Trench War in Chile: Violence Polarizes a Country in Crisis

Chile is in desperate need of unity to ensure the upcoming referendum for a new Constitution is a showcase of democracy, but the country is only becoming more polarized through ongoing violent incidents. Both protesters and authorities seem to be waging a metaphorical trench warfare, using both verbal and physical violence to attack one another. The commune of Pudahuel has become an illustration of the chaos.

This weekend, violence in the Santiago commune of Pudahuel reached a boiling point. Two police stations were attacked with stones and Molotov cocktails. The police, in turn, responded with rubber bullets and the guanacos (police trucks with water cannons, nicknamed for the spitting camelids that are native to Chile).

According to police reports, gunshots were fired by protesters. People living in Pudahuel, on the other hand, are complaining about the immense police response in their neighborhoods, which started when students took the streets to protest the PSU university admission exams (“PSU” is the acronym for Prueba de Selección Universitaria, or “University Selection Test,” a standardized test used for college admissions in Chile).

One student was severely injured when he got run over by a patrol car, an incident that lit the fire for the unrest in the commune—unrest that tells the story of Chile, the protests, and the state the country finds itself in at the moment.

The unrest in Pudahuel has its foundation in the protests against the PSU exams. Student movements called for a boycott of the exams, because they consider the exams prime examples of the inequality in Chile. Whether the PSU is a part and parcel of the unequal system in Chile is something to debate, but what is irrefutable is that it is now another concrete example of a bigger problem: increasing polarization over social issues in Chile.

The PSU exams showed that protesters who protest peacefully and leaders who are willing to listen to them are both anything but the norm in the trench war that is Chile. Students occupied schools and burned exams and the minister of education was completely absent and only appeared in public to announce that the student leaders behind the protests would be prosecuted under the State Security Law.

While protesters are resorting time and time again to violence during or after demonstrations, they will always insist that the authorities provoked the violence. As a result, the social crisis in Chile and the violence that comes with it has caused tremendous and costly damage to infrastructure and economy.

Authorities, however, also play a huge role in this through conduct that only further polarizes people. Despite numerous reports by national and international agencies regarding human rights violations in Chile, the government seems incapable of avoiding the excesses and uninterested in avoiding the appearance of excesses.

#MapadelaVulnerabilidad shows the staggering inequality in Chile

Although legitimate by law, one can question if the way lawmakers are using the State Security Law is itself a violation of human rights. Stripping citizens of their rights because they express an opinion or call for a demonstration is not the most democratic way of responding.

This weekend, the government also announced it will try to regulate the right to protest, and seeing the way the police responded to a march held last Friday, Jan. 10, at Plaza Italia, protesters already worry about the direction of the regulation.

Where tear gas grenades and rubber bullets have caused permanent damage to hundreds of protesters in Chile, police also seem to have found a new way to cause harm their people. The chemicals in the water cannons were debated in earlier reports. On Friday, photos appeared of a clear yellow substance being shot from a guanaco, allegedly causing severe burns to the bodies of those marching.

Responding to violence with violence is like trying to extinguish fire with gasoline. As long as protesters resort to violence to express demands, and as long as authorities respond violently to protests, the polarization in Chile will continue.

Chile needs leaders on both sides who are open to dialogue and willing to concede on certain points. Whatever the outcome of the referendum in April, it should be decided in a democratic way and it must be supported by all political and social sectors. Whether Chile will write a new Constitution or not depends on the people. Whether Chile will become a united and more peaceful country depends on everyone.

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