Eye-witness report from Chile
Updated: Oct 23, 2019
By Tomás Usón in Santiago
Last Friday the first generalized protests took place in Santiago after several days of students protesting against the rise of the metro tickets in the capital. What started as common confrontation between police and demonstrator ended up with the declaration of state of emergency by the government (I was on the streets that day – the confrontations weren’t the usual 10-20 hooded people against the police, but a mass protest against police brutality).
This clearly made things escalate faster, concluding with the arson attack on metro stations and even the building of ENEL, an energy company of Italian capital (although there are some rumors that this last one has been set up since it is impossible that a bunch of student could have burned such an infrastructure with gas).
The next day it didn’t get better. The declaration of state of emergency was followed by Piñera’s order to send militaries to the streets of the capital, which hasn’t been seen since Pinochet’s dictatorship 30 years ago. Provocations of demonstrators went in crescendo as actions were surrounded by military tanks and police’s special forces.
As expected, the situation of violence against public and private infrastructure didn’t stop that day. Plundering retail companies, big supermarkets, pharmacies and gas stations was happening more and more often.
The day ended up with Piñera imposing a curfew in Santiago starting at 10pm. At this time protests already extended to the main cities of the country including Valparaíso, Concepción, Chillán, Antofagasta, among others.
The first day of martial law rather increased the violence; plundering increased as well as spontaneous conglomerations on the main points of the city, including residential areas where protests have never taken place in the last 30 years. That night, first information about casualties from military brutality appeared.
On Sunday the protests seemed to go on the rise. Conglomerations in Santiago’s classical protest spots like Plaza Italia were immediately strongly repressed by the police, which encouraged to more and more people to join the actions. And that is something very unique that I haven’t seen in my whole life: despite the brutality and the strong military contingent, people seemed not to be afraid.
I saw how the water tank passed over and over again joined by rubber-bullet shots and people didn’t even step back. On the very same area groups of the Red Cross were assisting those who had been hit and hurt. Curfew was moved forward to 7pm that day, but at 9pm mass of thousands of people were still gathering in several points of the capital and several cities where the curfew was also declared.
At the end of this day Piñera was mistakenly declaring that the country was on war against criminal forces that were trying to destabilize the economy, showing the absolute incapacity of this president to face with such a situation of popular uprising. And this is very important to make clear: There is absolutely no political force, organization or group behind this. All protests have been spontaneous and even the left-wing parties, including the coalition Frente Amplio, have stepped back as a response to people’s current apathy against the political establishment and respecting the self-organized condition of the uprising.
Protests continued yesterday and a massive national strike was announced. Half of the services and commerce opened and protests in some point were more massive than the other days. At this point almost every city in the country is mobilized somehow and it looks like it will keep increasing as the days moves onward. Social organizations, unions and some political parties are already calling to join the general strike announced for this Wednesday.
In the meantime, commerce and services are scarce and flights, buses and subway are working to half of its capacity. Violence is increasing and an unknown number of casualties (official sources say that 15 persons have died but there is a lot of people disappeared). We are seeing the worst of a government that break the democratic pact of no militaries on the street 30 years ago.
Despite the whole violence, there is hope and resistance. All the inequalities and injustices so strong immersed in Chilean society are at the center of the public opinion under the slogan that Chile finally “woke up”.
Piñera is completely overwhelmed; he insists that the temporary freezing of the passenger fares and a call to unity and round tables with the parties of the opposition will be enough to contain the current scenario. This is by no chance arbitrary; to accept that his government and program are part of the systemic problem that Chile faces nowadays in areas like education, health, housing, pensions and environment, among others, would be to accept the defeat of the neoliberal project that he and all the status quo have blindly supported.
There are, however, some highly worried voices by the presence of the military. Some voices argue that the government haven’t used all its military power to suppressed situations of plundering and vandalism as a way to led the same people to ask for more military intervention (I personally saw how a car store was plundered and burned during the curfew without being stopped by a huge military contingent 500 meters away), which would ultimately allow the government to apply a strict military intervention.
The “people against people” thesis makes more and more sense in a country where the public order and the law enforcement are strong part of the public discourse. There are also some rumors about local and alternative media being wired and censored, and even some Whatsapp audios arguing that communication companies are shutting down some antennas to reduce the coverage of protests and situation of police brutality through videos and images captured with smartphones.
It should be said that all this are just conjectures and it is almost impossible to know what information that is being shared is true and what it’s not. What is absolutely clear is that the government and the official media are trying to establish a sensation of chaos and insecurity by declaring states of emergency, curfew and even “war declarations”. There is insecurity and fear for things to come.
Such a context can be a unique opportunity for the country to change one of the most neoliberal systems that the world has ever experienced, but it can be also a perfect scenario for the consolidation of ultra-right populist project promising social programs and iron fist against violence.