Chile in Revolt - Some personal reflections of events during the past 4 days in Chile
Updated: Apr 10
by Samuel Flewett in Concón
As has been reported in the international media, a high school student led campaign against a fare increase on the Santiago Metro exploded within less than 24 hours into a general revolt against the entire system put in place by Pinochet after the military coup in 1973.
As I write this, (8pm local time), we have been under curfew for 2 hours, and aside from a few people defying the curfew to remain on demonstrations, the city is basically dead. Due to my wife finishing her shift after curfew, I actually had the opportunity to drive across town from the hospital to our house (with Manuel in the care of his uncle - a very eerie experience. Deserted streets, only a few pedestrians trying to hitchhike home after the public transport stopped, and heavily armed soldiers stopping the car to ask for our pass to be out after curfew.
We picked up a couple of people hitchhiking back home, a pair of law students who had been volunteering as human rights observers in nearby Valparaíso, and some other people returning from the demonstration whom we had to let go after only 2 blocks because there clothes were too full of tear gas to allow one to drive safely.
Arriving at our home right in the commercial centre of Concón (20km North of Valparaíso and 120km from Santiago), around 80 demonstrators valiantly remained in the intersection peacefully defying the curfew.
At work on Friday, it quickly became apparent in the online newsfeed that the shit was going to hit the fan that evening. The previous Monday, high school students had started a campaign of civil disobedience against the fare increases, by jumping over the turnstiles and calling on others to do the same. In an attempt to maintain order, the government ordered high levels of police repression against the students, which in turn only gave them further motivation to keep fighting.
By 3pm on Friday, the Linea 1 of the Santiago Metro had been closed (possibly the busiest metro line in the world with trains passing every minute during the day), and workers were being released early from their city jobs in order to be able to make it home by some point. Bus services on the surface quickly became saturated, and many people spent hours walking up to 20km from the centre to their homes.
For the past 2 years, I have been involved in the political party Revolución Democrática - part of the left wing Frente Amplio Coalition which was formed after the student movement of 2011. That evening we had an already planned meeting, and whilst travelling from work to the meeting it was strange how normal things were. The only difference is that people were even more glued to their phones than usual...
At nightfall, things quickly turned violent, with widespread street fighting and the looting of supermarkets and other buildings. During this time, President Piñera was at his grandson's birthday party more or less oblivious to the fact that the city was burning. By midnight, a state of emergency had been declared, bringing to fruition a wet dream of the Chilean far right - "militares a la calle". For the time being, only Santiago was under martial law, however the outrage quickly spread with large demonstrations taking place on Saturday around the country.
Saturday morning dawned fairly calm, however spontaneous demonstrations quickly formed in many places. In Concón, over 500 people marched on Saturday evening - possibly the largest march in the history of the town/suburb. We were very lucky that there were no police present on the march - in other cities that was not the case and there have been widespread cases of peaceful protestors getting clubbed or even shot by police. Unfortunately, during Saturday evening, the rioting and looting got a lot worse, which gave the government the excuse to declare martial law and a curfew across the 3 main cities in the country.
One interesting development however was the appearance of videos of disorders being provoked by state forces - in uniform. Such videos have effectively undermined the government strategy to provoke violence and just justify martial law - and have led to the dominant demand on the streets from yesterday onwards being the resignation of the president and interior minister. As a strategy this would have most likely been very effective 10 or 15 years ago, however with everyone having a video camera on hand, they can no longer get away with such acts.
Sunday saw more demonstrations on a national level, with the most important being a 20.000 strong peaceful demonstration in the plaza de Ñuñoa (santiago), which remained in place even after the start of the curfew, singing the national anthem and chanting ¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido! as the clock struck 7. In other parts of the city and around the country, there were widespread acts of arson with the death toll rising above 10 - mostly from the fires.
The military also violently entered the poor neighbourhood near to where we are living, however without major consequences. It did mean however that I did not take part in the small demonstration that evening, choosing instead to remain with my family.
Monday morning dawned calm, however driving to the hospital, I had to brake heavily to avoid smouldering debris on the motorway which was left over from barricaded formed during the night, and during the day there was a peaceful demonstration of high school students which lasted most of the day. The demonstration mentioned in the 1st paragraph was the tail end of this event.
The port workers also struck along the length of the country, and the truck drivers also demonstrated their discontent - however this time on our side and not paving the way for Pinochet as in 1973. Memories of 73 are strong however with huge queues forming in the supermarkets and the local fruit and vegetable shops on the main street.
Politically the movement is more or less rudderless (sadly). To date only the Communist Party has come out openly calling for Piñera's resignation, despite this being the dominant call on the streets at this time. The Frente Amplio coalition of which I am part of has decided instead to focus on a series of popular demands such as the reduction of politicians bloated salaries and the freezing of energy price rises, fearing that calling for the resignation could result in greater violence (a posture with which I personally don't agree).
The greatest problem however is that there is no leadership for the people who are out on the streets - to date just about all political movement is behind the closed doors of congress.
In conclusion, things are evolving extremely rapidly, with the situation changing from day to day. As I write there is a news article mentioning a possible cabinet reshuffle, which would include the hated interior minister Chadwick being removed. In any case, this event has shown that the democratic disguise of the Chilean right has fallen off, revealing the autocratic ideology they retain from their youth under Pinochet.