By Jose Miguel Alonso-Trabanco
During the last few weeks, Chile has experienced an intense wave of street protests. This episode of unrest broke out after the Santiago metro fares were increased, triggering a considerable popular backlash. However, the present situation goes well beyond typical demonstrations. Some businesses have been looted, while others have decided to close for the time being; people have been killed; public infrastructure has been viciously vandalized; and some schools remain closed. Likewise, thousands of arrests and injuries have been reported.
As a result, there is a widespread perception that the country is being engulfed by turmoil. A curfew has been declared in several regions of Chile and both military and law-enforcement personnel have been deployed in order to restore order in Greater Santiago. In fact, it looks like the Chilean capital is literally under siege and that, above all, the Chilean state is being overwhelmed.
Even the country’s senior decision-makers were unpleasantly caught by surprise by the unfolding events. Surrounded by high-level military officers, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera openly emphasized that the country was “at war against a powerful enemy.” In turn, the first lady likened the ongoing crisis to an “alien invasion.” The fact that a state of emergency has been enacted and that most cabinet ministers have been dismissed has not diminished instability or uncertainty. An effective political solution has yet to emerge.
In short, the situation is critical and it seems things are spiraling out of control. The protestors’ demands now include comprehensive social reforms, higher wages, a new constitution, and the ouster or resignation of the elected leadership. In other words, the scope has widened and it is unavoidable to discern that at least certain actors are pushing for nothing less than a full-scale regime change. In order to keep things in perspective, it must be borne in mind that nothing comparable has been seen in Chile since the tragic events that took place there during the 70s.
Understanding Chile’s Unique Profile
By typical Latin American standards, Chile has always been an exceptional national state. This condition is arguably a result of the country’s geopolitical circumstances. Chile is mostly isolated from the rest of the South American landmass due to the presence of the Andean mountains, some of the longest and highest in the whole world. Moreover, its relations with its northern neighbors have never been remarkably close. It has to be remembered that – in the context of the so called War of the Pacific, fought in the late 19th century over control of territory and resources, Chile managed to defeat both Peru and Bolivia. Tense relations have persisted ever since.
Another factor that highlights Chile’s singular nature is that – along with Brazil – it is one of the few Latin American countries that have developed their own intellectual school of geopolitical thinking, in both civilian and military circles. Accordingly, Chile has consistently nurtured the country’s maritime tradition as a matter of statecraft. To a certain extent, this explains a persistent pattern of cultural affinity with the Anglosphere. Additionally, the country is well aware of how the balance of power behaves in South America, including the dynamics shaping interactions between competing geopolitical agendas. For instance, Santiago thinks Venezuela has dangerously facilitated the increasing geopolitical presence of extra-regional powers in South America.
Moreover, the highly diversified character of Chile’s external trade flows reflects a sharp sense of grand strategy. Thanks to that geoeconomic balance, Chile can rely on several trade partners. Consequently, it cannot be easily held hostage by the prospect of trade wars.
Chile’s Critical Vulnerability
On one hand, Chile’s insularity means it cannot be easily invaded or conquered through conventional means. However, natural barriers cannot protect Chile from the reach of covert action undertaken by external agents. Here there are precedents worth taking into account.
During the height of the Cold War, Salvador Allende was elected President of Chile. Being the first openly Marxist politician to reach power in a liberal democracy, this event was unparalleled. Although his domestic popularity was genuine, his regime was strongly backed by both the Soviet Unión and Cuba. Such involvement was a logical consequence of the geopolitical bipolarity that prevailed in the international system at the time.
Nevertheless, the political and economic measures implemented by Allende’s regime alienated several key sectors of Chilean society, including the middle classes, the local business community and, more importantly, the armed forces. Needless to say, the accumulation of this critical mass did not go unnoticed in Washington. Influenced by the so-called “domino theory,” the US was worried that the expansion of communism would entail the growth of Soviet geopolitical influence in the American hemisphere, a scenario that needed to be dealt with as a matter of national security. Another pressing concern was the fact that the control of Chilean copper reserves was also at stake. Copper, it must not be forgotten, is an industrial metal with both civilian and military applications.
In that context, the US had reached the conclusion that it was an imperative to get rid of the Allende administration. The removal of said regime would – to a certain extent – also act as some sort of strategic compensation for the setback suffered in Vietnam. Therefore, along with local allies, the CIA instigated a coup that turned out to be successful. In a brutal effort to suppress and discourage dissent, the resulting military junta carried out a bloodbath. Atrocities were committed, including extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, and torture.
