Despite horrific police violence and government concessions, protesters in Chile are holding firm in their calls for systemic change.
By Cristian Opaso
It has been a month since Chileans took to the streets in a surprising and mostly nonviolent uprising that changed the country’s political agenda and shattered its image as Latin America’s most successful and stable economy. “Chile woke up” is how many describe what has happened. But the awakening has not been free from nightmares that cloud the streets and minds of Chileans, which are compounded by the memory of the 17-year-long Pinochet dictatorship that ended in 1990.
“I studied during the dictatorship, and I have seen things I never saw then,” said Enrique Morales, president of the human rights department of the Chilean Medical Association, in a recent television interview. “Policemen firing inside a girls’ high school, I never saw that. Never 210 people losing their eyesight because of police shotguns.”
On the other hand, never in recent history have Chileans witnessed such widespread looting and urban fires, which have mainly affected big supermarkets, banks and pharmaceutical chains, but also small businesses. At least 100,000 jobs are expected to be lost as a result of the protests and millions of dollars will have to be invested to fix damages.
Other damages are irreversible, such as those inflicted on the more than 200 people who have suffered eye injuries and partial blindness as a result of the police firing birdshot from riot shotguns. Or the hundreds, if not thousands, who have been badly beaten, tortured or raped by the police forces. According to the governmental National Human Rights Institute, or INDH, between Oct. 17 (when widespread protests began) and Nov. 10, 5,629 people had been arrested and 2,009 treated for injuries in hospitals — among them 197 with eye injuries (which has since increased to 222). The institute has filed 384 legal actions mostly against the police, among them 273 for torture and cruel treatment and 66 for sexual violence.
These figures could indeed be much higher. INDH Executive Director Sergio Micco said that many people were afraid to denounce arrests and police abuse. In its regular public reports, the INDH is not detailing the number of people whose whereabouts are unknown. They also have stopped reporting the number of people who have died as a result of the protests. In the first two weeks, 23 protesters were killed, five of them victims of police forces and the army, and the rest, government sources claim, were burned to death in lootings. But, according to sources at the coroner’s office, at least one of the bodies was found to have three bullet wounds.
Counting the dead is not an easy task. The INDH had to formally ask the coroner’s office to detail the exact number of deaths. And at the coroner’s office, Aleida Kulikoff, a high ranking employee was fired after allegedly demanding more through autopsies for the burned corpses.
Despite the horrific violence and uncertainties, people not only continue taking to the streets, but have organized thousands of cabildos, or assemblies of neighbors, that are asking themselves about the root causes of the uprising and what people can do about it. Close to 10,000 assemblies are said to have been held across the country. They exist not only in poor neighborhoods, such as Yungay, near downtown Santiago, where neighbors have assemblies every day and also organize first aid workshops and food kitchens, but also in Vitacura, one of Santiago’s most affluent neighborhoods.
30 years, not only 30 pesos
It all began the third week of October when — after a 30 pesos hike in subway fares — high school students called for massive civil disobedience and refused to pay. What started with hundreds of students jumping over the subway gates grew to thousands, as adults began to join. On Oct. 18, a massive protest resulted in the burning of dozens of subway stations. The following day President Sebastián Piñera declared a state of emergency and ordered the armed forces to patrol the streets. But in a country that survived the Pinochet dictatorship that resulted in 3,600 dead and close to a thousand “disappeared,” protesters were not deterred.
A couple of days later, more than a million people gathered in Baquedano Square, in the largest demonstration seen in decades. Unidad Social, or Social Unity, a wide coalition of trade unions, human rights, student, environmental and women’s groups has helped organize the protests. For Mario Aguilar, national president of the powerful National Teachers Union — which is also one of the professional associations that is part of Social Unity — a wonderful change has taken place in Chile.
“The most extraordinary thing is the main slogan that people shout in the streets: Chile woke up,” Aguilar said. “I think we were a people that were numbed in a big way by a model that enslaved us, that chained us to a lifestyle that, despite us not liking, we could not free ourselves from. Chile woke up and suddenly realized that it was indeed possible to change things, that together we were a mighty force, that the one next to me had the same problem.”
On Nov. 10, Aguilar burst into tears while being interviewed live on national television at the entrance to the Santa Maria Clinic after visiting Gustavo Gatica, a 21-year-old student who was blinded by birdshot fired a police shotgun while taking photographs. “This is criminal … They are mutilating our youngsters; they are on purpose firing towards youngsters’ faces,” Aguilar said. “I ask Piñera to stop the war against the people of Chile.”
