Too Little, Too Late: From the Chilean Winter to the Latin American Spring

The 2011 global protest cycle, which included the Arab Spring uprising against authoritarian rule, the Chilean Winter protests to end for- profit education, and the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States to highlight income inequality, marked the most important protest cycle since the movements of the 1960s in Europe and North America. Protest cycles are critical opportunities to effect political and institutional change, yet progress  is not guaranteed. The key factors for fostering a positive link between protest levels and long-term reform are the permeability of political institutions to protesters’ demands and the willingness of demonstrators to engage  with those institutions. The central argument of this piece is that the 2011 Chilean Winter protesters asked for too little, and by doing so, missed their historic opportunity to bring about fundamental change. Instead of demanding structural change to the political and economic models underpinning their system of governance, they asked for policy change within that system. By 2019, when Chilean protesters demanded constitutional reform, their window of opportunity for deep-seated political and institutional change had already closed.

Roberta Rice
October 29, 2020

Protest Cycles And Political Change

Protest movements are the motors of political change. Many of the past century’s greatest achievements were spurred by successful social protest campaigns, including advancements in the rights of people of color,  women, the LGBTQ+ community, Indigenous peoples, workers, and students. If concerned citizens did not mobilize to demand their rights, the politically powerful would not grant them, but assembling alone is not enough to incite reform. Timing influences a movement’s outcome: Protests are more likely to succeed when they are part of a global cycle of mobilization. Institutional conditions are also important: Protesters are more effective when they take advantage of “political opportunity structures” (POS). The example of Chile shows how protesters who fail to incorporate timing and POS into their calculations may miss crucial windows of opportunity to effect change.

Since 2011, the world has witnessed an uptick in protest activity that comprises some of the largest demonstrations in history and can be considered a global cycle. A protest “wave” is a sudden surge of activity followed by a receding tide,1 and a “cycle” contains several of these waves. Political scientist Sidney Tarrow defines a protest cycle as:

a phase of heightened conflict across the social system: with a rapid diffusion of collective action from more mobilized to less mobilized sectors; a rapid pace of innovation in the forms of contention; the creation of new or transformed collective action frames; a combination of organized an unorganized participation; and sequences of intensified information flow and interaction between challengers and authorities.2

At certain times in history, when protests do coalesce around a particular set of ideals as part of a “cycle,” these connections can amplify the impact of each individual movement. For example, the classic protest cycle of the 1960s witnessed a rise of protest activity in Europe and North America following the successful African American civil rights movement, including the women’s movement, the gay rights movement, and the environmental movement. Each changed political policies and practices at home, to varying degrees.

Social movement theorists agree that institutional conditions generate POS that either encourage or discourage the emergence of a protest movement.3 Such conditions include the availability of institutionalized channels of representation and the state’s tolerance of dissent. I have previously argued that we may be better served by repurposing the POS concept to explain movement outcomes instead of focusing on how such opportunities shape or constrain movement formation.4 In other words, POS is more important to movement success than movement emergence. As stated by sociologist James M. Jasper, “Nothing is more disastrous than trying to climb through a closed window.”5

Social movement literature indicates that institutions also influence methods of protest. Disruptive, confrontational tactics and strategies are more likely to emerge in weak or noninstitutionalized party systems that suffer from a “representation gap,” whereas strong and responsive party systems that provide easy access to the state encourage protesters to “move indoors” by seeking change through existing democratic mechanisms.6 Social movement consequences may be conditioned to a certain extent    by the quality of representation afforded by a political party system. For instance, in the process of absorbing social unrest and channeling discontent, a more representative system may adapt to better reflect protest movement demands. Mobilization is more likely to impact domestic politics and policies if democratic institutions are permeable to protesters’ demands and protesters are willing to engage with those institutions.7

Political scholars Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow8 tell us, all protest cycles must ultimately end, but what matters are the dynamics they helped set in motion and the institutional legacies they leave behind. Reform results from continuous contact and exchanges between disparate political actors, especially social movement-state interactions. In the words of sociologist Lorenzo Bosi:9

This changing power relation between the different actors is, more often than not, a critical catalyst for a change in the distribution of power—whether this has positive effects, or results in a backlash for the social movement and its constituency. What we surely can say is that no protest wave leaves the power relation between the movement’s constituency and the state unaffected.

