I want to take moment to share pertinent background information and my experiences during the ongoing social revolution in Chile. I have been present during the conflict and apologize in advance for the length of my posts.
In 1970, Chile became the first and only country in history to be led by a democratically elected president, Dr. Salvador Allende. Before his presidency, Dr. Allende fought to improve working conditions, public education, and combat inequality in Chile. Through land reform and the creation of scholarships for Mapuche youth, Dr. Allende is the only Chilean president who supported the indigenous Mapuche Community in southern Chile.
After enacting sweeping land reform, and nationalizing both the copper and baking industries, US corporations and politicians alike feared for their interests in Chile. The Nixon administration colluded with the CIA to suppress Allende’s presidency. According to a New York times article published on September 20, 1974 by Seymour M. Hersh, “more than $8‐million authorized for clandestine C.I.A. activities in Chile was used in 1972 and 1973 to provide strike benefits and other means of support for anti‐Allende strikers and workers.” Chile is the most narrow country in the world. The trucking industry is the foundation for stability and resource security in the country. Using US tax generated capital, the CIA paid more than 250,000 truck drivers and union members to strike (Hersh). These strikes led to food shortages and unrest. The centralized city of Santiago which was filled by more than fifty percent of the Chilean population in 1973 was especially affected by the CIA’s covert operations.
On September 11, 1973, General Augusto Pinochet led a crippling coup. Historians still dispute President Allende’s supposed suicide on the first day of the coup. General Pinochet served as the dictator of Chile from 1973 to 1990. At the request of Chilean President Ricardo Lagos, the Valech Report was published in 2004. According to the report, more than 38,000 people were imprisoned, tortured, or killed. Although the exact numbers presented by the Valech Report have been disputed by reputable organizations such as Amnesty International, the human rights violations during Pinochet’s dictatorship are undeniable. After transitioning to democracy after the military dictatorship, the Chilean government has not changed Pinochet’s constitution.
Neoliberal economists across the world have applauded Chile’s transition to economic stability following the 1973 coup. In the 1970s and 1980s, Economics students from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile in Santiago and other Chilean universities traveled to the United States to study at prestigious universities such as the University of Chicago, Harvard, and MIT. These students specialized in libertarian theory. There are cases of exchange programs for Chilean economists backed by the US State Department dating as far back as the 1950s. While the neoliberal reforms enacted in Chile is revered by many, these changes failed to fight inequality and bring social progress in what is considered the most developed country in Latin America.
Chile is grappling with an array of humanitarian transgressions. The Gini coefficient is used to quantify a country’s income inequality. According the Gini coefficient calculated by the CIA, Chile is 15th most unequal country in the world. CIA statistics also show that Chile has the 83rd highest GDP in the world. Much of the wealth in Chile is controlled by seven families. The Angelini, Lecaros, Yaconi, Sarquis, Stengel, Fernández, and Iquiero familes. Breaking the caste-like system in Chile is nearly impossible. Although Chile has the highest GDP in Latin America, nepotism and archaic conventions hinder Progress in the country.
Before embarking on my study abroad journey at Pontifical Catholic University of Valparaíso I worked with a crowdsourcing group for seven weeks in Santiago. My internship opened my eyes to business conventions in the country’s capital. I commuted to work every day using the public metro system. Traveling to work during peak morning and evening hours was daunting. The metro system in Santiago is out of date and egregiously crowded. Finding shoulder space on the metro during the daily commute is impossible. People are regularly squeezed together like cattle in a corral. Newborn babies howl and the workforce scowls. I never saw a smile on the metro during my daily commute. Tensions in Santiago finally erupted as a result of the dehumanizing aspects of the city’s metro system.
Santiago’s metropolitan government raised the metro fare by 30 Chilean pesos on Friday October 18, 2019. High school and middle school students led protests. Across the country, Chileans voiced their approval of the bravery of Chilean minors who took action and questioned systematic repression in the capital.
