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‘This country is about to explode’, an environmental campaigner in Chile told me in June 2019. ‘Hmm,’ I thought, ‘Is that wishful thinking?’ Sure, I’d spoken to a lot of exhausted and angry people here, but people on the Left often see revolution just around the corner. Four months later, though, Chile was in revolt. In the far south, women who’d been too scared to speak to me on-the-record for fear of losing their jobs were now occupying their factory on the island of Chiloé, while in Chile’s northern deserts, despairing indigenous farmers I’d met were blockading polluting mines. In Santiago and in cities across the country, people poured out on the street to demonstrate in October 2019. But these weren’t one-off marches; in town squares and street corners, people were holding weekly popular assemblies or cabildos.
This was a revolution. New forms of people’s democracy were emerging on the streets. But it is surprising how few people outside Chile noticed it. I don’t remember seeing a single report on the major TV bulletins. That’s why Nick MacWilliam’s excellent new film, Santiago Rising, is so important; he was on the streets, documenting this people’s uprising. MacWilliam is there with protestors getting tear-gassed and fretting that his footage will get soaked as he is sprayed by water-cannon trucks – known as guanacos or ‘spitting llamas’. He even gets truncheoned on the head by a Chilean carabinero, his camera tumbling to the ground. But MacWilliam has not simply parachuted into these protests – he’s lived in Chile for four years, so his pacey, on-the-ground reporting is combined with an insightful explanation of how this kaleidoscopic movement emerged. Through interviews with activists, he charts the rise of its different elements: Chile’s students, who pioneered the use of social media-friendly flash mobs during their protests against the privatisation of education – their mass zombie ‘Thriller’ dance is a must-see. Chile’s inspirational women’s movement brings together older second-wave feminists with thousands of young women in a multiplicity of campaigns from the pro-abortion coalition Mesa Acción por el Aborto to the anti-patriarchal collective, Las Tesis. Their chant against domestic violence, El Violadoren Tu Camino, performed in unison by blindfolded women, has been copied by women all over the world. Urban protesters have also made common cause with Mapuches, an indigenous group who make up 9 per cent of the population of Chile, who have suffered police violence for years. The Mapuche bright green, red and blue flag has become a ubiquitous sight on marches. Mapuche historian Claudio Alvarado Lincopi explains that when the Chilean army marched into Mapuche lands in the nineteenth century, the Chilean elite forged a national identity in its own image – white and aristocratic. Today protestors say they are reclaiming a pluri-national, partly indigenous identity.
The second half of the film is a mix of protest reportage interspersed with interviews of activists as they make sense of this social explosion and debate the way forward. We see Santiago’s revolutionary cyclists bouncing on their bikes en masse as they chant the popular slogan: ‘Jump if you’re not a cop’. Later, sitting in a circle on a pavement, they imagine a future – in this most polluted of cities – of clean air and shared public spaces. In a working-class Santiago barrio, we watch ten year old girls sing along with feminist rapper Ana Tijoux: ‘I am not going to obey you because my body belongs to me’. By capturing the diversity, the improvisation and creativity of this people’s revolution, MacWilliam has created an invaluable historical document.
The film also exposes the high levels of police violence against protestors: 5000 people have been injured, many suffering eye injuries from rubber bullets, tear gas cannisters or shot pellets fired directly at their faces. Viewers may be disturbed to know that the British government approved an open export licence for ‘tear gas/riot control agents’, ‘smoke cannisters’ and ‘smoke/pyrotechnic ammunition’ to Chile during this time.
This uprising was sparked by a protest against metro fare rises. It turned into a revolt against inequality and privatisation. It has now forced Chile’s right-wing government to hold elections for a citizens’ assembly to write a new constitution, which will finally replace the constitution imposed by dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1980. Historian Alvarado Lincopi says writing the new constitution is not an end in itself, but will open new possibilities to create a fairer future.
But this uprising has relevance beyond Chile’s borders. Neoliberalism was first introduced to Chile during Pinochet’s dictatorship, inspiring Thatcherism, Reaganomics, and the global spread of the free-marketeers’ mantra: ‘There Is No Alternative’. But has the tide now turned? A protestor in this inspiring film has an answer: ‘Neoliberalism was born in Chile, and it will die here’.
Grace Livingstone is the author of Britain and the Dictatorships of Argentina and Chile 1973-1982 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018)