Chile in the Streets

SANTIAGO – Almost everywhere I have traveled in recent months, I have been asked the same question: Why are Chile’s students and their families protesting?

It is a good question. Chile is one of South America’s most advanced and, until now, most stable countries. But, over the past 20 years, its people have achieved a mature political sensibility; they demand new rights and refuse to accept the restrictions lingering from the country’s recent undemocratic past. As a result, one of the region’s most prosperous countries has now become a less harmonious one.

Between 1990, when democracy was restored, and 2010, Chile experienced rapid economic growth, more than tripling its per capita income and making it possible to reduce poverty with targeted, highly efficient policies. In 1990, 40% of Chileans were living below the poverty line. By 2000, that share had fallen to 22%, and, by 2010, to 11%, with little more than 3% living in outright destitution.

Today’s Chile is very different from the Chile of 20 years ago. The 29% of the population that have left poverty behind are now an incipient middle class with new ambitions and goals.