Chile: Bachelet, Transantiago and student protests


Michelle Bachelet has had a difficult time since she was inaugurated as Chile’s first female president just over a year ago. She has endured corruption scandals in her own leftist coalition, student protests expressing angry dissatisfaction with the education system, and now, the collapse of Santiago’s costly new transportation system. This big project was started during the Ricardo Lagos presidency, known for its large investment into transportation infrastructure.

“The severely ailing transportation reform in the capital city of Santiago called Transantiago has begun to generate its political costs,” writes Tomás Dinges who includes a number of links to comparisons between Transantiago and Bogotá’s Transmilenio, which served as a model for the project.

Transantiago is kicking her ass, and unfortunately it wasn’t even a problem of her design. This new system is based on Colombia’s TransMilenio and was designed over a period of five years under the administration of Ricardo Lagos. It is now cultivating bad moods, lack of confidence and frustration by the people outside the government, while creating instability within her government. The idea that she is a president of the people, the head of a “gobierno ciudadano,” which can have a real effect on people’s “hogares,” or homes, as she refers to in speeches, is coming under severe and dangerous questioning reflected in polled popularity levels tracking steadily downwards, a five point drop since early March (51-46) with an increase of people unhappy with her administration (36 – 41).

Since Transantiago first opened, a lot of commentary has poured forth. Plataforma Urbana [ES] wrote a critique about the government’s latest announcement of improved operation of Transantiago and summarizes the emotions of the citizens reacting to it:

A nadie le sorprendieron las medidas anunciadas para corregir el caótico estado en que se encuentra operando, pero muchos echamos de menos el cómo se arreglaran los problemas a largo plazo, sobre todo en lo que concierne a la operación del plan a través de los años. A casi 2 meses de su implementación, qué es lo que nos deparará Transantiago y qué tanto hay que esperar de las medidas anunciadas.

Habiéndose nivelado el servicio en general -la gente ya está acostumbrada al nuevo sistema- es ahora donde aparecen los problemas estructurales dentro del sistema, aquellos que no se solucionan con más buses ni con renegociación de contratos. Si bien el aumento de buses permitirá contar con una mayor capacidad -y por ende, poder subirse a los buses repletos-, el gran problema es cómo controlar las frecuencias y ajustar los recorridos y micros a la demanda real de pasajeros. Esto porque obviamente el diseño debe ser ajustado en función de la variación dinámica de la demanda conforme a la ciudad crece y genera nuevos viajes.

No one was surprised by the new measures announced to correct the chaotic state that had been in operation, but many people did not understand how the problems will be fixed in the long term. At nearly two month since its inauguration, what is the fate of Transantiago what can we expect from the newly announced measures?

Having the general service leveled out – the people are now used to the new system – is now when the structural problems appear inside the system; the ones that aren’t solved by re-negotiating contracts or adding more buses. Even though more buses will allow for a greater capacity and permit people to actually enter board the crowded buses, the major problem is how to control the frequency and adjust number of buses to the real demand of passengers. Obviously the design has to be adjusted to the changing demand and in accordance with the growth of the city as it requires new routes.

The government announced that to repair the operation they will need US $34 million. And a local newspaper, published an article revealing that the government spent US $12 million to research the impact of the project before the operation. So, what happened with the studies? Were they well made? Why do we now have a new budget to repair the mistakes of the system?

All of these issues are focused on the capital, Santiago, where Transantiago operates. But what about the rest of the country?. has an article [ES] that reviews reactions from other regions that shouldered some of the expenses:

La parlamentaria por la Sexta Región agregó que “cuando Santiago tiene problemas el ministro no los tiene para abrir las manos, pero cuando es en regiones no vemos lo mismo. Necesitamos recursos para agua potable, caminos, educación, defensas fluviales; no podemos permitir que se saquen de los que ya están asignados para solucionar los problemas del Transantiago.

The parliament of the sixth region added that “When Santiago has problems the government doesn’t have any problems opening their hands [asking for money], but when the problems are provincial, we don’t see the same support. We need resources for drinking water, roads, education, and river dikes. We can not permit that they take money from that which was already allocated in order to find a solution to the problems of Transantiago.

Yesterday, the students poured into the streets of the capital to protest against Transantiago. Duna [ES] writes that 228 people where detained, and almost 71% of those detainees are under 18. One of the Student Federation’s University blog (ES) corresponding to the Universidad de Chile (ES), claims than more than 1,500 people attended the rally. They also write that many were not sure where to meet or march. They seemingly admit that the protest was poorly organized and without a real sense of what they were doing.

Students are becoming accustomed to protesting just about everything and some citizens, like kurotashio [ES] have observed the consequences.

Era posible también ver el descontento de muchos comerciantes, los cuales echaban más de algún improperio a los estudiantes por causar un estado de desalojo de muchas personas, las cuales acostumbradas a sus puestos laborales deben ser corridas para que no tengan problemas por abc motivos… A pesar de ello, por la avenida principal (Alameda) circulaban buses como si nada pasara, la gente caminando, aunque temerosa, pero como si la lluvia que emanaba del carro policial fuera lo más común del mundo.

It was possible to see the discontent of the downtown merchants, many of who hurled more than one insult to the students for causing chaos. The street merchants are used to staying in their work stalls and, during the protests, they havd to be removed in the case there were any problems … However, on the main thoroughfare, buses ran normally, people were walking (although with fear), but as the forceful water coming from the police truck was the most common thing in the world.

student protesters

Photo of detained student protesters from Kurotashio

The Chilean people have a history of protest, but since Michelle Bachelet was elected president, difficult issues which started in the previous administration, have ended in near social collapse.

The student protests against the education system began last year and, since then, every time they have a chance – like last week – they protest. The Government is working hard on the educational issue. Bachelet created the Advisory Board for Educational Quality last June, which seeks to develop an improved Chilean education system. One of the major brains behind Chile’s educational system, José Joaquin Brunner [ES] has several documents on his blog [ES] that explain the vision and objectives they are working on.


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