***note: I wrote this on October 19 at the beginning of the uprising. I did not have access to Wi-Fi at the time, as I was on an academic excursion in a rural area in the south of the country. I plan on posting more selections from the journal I started keeping on Chile’s mass mobilizations against economic austerity and the oppressive neoliberal system.***
On September 11, 1973 in Chile, a military coup against the first democratically-elected socialist government in the world shook the country to its core and forced its radical political imagination and ambition into hibernation. The following 17 years of dictatorship banned and violently repressed social movement and organization of any kind altogether. During this regime, Pinochet forcibly instituted a neoliberal economic system that reaped great growth for the already wealthy and powerful and afflicted the country with gross socioeconomic inequality. Despite official reports of decreased poverty levels, the system persists to this day in Chile and overall socioeconomic inequality is maintained, if not exacerbated. Politicians make it their business to maintain the system, and, as a result, the vast majority of the country are entirely disillusioned with the formal political system: voter participation has fallen every national election since the country’s transition back to democracy in 1990 under terms negotiated with Pinochet and his fascist regime. However, there exists a swelling demand for change that is increasingly finding expression outside the formal system and instead in social movements and mobilization. For example, in 2011, Chile experienced a wave of student movements that began to alter the political landscape and reasserted the power of the people to catalyze change outside of the formal system. The people are once again bringing that power to the attention of the country and the world and demanding that their voices be heard over the oppressive noise of a system that tries to drown them out.
In Santiago, the nation’s capital, the metro fare was raised to secure more profit for the private company that runs the city’s transportation system. This increase makes a real difference for the workers who must commute to and from work each day to make ends meet. In Chile, thanks to neoliberalism, privatization reigns supreme and public services are few and far in between — Chile is the only country in the world with privatized water. So when this fare increase was met with large protests in Santiago, these demonstrators were mobilizing against the entire neoliberal system that has been so detrimental for the lives of so many Chileans.
The mobilization in Santiago catalyzed more action in other cities, such as Valparaíso, where our program is based and where there has been a strong presence of student movements in recent history. The people want structural change. And they take to the streets to make this known. And how does the government respond? By sending militarized police out into the streets against its own people to suppress citizen action with tear gas, armed vehicles, bullets. By declaring a state of emergency, a condemnation of the protests as a threat to general public safety that also suspends civil liberties and enables mass arrests of more than 700 protesters as of today. By imposing a 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew in the entire Santiago metropolitan area, the provinces of Santiago and Chacabuco, and the regions of Coquimbo, Valparaíso, O’Higgins, and Biobio. More cities and regions follow, and the hours are expanded. This curfew reminds me of the one in place during the dictatorship as a form of social control. This is not a coincidence: the dictatorship never really left, but merely shape-shifted into the fancy new packaging of “neoliberal democracy,” a revolting oxymoron that plagues much of the Western Hemisphere.
It is incredibly powerful to be here in Chile while the people are rising. I am fully with the people in their fight. However, the reactions from the media, the establishment, and some of the people around me disgust me, though they don’t surprise me. They are the same distraction tactics that have been used time and time again to detract from and delegitimize mass mobilization around the world. The cable news airs “coverage” of the protests that consist of aerial shots of buildings burning, and the viewer is led to believe that protest means destruction, senseless destruction. There is no space given to explain the movement’s goals or the larger sociopolitical context. This absence is purposeful and demonizes the movement, negates the necessity of its existence for the people who are out fighting for their right to a dignified quality of life. The system would prefer us to lament the irrelevant damage to a few meaningless buildings and condemn the alleged violence of the protesters, while the carabineros (Chilean police force with a history of abuse that operates as an autonomous institution) crack the skulls of high school students in the streets and the state systematically starves its own people.
I am in a study abroad program that claims to be concerned with “Cultural Identity, Social Justice, and Community Development” — and yet half the people in this program, who love to hear themselves talk about social justice and human rights in the safety of a classroom, as long as it remains theoretical, show their true colors as soon as the words turn into action. They too speak only of the fires, of people “taking advantage” of the situation as an excuse to destroy. They willingly and eagerly regurgitate the skewed narrative the system feeds them. I see resistance, resilience, and determination; they see broken glass and smoke. They could speak of alternative political expression, of collective action, of the better world for which these protestors are striving. But they choose to abandon their supposed values, they choose to adopt the lens of the oppressor, they choose to be complicit in this way. It is incredibly frustrating to feel that they do not comprehend, nor respect the importance of what is occurring here in Chile. But whether they open their eyes or not, the change is coming. The people are making sure of that.