Chilean Capitalism on Trial

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At press time it was too early to call a winner in Argentina’s presidential election Sunday. But Peronist Alberto Fernández and his vice-presidential running mate, former President Cristina Kirchner, were widely expected to defeat the re-election bid of center-right President Mauricio Macri.

Primary results in August indicated that voters blame the incumbent for high inflation, the rising cost of public services and anemic economic growth. Yet a Fernández-Kirchner win implies a return to the left-wing populism that has long undermined Argentine living standards. Mrs. Kirchner’s government (2007-2015) was notoriously corrupt and used its power to deny due process to its political enemies.

Mr. Macri made many mistakes, but he aimed for a more market-oriented economy and to restore the rule of law. His loss could turn out to be bad news for millions of Argentines who yearn for greater freedom.

Yet no one expects Argentina’s center-right, if it loses, to go rampaging through the streets, burning cars, stealing, blocking roads and destroying public transportation. That kind of politics is the specialty of the left. It has been on display this month in Chile, where left-wing terrorists savaged Santiago and cities around the country with violence.

This happened in a nation that, as the newspaper La Tercera reported on Oct. 5, has seen the poverty rate fall below 9%, down from 68% in 1990. Income inequality has also been coming down.

There is still plenty of work to do. But civilized societies settle questions of governance at the ballot box and through independent institutions, not with firebombs. So why is the democratically elected Chilean President Sebastián Piñera back on his heels, with little support from “democrats” in the media, academia and politics, after weeks of violence in the nation’s streets? It’s a double standard that deserves attention.

The uprising in Chile began Oct. 7 when groups of students in Santiago jumped subway turnstiles to protest a fare increase. In the days that followed, peaceful protests and further incidents of lawlessness spread throughout the country. On Saturday over a million demonstrators poured into the streets of Santiago to voice grievances—reportedly everything from the high cost of living to income inequality and climate change.

Yet it is unlikely that the eyes of the world would be on Chile if not for the perpetrators of violence, who took advantage of the moment to wreak havoc and demand a new constitution. Subway stations were destroyed, and supermarkets and other stores were looted and burned. Some 18 people died, most of them caught in fires during the looting.

Mr. Piñera was forced to declare a state of emergency and put the army on the street to protect property and life. But empathy isn’t the president’s strong suit, and in the absence of an effective communications team the narrative is now controlled by his adversaries.

The central government already subsidizes nearly half the public transportation fare in Santiago. What’s more, student fares didn’t go up. The independent commission charged with setting the prices announced an increase of 3.75% for peak riders on the metro; off-peak fares were reduced.

Fare increases are never popular. But the hard left has spent years planting socialism in the Chilean psyche via secondary schools, universities, the media and politics.

Even as the country has grown richer than any of its neighbors by defending private property, competition and the rule of law, Chileans marinate in anticapitalist propaganda. The millennials who poured into the streets to promote class warfare reflect that influence.

The Chilean right has largely abandoned its obligation to engage in the battle of ideas in the public square. Mr. Piñera isn’t an economic liberal and makes no attempt to defend the morality of the market. He hasn’t even reversed the antigrowth policies of his predecessor, Socialist Michelle Bachelet. Chileans have one side of the story pounded into their heads. As living standards rise, so do expectations. When reality doesn’t keep up, the ground is already fertile for socialists to plow.

The violence has another explanation. To chalk it up to spontaneity requires the suspension of disbelief. As one intelligence official in the region told me Friday: “It takes a lot of money to move this number of people and to engage them in this level of violence.” The explosive devices used, he said, were “far more sophisticated than Molotov cocktails.”

Foreign subversives are suspected of playing a key role, with Cuba and Venezuela at the top of the list. The São Paulo Forum, a group of hard-left socialists put together by Fidel Castro in 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall, espouses this radicalism.

The actual list of assailants, we don’t know. But Chile has been hit by a well-organized enemy out to bring down the democratic government. That’s something that should alarm all free societies in the region.