Once again, Chilean students have opened the floodgates for a population exhausted and indebted by decades of neoliberal policies. What began one short week ago as a fare evasion campaign carried out by Santiago’s numerous politicized high school students has led to nothing short of an urban uprising — one rapidly spreading throughout the country. President Sebastián Piñera has responded with force, resorting to levels of repression reminiscent of the brutal Pinochet dictatorship that ruled the country from 1973 to 1990.
When high school students began turnstile-jumping en masse in response to a minor fare hike instituted on October 6, many were left wondering about their motivations. After all, student transit cards would be exempt from this increase.
President Piñera and other public officials encouraged this mistrust, referring to fare-evaders as “delinquents” and accusing them of only wanting to incite chaos. However, this accusation fails to take into account Chilean high school students’ long history of championing causes that do not affect them directly. During 2006 and again in 2011, the “fearless generation” — the first generation born into democracy — served as a mouthpiece for popular grievances outside the educational sphere. When they fought for autonomy and against privatization, it was always within the framework of a systemic critique.
Today, the same pattern is unfolding. In a recent interview, Anyelen Salgado, spokesperson for the High School Student Coordinating Assembly (ACES), acknowledges that the student movement knows full well that it has had a dynamizing affect on other struggles and students are prepared to act in defense of their own families and all others facing unjust economic hardship.
To Salgado, “protesting through evasion, more than a justifiable act, is a necessary action, owing to the constant increases in the cost of public transportation and electricity, as well as the low salaries and difficult economic situation that affect most people.”
The conditions she describes reflect the fact that despite a declining poverty rate and a stable economy, Chile is still one of the most unequal countries in the industrialized world. Evidence of this vast divide between the country’s rich and poor can be found in almost every aspect of life, including education, healthcare, housing, social security, and, of course, transportation.
Chile’s bloody “miracle”
The two-tiered nature of life in Chile has fueled many waves of popular protest, most notably the recent wave of feminist activity that coalesced around a rejection of patriarchal violence and an analysis of how women are disproportiately impacted by what they called the “precaritization of life.” However, there are also vast sections of the population who have little interest in marching for their rights and simply feel frustration with a system that promised them entry to the middle-class and failed to deliver.
President Piñera — a conservative billionaire linked to 14 separate corruption investigations — told Chileans to expect “better times,” but the country’s growing wealth has largely remained in the hands of elites.
The authoritarian and free-market transformations carried out by the Pinochet regime live on in today’s government and institutions, maintained and even expanded upon by subsequent right- and left-wing administrations. During their 17 years in power, Pinochet and advisor Jaime Guzman attempted to eradicate every trace of communism from public life. This took several forms, the most memorable being Pinochet’s campaign of terror against all leftist detractors, consisting of kidnappings, torture, assassinations, and mass detention.
To this day, there is widespread international condemnation of these human rights violations. However, the same cannot be said for the dramatic re-making of the country’s economic policies and institutions at the hands of the Chicago Boys. When faced with a recession, Pinochet handed over the reigns to this group of CIA-backed Chilean economists who were encouraged to apply the right-libertarian ideology of Milton Friedman with complete impunity.
Friedman would go on to describe the country’s successful transition to free-market economics and eventual return to democracy as the “miracle of Chile” — proof, in his mind, of the liberating effects of his policies. The blood shed under the dictatorship was a small price to pay for such an ideal outcome. This way of thinking is the true legacy of the dictatorship: free markets bought with human suffering.
On Friday, October 18, commuters had reason to remember this bloody inheritance as they encountered mass evasions in real time and witnessed the repression that resulted. The previous week had seen a build up of forces throughout Santiago’s subway system, with squadrons of riot police guarding the stations most likely to be targeted by the roving bands of students.
This show of force only served to embolden the students who scoffed at the lengths the government would go to in order to prevent vandalism or property destruction, all while ignoring the demands of the people. When station closures were announced around mid-day, mobs of students responded by ripping open the gates erected to keep them out.
Events were clearly out of hand. Commuters had begun to join the students in attacking and re-opening stations and the police were unable to keep up. When clashes occurred, the results were brutal. Videos began to circulate on social media of extreme crowd control tactics being used, the worst of which featured a young student collapsing in a pool of her own blood after being shot by buckshot.
Street battles between students and riot police are a fixture of life in the capital, but this video represented an unforgivable escalation in police brutality. Hours later, she was reported to be safe in a hospital and had a message for all those who had expressed concern: “Keep fighting!”
Chileans are no strangers to videos of police brutality against high school students; in fact, 2019 was particularly marked by this type of violence. Since early this year the students of Instituto Nacional — Santiago’s most prestigious all-boys school and symbol of public education — clashed again and again with riot police, resulting in shocking videos of young students running for their lives through the halls of their own high school while pursued by riot cops in full armor carrying batons and pepper spray.
These conflicts led to the installation of semi-permanent patrols near the school campus, normalizing the presence of riot police in downtown Santiago’s biggest thoroughfare. It could be posited that both the persistent rebellion of the Instituto Nacional students and the government’s equally persistent militarized response foreshadowed the turn the fare evasion campaign would eventually take.
