Greetings from Chile

This was the view from my hotel room window in Antofagasta, Chile this morning:

I shared this on Facebook this morning, but this version is much better

It was a work slowdown by truckers, and also a parade for solidarity with the protests going on around Chile. It spent about 15 minutes driving past, then continued around the city for about an hour. Everything was and continues to be calm, and it appears that people are now going on with their day as normal.

Map of Chile
It’s a

First things first, a message for family and friends: don’t worry, seriously. I’m here with some awesome colleagues to represent SDSS at the Sharing One Sky meeting, which ended yesterday, and was AMAZING (more on that later). While you may have seen on the news that here have been some clashes between police and protestors, those have been entirely in Santiago 900 miles south of here (about the same distance as from Baltimore to Orlando). Everything is calm here in Antofagasta. Even if clashes happen here, which they won’t, I’ll be safe in the hotel. I appreciate your concern, and I’ll still be flying home tomorrow as scheduled.

Second things second, keep in mind that while I always try to stay informed about world events, I’m still a foreigner, and I still don’t have a perfect understanding of WTF I’m talking about. Everything I say here is my own reading of the situation, and all opinions are my own.

So what’s going on here? First, some context. Chile is a moderately wealthy country with some major advantages – it’s the best place in the world to do astronomy (which is the reason I’m here), and they are by far the world’s largest producer of copper. Chile has the world’s 40th largest economy (GDP US$298 million), despite having fewer people than Florida (Chile: 18 million, Florida: 21 million).

The problem is that the wealth is spread very unequally. Demographers measure wealth inequality by a measure called the Gini coefficient percentage, which varies between 0% and 100%. If a country is desperately poor, the Gini coefficient is low, because no one has very much in the first place. If a country has a successful social democracy, the Gini coefficient is fairly low, because everyone shares the wealth. If a country has a few rich people and many poor people, the Gini coefficient is high. Chile’s is 50.5%, fifteenth in the world – higher than some famously unequal countries like Brazil (49.0%), Mexico (47.1%), and China (46.5%).footnote

It doesn’t help that Chile has a history of repression and murder during the iron fist of dictator Augusto Pinochet from 1973 to 1990. And although the country has had free elections and a positive human rights record ever since, a history of such large-scale trauma to so many is difficult to emerge from.

The proximate cause of this year’s protests was raising the cost of peak travel (commuting to and from work) on the Santiago metro system from 800 Chilean pesos to 830 Chilean pesos (official announcement, in Spanish). The fact that a cost increase that converts to four U.S. cents has triggered widespread protests should give you an idea of the desperate straits that poor Chileans find themselves in.

Protests began on October 7th when high school students began a loosely organized campaign to avoid paying by jumping fare gates all over the metro system. The metro authority asked police to post at some stations to monitor and enforce fare paying. On October 14th, clashes between police and protestors resulted in three stations closing (news coverage, in Spanish – and yes, one of the closed stations is called Cumming, write your own jokes). Violence escalated from there, and eventually 80 of the metro’s 136 stations were damaged, with 17 being literally burned down. Nineteen people have died, and more than 2,000 have been arrested. On Friday, October 25th, more than 1.2 million people joined a massive protest in Santiago – 7% of the entire population of the country.

The focus of much of the anger has been President Sebastián Piñera. Here’s a photo I took earlier near my hotel, on a wall near the local theater. I don’t know what all these words mean, but I think I can guess what the graffiti artist thinks of the President:

Graffiti spray-painted in red on a wall: "Piñera chupala que cuelga"
I looked it up, this is a popular and quite offensive Chilean insult. “Chupa” means “to suck,” and you can probably figure out the rest from context.

So what’s next for Chile? The good news is that Piñera seems to be taking the protests seriously – he fired eight members of his cabinet, including Interior Minister Andres Chadwick, who had been a vocal supporter of Pinochet as a university student in the late 1980s. But the protests will likely continue, at least intermittently, until Chile addresses the underlying problems that led to the protests.

I still believe in the power of democracy, and I still believe in this wonderful country. Chileans love displaying their flag almost as much as Americans do – as they should, it’s an awesome flag. So I leave you with the flag, and ¡Que Viva Chile!

The Chilean flag flying proudly over Antofagasta

Footnote on Gini Coefficients

Footnote: here is the full list of countries by Gini coefficient, from the CIA World Factbook. It can be tempting to say that 0% means “totally equal” and 100% means “totally unequal” and put all other values on the same scale, but that’s not really how it works. Gini coefficients make sense only in comparison to other countries. For comparison:

  • Sweden’s is 24.9%, one of the lowest in the world
  • Ethiopia’s is 33.0%
  • The highest in western Europe is Spain with 35.9%, 92nd highest out of 157 countries reported
  • The United States is 45.0%, the 39th highest
  • The two highest Gini Coefficients are South Africa (62.5%) and Lesotho (63.2%)

Extra footnote for nerds: the Gini Coefficient is calculated and usually reported as between 0 and 1, the CIA and I just multiplied that by 100 for convenience. The math is pretty interesting, I might do a full post about it sometime if you’re interested.

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