Piñera to Chile: It’s all about “public order”

On Nov. 15, the Piñera government and the left opposition agreed to an acuerdo por la paz [see previous blog], for a national referendum (April 2020) to vote on whether or not to create a new constitution, and if so, with what process. It seemed that no sooner had the ink dried than the right-wing state went on the offense, attempting to push to the background wide-spread denunciation of police and military repression and impunity (“No More Abuses”) and the demands for social rights (a dignified life), and to turn the whole conversation to the imperative to restore “public order.”  

First, on Nov. 24, Piñera proposed six new laws to criminalize protest and militarize the country [see previous blog]. His rhetoric was that the laws were necessary against the “violence” of social protest and to defend “public order.” The next day, the Minister of Education, Marcela Cubillos, proposed a series of measures to clamp down on “political indoctrination” of minors in schools and kindergartens. She said, in part, the laws were to protect “the rights of the child” from “propagandistic” teaching, which is “violence,” even if “a less visible violence than a white overalls throwing a molotov [bomb].” 

Then on Nov. 26, the national labor federation, the CUT (Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Chile) called for a paro nacional [general strike] and led large, disciplined marches of teachers, health-care workers, teachers assistants, and other workers around the country. We were on-hand in Valparaíso for a spirited, well-organized, and peaceful march of workers (check out the music!), but what we observed was a carabinero attack that was qualitatively different and more aggressive than previous marches we’ve observed. 

Normally as Valparaíso marches advance toward the Congress building, the police set up barriers and eventually move in to disperse the crowd with water cannons. This time there were no barriers, no warning, and blocks from the Congress the police aggressively moved tanks directly at the front of the march and then drove their water-cannon/armored vehicles through the streets, chasing people down side streets and pursuing them across el Plan (the downtown of Valparaíso). As you can see in this video, there were people of all ages, including babies, children, and elders. One friend, a city employee in the department of education, who was near the front of the march, told us that he was tear-gassed and drenched by the carabineros

Parent protesters protecting their children from tear gas
Parent protesters protecting their children from tear gas

The state is attempting to redirect public anger and attention from the historic, systemic injustices and indignities to individual acts of what the state calls “delinquents.” Public officials say that the main problem in Chile today is the lack of public order, due to “violence” coming from the people, particularly encapuchados (young people wearing hoods and masks) sacking and burning stores and setting barricades in the streets.

These moves by the state are occurring simultaneously with continued and looping media coverage of looting and fires. On Nov. 28, the Senate passed the ley antiencapuchados [law against encapuchados], increasing penalties for anyone covering their face in the “context of crime of public disorder.” There is a consistent refrain distinguishing the encapuchados from “legitimate” protestors whose rights must be protected; yet this occurs in the context of the government’s extreme violations of human rights, as documented and publicized by various national and international organizations. 

At the same time, the state is making minor concessions, e.g., raising monthly pensions of retirees (an increase, in US dollars, of about $32 for 75 year olds; $39 for 75-79; and $64 for 80-plus) and bolstering the national minimum wage to about $650 a month. These are all still within the neoliberal logic of privatized pensions and public services. 

The saqueos (sacking and looting) are real. They disrupt transportation and shopping, in some instances affect small businesses, and have put people out of work. These are real concerns of working class people and local merchants, and, disconnected from organized protest, they play into the right wing offensive. The Mesa Unidad Social (coalition of social movements and unions) produced a poster, “El Pueblo no Saquea al Pueblo” [The People don’t Sack the People]. 

Social movements also point out that the real violence is the pain of poverty, theft of water and natural resources, racism and theft of native land, dictatorship, torture, sexual violence, degradation, exclusion, and armed state violence against protest. This is the essence of the mass demand for a dignified life [see earlier blog]. 

As the state focuses on sacking and looting of buildings, Amnesty International and now Human Rights Watch decry the violence of government police and military forces, finding “compelling evidence of excessive use of force and abuses against demonstrators and bystanders” and the “use of shotguns that scatter pellets indiscriminately over a wide area with the potential to harm anyone in their path” (a main reason almost 250 eye wounds have occurred, with many people blinded). In addition, HRW found that “Police also brutally beat protesters, shot bean bag rounds and teargas cartridges directly at them, and ran over some with official vehicles or motorcycles.” 

