By Elizabeth Milos Rieloff
Photo by Javier Vergara (winning photo at the “Critics Choice Awards 2020”)
The Chilean people have been living very precariously in a relentless system for a long time: long work hours, minimum wage, job insecurity, crippling debt and poor health outcomes due to privatized education and healthcare, and retirement pensions that are one quarter the minimum wage. Neoliberalism transformed Chilean society into a consumerist, individualistic and “apolitical” world which many Chileans stubbornly endured but in October of 2019, Chile became very dangerous to the worldwide neoliberalist model.
Since the “transition to democracy” in 1990, the Mapuche continued fighting for their cultural, political and territorial rights against extractive industries which were sustained and defended by a succession of Chilean governments (both “socialist” and rightwing). The communities have continued to bear the brunt of state repression with incarceration, frame-ups, police killings, raids, military sieges, Pinochet-era Anti-Terrorism laws and mainstream media campaigns that depict the Mapuche as a “problem” group that doesn’t want “progress” for Chile.
The other problematic sector for the successive post-dictatorship governments has been the student sector, especially the high school students, whom follow a long tradition of struggle against the privatization of education: in 2001 it was the “Mochilazo” (backpack protest), in 2005-06 it was the “Movimiento de los Pingüinos” (the movement of the Penguins, named after the appearance of their school uniforms) during which students carried out massive school occupations and started organizing political discussion assemblies regarding the educational situation in Chile. The university students joined in 2011 after which many of their main leaders became elected as the congressional representatives of this new generation. However, the judicial-legal state apparatus protected the privatized educational system and treated it as an “industry” instead of a right.
Then came October 18, 2019 and the rest of Chile woke up.
Initiated by high school students against a 30-peso metro rate hike, soon social media images of thousands jumping over turnstiles, getting arrested and beat up by police became viral. The cry was “It’s not 30 pesos, its 30 years!” Thirty years since “democracy” had come but also more than 30 years of an economic system that was wringing the life out of the population. More than 50% scrape by on minimum wage (US$426/month). Retirees from the privatized retirement plans (AFPs) only get US$125/month. The social upheaval became an immediate danger to the Pinera government because it was a self-organized revolt not led by any political party, which could’ve been brought into the political fold of quasi power.
This self-organized movement had very notable characteristics: it was almost unanimously against any flags belonging to political parties and both Chilean and Mapuche flags were everywhere. It was a broad social movement, and the Mesa de Unidad Social (Social Unity roundtable, which did not claim to be speaking in the name of the entire movement) composed of leaders of unions, student, professional and feminist organizations came together to present a list of demands: higher wages, job security, an end to the privatized retirement plans, and to privatized education and healthcare, a cancellation of all of the student debt, and of the transit toll debts (TAGS), an end to the privatization of water, and all of Chile’s natural resources, an end to the industrial sacrifice zones which leave people and the environment sick from dangerous pollution, and last but not least, to create a Constituent Assembly which would abolish Pinochet’s 1980 constitution, a major obstacle to meaningful change.
The social upheaval became like a giant tsunami and like the ocean, the waves of protests kept coming throughout the entire length of Chile. Pinera declared a State of Emergency calling the military to the streets, a new reality that up until now, only the Mapuche communities had suffered during these past 30 years.
At the frontlines fighting the police and military were the “Primera Linea”, young men and women and even children, students, workers and youth from the poorest shantytowns, many of these brought up in the oppressive and sexually abusive Sename, Child Welfare Centers. Medical students and nurses formed Medics Brigades to treat the injured. The millions that marched peacefully during Chile’s largest marches were protected by the Primera Linea, which literally blocked the police attacks by confronting the gigantic water cannons, armoured police vehicles with slingshots and rocks, neutralizing tear gas with traffic cones and water jugs.
In November, Congress reached an agreement behind closed doors to hold a referendum on a new Constitution in April 2020. The referendum choice would be to either Approve or Reject a new constitution and if Approve, then two options would be available to draft this new constitution: A “mixed” convention composed of 50% members of Congress (from their respective political parties) and 50% independents or a Constitutional Convention (CC) composed of 100% independents. It was an agreement that didn’t include the Constituent Assembly option, which held more guarantees of true self determination.
Congress acted quickly to tie the hands of this future convention by passing a “reform” law that prohibited any decision regarding any other government entity (rendering the undemocratic Constitutional Tribunal untouchable) and keeping national assets like water (which is already privatized) and the Free Trade agreements (which also cover the privatized retirement system) beyond its scope. Youth under 21 couldn’t be elected as members to this convention, excluding the same high school age youth who had started Chile’s revolution. Negotiations continued regarding representation of Chile’s indigenous population and gender parity.
