When students jumped the turnstiles at the Baquedano metro station in Santiago on 18 October 2019 in protest at the 30-peso fare hike, nobody could have predicted that it would lead to a full-scale social uprising and the largest protests since the military dictatorship.
Within days, disaffected social groups such as the No to AFP campaign (the controversial pensions system implemented during the regime), environmental groups, students, feminists and indigenous rights groups all united under the same banner calling for a complete overhaul of the system. What has baffled political commentators in the wake of the uprising, is the absence of traditional leaders and the rejection of political parties. Instead groups are uniting under the single objective of ‘Dignity’ – meaning decent wages, healthcare, access to education, living-wage pensions and equal rights for women and indigenous peoples.
The administration of Sebastian Piñera retaliated to this public outpouring of discontent by declaring on national TV on the eve of 18 October 2019 ‘We are at war with a powerful and uncompromising enemy’, and proceeded to roll tanks onto the streets of the nation’s major cities imposing a strict curfew, for the first time since 1989.
During the military crackdown from 19–22 October, horror stories reminiscent of Chile’s darkest era flooded the networks: Daniela Carrasco a mime, was found raped, tortured and hanged just hours after she was detained at a protest on 19 October. Supermarkets were set alight with the bodies of protesters inside them. Claims that Baquedano metro station was used as a torture site in which to mutilate students, were backed by concrete evidence. 15 people were killed by the security forces, as thousands claimed that they had been raped and tortured.
President Piñera’s deployment of military repression during the unrest has been relentless, prompting several international human rights bodies to voice concern and send teams of investigators to Chile. The UN high commissioner, Human Rights Watch, Institute of Human Rights Chile and Amnesty International, all concluded in December 2019, that Chilean Security Forces were committing gross human rights crimes in the form of sexual abuse, torture and killing. Erika Guevara-Rosas of Amnesty International went further stating, ‘The intention of the Chilean security forces is clear: to injure demonstrators in order to discourage protest, even to the extent of using torture and sexual violence against protesters.’ While Human Rights Watch and the UN both agreed that the Chilean police force needed ‘urgent and profound reform.’
International pressure has not deterred Piñera from continuing to use unfettered violence against those pushing for change. To date over 450 people have suffered eye injuries due to gas canisters being shot directly at people’s faces. During an interview at the Cambridge Students Union in November, Ex Chilean President and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, agreed that the Chilean Police’s penchant for firing above the naval is in clear breach of international law. This has not halted the potentially fatal practice. Just last week, on 6 March, a 48-year-old man was killed when a gas cannister was fired at his head. He died in Plaza Dignidad, as those who tried to assist him were attacked by the police. The list of those either being killed or suffering cranial and eye injuries grows daily.
According to the INDH (Institute of human rights Chile) 1,249 minors have been imprisoned, some of them since October 2019. Almost 200 allegations of sexual abuse including rape have been reported and over 10,000 people have been visited in prison by the institute. The death toll now stands at 33.
The threat of extreme violence faced by those advocating change has not deterred the push for a new constitution and social equality. This weekend, 2 million women fearlessly marched on the streets of Santiago demanding the resignation of a President that now has a 6% approval rating. The rallying cry ‘it’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years’ embodies all the socio-economic ills inflicted upon the nation by the most extreme neo-liberal model which has produced the highest levels of income inequality in the OECD. The solution is both simple and devastatingly complicated at once: the removal of the Pinochet constitution and the rewriting of a new one.
Hector Rios Jara, UCL sociologist and activist, comments ‘The movement will continue to be infused with lots of energy, but looking ahead now towards a new constitution. We are witnessing brutal government repression. On Friday (6 March) more people were blinded by special forces and a man was killed at Plaza Dignidad. I think we are going to see the same kind of reaction, probably reinforced by new tools, technology and logistics that the special forces are bringing to the demonstrations, I think the repression is going to continue as we see the rise of fascist movements. The campaign against constitutional change is becoming very aggressive: it’s a minority group of no more than 2,000 people but they are extremely violent and are not being controlled by the police with anything like the energy and determination that we saw during the last month, being deployed against people involved in the campaign for change. We need a lot of support from the international community, especially from the councils and groups that have organised internationally. We need legal support, so it’s important to reinforce legal action through diplomatic channels. The Chilean government is very isolated in the international community, however it’s asking for support from other countries in handling the mass demonstrations. It is important to mobilise solidarity to influence these relationships. It’s also vital to ensure that teams on the ground here have the resources to aid protesters, such as the medical volunteers and security brigades who work 14 hour shifts in order to protect the public during demonstrations.’
As the vote for approving a new constitution nears the definitive date: 26 April, it is clear that the Chilean people are willing to risk everything to finally banish the shadow of the dictatorship and pave the way for a new constitution. The myth of the ‘Chilean economic oasis’ has finally been exposed for the mirage that it is.
It’s also becoming increasingly apparent that billionaire oligarch Sebastian Piñera, who made his fortune during the military regime, will go to any lengths to protect his interests, even if that involves state sanctioned murder.
Carole Concha Bell, Chile Solidarity Network
Twitter: @chile_network Facebook: Chile Solidarity Network Instagram: @chilesolidaritynetwork
Main image courtesy of Pablo Bell