It is shocking to think that one of the most advanced economies in the region, and Latin America’s most prosperous country, can go from peace to a military enforced curfew in the space of a few days. I look out my window and I can see a group of soldiers clutching M16 rifles while they watch over the subway station. All shops and restaurants are closed, and helicopters circle above. There are multiple reports of deaths, and rumours of soldiers opening fire during the night gone by. At least 15 people have died from the weekend’s violent clashes. Official statistics over the weekend say there have been 1,554 arrests, more than 10,000 troops sent on to the streets and reports of at least 40 outbreaks of looting.
I grew up in Dundalk, Co Louth and have lived in Santiago, the capital of Chile, for almost five years. The awful events of the past few days have pushed Chile onto the front pages as protests, riots and looting take place throughout the country.
I, like thousands of others, am working from home, as outside on the street, people, mostly students, stream towards Plaza Italia. The Plaza is always a focal point for demonstrations. Most carry pots and pans banging them together in a rhythmic show of protest. Car horns can be heard too in a sign that movement has support from multiple sectors of society. It remains to be seen how the city will react to a full week without the subway operating fully. Things are tense with restaurants and shops closing early and some not opening at all. Lines can be seen outside bank machines as people try and take out as much cash as they can. We have had three successive nights with a military enforced curfew, and there seems to be no end in sight.
I first came here as a student of the Spanish language, and then returned for postgraduate studies in international relations. I now work as a media executive at a business publication based in the city.
I have been a strong advocate for the quality of life in Santiago and Chile as a whole. The city is modern, relatively safe, close to amazing scenery and blessed with one of the best public transport systems in Latin America. If you manage to master Spanish, the city also has a lot of job opportunities across many fields. I am lucky enough to have a nice apartment and a good salary that allows me to live well and to put something away at the end of each month.
However, huge swathes of the population do not enjoy the same benefits. Chile’s minimum salary is more or less US$423 (€380)per month. Although this is one of the highest in the region, Chile is expensive and making ends meet can be tough. The majority of Santiago’s population depends on the subway and bus services provided by the state. The decision to raise the price of a subway ticket at peak time was the trigger for the protests, riots and looting that has happened in Santiago and other Chilean cities over the past days. The increase was minimal, a mere 5 cents, but a series of poorly thought out statements from the ruling party only served to anger the public.
Groups of students were the first to start “evading” paying for the metro, jumping the barriers en masse on multiple occasions over the past week. The government misread the situation, dispatching the special forces from the militarised police force to stop these mass evasions. Their heavy handedness only added fuel to the fire. Chile suffers from a massive inequality problem and the price raise was effectively the straw that broke the camel’s back. Complaints about the minimum wage, rising healthcare and electricity costs and the often questioned pension system are at the forefront of many protesters minds.
It was last Friday when things got violent. Multiple subway stations were burned forcing the service to completely shut down. Peaceful protests mixed with anarchy as hundreds of millions dollars of damage was caused and things rapidly got out of control. Chile has a difficult history, Gen Augusto Pinochet’s relatively recent military dictatorship, which lasted 17 years, lives on in the memory of many, many people who lived through it. This is now Chile’s most serious political crisis since the country’s return to democracy in 1990.
The decision taken by the current president Sebastian Piñera to invoke a state of emergency and deploy the military to the streets on Friday night was hugely symbolic. As an Irish person, when I think of an emergency military deployment my mind conjures up images of some young lad in uniform holding a sandbag somewhere in Co Offaly. Here in Chile the military evokes fear, hatred even, for the part they played in the dictatorship.
Soldiers are not trained to deal with public order issues and this could be seen on Saturday. Their presence only served to aggravate the situation across the city with the disturbances increasing throughout the day. Banks, supermarkets, subway stations and pharmacies were looted and burned with the army finally deciding to impose a curfew from 10pm.
I feel somewhat conflicted by the events of the past few days. I feel quite safe and shouldn’t be in any danger unless things take a drastic turn for the worse. As of now all the actions taken by the government have technically been diplomatic, as they are permitted by the constitution. We don’t have a dictatorship yet. The newly installed Irish ambassador has already been in touch with the Irish community, so it is good to know that their are diplomatic tools at our service if needs be.
My routine has been interrupted and my work (and salary) will suffer as a result, however, I’m conscious that I am very privileged. Most of Chile’s problems do not affect me in my day to day life. Do I agree with the violence? Absolutely not. Do I think that the peaceful protesters are onto something? Yes. Do I think that the government or the opposition is capable of working out a solution in the short term? Doubtful.
The city and the country face tough days ahead. Santiago is a city of almost seven million people with the subway system used by around three million people each day. That subway is now completely closed with no certain date for the resumption of its services. Some of the areas that will be most hit are poorer sectors of the city where the stations have been almost completely destroyed. Many supermarkets have been burnt to the ground, leaving hundreds if not thousands of people without employment. People have died. Protests continue today even with the government having backed down on the price raise late Saturday evening.
Politically too, there is chaos. The ruling right wing government has consistently misread the situation. Until now they have been speaking only to their strongest supporters, blind to the fact that these protests are not just vandalism, and there is a deeper theme of societal malcontent at their core. The left wing opposition has not been able to rise to the occasion either. They refuse to openly condemn the vandalism and violence, and will not talk with the government until the soldiers are off the streets.
If the protesters can manage to remove the anarchic element from their demonstrations, they have a real chance to create real change. If the government cannot get things under control, we could potentially see the president stepping aside.
Chile is a country of extremes, arid desert to the north and glaciers and Antarctica in the south. Those same extremes exist in terms of political ideals and in society as a whole. Any attempt to restore order or control protests is seen as repression, any attempt to protest or question the status quo is portrayed as the actions of reactionary, resentful communists. Neither depiction is true, but many people struggle to compromise.
Hopefully things will improve over the coming days and some sense of normality will return. This will be a before and after moment for Chile, and only time will tell whether it will have been for better or worse.