On Jan. 14, Chile’s Senate approved a new “anti-looting” law that will impose harsher penalties on those who loot businesses and creating barricades among other activities. This potential law has already sparked immense controversy throughout Chile and, so far, has led to more protests and funas. The law must go through several more processes before official approval.
As a new anti-looting law makes its way through the political chambers in the government, Chilean citizens are taking to the streets and social media to protest while President Sebastián Piñera gives his unwavering support for the law. Those in favor, mostly from right-wing political parties, believe that the new laws will discourage looting and vandalism, while many objectors believe that looting and vandalism already hold sufficient penalties and that the harsher penalties could infringe on freedom of speech. What makes this law particularly confusing is the inconsistent messages some politicians are sending the people.
What Does The Law Say?
The proposed anti-looting law is actually a bit of a misnomer because the law encompasses much more. In fact, as currently written, almost any type of protest or action is punishable if the government interprets it as an act of violence or something that violates public order. The law does however, include specific examples, saying that this violation would include barricades, to loot or destroy a public or private establishment, and “to execute acts of violence dangerous to the life or the physical integrity of the people by means of the launch of blunt, sharp, or other elements suitable for those purposes.”
Those In Favor of the Anti-Looting Law
Many citizens who are in favor of the law believe that these new punishments are necessary in order to ensure peace within the country. Violence, however, is not the only concern. José Durana, a senator from the right-wing Independent Democratic Union (UDI) party, claims it is essential for these rules because looting can carry with it some devastating consequences.
As an example, he points out that when looting occurs in a supermarket or pharmacy, it affects the food supply and people don’t have access to necessities.
Looting was indeed a problem during the first weeks of the protests in October. In fact, Walmart, the international supermarket company, sued Chile after reports of “1,200 episodes of looting and fires at 128 of its approximately 400 stores.” Although the company eventually dropped the lawsuits, the amount of looting and disturbances greatly concerned many politicians.
Leftists, in particular, generally object to the law due in part to the history of similar laws in the country. In the past, different administrations passed laws in order to openly suppress leftist parties and at one time, made the Communist Party completely illegal. In the minds of these party members, more laws are simply an attempt by the right to silence their beliefs.
One of the more consistent voices is that of Senator Alejandro Guillier who has been one of the strongest objectors since the beginning of the debate. The Senator says that this law is just more proof that the Piñera administration doesn’t understand the complexities of the current movements in Chile and is attempting to continue to ignore the real problems. For his part, Guillier believes this is another way in which the Chileans’ human rights will be violated, because many of the protests that would become illegal are, in fact, passive in nature.
One such protest is the El Que Baila Pasa (he who dances passes), which is a peaceful barricade where protesters block public roads with signs and have the drivers of cars get out and dance in order to keep driving. This protest, largely considered peaceful and even a bit fun, would be made illegal under the anti-looting law. It could carry up to 541 days in prison in addition to fines.
Some politicians are being less than clear with their opinions on the anti-looting laws. An example of this waffling of support occurred when members of the Broad Front political coalition voted in favor of the law during its first stages. This shocked many in the organization because this vote was not aligned with the coalition’s ideals. After the vote, citizens reacted with outrage, believing that their political representatives were turning their backs on the movement.
Giorgio Jackson, one of the representatives who voted in favor of the law at that time, took to social media almost immediately and admitted that he had made an error. The representatives and the coalition as a whole, have now shifted their support unequivocally to reject the law. Their apologies have not appease angry constituents who have publicly condemned Jackson and his colleagues, several even going so as far to physically accost Gabriel Boric, another member of the Broad Front.
More on the funa of Boric:
Chile already has several laws against looting and public disorder, which makes many feel that extra punishments are only attempts to stifle freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. The government is using these existing laws in order to punish citizens deemed a disturbance to the public, and most recently and controversially, students who boycotted the nation PSU exam.
In addition, because of their wording, the laws give rise to loose interpretations. One, for example, says that any “crimes against public order,” are punishable by law. This was purposeful because the origins of the law were an open authoritarian attempt to silence those who were not in favor of governmental decisions.
Another example that remains from this older suppression includes one that gives the president the power to punish anyone who “prevents him from partaking in his duties.” With existing laws already so loose, many worry that the history of harsher punishments will repeat itself.
In the meantime, the new law has been passed to the Chamber of Representatives for potential amendments.
Bethany works as a professional English teacher from the United States. She obtained her Bachelors of Arts in English Education and Masters of Liberal Arts in English from Henderson State University. As well as a life-long Literature and Language lover, Bethany also dabbles in stand-up comedy on the weekends. She currently lives in Santiago, Chile where, in addition to teaching, she organizes bilingual events with The Chistolas, a comedy and event-management group.