Report and photos by Paul Frei – First published in German on hydra magazine
There’s a fire in South America. While in Brazil and Bolivia the rain forest is literally burning, in Argentina there have been protests for weeks against the neoliberal reforms of the conservative president Macri. In Perú the president dissolves the congress and in Ecuador the government has to flee the capital after massive protests and a general strike.
In this chaos Chile presents itself as a calm and stable country, which is why the right-wing president and billionaire Sebastian Piñera still swarms at the beginning of October about it: Chile is “an oasis in the midst of the restless Latin America”. Less than two weeks later, this fiction has burst. Piñera now speaks of “a war against a powerful enemy”.
Since 19th October there has been a nationwide uprising in Chile. The balance after a little more than a week: 20 deaths, thousands of injuries, of which almost 500 by gunshot wounds, 6000 arrests, 18 charges against the police for rape, further 20 missing persons.
But what has happened that the situation has escalated to such an extent? I am on my way to Santiago de Chile to get an idea of the situation on the ground.
A straw that broke the camel’s back
“Chile is a sleeping giant,” says the taxi driver on the way to my accommodation in Barrio Brasil, a few blocks from the Palacio de la Moneda, the seat of the government.
“The increase in fares has overflowed the glass,” he says. School pupils and students called for collective fare evasion after the gradual increase in fares. They themselves are not affected by the fare increase, but showed solidarity.
When the cops react with a hard blow, the metro is attacked, whole subways are on fire, supermarkets are plundered and set on fire. In the port city of Valparaiso, the congress has to be evacuated after demonstrators* have overrun the barrier. All over the country the police lost control and the president declared a state of emergency and sent the military into the streets.
Since the neo-liberal restructuring of the country by the dictator Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), the state’s assets have been privatised and state benefits massively reduced. To date, electricity, water, the health, education and pension systems have been privatized. The protest quickly developed into an uprising that accuses the everyday and systematic constraints of capitalism.
One day after the huge demonstration, the streets in downtown Santiago are eerily empty. The area around the Palacio de la Moneda is closed off. Carabinieros in green full outfit stand at every street corner, the shops have barricaded their windows and entrances.
With more than 1.2 million participants in the capital, the demonstration was the largest since the end of the military dictatorship almost 30 years ago. The demonstration, as well as the demonstrations before, are concentrated in Plaza Baquedano. The square acts as a roundabout from which the 8-lane main street Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’ Higgings leaves and leads to the seat of government. Along the street and in the side streets countless graffiti and tags can be seen.
In this area the fights with the cops concentrated in the last days, so a demonstrator describes the situation to me. “Chile despertó” he said. Chile woke up. The slogan is to be heard again and again on the demonstration and to read banners.
On the about two kilometres between the Palacio de la Moneda and the Plaza Baquedano there are three metro stations which are all devastated and still closed. Five buildings that are located on the track are burned out and the remaining, mostly public buildings or shops along the street are closed and barricaded. A big graffiti adorns the cultural centre Centre Gabriela Minsitral: “There is no dialogue as long as the military is in the streets” is written on the improvised wooden protection from the building. The images of tanks on the streets have awakened associations with the military dictatorship in many Chileans and fired hatred for the state.
According to a representative survey by the CADEM institute, 78% of the population are against the policies of the right-wing president and his coalition of right-wing and fascist parties such as the Independent Democratic Union (UDI). After the massive protests and the big demonstration, President Piñera apologized and introduced a series of reforms to return to normality, such as reducing weekly working hours by 8 hours to 40, increasing the minimum wage and pension by 20%. He also fired his entire cabinet. With this step he tried to restore normality, because on Monday a UN deputy was supposed to come to observe the human rights situation, but this was postponed for unknown reasons.
Pacos Culiaos – Asesinos
But the normality in Chile these days is the uprising. While a peaceful spontaneous demo of about 2000 people is on its way to the seat of government, barricades are burning again at Plaza Baquedano and the cops are attacked.
One day after the big demo, several thousand people gathered again on the square to protest further. Nobody wants to return to normality here. On one of the signs of the demonstrators it says “my biggest fear is that everything will go on as if nothing had happened”. A few meters next to it the main entrance of the metro station Baquedano is covered with cobblestones and some Molotov cocktails. The cops are behind the gate that blocks the entrance to the metro and try to hold the entrance. Next to the entrance, a graffiti accuses the cops of “torture here”.
The cops and the military have been heavily accused. Not only did the cops and the military shoot at the demonstrators sharply, injuring several hundred people, some of them seriously. According to official figures, five demonstrators have already been shot, run over or beaten to death and at least twenty people have disappeared.
Furthermore, according to the Instituto Naciónal de Derecho Humanos (INDH – National Institute for Human Rights), 94 charges of torture and 18 sexual abuse (including rape) have already been filed.
