After 4 weeks of defiant protest on the streets of Chile, the voice of the people finally seems to have reached politicians. On Sunday, President Piñera made a speech to the nation, celebrating Chile and promising a new constitution written with the input and consent of the people. This breakthrough did not come without significant struggle however, and the last month has seen Chile balancing on the edge of its own history, barely 30 years since the brutal dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.
For 20 years, Chile shrivelled under one of the most brutal and repressive dictatorships seen in Latin America; the exact number of people abducted, imprisoned or killed, remains unknown during this time. It was an era of fear and violence, as many were taken from the beds at night, disappearing into the unknown, as ‘order’ was enforced by the military. Nubia Becker, a survivor, remembers Villa Grimaldi where he was imprisoned by Pinochet’s army as “a terrible place…a that place that really meant horror. Day and night you could hear the screams of the tortured. Such painful memories have been pushed far back into Chile’s history, but the past 4 weeks have unearthed an anger and a violence in Chile strongly reminiscent of those dark years.
From anger at metro fares and non-existent pensions, to the extortionate price of water – a basic human commodity, Chile is a nation boiling with resentment for the social injustices they suffer through every day, which many believe stem from an outdated constitution and the system of Neo-liberalism born from the Pinochet era. was only a matter of time before it spilled over and the people called out “Ya basta!”, enough is enough.
With the escalating violence on the streets that showed no sign of stopping, Chile was becoming increasingly damaged both on a ground level and an international one. Tourism was seen to drop by 40%, house rent fell by 10% in the wealthier areas of the city, and the peso has been steadily falling in the global market since the end of October.
President Piñera was faced with two options; “Por la razon o la fuerza” – “By force or by reason”. This is the motto of Chile. In the past, political leaders have always chosen la fuerza, and the last 4 weeks are certainly a testimony to this; over 15,000 people have been injured, 24 killed, and more than 7,000 injured since protests began. The misty hue of tear gas catches your throat on the morning commute to work, the same gas used to ‘restore the peace’ under Pinochet. Yet even more worrying is the story of the boy who reportedly ‘killed himself’ in a police cell after being arrested at a public protest, and the memories of similar stories from an era that many thought long gone have come rushing back. Walking the streets of Santiago, one feels the tenseness in the air; a nation holding its breath to see what happens next, to see which side the country will fall.
Last Tuesday when President Piñera appeared half an hour late to address the nation, it was not a classic display of Chilean tardiness, but rather a moment of stalling as a plan went wrong. The President had prepared a speech in which he would authorise military control of the country, exactly as it was under Pinochet. The Chilean army were ready to agree to this, yet demanded political immunity from international bodies such as the UN, Amnesty International, and other Human Rights associations who have already been calling out on the brutality and violence of the army; Barbara Sepulveda Hales of the feminist network of lawyers and her team have taken matters into their own hand, going to police stations to check on detainees where sexual violence is a big problem; women being stripped in front of others, and raped too.
These are dark echoes of time that many would prefer to forget. It is clear that the violent years of the Pinochet era still smother Chile. It took nothing more than a scratch to open the reeking wound left by the dictator, and for a moment it seemed that Chile would return to that bleak past it fought so hard to leave behind.
Yet Piñera stalled. Unable to guarantee protection for the army, the plan fell through. The question was, would they go ahead and declare military control regardless? All week the city of Santiago lay tense and coiled, ready to strike out and defend itself; demonstrations continued in Plaza Italia, the hub of the protests – just as it had been in 1974. Nobody could say which way the President would turn.
On Sunday evening, President Piñera once again addressed the nation with an entirely different tone to that of his previous speeches. He acknowledged the violence of the armed forces, going as far as to say that “abuses and crimes were committed, and the rights of all were not respected”. Chile is a changing nation on the brink of a brand new era; Piñera and his government have agreed to a public referendum to determine whether or not the people want a new constitution.
In his speech, Piñera told the nation that a new Chile would be born, asking for patience as the government addressed some of the issues raised by the protestors. With a little time, a lot of careful politics, and good communication with the people, a well-written constitution could be the start of a new era for Chile, a country which has worked so hard to shake off the shadows of its past and establish itself both in Latin America and world.