The Chilean Winter Protests

Since the turn of the 21st century, the number of student-led protests across the globe has significantly increased. The highest profile of these have been in the United Kingdom (2010), Chile (2011), and Canada (2012), where students occupied campuses and shut down classes to protest tuition increases or demand free post-secondary education.10 Sociologist Manuel Castells proposes that two major contextual factors appear to be decisive in the rise of student activism: first, a fundamental crisis of legitimacy of the political system and parties; and second, a rise in autonomous communicative capacity through the use of social media.11 To this analysis, a third com- ponent should be added: the implementation of second-generation neoliberal reforms that encompass broad changes to the state, civil service, and the delivery of public services like healthcare and education.12 Contemporary student movements share an opposition to further market reforms in higher education and to repositioning education as a private good rather than a public one.

Until 2006, Chile’s political panorama was noteworthy for its lack of national protest activity. Under the repressive dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet from 1973 to 1990, Chile became Latin America’s earliest and deepest marker liberalizer with stark consequences for its once-powerful labor movement. Pinochet’s regime firmly entrenched the state’s neoliberal model and the domestic institutions underpinning it.13 As a result, Chile has long stood out in the region for its relative political and economic stability. Since 2006, however, student protesters have rocked Chile’s comparative calm. In April of that year, high school students demonstrated against a price increase in university entrance exams, a proposed increase in student bus fares, and their lack of input in education reform. The protests, known as “The March of the Penguins” due to their black and white school uniforms, ended with the arrest of over 600 students.14 Continued student-led protests in May and June of that year brought out even greater numbers of demonstrators. The massive scale of the events caused President Michelle Bachelet to reshuffle her cabinet and establish an advisory committee to address student complaints.

The 2006 secondary school protests served as the precursor to much larger, more significant protests in 2011, this time from university students. It seemed possible that these demonstrators’ demands would be met, as timing was on their side: Their mobilization was part of a global cycle. According to Time magazine, 2011’s person of the year was “The Protester.”15 Included among its profiles were many ordinary figures who had become protest icons, such as Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit vendor; Khaled Said, an Egyptian computer programmer; and Camila Vallejo, a Chilean student. The person of the year turned out to be, collectively, graduated and precarious youth.16 The movements of the “desperate generation” underscored a deep-seated crisis of legitimacy for the political class—or a failure of political representation—and expressed widespread dis- satisfaction with the economy.17

The Chilean Winter protests against the privatization of post-secondary education epitomize this struggle. This movement comprised a series of student-led protests that occurred between 2011 and 2013 to demand a new framework for education in Chile. Their goals included increased support for public universities to improve the quality of education; more equitable admission requirements to prestigious universities; and the end of the for- profit education model.18 The trigger or catalyst for the Chilean uprising was the May 2011 announcement by Minister of Education Joaquin Lavín of increased funding to for-profit universities. Notably, Lavín himself was a founder and major investor in just such an institution.19 The wave of occupations and demonstrations that spread across the country led to thousands of student arrests.

The Chilean Winter was the first major uprising in the post-Pinochet era. Chile’s right-leaning president then, as now, was Sebastián Piñera. His government responded to the protests with a two-track approach: He promised more scholarships for students and better funding for public universities for those who acquiesced, and repressed those who did not.20 At the precise moment that Arab youth across the Middle East and North Africa called for regime change and demonstrators in Spain’s 15-M movement, named for the first day of protest on 15 May 2011, called for direct democracy and the end of the current economic system, Chilean student protesters sought reform to their education sector. The timing was right, but seeking mere reform was not. Over time, the organizers recognized the extent to which the neoliberal economic model pervaded Chile, generating inequality and a lack of opportunity in domestic institutions even beyond the education system against which they were nominally protesting. As a result, they began to advocate for changing the constitution.21 But by then, the protest movement had lost its momentum and the global protest cycle had come to a close.

