[CW: This article contains descriptions of political violence.]
If you’ve never experienced tear gas, you might not know that it actually hits your throat and nose before your eyes. You’ll feel a burning sensation, you’ll have the urge to cough and only when it’s concentrated enough will your eyes start to water. This is certainly not one of the things I expected to learn during my semester abroad in Chile, where I spent five months attending a Chilean university and living with a host family.
I lived in Valparaíso, the second largest city in Chile and historically the most important port on the west side of South America. As a port city, Valparaíso has always been home to a variety of cultures, languages and people, and it is considered the cultural and artistic center of Chile. The steep cerros, or hills, are stacked with colorful houses sloping down to the coast, making for a beautiful two-way view of the city and the sea.
Valpo (as the city is affectionately called by its residents), is also filled—ground to roof, wall to wall—with intricate murals. Mural painting started in the late 1960s as part of a political campaign for President Salvador Allende, and they range from depictions of animals and people to references to the Mapuche people and culture (Chile’s largest indigenous group) to overtly political messages (BBC News, “The Chilean muralists who defied Pinochet,” 09.06.2013). Valparaíso is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful cities I have ever visited or lived in.
I also had the opportunity to travel within the country and from the coast to the Andes, from the Atacama Desert in the North to Patagonia in the South, the country is unparalleled in its beauty and sheer range of natural wonders. Not only that, but Chileans are an extremely welcoming, fun-loving, and passionate people, and my host family—which consisted of my host mom and 24-year-old host sister—are some of the finest people I have ever met.
My semester in Chile was marvelous, and in addition to gaining a more thorough knowledge of Chilean and Latin American history and politics, I came away with a higher level of Spanish. I can proudly say that I now speak “Chilean,” with all of its dropped consonants and distinct vocabulary (Cachai?). However, it’s often said that the most profound lessons are learned outside the classroom. Bearing witness to the huge explosion of protests that started three months into my program made my semester entirely unlike anything I ever expected.
The level of social unrest that exploded in Chile on Oct. 18 is the largest the country has seen in the last 30 years—since the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship ended and the country returned to democracy in 1990. The eruption of protests that has consumed the country seems to have appeared out of nowhere, but after almost three months, the demonstrations have remained intense and the demands of the people have persisted. Although the situation appeared relatively recently, it is clear that this is a crucial moment for Chile and that it will change the future of the country.
The situation began on Oct. 6, when the government of President Sebastián Piñera, who has been in office since 2018 (having previously served from 2010 to 2014), increased the Santiago metro fare by 30 pesos—about five cents. Although this may sound like an insignificant change, many of the 5.6 million Chileans living in Santiago, the country’s capital, must take the metro two or more times a day to get to work and school. With the median wage in Chile amounting to a mere $540 USD per month—approximately $3.38 per hour for a 40 hour work week—and the median pension being as low as $200 USD per month, many Chileans simply do not have money to spare (NY Times, “‘Chile Woke Up’: Dictatorship’s Legacy of Inequality Triggers Mass Protests,” 11.18.2019).
After the fare hike, students in the city started protesting by means of evading fares and jumping turnstiles. On Friday, Oct. 18, they called for an extended protest in the form of fare evasion, using the hashtag “EvasiónMasiva,” or “MassiveEvasion.” That night, turnstile jumping degenerated into violent protests, including supermarket looting, riots in the streets, vandalism and the burning of 22 Santiago metro stations. The disorder continued throughout the weekend, spreading to Valparaíso and beyond.
At the time, I was not in Valpo; I was on a program-led trip to the Mapuche region in the south. We were staying with Mapuche host families and learning about their culture, lifestyle and poor treatment by and resistance to the Chilean government. This includes the theft of over 90 percent of their original lands, the labeling of the entire people as “terrorists” in order to incarcerate them and the intense policing of and violence against their communities.
Since we were in a fairly remote area with limited access to cell service and Wi-Fi, we heard about the events in bits and pieces and threaded together what was going on. Although we were not witnessing it firsthand (yet), we were extremely anxious, especially because we were out of the loop. We didn’t even know if we would be able to get back to Valparaíso on Tuesday as planned because the Santiago airport was practically shut down. From what we could discern, we knew that the Valparaíso we would return to would be a very different city from the one we had left.
