An estimated one million Chileans took to the streets in August 2016 to demand reform of the country’s privatized pension system, calling for an end to individualized retirement savings accounts, which were created in 1981 during General Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship. The mobilization, involving around 5 percent of the country’s population, was the largest since Chile’s return to democracy in 1990. Demonstrations of growing discontent have become common in Chile of late. The pension protests came in the wake of more than five years of student mobilization aimed at forcing a reform of the Pinochet-era education system.

What accounts for this surge of protest in a country that has long prided itself on its consensus politics and absence of conflict? And what does it mean for Chilean politics and democracy more broadly? By some accounts, the protests reflect a deep disconnect between the country’s political elites—who have emphasized restraint, moderation, and neoliberal orthodoxy—and ordinary citizens, who are increasingly concerned about inequality, economic vulnerability, and social mobility. In that sense, they also symbolize the failure of Chilean political parties on both left and right to channel conflict and represent citizens’ demands.

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Copyright © 2017 Current History. This article first appeared in Current History 116:787 (2017), 49-54.

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Reprinted with permission from Current History (February 2017). © 2017, Current History, Inc.