Waking Up in Chile

From top to bottom in Chile, we’ve heard the same thing: the country has been a pressure cooker and the protests were bound to happen eventually. Decades of widening disparity between the rich and the poor had led to an inevitable boiling over of frustrations. The younger generation, the ones that didn’t grow up during the Pinochet dictatorship, are less afraid to take to the streets and demand social justice. 

Revolución en Chile.

The protests in Chile had been going on for just under a month by the time we landed. I’d been trawling social media and the news to see what the situation in the country was looking like as our trip approached (and, selfishly, how protests might affect our travel plans). Our initial apartment booking in downtown Santiago was canceled a couple weeks ahead of our trip, as the building was in the middle of the protest area and the landlord felt that it was unsafe. When we arrived at our newly booked apartment in Las Condes, an affluent neighbourhood just outside of the city centre, it was almost impossible to tell that there were protests happening a few kilometres away (aside from a few buildings that had proactively boarded up their windows). Our hostess advised against wandering into the downtown area, qualifying that “más que peligroso es feo” (“more than dangerous, it’s ugly”) – but ugly is subjective (and less concerning than dangerous!) so we did a little wandering anyway.

On a sunny Sunday, the crowds at Plaza Italia – the epicentre of the protests in the capital city (renamed Plaza de la Dignidad by activists)– were relatively quiet. A few hundred people chanted, cheered, banged pots with wooden spoons and waved the Chilean or Mapuche flag. Santiago, like every other Chilean city we traveled through, has been covered in graffiti.

We saw small rallies (more like gatherings than protests) in Punta Arenas (where the building next to our hotel had been burned down the week before) and Puerto Varas (where they had an impressive drum line). In San Pedro de Atacama trendy shops had window signs supporting the protests and signs declaring “no estamos en guerra” (“we are not at war”), a common rebuttal to President Piñera’s initial misguided response to the riots, claiming that the country was at war and criminalizing the millions of civilians protesting.

In Valparaíso, the seaside city famous for its vibrant street art, many murals had been altered to show people with bloody eyes, and countless bloody eyes have been painted around the country in reference to the hundreds of Chileans who have suffered eye trauma or been blinded and maimed by the police. Over twenty people have been killed, and thousands seriously injured. Last week, Amnesty International reported that Chilean military and the carabineros (national police) are violating human rights by intending “to injure demonstrators in order to discourage protest, even to the extent of using torture and sexual violence against protesters.” At the same time, the Valparaíso-based feminist collective LASTESIS has gone viral with their performance of “Un violador en tu camino” (“A Rapist in Your Way”) – decrying violence against women and the human rights violations happening in Chile. The song has now been performed all over the world (here’s an English explainer).

Blinded in Valparaíso.

Of course these issues are complicated and won’t be solved overnight; Chile is one of the wealthiest countries in Latin America, but it also has one of the largest wealth gaps among OECD countries. Protestors are calling for hugely important reforms to inequitable healthcare, education, and pension systems that continue to widen the class divide. In response to the protests, a constitutional referendum has been called for April 2020. Piñera bailed on hosting the UN’s COP25 climate summit which has now begun in Madrid instead (a good time for a reminder that environmental justice cannot be separated from social justice – in Chile water is mostly privatized and the country is already feeling the effects of climate change).

Matapacos (“police killer”), a stray dog that became a symbol of student protests in 2011.

I’m a nosy gringa, and all of the Chileans we’ve chatted with have been generous in sharing their thoughts about the protests and hopes for change. The majority of folks we spoke to were very supportive of the protests and the demands for change (“the unfairness in the country is obscene” one man told us), and denounced the violence and destruction (though many agreed that disenfranchised people are simply desperate and haven’t found any other way to be heard – “there’s no revolution without damage”). There wasn’t much consensus on whether, or to what extent, other countries have been influencing or interfering with the protests, or what the outcome will be (though there have been loud cries for Piñera to resign, it doesn’t seem like people think that will change anything). 

We’ve been in Chile for just over two weeks, and have felt safe the entire time (and beyond that, it’s been pretty wonderful). If you were thinking of traveling here, I would still encourage you to do so, especially if your plans don’t exclusively revolve around being in Santiago. 

Though the situation is obviously tense, it’s been a fascinating time to be in Chile as a foreigner, and quite the education. A 50-something year old cycling guide described to us how difficult it was for him to join the protests even though he supports the cause wholeheartedly – the sound of helicopters overhead brought him back to the time of dictatorship and made him incredibly anxious to be outside.

The movement has been named “Chile Despertó!” (Chile Woke Up!) and I can only hope that no one goes back to sleep any time soon. Suerte, Chile.

Santiago: Let Piñera die, not the working class.
“To change the world, my friend Sancho, is not madness nor utopia. It’s justice.”