Stephen Darwin works and lives in Valparaíso and sent Chile Today his thoughts on the protests in Chile.
As someone living in Valparaíso for the last five years, I well understand the forces that have been unleashed by the simple provocation of Metro fare increases in Santiago. As has been frequently observed during the current protests, it isn’t about 30 pesos; it’s about 30 years. The failure of democratic governments to address the profound inequities the Pinochet dictatorship created and its radical neoliberalism have left cities like Valparaíso on the brink. The abandonment of government obligation and the privatizing of responsibility has led to the social breakdown that is now in full view across Chile.
It has been the easy option for the mass media to interpret this uprising using the sensationalist prism of looting crimes. The footage of no doubt makes for good television. However, the real issues here are much more significant. Generations of Chileans have been subject to the indignity of low wages and long working hours, poor and costly education and health and an exploitative private pension system. The quality of housing and the high cost of privatized water and electricity make daily life a struggle for most. As a result, the predatory use of high-cost bank or store credit has become a necessary evil for daily living or supporting education or health costs, creating simmering resentment. Moreover, the failure to amend the constitution has meant the prospects for real change have remained unachievable.
In Valparaíso, workers, street vendors and students all live in extremely difficult conditions despite the towering presence of the nation’s Congress looming over their heads. Social services, healthcare, public transport are in a desperate state, and investment in the city from the central government is a trickle. Even the city’s main square, Plaza O’Higgins, has been boarded up as a construction site for the last five years to create an underground carpark for members of the adjacent Congress. This is a powerful metaphor for the neglect of the city and perfectly captures the inequities that bedevil Chilean life.
However, most disturbingly we now have been provided a military response to social protests by the Piñera government. Instead of opting for social dialogue, and instead of recognizing the legitimate call for greater dignity for all Chileans and not just the elite, this option reprises the brutality of the dictatorship and opened the door to the escalated violence we are now enduring. Over the last week, Valparaíso has been slowly destroyed. Of course, buildings have been burnt and shops looted, which is regrettable. But even worse is the destruction of the democratic accord: that people have a legitimate right to have a voice. Watching the military threaten, harass and even shoot young people in the familiar streets of Valparaíso is the destruction of something fragile and not easily repairable. This entirely unnecessary and wholly disproportionate response will change the country just as the dictatorship did. It will brutalize, alienate and ultimately undermine the future.
The time for token responses such as that we saw from Piñera last night is past. It is too little, too late. The military must be immediately withdrawn from the streets and a genuine commitment to a social dialogue that involves all Chileans must follow. Finally, given his disregard of democratic right, Sebastian Piñera has no option but to resign to allow the country to restore its social cohesion.
Stephen Darwin is an education academic at Universidad Alberto Hurtado