By 7:00pm on Friday, the subway system had collapsed under the pressure of the protests. Commuters were forced to squeeze onto over-burdened buses or simply start walking. Meanwhile, a social media call for carcerolazos drew neighbors from their homes to bang pots and pans in demonstration of their rejection of the fare increases, and, perhaps more importantly, the government’s violent mismanagement of the protests.
Rather than subduing public unrest, the high level of repression inflamed it. In the city’s most politicized neighborhoods, protestors began to set fires and build barricades. After dining in an upscale pizza restaurant — an action that was recorded and widely circulated on social media — President Piñera rushed back to the presidential palace where, after conferring with advisors, he made the fateful decision to declare a state of emergency in the capital and four other regions in central Chile.
For the first time since the Pinochet dictatorship, the military would be used to put down social unrest.
Tanks and militias in the streets
While tanks rolled through the streets of Santiago, protesters continued to manifest their discontent. In person and through social media, they encouraged each other to be brave in the face of repression, to go sin miedo (without fear).
Peaceful cacerolazos went long into the night, providing a soundtrack to the actions — both joyful and destructive — that continued to paralyze the city. Many businesses and other symbolic structures were targeted for looting and arson, most notably the Enel Energy headquarters and the Wallmart-owned supermarket chain Líder.
Another popular target for arson were the city buses and the subway stations themselves; when the damage was assessed the following day, the company that operates the metro stated that the total cost to restore the system would run upwards of $300 million.
Throughout the weekend, President Piñera struggled to control the narrative. In an attempt to appease the public, he announced on Saturday that the fare hike would be reversed — a response that was roundly rejected as too little, too late. Rather than acknowledging the deep dissatisfaction that gave rise to Friday’s uprising, Piñera chose to focus on the looting and vandalism, even going so far as implying that greater forces might be at work behind the scenes.
He reinforced this narrative on Sunday, stating that Chile was “at war with a powerful enemy,” leaving it up to speculation whether this enemy was the Chilean left, the hostile Maduro regime in Venezuela, or even the people themselves.
This thread was picked up by former presidential candidate and extreme right-wing ideologue José Antonio Kast, who encouraged his Twitter followers to rally behind the armed forces in their effort to keep the peace. In reality, this functioned as a dog-whistle for his fascist base who were ready to pursue “street justice” against looters and protesters alike. When the newly appointed head of National Defense General Javier Iturriaga called for a curfew in Chile’s Metropolitan Region on Saturday, these neighborhood militias were allowed to remain in the streets in order to protect private property.
Saturday’s curfew — the first of what would become a series of overnight curfews — rather than keeping people indoors, sparked a fresh round of cacerolazos throughout the capital. Many had a near-festive quality, with participants counting down to curfew as if they were approaching midnight on New Year’s Eve.
The military largely ignored these smaller demonstrations, preferring to either assert their presence in sites of potential conflict or actively confronting the rowdier protestors who refused to abandon the streets. However, the combined might of the police and armed forces was either unable or unwilling to prevent all acts of destruction. The looting and arson continued throughout the night, resulting in several deaths.
“The people united will never be defeated!”
As the weekend drew to an end, Chile’s powerful Port Workers Union called for a general strike to take place on Monday. This call was rapidly picked up by other labor unions and many of Santiago’s most powerful social movements. The final list of adherents included organizations representing students, teachers, healthcare workers, and pobladores (residents) as well as the main organ of Chile’s ascendant feminist movement, the March 8th Feminist Coordinator (CF8M).
During a massive Sunday press conference at Londres 38 — a former torture site under the dictatorship that has been transformed into a museum dedicated to maintaining historical memory of what happened there — CF8M spokesperson Alondra Carrillo stated unequivocally that no agreement could be reached with the government while the military remained in the streets. She demanded the government put an immediate end to the state of emergency. This stance was echoed by the other spokespeople in attendance, who took turns on the mic as the streets outside the crowded room roiled with clouds of teargas.
As demonstrations enter their second week, it is impossible to predict what direction this burgeoning rebellion will take. Protesters are finally hitting their stride, self-organizing networks to connect people in need to doctors, lawyers, and transportation in addition to raising popular assemblies — the building block of direct democracy.
President Piñera appears desperate to push the reset button with a raft of reforms, but he has stirred painful memories of Chile’s darkest period and the people are in no mood to forgive this transgression. In a country with a thousand political chants, protesters have returned to one penned during Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government and popularized after its fall in 1973.
Again and again, the streets echo with a phrase that binds the struggles of the past to those of the present: “The people united will never be defeated!”
Bree Busk is an American anarchist living and working in Santiago, Chile. As a member of both Black Rose Anarchist Federation (USA) and Solidaridad (Chile), she is dedicated to building international coordination across the Americas. She currently contributes to movements in both countries through art, writing, and providing the invisible, reproductive labor that organizations need to survive and flourish.