CULTURE Social Crisis

Art in Times of Suffering: The Chilean Eye Crisis

SANTIAGO – In times of suffering, art can transform pain into resilience and resistance. This has been the case in Chile, where in recent weeks hundreds of demonstrators have suffered severe eye trauma, including blindness, after being shot in the face with rubberized bullets and tear gas canisters. In response, an artistic movement has arisen that seeks to transform the injured eyes into symbols of mourning and resistance, so that Chilean society never loses sight again.

“My eyes, your eyes, our eyes!” they chant, with white bandages over their eyes and bloody eyeballs in their hands, the healthcare workers run frantically down the halls of the Antofagasta Hospital, waiving the eyeballs as symbols of the results of police abuse they say they witness every day at the hospital. In this short video from Nov. 11, demonstrators also drop “dead” after their chants, in the name of the many people who have lost their eyes to police. 

For example, on Nov. 14, demonstrators spread hundreds of paper eyeballs on Agustinas Street in Santiago.

On Nov. 18, thousands of eyes covered the sky above Prat Street in Antofagasta. Pinned to each other, hanging above the public’s heads, the “Eyes of Chile” were a shadow of the metaphorical one that seems to grow bigger and darker by the day, as the number of blinded eyes increases

On Nov. 21, Santiago woke up to dozens of bloody eyeballs, painted on the sidewalk and staring up at passersby.

This same day, The Independent reported that “[a]t least 285 people in Chile have suffered severe eye trauma, mostly from hardened rubber bullets and tear gas canisters fired by Chilean security forces at protesters during the month of unrest,” and, “[a]ccording to the Chilean Ophthalmological Society, that count is expected to rise.”

The Eye Injury Crisis

Over the past month, the social crisis in Chile has grown in gravity as many human rights violations have been alleged and some confirmed, both by national institutions and by international investigators. The eye injuries, however, are especially evocative on many levels, and they have, ironically, become a source of inspiration and resistance, not dissuasion.

According to El Mostrador, protocols say that police are allowed to fire non-lethal ammunition during demonstrations in specific cases, but always aiming to the ground or away from people. The rumors of police intentionally aiming at protesters’ faces has been circulating since the earliest days of the response to the demonstrations.

By Nov. 7, health associations in Chile declared a “health emergency,” as the number of eye-injured people rose to 177 and had overwhelmed many healthcare centers throughout the country. 

As reported by El Comercio, Medical College Vice President Patricio Meza said “the number of registered cases exceeds any [similar situation] in all analyzed countries … Approximately 80% were caused by rubber-bullets used by police, the military, or Investigations Police (PDI), … They have not respected [their protocols].”

On Nov. 21, the National Institute of Human Rights (INDH) reported 223 people with eye injuries or resulting blindness nationwide.

In talking with Telemundo, Ennio Vivaldi Véjar, Rector of the Universidad de Chile, which many of the injured attend, put it bluntly: “The number of eye injuries is such that it makes one think that it is intentional.

“I Gave Away My Eyes So That People Can Wake Up”

Gustavo Gatica’s eye injury has shaken the nation. On Nov. 8, the 21-year-old was attending the massive march at Plaza Italia in Santiago, when he was shot by police. Gatica’s face was immediately covered in blood and soon after it was confirmed that he had been shot in both eyes. His left eye was removed and his right suffered severe damage, leaving him completely blind.

Gatica’s case quickly went viral and many demonstrations were held in his honor, including at the steps of the Providencia clinic where he was being treated. 

Medical College Human Rights Department president Enrique Morales referred to the case on Interferencia: “We have insisted publicly and before every authority about what is happening in Chile. We started to complain when there were 29 eyes lost. Today, more than 200 are gone … It is irresponsibility … from all authorities who have allowed these ways of action and this damage.”

Gatica’s case underscores the issue. Chilean singer Nano Stern wrote “Regalé mis ojos” (“I gave away my eyes,” in English) in honor of Gatica’s legendary phrase while hospitalized in Santa María Clinic: “I gave away my eyes so that people can wake up.” 

Stern sings to Gatica and to the Chilean people. His song, and the works of other artists, use the imagery of blindness as a dual symbol of social pain and resilience, and as a reminder that there is a seeing that goes beyond the eyes.

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