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Immediately prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Chile was in the midst of its most serious political turmoil since its return to democracy in the late 1980s. Simmering discontent over the country’s socioeconomic inequality, corruption, and deficient state services prompted massive protests and widespread looting in October 2019. Previously, Chile had been considered a model of prosperity and democracy in Latin America, and its precipitous descent into chaos caught most people—in particular, President Sebastián Piñera and his center-right administration—by surprise.

Chile’s mass protests, which extended well into 2020, inaugurated a period of intense political and societal polarization. In response to the protests, Piñera deployed the armed forces to reinforce police units, yet pervasive abuses by security forces against the protesters only exacerbated political tensions. Although Piñera announced structural reforms aimed at containing the unrest, the limited nature of these efforts reinforced the public perception that the government was more interested in repression than in substantive solutions to societal demands. Furthermore, recriminations among the political parties aggravated and exposed deep societal divisions over the legacies of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, and the devastating economic effects of Chile’s upheaval only intensified disagreements.

Andreas E. Feldmann
Andreas E. Feldmann is associate professor in the Latin American and Latino Studies Program and Department of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

As Chileans anxiously braced themselves for a resumption of the protests following a brief summer hiatus, the coronavirus outbreak unexpectedly brought a respite to a restless society. After the government introduced social distancing measures, protests quickly fizzled, enabling what one astute observer described as a “fragile new social truce.” Yet the lull seems to owe much more to the population’s fear of contracting the virus and collective exhaustion after months of turmoil than to satisfaction with how the government has handled the crisis and addressed societal grievances. The current truce thus seems to be a transitory phase, and many Chileans fear that once the current rally-around-the-flag effect has weakened, polarization will divide the public once more.

The health crisis has handed the beleaguered Piñera administration a precious opportunity to regain the public’s trust and ease political divisions. At present, it remains too early to evaluate the government’s handling of the crisis, but thus far its response appears to have been effective. The government has introduced stringent measures, such as declaring a state of emergency, closing Chile’s borders, imposing nightly curfews, speeding up testing, and imposing total lockdowns in areas with coronavirus outbreaks. One positive sign for the government is that Piñera’s calamitous 6 percent approval rating has risen to a less immediately dire 21 percent.

However, other aspects of the government’s response, including measures to mitigate the economic effects of the crisis, have been more controversial. Thus far, the government has provided cash transfers to people in the informal sector, postponed employers’ tax payments, and introduced a new law to regulate remote work. Although the government’s supporters lauded this economic package, its detractors argued that powerful interest groups unduly shaped the legislation in ways that favor the business elite and fail to protect vulnerable populations. Another critical issue concerns the government’s decision to postpone a referendum on the creation of an assembly to rewrite Chile’s constitution. The vote, originally scheduled for this April, was the product of a broad, cross-party agreement that helped ease political tensions. With the opposition’s support, the government delayed the referendum until November, but politically charged debates about its feasibility are already emerging.

These points of controversy indicate that the current crisis has not substantially altered preexisting divides or generated a shared vision for the country’s path forward. Opposition leaders and societal groups have been measured in their criticism of the government during the pandemic, but they nevertheless have been disinclined to create a common front with the president and his governing coalition. Their reluctance stems to a significant degree from a deep-seated distrust of Piñera and his supporters, in particular the influential business elite, whom they continue to perceive as out of touch and insincere in their commitment to structural reform. If the crisis lingers, the risk of resurgent polarization seems high.

Andreas E. Feldmann is associate professor in the Latin American and Latino Studies Program and Department of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.