By Romina A. Green Rioja
It has been a short time since the mass protests began in Chile, and it already feels as though the country has changed. What started as an organized student movement to rush metro stations and jump turnstiles to protest the 30-peso fare hike escalated into a widespread revolt that unleashed civic outrage over social inequality.
Although Chile is often lauded in international circles as an oasis of economic prosperity, its neoliberal economic model, imposed under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973–1990) and continued by democratically elected governments for the past 30 years, has produced the greatest disparity between rich and poor of any developed society. People have had enough.
In response to the Oct. 6 fare increase that placed the cost of peak hour rides at 830 pesos (US$1.17), making the Chilean transit system the most expensive in Latin America, high school students from the National Institute organized a “mass evasion” of metro stations on Oct. 11. Their action grew in popularity, inspiring more high school and college students every day to gather at metro stations and forego payment by jumping over or breaking metro turnstiles.
Students at the National Institute—the most prestigious all-boys public school in the country—experienced brutal police repression throughout the 2019 school year as the government attempted to break their historical legacy as emblematic leaders of the student movement since the 2006–2011 mass student movement that brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets to protest Chile’s privatized education system.
This past year, images of riot police bursting into classrooms and beating students became a daily occurrence, thus it was no surprise that these students lost all sense of fear. By Oct. 17, the evasion movement had expanded massively and metro stations were lined with police, transforming fare evasion into direct confrontation with law enforcement and shutting down some metro stations in the process.
On Oct. 18, posts on social media listed mass evasion times and locations across the city. Police closed the outside gates of stations, but students and supporters burst them open. Tear gas was thrown into crowds outside and inside the stations, affecting ordinary commuters. As onlookers watched the violent beating of high school students, people joined in solidarity either by jumping turnstiles or fighting the police.
The entire Santiago metro system shut down by late afternoon, forcing thousands to cram onto buses or walk home. A friend described how taking a bus from Tobalaba to Estadio Nacional and walking from Estadio Nacional to Franklin—typically a 45-minute trip—took more than four hours.
But rather than feeling anger toward the student evaders for the inconvenience, people sympathized with their cause. One woman interviewed on TV said that the students’ actions represented what everyone felt but were too afraid to act on themselves.
After years of unmet demands to socialize the private pension system, provide free university education, improve labor laws and working conditions, and place a halt to the rapid rise of the cost of living, the metro evasions uncovered the lid of boiling discontent. The phrase “This is not about 30 pesos, but about 30 years” quickly circulated through graffiti tags and social media graphics, underscoring that opposition to the 30-peso fare hike had come to symbolize anger over growing societal inequity and loss of the social safety net produced by more than 30 years of neoliberal policies by democratically elected governments.
In solidarity with the day’s events, cacerolazos (banging pots and pans, a traditional Chilean form of popular protest) erupted that evening at metro stations across the city. In some instances, metro stations, such as the Plaza Maipu station, mass fury exploded into direct attacks on property that led to the destruction of the station. Soon after midnight, President Sebastian Piñera issued a state of emergency that included a military-enforced curfew beginning the following evening.
Outrage over the state’s decision to deploy the military to quell the social unrest was also a reminder of the years under military rule. Pockets of protests emerged late in the morning of Oct. 19 in the city center concentrated around la Alameda—the city’s most significant avenue connecting important state institutions, such as the presidential palace and Plaza Italia (the meeting point for mass celebrations and protests).
I was with a couple of dozen people on Paseo Bulnes looking toward La Moneda (the presidential palace) banging pots and chanting. Within a minute of my arrival, we were dispersed with tear gas and forced to relocate to a nearby street corner. I attempted to make my way to Plaza Italia, using side streets. Tear gas saturated la Alameda, which made any attempt to reach it impossible until a few blocks from the Plaza.
Finally, at the main avenue, I witnessed riot police chase teenagers and wallop a young woman so hard that her hands bled and left her legs immobile. A group of us carried her to a nearby kiosk that remained open in support of protesters.
Upon reaching Plaza Italia, I watched military armor trucks parade around the roundabout in a show of power and a line of military personnel standing watch while crowds at street corners yelled at them to leave. A young woman who had helped me move the injured woman earlier said to me as we looked on at the unwanted military procession that she never thought she would see this in her lifetime.
On the evening of Oct. 19, the caserolazos evolved from support for student protesters to mass protests against the curfew and deployment of the military. Individuals who might have had lukewarm feelings about the metro evasions were angered about the return of the military in the streets, which broke the social contract of “Never Again” promised by the return of democracy.
But here we were, again. As the curfew deadline approached, the sound of banging pots from windows and the concentrations of people around metro stations increased. The protests expanded to the rest of Chile that evening and, unfortunately, state repression intensified through the use of rubber bullets and live ammunition, producing the first reported deaths at the hands of the military since the dictatorship.
