Chile’s «unpopular success story»

    NEOLIBERALISM / Breaking The Brick plucks us into the heat of Chile's social unrest, reliving the Chicago Boys' contentious legacy.

    The camera slowly hovers, revealing a disconcerting view of ramshackle makeshift homes jammed under an overpass. Touted for decades as a model of economic success and a ‘miracle story’, Chile seemingly enjoyed the fruits of the neoliberal economic model implemented in the country during the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship by the Chicago Boys – Chilean economists trained at the University of Chicago under Milton Friedman. Yet, as Chile saw a staggering economic growth, so did it witness rampant inequality, with the nation mired in spiralling wealth disparities and widening social gaps. As it turned out, the direst of consequences were those of the long term, and Friedman’s boundlessly optimistic confidence in the operation of free markets to promote «productive efficiency» and «foster harmony and peace among people» – was all but a letdown for the large strata of society who were not among the lucky ones to own capital.

    The new documentary, titled Breaking The Brick (referring to El Ladrillo, texts on free-market policy from which Chile’s economic model was essentially drawn), takes a sober look at the contentious legacy of the Chicago Boys and the long-term ramifications of the neoliberal economic model in Chile, plucking us into the heat of the 2019 social upheaval. The documentary, crafted by Carola Fuentes and Rafael Valdeavellano, is a follow-up to the directors/producers 2015 feature-length film Chicago Boys, which tells the story of the Chilean economists in charge of drafting El Ladrillo.

    Breaking the Brick, a film by Carola Fuentes, Rafael Valdeavellano
    Breaking the Brick, a film by Carola Fuentes, Rafael Valdeavellano

    Flooding the streets

    When the protests sparked in October 2019, anger quickly flooded the streets, imbued with the looming sense that Chile had «woken up» from years of quiet to confront the economic system attributed to rupturing social fabric. Images of crowds relentlessly chanting «Chile woke up» and a massive national flag unfurled amid a sea of protesters reading «Awake Chile» bring to mind sentiments felt during those tumultuous days, drenching the film with both hope and outrage of the unrest that enveloped Chile in 2019. «Something happened here. It wasn’t only that a kid jumped a tourniquet or didn’t want to pay his fare; it was more than that. It’s a feeling that we all had, and that we had kept it quiet», teacher and activist Mariana explains. Initially started by students with coordinated fare evasions in protest of a price rise, the upheaval radiated from Santiago’s stations onto the streets and into other regions of the country. The outcry that rang through the country then morphed into an imposing protest that demanded the resignation of President Sebastian Piñera, drafting a new constitution to supplant the one drawn up during the Pinochet’s dictatorship, and an overhaul of Chile’s economic and social policies, including reforms in education, healthcare and the pension system.

    as Chile saw a staggering economic growth, so did it witness rampant inequality, with the nation mired in spiralling wealth disparities and widening social gaps.

    «The Brick»

    In 1973, Ramiro, then a 22-year-old economist, was part of the project to propose a new economic system for Chile with what is now known as «The Brick.» «A finance minister could run the country with that document on his desk», Ramiro observes. In the 1970s, he was overcome by «an immeasurable level of arrogance», as described in his own words, holding the view that they «were the people who were saving the country.» Decades later, from the vantage point of time, a successful businessman turned philanthropist Ramiro now fathoms the significance of the social aspects of economic policies. This understanding entered his life after a personal crisis and much reflection. Looking back, Ramiro does not seem to think that the proposed economic system itself erred greatly, contributing to poverty. Yet, while paying a visit to one of the poorest communes in Santiago or meeting activists and members of foundations, he ponders the new role of businesses in society, as defined not only by some complacent rationale about the creation of jobs or generation of wealth and foreign exchange but by questions of their social impact and their effects on people’s welfare and the environment. One ought to do away with «the dogma of maximising profit for shareholders at all costs» and «maximise not only utility but also welfare. They are not incompatible», a man argues in a conversation with Ramiro and others.

    What stoked Chile’s massive mobilisation and nationwide questioning of its economic system? The genesis of the unrest lies in the long-brewing tensions accompanied by a sense of abuse experienced by Chileans from the state and the private sector. And the coronavirus pandemic only aggravated the precariousness of the situation, sending a reported 2.1 million people below the poverty line. For Mariana, whose days are packed with teaching some of the impoverished kids, exchanging things she owns to purchase diapers and medical supplies for disadvantaged households or organising events in solidarity with victims of «this nefarious government» and police brutality, «this country is not what they were selling, it was marketing, an image, it was not like that.» Mariana adds, «We are an unequal country.»

    Breaking the Brick, a film by Carola Fuentes, Rafael Valdeavellano
    Breaking the Brick, a film by Carola Fuentes, Rafael Valdeavellano

    Who is it for?

    «If development is not for everyone, what is development for?» The documentary probes the decorated neoliberal model, which warranted a sustained economic growth in Chile, weighing in on the all too familiar narrative of economic growth and development that has been typically associated with an increase in GDP, as opposed to greater social and economic equality and a non-extractive use of resources. The policy model of neoliberalism submitted to the test in Chile evoked a formidable faith in free trade as the best pathway to the country’s development. Increased privatisation and economic deregulation (that often go along with fewer protections for workers) were all strategies to be implemented in the name of economic growth. However, unlike the neoliberal policy book would have it – the generated wealth did not trickle down to everyone. On the contrary, the economic growth in «the most liberalised economy in Latin America» came with an unwelcome byproduct, a chasm between «the macro figures and daily life on the streets», the social gaps, «gaps of pain and misery.»

    In the end, the documentary orbits back to where it started, the populace’s ability to imagine change as a precursor to societal metamorphosis. On October 25, 2020, one year after Chile’s unprecedented social eruption, over 78% of Chileans voted in a national plebiscite in favour of a new constitution. In December 2021, former student activist Gabriel Boric won a resounding victory to become the country’s youngest president. He pledged that «if Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it would also be its grave.»


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    Sevara Pan
    Sevara Pan
    Journalist and film critic.

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