One day after the violent protests, Piñera declared a state of emergency, giving him the power to deploy the military to the streets and instate a curfew, neither of which had transpired—except during natural disasters—since the dictatorship ended in 1990. Neither a suspension of the fare hike immediately after the explosion, nor Piñera’s claim that he had listened “with humility to the voice of the people” (Twitter, @sebastianpinera, 10.19.2019), pacified the country, and the protests continued. The government extended the curfew beyond Santiago, Valparaíso and Concepción to other major cities.
By this point there would be no calming the protests: They had already developed into something much larger than anger over a metro fare hike. There were greater issues at hand, and the Chilean people had had enough.
Chile has been considered one of the richest and most politically stable countries of Latin America in recent history, so the sudden scenes of unrest and violence were shocking. The Chilean economy has grown at a rapid rate in recent years, and it is in a much better state than most of its neighboring countries. However, Chile also has one of the highest rates of inequality in the region. According to World Bank Data, the richest one percent holds 33 percent of the country’s wealth, making Chile one of the 20 most unequal countries in the world (ForeignPolicy, “From Model to Muddle: Chile’s Sad Slide into Upheaval,” 11.23.2019).
This vast inequality is at the heart of the protests. The hike in the metro fare was simply the tip of the iceberg, which is perfectly summarized by the slogan “No son 30 pesos, son 30 años,” or “it’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years”—of wealth and income inequality, rising costs of living with minimum wage remaining practically the same, unmet demands for reform to the healthcare, education and pension systems, and an economy that fattens the rich while leaving the lower and middle classes behind.
What’s more, Piñera’s personal fortune is valued at US$2.8 billion (Forbes, “#804 Sebastian Piñera & family,” 01.28.2020). During his presidency, he has cut the taxes of the wealthiest, and there have also been recent cases of corruption involving the federal police force (NY Times, “‘Chile Woke Up’: Dictatorship’s Legacy of Inequality Triggers Mass Protests,” 11.18.2019). It is impossible for the half of the country that lives on less than $550 a month to see a billionaire president and corruption in their government and not feel some type of indignation. The fare hike was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Just 36 hours after the disturbances started, Piñera said,“We are at war with a powerful, relentless enemy that respects nothing and no one and is willing to use violence and crime without limit”; a quote that has come to represent his criminalization of the entire movement (BBC, “Protestas in Chile, ‘Estamos en guerra’” 10.22.2019).
Although some demonstrations erupted in violence, the majority of the protests, including huge and organized (and legal) marches, have been peaceful, and this statement villainizing the protesters and dividing the country into two sides of a “war” led to the slogan “No estamos en guerra,” or “We are not at war.” The militaristic response of Piñera and his government angered Chileans further, and the movement grew from a call for reforming the system that produces great inequality to a repudiation of Piñera’s government’s severe response. “Renuncia Piñera,” or “Piñera Resign,” joined the rallying cries of the demonstrators.
In the United States, although we certainly see increased policing, mass arrests of protestors and the criminalization of certain social movements (re: mass incarceration that started during the Civil Rights Movement) it is hard to imagine our military patrolling the streets where we live or the government prohibiting us from leaving our houses after a certain hour. I had never lived in a militarized environment before, and this type of restriction on my freedom is not something I had experienced.
Some days the curfew was as early as 6 p.m., three hours before it got dark. Walking by people in uniform holding guns made me feel less safe, not more. There were several times when I was in the close vicinity of gunshots (presumably rubber bullets, or more accurately lead bullets with a rubber coating). After the protests started, I walked through teargas maybe four out of five days, which the military has used excessively, brutally and unnecessarily on the mostly legal and completely peaceful marches.
Once I was watching the beginning of a march in downtown Valpo (per program rules we weren’t allowed to participate in any political protests), and not 10 minutes after it started, military tanks rolled down the street throwing teargas bombs into the crowd. People scattered, and as the ones that had been closest to the bombs came closer, you could see the tears streaming from their eyes and their hands covering their mouths. Scarves or bandanas to cover your mouth and nose from teargas became part of daily dress. You could never avoid it entirely, even if you avoided the marches, because it lingers in the air overnight.
For many Chileans, the presence of the military in the streets reintroduced the memories and trauma of the Pinochet dictatorship of 1973-1990, during which thousands of people were killed and tens of thousands more were detained, tortured or disappeared. In the words of my host mother, who was 13 during the coup that ousted Allende and installed Pinochet, “They took away our liberty and instilled fear and repression. My emotions are traumatic.” One Chilean student who worked with our program told us that his father wouldn’t leave their house, because when he was a child during the dictatorship, the military would always come to the door looking for his father.