However, it would be mistaken to portray Allende as a puppet of the Soviets or Pinochet as a mere US agent. That would be an oversimplification of reality. Both represented competing local agendas, but the ensuing internal struggle eventually acquired an international geopolitical dimension. Hence, the involvement of external forces was hardly unexpected.
Chile’s Striking Contrasts
Partly prompted by the need to legitimize itself, the junta proceeded to restructure the economy (anger against Allende’s regime was heavily fueled by its crass economic mismanagement). This process of reform relied on the theoretical frameworks of free market economics. In the long term, these policies made Chile economically stable, dynamic and – for Latin American standards – fairly prosperous. In contrast, neighboring nations like Argentina are almost chronically on economic life support.
According to the International Monetary Fund, Chile is nowadays the world’s 41st largest economy and its GDP per capita – 16,079 USD – puts it above Panama, Costa Rica, Mexico, Brazil, Peru and Colombia, amongst others. Chile is the best-ranked Latin American country in the ease of doing business index, created by leading economists from the World Bank. Moreover, aside from the extraction of copper, Chile has fostered other sectors, like fishing, lithium mining, forestry, wine-making and tourism, amongst others.
Nevertheless, the rising costs of living, education, healthcare and housing have created anxiety in several sectors of Chilean society. This issue is aggravated by the fact that incomes have been stagnant. Moreover, the insensitive nature of establishment politicians – especially those who are prone to flaunt their wealth – is not exactly helpful either. In other words, there are indeed legitimate sources of popular discontent. Hence, it would be erroneous to categorically attribute the current Chilean situation purely to a campaign of agitation. Such campaigns do not gain traction on their own. In order to light a fire, fuel is needed.
Assessing the Prospect of Foreign Intervention
However, considering Chile has previously been a battlefield of geopolitical struggle waged through covert channels, it would not be unreasonable to assume this context could be potentially used to advance foreign interests. After all, history teaches that – more often than not – crises are taken advantage of. Chaos opens windows of opportunity for players interested in serving their own agendas. Since the correlation of forces in any given case is, by definition, dynamic, there is no such thing as a power void.
In fact, several fingers are already pointing at Venezuela and the Bolivarian axis. Some prominent Venezuelan politicians, including President Nicolás Maduro himself, have championed the protests as a sign of a growing “Bolivarian breeze” that is allegedly blowing throughout the region. Other observers have highlighted that, operationally speaking, some of the acts of political violence seen in Chile seem to be coordinated. Venezuelan flags have been spotted as well.
There is no conclusive evidence that Caracas is ultimately behind what is happening in Chile and it must be recognized that blaming foreign enemies is a political tactic commonly used to avoid responsibility; yet reasonable doubts persist. After all, there are precedents that cannot be overlooked. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba was left no generous economic support. Therefore, Havana rekindled its ties to left-wing movements from several Latin American countries. Essentially, Cuba agreed to provide political backing in exchange for the promise to adopt favorable policies for Havana’s national interests, in case those movements managed to achieve power in their own countries.
Furthermore, when Hugo Chávez became President in Venezuela, he used the huge earnings derived from Venezuela’s oil exports to fuel the flames of Bolivarian politics in Latin America. Ironically, petrodollars were feeding the particular brand of socialism being peddled by Chávez and his continental allies.
However, now that global oil prices are lower, using cash to fund Bolivarian popular uprisings is no longer an option. Nevertheless, in order to counter its growing regional isolation and its deepening rivalry with the US, Brazil, and Colombia, Caracas desperately needs local allies now more than ever. Under the circumstances, altering the prevailing balance of power in South America sounds like a pertinent rationale and, in this case, “active measures” (i.e. covert action) can represent a tool to pursue that goal. Considering the prevailing conditions, Chile would be a feasible operational theatre.
It is too soon to anticipate how that could play out in the grand scheme of things. One way or another, the stakes are being raised and an act of recklessness – committed by any of the players that participate in this drama – can backfire or lead to unforeseen consequences.
Chile’s on-going crisis is a complex socio-political phenomenon that deserves to be analyzed from a multidimensional perspective in order to grasp the driving dynamics at play. Although the current situation in Chile responds primarily to internal factors, the hypothetical prospect of external involvement should not be dismissed. After all, geopolitics emphasizes the importance of reading local events in a wider international context. The two are inextricably linked to one another.
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