It is an historic day. Despite Piñera’s attempt to dampen protest with his program of concessions—that continue the neoliberal logic (see previous blog)—as we write this, Friday evening, Oct. 25, the biggest demonstration in the history of Chile has taken over the center of Santiago. At least one million people are marching in total rejection of the economic suffering, inequality, privatization, injustices, and abuses that have accumulated over the past 30 years under Chile’s repressive, neoliberal capitalist system. And now they are also protesting the violent military repression of their protest. ¡Chile Despertó! (Chile woke up!)
Víctor Jara sings again in Chile. On CNN we saw thousands of people in the streets of Santiago singing one of Víctor Jara’s most famous songs, El Derecho de Vivir en Paz (The Right to Live in Peace). Jara was a communist and famous singer and composer. He played an important role as a cultural worker in the new Chile under Allende. After the coup he was arrested, brutally tortured, and assassinated by the military. His songs have come to represent resistance to the dictatorship and the vision of the Allende period, and he is known throughout the world. Tonight Chileans brought him to life on the streets of Santiago, evoking again a Chile of justice and peace.
The astounding demonstration of over a million people in Santiago centro means roughly one in every six people in the Santiago metropolitan area is in this demonstration. There is no way to describe it. People of all ages, families, Mapuche flags, feminists, workers, pensioners, motorcyclists, bicycles, dancers… The protests have spread to the whole country, to all of society, to both working-class and middle-class neighborhoods. There are huge demonstrations in cities from the far north to the south at this moment. This week, there have been cacerolazos everywhere—images of young children, underwater divers, motorcycle drivers, elderly people, all banging protest rhythms on pots run across the TV screen, and the sounds reverberate on the streets.
Today, hundreds of truck and taxi drivers began a protest of highway tolls. The truckers brought traffic to a near standstill on parts of Route 5, the main highway that runs over 2000 miles from the north to south of Chile. Around Santiago, giant rigs, smaller trucks, and taxis crept along the highway festooned with banners reading No + TAG!! Basta de Abusos!! [No More TAG!! Enough Abuses!!], protesting the TAG, the toll required to travel on the autopista (highway). According to Reuters, most drivers pay between $35 and $130 a month (US dollars) in tolls to use the highways around Santiago. This is a huge fee considering that many Chileans earn between $560 and $760 (US) a month. Truck and taxi drivers, who drive much more, pay much more. The tollroads are operated by private companies in a public-private partnership with the Chilean government, and the TAG is another opportunity for private interests to profit from Chile’s working and middle class.
The government’s response of repression and weak concessions that continue the same privatized system is not working. Our trip to the grocery store yesterday shows why. Only one supermarket was open in all of Valparaíso, and it closed at 1 PM. Guarded by military in full gear, they were only allowing in 20 people at a time. After standing in line for 40 minutes, we stocked up, like everyone else worried about finding food and basic supplies which have mostly disappeared from the shelves of the small stores in our cerro. For example, it is very difficult to find bottled water or fresh produce, as deliveries have been very intermittent. Here’s a sample of why people have had enough. In US dollars, we paid $3.50 for 2 sticks of butter; $15.87 for 3 kg of non-concentrated, powdered laundry soap; $1.60 for 3 heads of garlic; $2.60 for a quart of yogurt. Obviously these are very expensive items for most Chileans earning $560-$760 a month.
The state of emergency has been brutal. The INDH (National Institute of Human Rights) reports 2,948 detained, 585 wounded and hospitalized (302 by firearms), and the government itself says 19 have been killed (INDH reports 5 claims of military homicide). The UN is sending a commission to investigate on Monday, and they plan to stay in Chile for four weeks. The carabineros are using rubber bullets. There are 9 reported incidents of people losing their sight in one eye due to being shot in the face by bullets and the five young men killed by the military have become a national cause. Here’s a short, powerful video of a young Chilean helping people deal with the after effects of a powerful and violent tear gas.
Today a relatively small march of a few hundred was broken up by the military in Valparaiso. When someone threw an object at the building (this was looped on TV news), Congress abruptly cancelled its discussions of the crisis and evacuated the building “for security”. The absurdity of this and its suspicious alignment with a general stoking of fear seemed clear to us. The congress building is a fortress. It’s a massive stone structure erected under Pinochet, resembling the fascist architecture of Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s fascist Italy. Surrounded by fences and military special forces with armored vehicles and semi-automatic weapons, it is hardly vulnerable to objects thrown by a few individuals.
Political elites have lost all legitimacy. The abuses have been laid bare, and Víctor Jara’s voice rings out again. Millions are demanding an end to the abuse and for a dignified life. In the period ahead, the critical issue is how to create a new Chile? A few of the things we’re paying attention to are: popular assemblies or cabildos where people engage in serious discussions about how to reconstruct the society; the demand for a new constitution (Chile still has the constitution created by the dictatorship that enshrines existing economic and social policies and legalizes states of emergency in which the military take charge); can the Left provide a viable alternative; and what will the military and the state do in this time of crisis.