It was a telling tweet a Chilean published on Wednesday night, July 22, while the iron clang of cacerolazos filled the cold winter night: “What are we protesting for, right now?” While activist movements had taken up their pots and pans in protest against the house arrest granted to alleged rapist Martin Pradenas, senators were voting on the loaded pension bill. Add to that the referendum for a new Constitution in three months and the backdrop of an ongoing global pandemic, and it is easy to see why frustrations are resurfacing around the country.
Pradenas. Pensions. Plebiscite. And of course, pandemic. But also, hunger, hunger strikes, and striking inequalities which only seem to grow during the crisis. Just like when the social protests started last October, Chileans see dozens of reasons to take the streets again after four months into the coronavirus outbreak, which has magnified the weaknesses of the system they so vigorously protested. The problem is, officially, Chileans are not allowed to be on those streets.
Although decreasing coronavirus numbers suggest the situation is improving, it will take weeks, if not months, before the outbreak is sufficiently under control to allow large scale protests again. In the meantime, those who want to be heard feel trapped, like caged animals. And the longer they are kept inside, the bigger their frustrations grow.
Wednesday, July 22, was another one of those days that showed that Chile is once again reaching a boiling point. It started early in the morning in the Araucanía region, when Mapuche communities around the city of Angol took the streets to protest in support of their incarcerated spiritual leader, Celestino Córdova, who is on a hunger strike because he is not allowed to practice his Mapuche spiritual traditions.
He has been joined in his hunger strike by some 20 other Mapuche inmates around the region. For the Mapuche, their cases are exemplary of the double standards in the judiciary system in Chile: indigenous leaders sometimes serve years in prison on pretrial preventive detention, while police officers who are accused of killing indigenous people are sent home to await trial.
In the same region, in a similar scenario, a judge rejected preventive detention for alleged rapist Martín Pradenas on the first day of his hearing. Pradenas, accused of raping Antonia Barra, who later committed suicide, is apparently not considered a menace to society, despite the fact that several women, among them a minor, stepped forward ahead of the trial with similar allegations.
For Chilean women across the country, giving house arrest to someone like Pradenas, while half the country is already in quarantine, is a gut punch. Those who violate quarantine, like informal workers who provide for their family, face up to three years in prison, while those who violate women get nothing, the Chilean women said.
And just like during the social uprising, Wednesday showed that two groups will be behind the resurgence of protests in Chile: women and Mapuche. In cities across the country, the feminist movement called for protests. From Concepción to Rancagua, from Santiago to Antofagasta, women took the streets, frustrated to the bone with what is developing into a symbolic case: Barra, the victim, allegedly committed suicide because nobody believed her story. Pradenas, the abuser, can await trial at home, because, as his lawyer said: “Barra got in touch with reality.” The fact that the judge might have given into such macabre arguments suggests that the first sentences of Las Tesis’ ‘A Rapist In Your Path’ are more alive than ever. “Patriarchy is a judge.”
Marches across Chile after a judge refused to give preventive detention to alleged rapist #MartinPradenas . Pradenas is accused of raping several women, including a minor and #AntoniaBarra , who committed suicide after the event. This case tells the of 100s of women in Chile pic.twitter.com/dg2atcV8Ox
— Boris van der Spek (@BorisvanderSpek) July 22, 2020
Screaming the chant, clanging pots and pans, with burning barricades on the streets, protesters demanded justice. Not only justice for the Mapuche prisoners, or for Barra and all the other women who are suffering from violence, but justice for Chile. Because at the same time, the Senate voted on the controversial pension bill – a bill that has turned in a vote for or against the neoliberal system that has divided Chile into two separate worlds. Arguments from the government that withdrawing pensions would mean “a blow to Chile’s economic growth” don’t convince the masses anymore. Chile’s economy grew for years, partially thanks to investments made with the pensions of workers, but those same workers only saw inequalities increase.
As expected, the Senate approved the bill, illustrating once again the weak position of the Piñera administration, three months ahead of the already-historic referendum. Whether it is impunity, abuses through the AFP system, or social injustice: the frustrations have not disappeared but only increased during the pandemic.
For Chile, the only hope is that these frustrations get turned into energy that will actually benefit the country – energy that will make for a high turnout during the referendum and the elections next year. Because if the pension bill shows anything, it is that democracy is more alive than ever in Chile. Now it is time that Chileans feel part of that democracy.