Despite police violence, Aguilar and many others continue taking to the streets. On Nov. 12, Unidad Social called for a national strike and close to two million Chileans protested. Many governmental offices, and some ports and copper mines, joined the strike. The Baquedano Square, now known as Dignity Square, was again the scene of massive gatherings and an old university building and a church were set on fire.
Television, as usual, provided extensive coverage not of the largely nonviolent protests, but of the fires and confrontations between the police and protesters, and on the following day interviewed neighbors whose shops or homes were looted.
Piñera has refused to resign, but nevertheless has offered a package of economic reforms to raise the minimum wage, lower medicine prices and raise some taxes. He recently conceded to drafting a new constitution and even having people choose all the delegates. The date for this process to begin has been set for April of next year.
On Nov. 15, exhausted members of the Chilean congress announced an “Agreement for Peace and a New Constitution.” Nonetheless, that evening 29-year-old Abel Acuña died at Dignity Square after police attacked an ambulance with water cannons and tear gas, preventing medical personnel from reanimating Acuña, who had suffered a heart attack. Since the announcement of the agreement the number of protesters has diminished, but street actions and assemblies continue in major cities across Chile.
For the protesters, these concessions are not enough. People are demanding not only a constitutional assembly, with widespread popular participation to replace the present constitution, which was imposed by Pinochet in 1980 and only superficially reformed in later years. They are also demanding truth and justice for the human rights violations that have taken place and more drastic measures to increase pensions and wages.
Building internal barricades
Gustavo Gatica’s mother is encouraging people to continue with their actions. While she said in a message to fellow teachers that she is destroyed, she thanked people for their support and asked that people not give up. She also relayed a message from Gustavo: “I sacrificed my eyes, so that people would wake up.”
The cruel blinding of Gustavo and so many others has no doubt provoked fear, but, as Aguilar says, fear can be overcome. “One has to pay attention to oneself,” he explained. “Don’t let fear paralyze you. Fear is there, but we have to have hope to defeat fear. That is what’s happening in the streets still. I hope it remains.”
Among the myriad number of groups organizing actions is the Visual Artists and Friends of Cultures Collective. Organized last year by a handful of female artists — who had met as art students at the University of Concepción in southern Chile — the collective carried out its first artistic action in remembrance of Camilo Catrillanca, a leader of the indigenous Mapuche population who was shot by police exactly a year ago.
Recently they organized two actions related to the people who have been blinded by police violence. The first took place at the entrance to the Fine Arts Museum of Santiago on Nov. 3, where members of the group each covered one of their eyes — as well as one on a statue — and held a sign that read, “We lost an eye because of those that refuse to see.” They also repeatedly chanted other slogans, such as “Even if we lose our eyes, we see more than those in power,” and “Chile woke up, now let’s open our eyes.” Days later, during another massive protest at Dignity Square, they silently held their sign among the thousands who had gathered nearby.
Alconda Gonzalez, a member of the collective is also a high school teacher in the Independencia neighborhood. She has attended recent self-organized assemblies that were held in the affluent Vitacura neighborhood. On Nov. 3, close to 30 people gathered at noon for an assembly, very close to where U.N. buildings are located, to share feelings and ideas.
Gonzalez spoke of the importance of supporting young people who are fighting in the streets, sometimes behind barricades. Another person spoke about the need to continue with “internal barricades,” with the inner strength and inspiration to continue until real change takes place.
Contrary to what one would expect from affluent citizens, people were concerned not so much with violence against property, but with “structural violence.” Another person noted that “there is something different now — the economic model and also representative democracy are being questioned.”
“I feel I have to contribute with something,” said a woman who confessed that she had been crying all morning. Others added that they had to “humanize dialogue” and “strengthen the non-virtual social fabric.”
Those human bonds are also one of the priorities that has emerged at Achawal Waru, a squat house in the Yungay sector of Santiago. Occupied for about four years, the house has offered workshops on first aid, developed a protocol for self-protection and has helped coordinate alternative journalists covering Chilean events from several countries.
Lissette Vidal Carmona lives there with her partner and Kunturi, her 2-year-old son. “That shit, firing shotguns at the eyes of people, that is fear,” she said. “They are provoking fear so that you don’t go out. But we are not armed. Our arms are justice and dignity and against that phenomena arms can do nothing. What are they going to do?”
She believes there are different spaces and roles for people to play in the movement. “There are men and women to fight in the streets. Others are organizing like us, in a trench that is a communal space” she explained, adding how important mutual support is these days. “It is important to caress each other, let others know how much we love them, how important we are. Never has it made more sense to say: Please take care of yourself. Give me a call.”