In a televised statement on Oct. 20, President Piñera proclaimed, “We are at war,” directly echoing comments made by Pinochet to justify the armed overthrow of Salvador Allende in 1973. A combination of state repression and the declaration of war motivated thousands more to flood downtown Santiago on Oct. 21.
Major unions called for general strikes, including port workers, miners, healthcare workers, teachers and more. Businesses announced they would remain indefinitely closed either in solidarity with the movement or for fear of looting, ultimately joining the national strike de facto. It was clear that life was not returning to normal and the protests would continue all week long.
On Oct. 23, unions bused in members to join the protests downtown, drawing thousands of supporters. That day, I watched the street battles on Santa Rosa and Alameda.
When the riot police began shooting rubber bullets, a street medic grabbed me and pulled me behind a kiosk. I watched as other street medics pulled injured people around the corner into safety and worked quickly to extract their bullets. Others more severely injured were taken to Londres 38—a former torture center during the dictatorship and now a site of memory—that functioned as a medical attention center for protesters.
Over these days of struggle, state violence increased, but it made people only more determined to fight for more, especially the demand to form a Constituent Assembly with the purpose of replacing the 1980 Constitution imposed by Pinochet’s dictatorial government.
Amid the pot banging and street battles, another element blossomed. The neighborhood cacerolazos allowed us to realize that we were not alone in our grievances and our desire to build a new Chile. In my small neighborhood of Barrio Huemul, our cacerolazo spot in Plaza Huemul became the meeting place for our communal once (teatime) a few hours before the curfew protests began.
Within a few days, the onces evolved into neighborhood assemblies. News spread across the country about the organizing of neighborhood asambleas (assemblies) and cabildos (open town halls).
At our first assembly on Oct. 23, several neighbors noted that even though they were unable to work that week, which proved financially onerous, there is a collective understanding that this is a necessary sacrifice. Another neighbor talked about how they had been waiting for this struggle, but they were too busy in the survival rat race.
We discussed the need to rebuild community, a social fabric lost since the return of democracy and the deepening of neoliberal policies. During the years of dictatorial rule, community networks were a source of resistance and survival, especially through the ollas communes (community kitchens), but disappeared in the 1990s.
The mass rebellion forced everyone to slow down and take out our earphones. It allowed us to drink tea, eat homemade sopaipillas and talk politics in the park with our neighbors.
Both the student movement and the assemblies represent a popular power movement from below that function outside and is often distrustful of the main political parties and government institutions. Our assemblies continue, as well as our lively neighborhood WhatsApp group where we share photos, news and coordinate our small actions.
Throughout the week of protests, congress rushed through several pieces of legislation, including the 40-hour-workweek law, and President Piñera vowed to initiate a new social contract promising to raise the minimum wage among other changes. Yet, after the biggest march in Chilean history on Oct. 25, which gathered more than one million people downtown, the government realized that its breadcrumb concessions were not enough.
On Oct. 26, Piñera announced a cabinet shake-up that some argue was to buy time. Since the protests began on Oct. 18, 23 people had died, 10 in fires and 13 murdered by either police or military officers, including the rape and murder of 36-year-old Daniela Carrasco (known as “la Mimo”), who was kidnapped by police forces and whose lifeless body was found dangling from a tree. Furthermore, the names of 13 women who have disappeared since the protests began are being circulated, which is all too reminiscent of the years under authoritarian rule.
The Communist Party and sectors of the Frente Amplio (the Broad Front coalition of leftist parties) have discussed initiating an impeachment process against Piñera for human rights violations, highlighting that the social crisis has become a political crisis for the political party in power and for congress as well.
The recent mobilizations amplified the demands advanced by the feminist, No + AFP (for socialized pensions), migrant, labor, student and native Mapuche movements and are resonating inside the neighborhood assemblies. The mass revolt also has motivated mini rebellions, such as workers in unorganized workplaces to unionize, salmon farmworkers in Chiloe to go on strike and elementary school teachers to confront the police in the streets of Santiago.
Whether the assemblies will be the building blocks for a Constituent Assembly or the birth of a new social movement is still to be seen. One protest sign stated, “My biggest fear is that everything will return to normal.”
It is clear that even if businesses reopen and people return to work something has changed forever in Chile, and only in the coming months will we be able to assess what we have gained. The truth is that we want more. As the latest slogan circulating through social media exclaims: ¡Hasta que vivir valga la pena! Until living becomes worth it!
(Author’s note: I would like to thank Professor Heidi Tinsman and the editors of Abusable Past for their edits and support in publishing this piece.)
*****Dr. Romina A. Green Rioja received her doctorate in Latin American and World History from UC Irvine, focusing on race relations and the process of state colonization in 19th-century Chile. Her forthcoming article in the April 2020 issue of Revista de Historia de Estudios Agraria de América Latina, analyzes the role of vocational workshops in Catholic native mission schools in integrating indigenous Mapuche youth into the burgeoning rural capitalist economy.