On Saturday October 19, 2019, nine public busses and sixteen metro stations were set ablaze by demonstrators. At this point, forty one metro stations were damaged. In the late afternoon while returning to Valparaíso after spending the afternoon at the beach with friends, we saw a convoy of at least ten military busses filled with detainees heading south. Protests in Valparaíso on October 19 began at metro stations across the city. Unlike the publicly owned metro system in Santiago, the metro system connecting Valparaíso and neighboring city Viña del Mar is privately owned. I spent the afternoon with my flat mates watching live broadcasts of protests in both Valparaíso and Santiago. As we watched the news, we could hear incessant clang of silverware against pots and pans known as cacerolazo (a historical way to protest in Chile). Later in the evening, demonstrators in Valparaíso congregated in the streets as metro stations were left in ashes. Six of our close friends left their homes to stay at our house that night. We cooked all the food we had for everyone and filled every pot and pan we could find with water. That evening from the safety of our apartment building’s roof deck, we watched the first night of protests with a panoramic view of Valparaíso. Demonstrators built roadblocks and evaded tear gas. President Sebastián Piñera declared a state of emergency and deployed military forces in Valparaíso, Concepción, La Serena, and Santiago. During the state of emergency, the Chilean constitution allows military forces to detain anyone on the street following the curfew. The Chilean government had not deployed the Chilean military in major cities since the 8.8 Mww earthquake of 2010. That evening we watched a group of young men surround a car and eventually set it on fire. The owner of the car, a mother with an infant in her arms, shrieked as they threw a molotov cocktail under the car’s hood. A group of demonstrators entered our building that night and unsuccessfully attempted to set it on fire. As demonstrators rightfully chanted anti US slogans, I sat around the dinner table with my Spanish flat mates. October 19 is a night I will never forget.
No one slept well. On Sunday October 20, 2019 we woke up with the sun to hoard as much food as we needed for the coming days. In the early morning glow, the rancid smell of melting metal, tear gas, and burnt rubber filled the air. Uber and the bus system were both shut down. All the shops near our house were closed. The ten of us walked in a tight group across the city and found one small market that was open. We filled our backpacks with enough food for the next few days and were sure not to take too much. As we walked home, cacerolazo filled the streets. On our way back from the grocery store, we found ourselves trapped between various demonstrations. An elderly couple and young mother with her child were next to us when an armored military vehicle dispersed teargas on us. We were four blocks from the closest protest. None of us were shouting. None of us held a communist nor Mapuche flag. After navigating the demonstrations, we made it home safely. Later in the day, members of the military fired guns at demonstrators directly below us. We watched with our windows closed. As the news played on TV, civilian footage captured on the street below our home was broadcasted across the country.
The next morning, we made our way to the airport in Santiago. We spent the next week in Buenos Aires filled with guilt as we watched friends’ publications on social media showing the atrocities back in Valparaíso. On October 21st, President Sebastian Piñera declared, “Estamos en Guerra” (We are at war). By Friday October 25th, he voiced his desire to march in Santiago with his fellow Chileans.
While the demonstrations throughout Chile are justified, the movement is fragmented and unorganized. The military allows desperate civilians to loot local businesses. Looting has set precedent for violent action against the pueblo (Chilean people). Over the past month, there has been Progress and loss. On my very street I have seen cars set on fire, grocery stores looted, tear gas dispersed, pharmacies set ablaze, and demonstrators shot. November 12th was the most violent and emotionally draining day of my study abroad experience. I heard thousands of gunshots throughout the day. Grappling with the desire to help those in need while also ensuring my own safety has not been easy.
The protests are not just about the spike in the metro fare. Demonstrators are fighting for a new constitution, reproductive rights, and a just pension system. Many Chileans who do not attend university are drafted into the military. A father told me that his son with autism is forced to wear a patch on his arm at school. There are many fascist practices in the Chilean government. I have cried for Chile. I have cried for Valparaíso. As a US citizen, I have felt guilty. As of today, opposition leaders and the ruling government have agreed to hold a national referendum.
I ask everyone to send positive energy to lawmakers and the people of Chile.