It is telling that transit price hikes triggered protests in Chile 2019 and Brazil 2013, and that fuel price hikes sparked unrest in Ecuador 2019 and Brazil 2018. When public policy suddenly makes it a lot harder for ordinary people—people already struggling to make ends meet—to get to school and work and run their businesses, protest is an obvious response across Latin America. In this respect, the complaints of Chileans, Brazilians, and Ecuadorians all look similar.

But the partisan environment in Chile today is very, very different from the partisan environment in Brazil at the beginning of its wave of protest. Most obviously, Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera is a center-rightist. In Brazil, President Dilma Rousseff (the incumbent during the June 2013 protests) was a center-leftist.

But there’s more: Brazil’s Rousseff was from the Workers’ Party (PT), which had been in power for eleven years by June 2013. Furthermore, the PT was the only party with an important level of identification in the country. In Chile, by contrast, no party has high levels of party identification in the electorate, and Sebastián Piñera has been alternating in power with the center-leftist Michelle Bachelet since 2006.

In Brazil, the partisan configuration of power made the PT singularly vulnerable. The party was uniquely responsible in the public imagination for poor performance, economic stagnation, and corruption. And because there was no single prominent party on the right to blame, citizen wrath largely focused on the left. As a result, a new, loose coalition of rapidly growing grassroots rightist movements was able to turn citizens’ disappointment with the government into a potent weapon in a partisan battle against the PT and the left more broadly. This helps explain both the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff and the rise of Jair Bolsonaro.

There is no reason to expect a similar pattern of blame and partisan maneuvering in Chile. The fact that Piñera is on the right will lead many citizens upset with his performance to look for alternatives on the left. Yet it is not clear what they will find when they go looking.

Leftist establishment politics may not provide very exciting alternatives. Michelle Bachelet, who held the presidency from 2006 to 2010 and again from 2014 to 2018, is now the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, based in Switzerland. In an alternative universe in which she were a very, very different kind of politician, she might have used her position to strengthen her partisan base in Chile by pursuing Piñera for human rights violations—yet there is no indication from her past that she might pursue such a partisan strategy. More broadly, her ideologically diverse coalition of leftist and centrist parties has been associated with many of the policy failures citizens are now protesting.

Which leaves the possibility of a new populist left. I am not a country expert on Chilean politics. New, leftist populist movements of which I am unaware might be rising in the wings as I write to contest Piñera’s power, but to date Chile’s protests have been distinctive for their apparent leaderlessness.

Rightist populist movements might also seek a political opening. However, the current partisan configuration, Chile’s history of dictatorship, and the prominence of pro-democracy leftist leaders in the imaginary of the current protest movement will all make organizing harder for populist rightist movements.

The lack of prominent leaders to steer the new movement gives Piñera space to try to reassert his leadership at the helm of the ship. In recent days, Piñera has been talking about a “new social contract.” Brian Winter and Moisés Naím urge a new, broad-based coalition of citizens, civil society movements, and political leaders to address the most urgent policy challenges facing the country. Organizing such a coalition in the current partisan context, and given very low presidential approval, would be hard. Still, Piñera is fortunate to have some breathing room to try.


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