“General Strike”— Bleeding Eye/Map of Chile

Furthermore, Chile is a country founded in violence against the Mapuche [see earlier blog] and other indigenous peoples. While the 30 peso metro fare increase was a last straw, it was 30 years of the violence of neoliberalism, the ravages of a violent dictatorship, and 300 years of colonial violence against native peoples, that fueled the uprising.  

“It’s not 30 pesos, it’s not 30 years, it’s 300 years of repression against the Mapuche.”

The 1973 coup was a violent, military takeover that ushered in a dictatorship that lasted until 1990. 

Mural of Salvador Allende during the 1973 military coup; Casa Memoria, Valparaíso

The violence of neoliberalism since the 1970s in Chile, includes, for example, the privatization of health care.

“Piñera, your negligent health system killed my mother.”

Chile’s violence includes the 20-plus people who have been killed since Oct. 18 in the most recent protests, many of whom murdered by state police forces.

“Our dead have faces”—Shotgun shells, tear gas and smoke grenade canisters (made in USA), Casa Memoria, Valparaíso

The violence includes the theft of water that has dried up agricultural lands as water has gone to agribusiness and to industrial purposes.

“Looting is that we are the only country with privatized water.”
“The water is running out because it is being stolen—85% to monocultural farming and forestry; 11% to industry and mining; 4% for the people.”

And it has included carabineros aiming at people’s eyes.

“You can put out our eyes, but we’re no longer blind.”

We also want to understand the root causes of the saqueos. The reality is that a segment of Chilean young people are not working, not in school, and many may not even be part of the informal economy (which the World Bank and OECD estimates to be around 30% of the population), while income inequality in Chile is highest of all OECD countries. A politics of disposability excludes sectors of Chilean society from social and economic participation and for whom the very notion of the public and common good has eroded over 30-plus years of neoliberal privatization. We’ve been told by veterans of the anti-dictatorship struggles—or their children—that the social solidarities that form the basis of genuinely secure communities were eroded during the 1973-1990 period of military rule, and that 30 years of neoliberalism have only furthered the ideology of individualism. In this context, it is not hard to understand the rabia (rage) of some young people. This is not just an issue for social movements in Chile. The politics of disposability and punishment, the social disconnection of a segment of youth, is a product of racism and neoliberal capitalism globally, and developing a politics of restorative justice is one of our challenges. 

“Not to feel rage at social injustice is a privilege.”

The saqueos have also been aimed at different targets. Some have hit representatives of the dictatorship and right, (e.g., El Mercurio newspaper, whose role in bringing down Allende’s Unidad Popular government in 1973 is well documented), large banks, and several large supermarket chains, including Lider (owned by Walmart, with over 80 Liders in Chile)—we went to one in Valparaíso where more-expensive items, like imported butter, were locked in oversized plastic containers supposedly to prevent theft. We watched as heavily armed security guards grabbed a women and violently threw her as she screamed into a locked room, perhaps because they believed she was a shoplifter. This particular Lider was recently sacked and is currently closed. But saqueos have also hit some small businesses in el Plan of Valparaíso (main commercial section of the city), although to the best of our knowledge, there have been no saqueos in the cerros where the bulk of the working-class population of the city lives.

It is also not clear to what extent the state itself is involved. (We have not seen any documentation, but a few social media posts have suggested this.) We watched on TV as media filmed saqueos, with police nowhere in view. Really? Clearly, any saqueos that disrupt the normal working lives of Chileans are being used by the state to justify its crackdown and divert attention from the demands of the national protests. Whether the Chilean state actively uses agent provocateurs remains to be seen. 

In this context, it is important not to forget that the demands of the Chilean people to live in dignity remain front and center. Media and the state attempt to redirect attention to the “violence,” but the mass support for the demands is obvious when one sees first-hand all the support from people who may not join in the marches themselves, but who show their love in multiple ways, from workers in their uniforms on break, to elders, to mothers and daughters, to multi-generational families.

3 thoughts on “Piñera to Chile: It’s all about “public order”

  1. Pauline and Rico, This is such important work. So good to be able to follow events there so closely. I was unaware of the water issue. Thanks and take care.


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