On Thursday, October 24, hundreds of thousands of people marched through Santiago de Chile’s main artery, filling Plaza Italia with the roar of the chant, “Chile despertó.” [Chile woke up.] The protestors spilled out into the Alameda and Parque Forestal to the west, towards Avenida Vicuña Mackenna to the south, Avenida Providencia to the east, and Bellavista to the north. “What is most incredible,” observed feminist poet and journalist Naomi Orellana in a voice message sent through WhatsApp, “is that everybody knows exactly what we are fighting for.”
For the past week, Chile has experienced an intense social revolt. The trigger might seem trivial to outside observers: a subway fare hike of 30 Chilean pesos, equivalent in U.S. currency to less than five cents. Yet mounting protests that included thousands of people jumping the subway turnstiles and evading payment followed the raise, and massive street demonstrations provoked President Sebastián Piñera to declare a state of emergency and impose martial law on Friday, October 18. The military took over the streets and enforced a curfew the next day. But Chileans have not backed down. Crowds have continued to pour into the streets every day. On Friday, October 25, 1.2 million people gathered in Santiago in what was the most massive demonstration since the return of democracy in 1989. They demanded an end to the militarization of the democratic order and the criminalization of protest. More importantly, perhaps, they are challenging the myth of the Chilean “miracle” of economic growth (as economist Milton Friedman famously called it) by voicing their longstanding discontent with tremendous economic inequalities and demanding radical change.
The images of Santiago and several other Chilean cities taken over by the military have been grim. Tanks roam the streets, their assault weapons and tear gas at once strange and eerily familiar, recalling vivid memories of Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship. For Chileans living abroad who are closely following the escalation of violence, anxiety is fueled by the very different accounts we get from the corporate media and from the people who are on the ground. On the one hand, national media and official statements have highlighted fires and lootings to portray the movement, which is broader and deeper than the government seems to understand, as criminal. These representations seem to be intended to bolster Piñera’s declaration that “We are at war against a powerful enemy, who is willing to use violence without any limits.” Framing legitimate protest as war justifies extending the state of emergency, directing the military to clear the streets, and imposing a ban on the right of assembly, measures Chile had not seen since Pinochet.
The media has also been grossly negligent in reporting on the thousands of people who have been arrested, the accusations of torture and brutality by armed forces, and the circumstances in which at least eighteen civilians have died—five of whom, according to Chile’s National Institute for Human Rights, were killed by the military and police. An investigation is currently underway into the use of a subway police station as an impromptu torture center, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, has sent a team of observers to Chile. While a few media outlets have tried to give a more thorough account of the situation, they have been only partially successful.
On the other hand, activists are circulating hundreds of videos, photographs, audio recordings, and short texts through email and various social media and messaging platforms, depicting a joyful and energetic mobilization of people from different generations, cities, social classes, and races. Children and elderly people stand side by side with students, chanting peacefully and attending cultural events that have been spontaneously organized to bring demonstrators together. In one video taken from the window of a high-rise residential building during the curfew, a trained female voice sings “Te recuerdo, Amanda,” an iconic song written by the Chilean musician Víctor Jara, a major figure in the 1960s and early 1970s who was assassinated by the military just weeks after the coup. At the end of the video, people cheer from the windows of the nearby apartment buildings in a show of common solidarity and unspoken understanding.
Dozens of other videos and images illustrate what national media will not: people assaulted in their homes with tear gas, student leaders dragged out of their apartments without even violating curfew, young women stripped down and sexually abused as they are taken prisoner. Other videos appear to show police and military forces shooting at unarmed civilians and lighting fires that were subsequently attributed to protesters.
These alternative media portray a political crisis that is far more complex than what most national headlines would have us believe. They simultaneously refute the claim that protesters are “at war” by showing the broad-based solidarity of the social movement, while exposing the abuses of power and the profoundly anti-democratic stance that the government has adopted against its own citizens.
These images and the public declarations made by worker, student, and feminist organizations also show what is at stake in this spontaneous social movement—which comes only days after a massive social mobilization in Ecuador forced the government to partially backtrack on austerity measures. This activism finds resonance with similar protests in Lebanon, Uruguay, Costa Rica, and Haiti that call for profound political reform. The social revolt in Chile has also moved far beyond any single demand, developing into a broad protest against the economic restructuring and intensification of economic injustice that dates back to the Constitution of 1980, when austerity became official government policy. Pinochet’s neoliberal policies included privatizing education, pensions, and health care, and debilitating the public sector, establishing the conditions for millions of Chileans to suffer under oppressive debt. These policies, enacted by an authoritarian political system which undermined democratic institutions, went largely unchallenged by democratic governments thereafter, and have been intensified by President Piñera, a Trump-supporting millionaire who was himself a major player in the political reorganization imposed by Pinochet’s regime.
The raise in the subway fare, which was already high for a middle class wage in Chile, only made evident the unrest of the great majority of Chileans, as the costs of basic services have continued to escalate while wages stagnate and basic social rights are withdrawn and privatized for the profit of a wealthy few. The common slogan, “No son 30 pesos, son 30 años” [It’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years], summarizes the general feeling of persistent social injustice.
Sebastián Piñera has made no real effort to understand or address this underlying source of unrest, hoping for a simple “return to normalcy.” He first backtracked on raising the subway fare, before announcing a series of reforms on Tuesday, which included increasing the basic pension and minimum wage, raising taxes for high-income earners, and canceling a planned electricity rate hike. By Saturday, the government announced the end of the curfew for Santiago and Valparaiso, but would not confirm its cancelation for other cities, explaining that it would consider lifting the state of emergency the next day if “all is in order.”
But many people consider this too little, too late, particularly as the reform proposals were first accompanied by escalating repression and a refusal to withdraw the military from the streets. Rather than returning to a broken status quo, a majority of the movement—including many public figures—are now demanding political accountability for the violence of the last week, and asking for Piñera’s resignation or a “constitutional accusation” (similar to impeachment).
Piñera declared that there are two sides in his war: one that wants to live calmly in democracy, and the other, a powerful and relentless enemy that wants to destroy it. From the point of view of the streets, however, those refusing militarization, defying the curfew, and demanding social justice are precisely the ones on the side of democracy. What we can see on the streets is not only protest but an assembly where politics is being enacted and discussed. The most recognizable sound of the unrest is that of the “
Mónica Ramón Ríos is a writer and academic based in New York, co-founder of Sangría. Her next book, Cars on Fire, will be published in April 2020.
Guillermina Altomonte is a journalist and