At the heart of the 2011 cycle were demands for more direct and participatory democracy. In Latin America, democracy seemed hollowed out, such that it was responsive only to the demands of economic elites and generally unaccountable to average citizens.22 The failure of the Chilean Winter protests to upend the country’s privatized education system and the muted governmental response to Chile’s deep-seated inequalities set the stage for the 2019 round of student-led protests.

The Latin American Spring

The “Latin American Spring” refers to the wave of demonstrations that began in Guatemala in 2015 against political corruption and peaked in 2019 with the Chilean uprising against political and economic exclusion, before receding as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The announcement of a subway fare increase in the Chilean capital of Santiago in October 2019 kicked off a massive wave of contention in the country, one that surpassed the 2011 Chilean Winter in size and scope.23 The protests began with a coordinated fare evasion campaign by secondary school students and quickly escalated into nationwide demonstrations against rising costs of living and persistent inequalities, for which they blamed neoliberalism.24 Initially, the Piñera government sought to ease tensions by instituting a series of measures meant to reduce living costs for Chile’s lower and middle classes, including increasing government-subsidized pensions and raising the monthly minimum wage. When these reforms failed to quell the protests, the government extended a state of emergency to other cities to contain the civil unrest. Protesters began to demand the president’s resignation and a new constitution. By the end of October, the president had reshuffled his cabinet but still received no reprieve. On 15 November 2019, the National Congress agreed to a national referendum in April 2020 on the question of drafting a new constitution.25 The referendum has since been rescheduled until October 2020 owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Political  observers  are  cautiously  optimistic  about  the  possibility   of refounding Chile along more inclusive lines. Constitutional reform, however, is just the first step in addressing the country’s inequality problem; social mobilization is needed to ensure that new constitutional provisions are implemented in practice. Latin America’s latest round of constitution- making, which took place under the region’s left-leaning governments in the 2000s, tended to strengthen social commitments while leaving intact the traditional vertical organization of power.

According to constitutional scholar Roberto Gargarella, a highly centralized organization of power in the executive branch tends to work against the application of social rights in practice.26 For instance, Bolivia’s 2009 Constitution drafted under President Evo Morales is one of the most progressive pieces of legislation in the region—indeed, in the world—for advancing the rights of Indigenous peoples. The new constitution, for example, recognizes all 36 Indigenous languages of Bolivia as official languages of the state, guarantees the right to proportional representation of Indigenous peoples in the national legislature, and declares Bolivia to be a plurinational state, the historic objective of the nation’s Indigenous peoples.27 Yet the constitution also has a provision that places all non-renewable resources under state control, counteractively limiting Indigenous communities’ right to self-government and self-determination within their territories.28 Nevertheless, sustained popular pressure on the Bolivian government has prompted efforts to implement key constitutional provisions on Indigenous rights, at least on a case-by-case basis. Systemic change requires a political system that is responsive to the demands of protesters. Unless Chile’s protest coalitions can generate the political will necessary to tackle the county’s structural inequalities, the prospects for real change remain dim.

Not Nearly Enough

This article has argued for the importance of strong and effective  protest movements in making democracy work for all sectors of society. To understand what is lacking in a democratic system, one only has to look   at the injustices that activists are articulating in the streets. The Chilean Winter protests put reforming the country’s for-profit education system  on the national agenda. In doing so, they opened the door for potential future changes to the political and economic system. The 2011 global protest cycle—possibly the most important cycle of contention since the movements of the 1960s in Europe and the United States—was the ideal moment to demand that the Chilean government finally fix the inequality problem that dates to the neoliberal economic model institutionalized by the Pinochet regime. Unfortunately, the Chilean Winter protesters asked for too little, too late. For its part, the Chilean government has not done nearly enough to address the legacies of political and economic inequality rooted in the country’s troubled past. The upcoming national referendum on constitutional reform is an important step in the right direction. The potential for systemic change, however, hinges on the capacity of Chile’s popular sectors to mobilize and pressure the government to implement any new constitutional provisions on equality and inclusion. Even with a new constitution, Chile will continue to be a hotbed of social unrest until the political system takes seriously the demands of its protesters.


