It’s Monday morning in the coastal city of Antofagasta, northern Chile. From its centre, the stench of last night’s tear gas has replaced the usually fresh smell from the nearby sea. Children wear masks to avoid painful stinging to the eyes, nose, and mouth. Soldiers stand outside supermarkets, where queues stretch for two or three blocks. It’s like a grotesque caricature of a usual day time scene.
As a student and teaching assistant in Chile, I have seen protests engulf all of Chile over the last few days. Friends, colleagues and neighbours have become frustrated at poor living conditions, corruption and police brutality. What began as a protest against increased Metro prices has rapidly escalated out of the control of the conservative President Sebastian Piñera. These protests may be happening on the other side of the world, but they deserve our support. What is happening in Chile matters. It tests our fundamental principles: are we on the side of peace, tolerance and democracy, or will we allow would-be tyrants to rule down the barrel of a gun?
All ages – children, parents, miners, professors, and the elderly- can be seen congregating outside for a cacerolazo: a form of protest where wooden spoons are clattered against household pans. It’s an act of defiance against the 8:00 pm curfew. They walk towards the nearby Main Street. Army trucks sit waiting to enforce the toque de queda. They bang the pans as the soldiers drive past with guns.
This typical image of the protests is notably missing from Stephen Gibbs’ report in Monday’s Times. He only wrote of rioters’ supposedly responsible for deaths. Photos from the BBC primarily show rioters in provocations with the police. As the few violent protesters receive the majority of the attention, it’s the plight of the peaceful participants that is continually overlooked.
Of course, any movement with such a national reach risks being undermined by the actions of a small minority. Social media in the past few days has been full of posts urging fellow protesters to be respectful and avoid violence at all costs. Students in particular are desperately trying to self-police this diverse movement. This is made particularly difficult by the spontaneous and leaderless nature of the demonstrations.
While the reports rightly condemn violent demonstrations, they ignore its link to police brutality and a President who has declared a State of War on his own people. The demonstrators that I have spoken to in Antofagasta stress the need for peace. Kenneth Shields is a professor of Law with a PhD in Political Science. He was at the protests that afternoon and described a friendly atmosphere where the elderly, students and children were protesting together until the arrival of the special forces. This account of events was supported by various videos shared on social media. It’s a damning indictment of the traditional media’s ability to distort a story in its own interests.
This disparity between the experience of protesters and its portrayal on Chilean news has been a constant frustration for demonstrators. As of writing, there have been 18 deaths, with a further 8 instances of alleged sexual violence carried out by the carabineros. Lists of missing persons and photos of injuries are ignored by the press but feature far more heavily on social media. Javier Ignacio Iara Gallardo, 23, is studying to become an English teacher. He is “zapping between channels, looking for videos, testimonials and photos to compare”. According to him, national reporters’ silence on police brutality forms part of a long-held position of covering up illegal police activity. This lack of faith in mainstream news outlets has forced people to turn to social media to post videos of police using water cannons, tear gas and bullets against demonstrators. In the process, students are determined to show that they are protesting peacefully and are often willing to place their lives at risk to be heard. Their efforts at standing up for truth and justice in the face of a hostile and violent establishment is an inspiring one.
For many, police brutality, mistrust of mainstream news outlets, and a government facing corruption scandals are echoes of a previous era. This is unsurprising: the Constitution has not changed since the Pinochet years, and the top-rank police and military began their training under his dictatorship. Pinochet may be gone, but the Chile of today lives every day in his shadow. Its public life and population are scarred by the legacy of his rule and the traumatic affect it has had on this nation’s psyche.
Danis Andrea Olivares Rojas was 19 at the time of the coup d’etat in Chile in 1973. Now she is 64 and fighting for the future of the next generation. She suspects that the excessive force used by the government is a ruse in order to stage another coup and justify further repression. During our encounter, she launches into an impassioned appeal to the President and the press, pleading for Piñera to take the military off the streets and for the media to report what is truly going on. She says that she isn’t scared, and the curfew won’t make her back down. The noise of the cacerolazo carries on long into the hot Antofagastan night.
Their anger stems not simply a hike in Santiago metro fares but from issues that have been building for 30 years. One mother who working in public health was protesting with her young son. She told me of people dying while waiting for hospital appointments. She described a corrupt pension system that leaves the terminally ill in a situation of crisis, and an education system collapsing under the burden of insufficient student care. Meanwhile, the salary of politicians remains 33 times higher than the US $414 per month minimum wage. No wonder the Chilean people are angry. In the UK we might complain about politcians’ incompetence and expenses, but over here doing so is a genuine matter of life and death. This might seem alien, but to the people I meet every day here in Chile, it’s all too real. These are my friends and neighbours, and they have every right to be bloody angry.
Above all, they believe that President Sebastian Piñera epitomises these problems. He claims to have listened yet offers little reform. He asks for stability whilst stirring divisions. He calls for peace by declaring war. It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. Whether you agree with their assessment or not, their concerns should not be drownedout by the violence of a select few. The media should assess the various issues raised by the Chilean people instead of incorrectly labelling them a violent mob.
From the UK it is easy to feel that none of this is very important. However, accurate reporting on this subject matters. Students in the UK deserve the chance to show solidarity with their counterparts protesting in Chile. More generally, the eyes of the world should be on a country where fundamental human rights are being broken and democracy is under real threat. Most importantly, however, the UK needs to support its own Chilean community, many of whom were protesting outside of the Chilean Embassy in London on Monday, as they think of their loved ones back home.