Does Democracy Matter in Chile?

So maybe as you’re coming to realize, this blog is evolving (devolving?) into somewhat of a thought-log for me. I’m going to try to keep you all updated with stories and photos of my time spent here, but I’m also really liking this page for just thinking out-loud and hoping somebody somewhere might eventually read it.


I’m about halfway through Cornell West’s Democracy Matters (a title that’s meant to serve as an adjective followed by a noun rather than as a noun and a verb as I’ve used in this post’s title, but that’s neither really here nor there). I was finishing up a chapter on the oxymoronic composition of contemporary American imperialism and a simultaneous growing American national nihilism while I was waiting in the line at the PDI (Chile’s equivalent of the DMV, but maybe worse?) today and it got me thinking about the political culture I’ve observed so far in this country.


Chile, of course, was a Spanish colony for centuries before it was its own sovereign state. Interestingly, however, it was one of the more neglected colonies by the empire: without any great deal of lucrative gold and incredibly isolated by an enormous mountain range and a vast, arid desert to its north, Chile was of little use to the Spanish colonists. Consequently, the Mapuche and other people native to the area as well as the few Europeans who immigrated and never left Chile developed a culture relatively independent of the other, more prosperous colonized states like Mexico, Colombia, or Peru. Even now Chile has, again comparatively to its other Latin American neighbors, a distinct lexical dynamic, a unique set of mannerisms, and a particular gastronomic culture.


I only explain all this as a prelude to what I began wondering today.


Professor West, the radical, vivacious liberal that he is, criticizes the American people for a growing apathy towards the inequalities of our nation and towards the corruption of corporate America. He pleads for a culture of protest, encourages Socratic questioning against the established norm, demands social engagement for the betterment of the entire citizenry. And while Chile has achieved fame (or notoriety?) as a country laden with protest and active citizenship, I wonder how truly different our two countries are from one another (when it comes to citizen engagement and democracy).


Some of the reasons, I believe, America can be catalogued as “apathetic” or “disengaged” are because of its size, relative prosperity, and diversity. There are over 313 million people in the United States, which makes mobilizing large, unified groups next to impossible – remember how messy those Occupy Protests tended to be? – and makes ideological faction statistically more probable. We U.S. citizens also, while incredibly unequal in many ways, share as a country a relative wealth compared with that of the rest of the world. So, in some ways, complaining about what we don’t have becomes taboo in the face of entire towns or villages elsewhere in the world that are devoid of incredibly basic, vital natural resources. And lastly, despite the number of “racial minorities” that is rapidly growing every day in the States, our nation is still largely held in the hands of white, male leaders (though, I’d argue, this trend is the one of the three I’ve mentioned that is most clearly changing), which can make dissent from the norm difficult.


But so, if Chile is a country that is still small considering global standards (just a little over 17 million people), statistically poor in the face of its burgeoning GDP, and founded upon a more homogenous populous than ours because of its marginal colonialist past, why do I feel like there is such a greater gap between the rich and the poor here and why do I feel as though there’s less of a commitment from the affluent to support the impoverished here in Santiago? Every day I walk by countless beggars on the street and amputees selling trinkets from their decrepit wheel chairs, while students who protest for improved and government-funded education sip $2.300 peso (about $4.50 USD) Starbucks lattes and smoke expensive cigarettes? Why have I seen people burning trash in the streets in protest but not yet one person taking in one of the thousands of homeless dogs walking the city streets in protest of what has become a cruel and heinous cultural norm of abandoning them as soon as they’ve grown out of puppyhood?


Educación Libre


I don’t really have an answer yet, nor may I find one before July 20th. I also don’t really have statistical information to back this inequality up – maybe the people here are, in fact, more equal than they are in the States and this rhetoric of mine is really just naiveté screaming through the blogosphere – but it is a strong gut feeling of mine.


I saw the film “No” with some friends of mine the other day, and think some of its message may align with this feeling I now have. The film, for those of you haven’t seen it, brilliantly illustrates the campaign efforts to mobilize the Chilean people to vote in an election that would eventually remove Pinochet’s coup d’état and reinstate a democratic government. It follows the life of René Saavedra as he puts together creative, fun videos to ignite a political fire in the people of his country. In a wonderfully artistic move, Pablo Larraín incorporates the same campaign videos from 1988 in his 2012 film to authentically replicate the sentiment of the nation in the late 20th century. And it works. Watching the film, I felt ignited, exuberant, ready to take action. I saw a Chile of poignant and centralized protest. And now with elections approaching this year, it will be interesting for me to see how the campaigning compares, and how the democratic spirit of the country has either flourished or dwindled in the nearly 25 years since its reinstatement.


So far the democratic spirit and culture of protest I’ve witnessed – which, I will say though, has been more prominent than it is at home in the U.S. – has reserved itself to the issues of better education for students and (though marginally) sexual-orientation equality. Issues of insurmountable importance, no doubt. But I’m wondering how far people are willing to push for a heightened democracy here. What more will they surge for? How protest-laden a country is this truly? How much does democracy really matter?



I guess only time will really tell. For now, I’ll just say I’ll keep you posted.

Two Thumbs Up


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One Response to Does Democracy Matter in Chile?

  1. Kendra Layton says:

    Hey Addison,
    Thanks for the post! Since I plan on being in Chile this fall I love to read your reflections.


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