  1. Sidney Tarrow, Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 140.
  2. Tarrow, Power in Movement, 142.
  3. Doug McAdam, John D. McCarthy, and Mayer N. Zald, Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Cultural Framings (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
  4. Moisés Arce and Roberta Rice, “The Political Consequences of Protest,” in Protest and Democracy, eds. Moisés Arce and Roberta Rice (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2019), 1-21.
  5. James M. Jasper, “Introduction: From Political Opportunity Structures to Strategic Interaction,” in Contention in Context: Political Opportunities and the Emergence of Protest, eds. Jeff Goodwin and James M. Jasper (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012), 24.
  6. Samuel P. Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972).
  7. Moisés Arce and Roberta Rice, eds., Protest and Democracy (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2019), 201.
  8. Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow, Contentious Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 229.
  9. Lorenzo Bosi, “Incorporation and Democratization: The Long-Term Process of Institutionalization of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement,” in The Consequences of Social Movements, eds. Lorezno Bosi, Marco Giugni, and Katrin Uba (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 338.
  10. Paul Mason, Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions (New York: Verso, 2013).
  11. Manuel Castells, Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Era (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2012).
  12. Neoliberalism is a policy approach to economic growth and development that privileges the market, the private sector, and trade. For more information. see: Eduardo Silva, Challenging Neoliberalism in Latin America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
  13. Roberta Rice, The New Politics of Protest: Indigenous Mobilization in Latin America’s Neoliberal Era (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2012).
  14. Peter M. Siavelis, “How New is Bachelet’s Chile?” Current History 106, no. 697 (2007), 73.
  15. “The Protester,” Time, 14 December 2011.
  16. Elísio Estanque, Hermes Augusto Costa, and José Soeiro, “The New Global Cycle of Protest and the Portuguese Case,” Journal of Social Science Education 12, no. 1 (2013), 38.
  17. Ernesto Castañeda, “The Indignados of Spain: A Precedent to Occupy Wall Street,” Social Movement Studies 11, no. 3-4 (2012): 309-319.
  18. Sofia Donoso and Nicolás M. Somma, “‘You Taught us to Give an Opinion, Now Learn How to Listen’: The Manifold Political Consequences of Chile’s Student Movement,” in Protest and Democracy, eds. Moisés Arce and Roberta Rice (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2019), 145-172.
  19. Nicolás M. Somma, “The Chilean Student Movement of 2011-2012: Challenging the Marketization of Education,” Interface: A Journal for and about Social Movements 4, no. 2 (2012): 296-309.
  20. Rice, The New Politics of Protest, 105-106.
  21. Sofia Donoso and Nicolás Somma, “‘You Taught us to Give an Opinion, Now Learn How to Listen’: The Manifold Political Consequences of Chile’s Student Movement,” in Protest and Democracy, eds. Moisés Arce and Roberta Rice (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2019), 164.
  22. Moisés Arce, Roberta Rice, and Eduardo Silva, “Rethinking Protest Impacts,” in Protest and Democracy, eds. Moisés Arce and Roberta Rice (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2019), 195-213.
  23. Jimmy Langman, “From Model to Muddle: Chile’s Sad Slide into Upheaval,” Foreign Policy, 23 November 2019, market/.
  24. John Bartlett, “Chile Students’ Mass Fare-Dodging Expands into City-Wide Protest,” Guardian, 18 October 2019, expands-into-city-wide-protest.
  25. Langman, “From Model to Muddle,” 4.
  26. Roberto Gargarella, Latin American Constitutionalism 1810-2010: The Engine Room of the Constitution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
  27. Constitution of Bolivia, 2009, art. 5 and 147.
  28. Jason Tockman and John Cameron, “Indigenous Autonomy and the Contradictions of Plurinationalism in Bolivia,” Latin American Politics and Society 56, no. 3 (2014): 46-69.

This Argument appears in Politics of Protest, the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of the Journal of International Affairs. Subscribe or purchase to read the article in print or via JSTOR.

Photo Credit: simenon, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.