The government of Pinera quickly passed laws prohibiting wearing masks during protests, banned protests that blockaded streets or occupied schools imposing harsh 5-year sentences. It passed laws allowing the President to call the military to the streets to protect so-called “essential infrastructure” without having to declare a State of Emergency.
Each wave of protest was met with severe police repression costing dozens of lives and thousands of injured. The National Institute for Human Rights (INDH) kept an ongoing tally of cases denouncing torture and cruel treatment and sexual violence against men, women and children. The tally also started showing an alarming trend: police targeted protestors’ eyes with pellets and tear gas, literally blowing up people’s eyeballs. The Primera Linea, from behind their makeshift shields ingeniously used hundreds of laser pointers to try to prevent police from aiming their weapons against the protestors.
Between October and March, more than 450 people had lost at least one eye and two people had lost both. It was the largest number of eye injuries during a social upheaval than in any other part of the world during the past 25 years combined. Though the number of people detained were estimated to be in the tens of thousands, the National Institute for Human Rights were able to visit at least 10,000 people in jails to verify the human rights violations. Between 2,500 and 5,000 are still awaiting trials in overcrowded, unsanitary Petri dish jails during a pandemic. Three international Human Rights organizations presented reports of systematic violations of human rights.
March brought the half a million strong Women’s March and then news of the Corona virus began circulating. The government had been overplaying its preparedness level but as the number of infections and deaths increased worldwide, it took this opportunity to postpone the April referendum.
Throughout Chile, the same people and social organizations that had been protesting began making calls to stay inside and protect each other, even holding Cacerolazos (pots and pans protests) from home demanding a total quarantine. Government response was abysmal, imposing only partial quarantines, a curfew creating more crowding for workers on public transportation, and also creating laws allowing corporations to lay off millions of workers, leaving them indigent in the middle of a pandemic. Meanwhile, hospital workers denounced lack of protective equipment and ventilators. Chile now has the highest new infection rate per 1 million inhabitants in the world.
In May, Pinera finally ordered a shutdown of all of Santiago and other major cities, but this has caused a siege of hunger for the poorest sectors who can’t work from home and have no income. The neoliberal labor policies have unmasked the precarious situation of the workers under this system: no work contracts or permanent positions, just living day by day.
Also, in May, Pinera began initiating legal mechanisms to release Pinochet ex-military/police prisoners, convicted of crimes against humanity, from their luxury jails using the pandemic excuse.
The latest dark chapter is the attempt to pass a new National Intelligence Law that places all other government functions under the Intelligence entities to monitor and punish political and social organizing.
The Mapuche in the south depend on selling their goods in vegetable markets to survive but police arrested Mapuche vegetable market sellers and destroyed their goods in Temuco. Hunger protests have erupted in districts like El Bosque, Villa Francia, La Legua, San Bernardo and Puente Alto. Again, youth wearing masks and shields throw rocks at the newly purchased million-dollar police water cannons and armored police vehicles. Dozens of protesters have been arrested again.
Throughout Santiago, traditional soup kitchens have begun sprouting. It is the same soup kitchens that emerged in 1930 during the authoritarian regime of Coronel Carlos Ibanez del Campo (who organized the police force into Carabineros de Chile), and the same soup kitchens of the 1980s during the Pinochet dictatorship.
Pinera’s civilian dictatorship targets soup kitchens, raiding, arresting and destroying food. This hasn’t stopped the enormous solidarity among the most poor: the fishermen of Lebu donated 4 tons of fish to the poor neighbourhoods in La Pintana and El Bosque; the neighbours share what they have in their cupboards and in the territorial assemblies, those same ones that organized to discuss and create a new constitution from the bottom up have organized raffles and food pantries while the youth of the Primera Linea, covered in masks, gloves and protective clothing take food to the elderly and disabled. In one social media video, a 15-year-old sharing food with neighbours explains that he works to support his little sister. The music in the background pleasantly surprises him and he begins to smile and chant to the song, “Con Todo Sino Pa’Que?” (“Give it your ALL, there’s nothing left to lose” which became the song of the Primera Linea since October 18th). Hashtags on social media and on the walls of Santiago promise, #ViveremosVolveremosVenceremos (We will Live, We’ll be back, We will Win).
(shorter version published in Taskforce on the Americas newsletter, May 2020)