The protest practice of cacerolazo also dates back to the days of Pinochet. Participants bang together pots and pans in order to create as much noise as possible. During the curfew years of the dictatorship, most wouldn’t dare risk their lives protesting openly—especially at night, when they could be gunned down just for stepping outside. So they protested from their homes, banging on their pots or pans or anything that made noise. Cacerolazo was again adopted as a form of protest in October—some nights I could go out onto my balcony and hear, quite literally, the entire neighborhood making noise.
Chile has not forgotten Pinochet. In a country where a military government perpetrated violence for so many years in the name of restoring order, using the armed forces to “restore order” again was a somewhat extraordinary step. Many were afraid that the methods of intimidation, coercion and terror would return, and they did not have this fear without reason.
Since October, there have been multiple allegations of human rights violations at the hands of the police. It has been made evident that the military and the police have used an extreme level of force against the protesters, which has resulted in at least 27 deaths, over 2,300 injuries, and 7,000 people detained. Over 1,400 people have sustained gunshot wounds (The Guardian, “Chile security forces’ leaves toll of death and broken bodies,” 11.25.2019).
In addition, there are accusations of torture, sexual abuse (including rape), intentional injury and murder. Over 200 people have suffered eye injuries from the “rubber” bullets used by the police on the protesters (The Guardian, “Chile security forces,” 11.25.2019). The police and military have been aiming at the eyes of demonstrators in an attempt to blind them; the number of eye injuries is more than any other period in the history of Chile, and even the world. This calculated blinding of protesters by the military and police has become such a distinct facet of this movement that there have been hundreds of images circulated and art created depicting people with bloody eye sockets, including several new murals. It has even produced a new slogan, “Ahora vemos más,” or “Now we see more.”
This violence has captured the world’s attention, and international as well as national leaders have blamed Piñera. Former President of Chile and High Commissioner of the United Nations for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has carried out independent investigations into the deaths of various protesters. The U.N.’s report was released on Friday, Dec. 13 and accused Chilean security forces of serious human rights violations; this was not news to Chileans, but provided official, written proof to the rest of the world (AP News, “UN official: Chilean police abused protester’s human rights,” 12.13.2019). The death, torture, sexual abuse, use of excessive force and intentional violence on the part of the police and military has provoked anger within and outside of the country, and the world is watching.
My semester was bookended by social protest; some of my classes started late because of a student strike calling for better mental health services at the university. Student strikes in Chile are organized through a student government and agreed upon with the university—it is an extremely common diplomatic process. And later all of my classes were cut short because of the eruption in October. But as my political science professor at Vassar put it, I was getting an invaluable education in politics and socioeconomics that went beyond class credits.
The experience has also made me reflect on the political processes in my own country—could this level of unity among the people ever occur here, and what would be the results? The results for Chile are still unclear, although they have begun taking steps towards writing a new constitution. The current constitution has been in place since the Pinochet dictatorship ended, and is still very much Pinochet’s constitution—its adoption was one of the requirements of his stepping down as dictator and the return to democracy. This constitution codifies many of the systems that have produced the great inequality in Chile, such as the privatization of water. A new constitution could start a significant process of change.
Since my return to the United States, countless people have asked me, “How was Chile?” As with any big experience, this question is impossible to answer in a sentence or two, and is made even more impossible when I want to tell everybody not only about my own experience but also the massive social uprising I witnessed. Many people are not aware of the events happening in Chile, and many more may not care.
But there is much to learn in simply paying attention. We live in such a global age—events happening in other countries will inevitably affect our own, if not us directly. There were recently inspirations from the Chilean protests in the subways of New York, when New Yorkers took to turnstile-jumping a few weeks ago in their own protests of class- and race-targeted policing in the subway. These events don’t simply take place in an isolated vacuum that will never touch us, a distant world away.
Although I am no longer in Chile physically, the people and events transpiring there remain as important to me as ever. We so often see news from across the globe and brush it off or forget it completely, but it is important to remember that every situation is real for the people experiencing it. My experience has not only inspired me to reflect on my own
All photos courtesy of Helen Johnson.
Thanks for this, Helen. I’m really glad you documented this for yourself and well as those of us who follow politics in our Americas. There is much to ponder here. I also appreciate the excellent references to your sources…gives the piece more authority. I hope you’ll share it with our local paper, as a Decorah native.
Helen, your lucid and heartfelt report is deeply appreciated, most especially since so many of the root causes behind the Chilean turmoil exist here at home as well as so many other regions of the “global economy.” Thank you for sharing, and giving us yet another wake-up call! David