Social Crisis

The Protests in Chile Experienced from Abroad

David Nash is writer for Chile Today, living in Santiago. Just when the protests broke out, he was in London. Difficult though it may be to make sense, from afar, of an unprecedented series of manifestations, it is not impossible to see where they came from.

At the start of November I will once again step off the plane and into Santiago, and take back up my life there. I bought the flight before the protests began, but even so I was under no illusions as to the nature of things to change in my absence: the book put down is very rarely the same as the book picked up. I hadn’t banked, however, on just how different the story would be when I went back into it. From the distance at which I find myself, it would seem a more earnest story, a thornier one, one that follows Chekhov’s rule of plotting: if you introduce a gun in chapter one, it will have to fire a few chapters later.

It’s hard to know what I’m looking at. The words are unclear, their meaning less so, and their sources less so again. Instagram stories are vivid and digestible, but they can only ever go so far as a source of concrete information. I can’t live the experience through the eyes of my friends in Chile, however much they tell me, however much I believe them. International news is cagey at best, misinformed at worst. Chilean news borders on farce in its bias, which manifests as silence. All this – to someone, like me, who can be said to know Chile to at least some depth – is tantalizing, frustrating, and above all confusing. What then could a novice, someone unaware of Chile, make of this all?

Photo Series: Chileans Clash with Police in Nationwide Protests

It is sometimes good to be at a remove, in the same way that observing an argument is more edifying, and less fraught, than participating in one. Here is the view from someone who has no choice but to take a step back. There are, in the words of Donald Rumsfeld – a hawk in whose image Sebastian Piñera could be said to have modeled himself – some known knowns. It is true that protests began because of an increase in transport fares. It is true that some of these tipped into violence (and here let’s remember that this is a word we must use carefully, since many acts are on its spectrum, and many of these acts are not physical, in spite of what our minds conjure on seeing that violent word).

It is true that the police responded with what should also be called violence. It is true that protests grew as a direct result of this response. It is true that a state of emergency was declared by President Piñera, thus allowing the army to occupy the streets of Santiago for the first time in “peace times” since the Pinochet dictatorship. It is true that a curfew was imposed. It is true that the army and police have fired teargas at, beaten, shot at, harassed, and intimidated a largely peaceful public. It is true that this public is not armed, save the recalcitrant banging of pots and pans into the night, along the streets, from balconies, through traffic.

It is categorically not true that Chile is, as its tone-deaf president asserted, at war. This is also known, and it is absurd to suggest otherwise. If we were to be kind, meet Piñera halfway, and assume that it was a metaphor – and this is a man, it should be noted, that not one week ago declared that Chile was an “oasis”, and therefore cannot be said to have the firmest grasp of metaphor anyway – it still doesn’t work. Even a metaphorical war would need two opponents, and this only has one. By definition, then, he has made an enemy of his own people. He is bemused by what he sees, and to see him as such is bemusing. He is human, in that he fears what he does not understand; what he does not understand, in this case, lethally, is his public.

#NoEstamosEnGuerra: Chile Responds on Piñera’s War Declaration

Allow me at this point to steer away from the concrete and into the anecdotal. I have lived there. I have taken people’s money and in exchange taught them English, and there are times when this transaction has left me feeling guilty, because I know how much money is worth in Chile. An average salary – and in Chile, you should count yourself very lucky to be average – simply does not cover an average life. It barely covers a deprived one. To be sick is not an affordable expense. To learn is not an affordable expense. To have someone in your care or charge be sick, or need to learn, is, doubly, not an affordable expense. To be old, likewise. To travel around your city, where crucially this all began, very much likewise.

These are basic points. They do not touch on corruption, which is endemic and is known to be and of which so many people are unwitting victims. Nor do they address the privilege of a small, entitled upper class whose influence is wildly disproportionate to its size. Nor do they begin to speak to the discrimination and subjugation of Chile’s native peoples. And it is beyond my remit and my imagination to try to describe how it must feel to see army tanks patrolling the streets of your city if you are unfortunate enough to have last seen them doing so under the orders of a dictator. I will never be able to fully empathize with the disappointment of such a sight.

It would be glib to talk of happy endings, and if a resolution is reached, I would venture that it won’t be soon and it won’t be complete. The issues listed above, as the meme has it, are the tip of the iceberg. They will not get solved. However, I am not an optimist by nature; I am an optimist by necessity. There are people on the streets of Santiago this evening for much the same reason: not because they particularly believe they can affect change, but because they have to believe they can affect change. Today I am not in Chile and I am not Chilean, but even I can recognize that.

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