In addition, social media circulated the autopsy report of burnt bodies found in a supermarket. According to the report, the bodies are said to have gunshot wounds to the chest, suggesting murder and cover-up by the police or military. Whether this is true will only be conclusively clarified – if at all – in the coming weeks.
Most demonstrators but also taxi drivers, journalists or shop assistants believe at least that the cops or other “Infiltradores” are often behind the arson attacks on already robbed supermarkets. Even a firefighter from Santiago thinks this is possible. “In the event of an arson attack, the insurance company has to pay for the damage. And why rob an already robbed supermarket?” (However, he himself rejects the looting. Not because it is not fair, but because it harms the public image of the demonstrators.)
The mood in Plaza Baquedano remains unchanged. On the square the protest is sung about, street vendors sell drinks and food. Rubber bullets and tear gas are fired again and again to fend off the attacks on the station.
After a few hours more police units arrive to clear the square. As they approach the square from one of the streets, they are greeted by a hail of cobblestones and the slogans “Pacos Culiaos” (fucking cops) and “Asesino, Asesino” (murderer).
Whether masked with a gas mask and armed with a slingshot or filming the situation with a smartphone in hand. Everyone wants to show their aversion to the cops. Since the massive repression and violence, the population’s aversion to the Pacos has been enormous.
Even a driver of a city bus, who drives his alternative route two parallel streets further, passes the fire extinguisher through the open window without hesitation when two masked demonstrators ask him for it. When the cops finally manage to clear the square, the fighting shifts to the side streets around the square. The street battles can finally be cleared completely after about an hour and minor back and forth.
The situation in Valparaíso
The next morning we should go to Valparaiso for three days to get an impression of the situation away from the capital.
The port city is located 120 kilometres west of Santiago and is regarded as a left and alternative city. In contrast to Santiago, the atmosphere in Valparaíso is more tense. The bus station is guarded by military with machine guns, further units are stationed on standby in the city centre. The criminal police guard their station in heavy gear and military helicopters circle over the city. A large proportion of the residents walk through the winding streets of the city, situated on various hills, wearing a gas mask, because the biting smell of tear gas is in the air.
As was already the case in Santiago, the port city can also be recognised that protests have been held here for over a week. Each of the four main streets in the city centre area is covered with graffiti and destroyed shops on a stretch of approximately three kilometres. In the inner city area there should be around 20 burnt down buildings. Mainly large supermarket chains and pharmacies. Smaller shops were spared the looting, but still barricaded their roller shutters and asked them not to loot their shops with notes, because otherwise they would be faced with nothing.
In Valparaíso, as in all of Chile, the morning starts with Asambleas, neighbourhood meetings in public places to discuss the situation and make demands on the government that go beyond social reforms: Piñera’s resignation is called for, and nothing less than a new constitution for the country. The current one comes from the military dictatorship and is imposed by neoliberal laws.
Even if very few or no organized left and communist groups participate publicly in the demonstrations, the class struggle is omnipresent on the posters, in the demands and the slogans. On Plaza Sotemayor, one of the big squares in Valparaiso, a young demonstrator holds a DIN A3 cardboard sign in the air.
Her sign protrudes between flags and balloons. “If there is no bread for the poor, there is no peace for the rich.
The fans of the local football club, among others, who lead the demonstration, called for today’s demonstration. Followed by several thousand demonstrators of all ages and a block of about 100 motorcyclists including their motorcycles, the demonstration is heading for Congress. On the way people applaud and more and more people with cooking pots and lids join in. “Cacerolzas” – a widespread form of protest in South America, in which people hit pots on the street or out of their windows to show their protest.
Accompanied by trumpets and drums the demonstration sings the well-known resistance song “El pueblo Unido jamás será venecido” (The united people will never be defeated). The song has become a kind of anthem of the protests.
The police, for their part, have placed their barriers a few streets in front of the National Congress, which has its seat in Valparaíso. Compared to Germany, there are ridiculously few cops in Valparaíso and Santiago de Chile. The approximately 10,000 demonstrators in Valparaíso are confronted by a maximum of two dozen carabinieros in full gear, including armoured vehicles and a guanaco. The demonstrators inside describe the water cannons as guanaco, as they spit like the animal.
Approximately 50 metres before the barriers, the cops start firing gas cartridges at the demonstration top. In response to the irritant gas, there is a massive shower of stones and occasionally Molotov cocktails fly. The mood on the demo is angry and fighting. Molotov cocktails are cheered and permanently the drums and trumpets set the rhythm for the slogans and the crowd boosts the front rows.
While the riots continue in the main street, burning barricades are erected in the side streets to prevent the cops from entering from the side. The curb is broken open, material is collected against the cops and graffiti is placed on the walls and tags are placed against the cops and the government.
Again and again, the front rows are pushed forward to overrun the cops.
However, the cops can use rubber bullets to push back the demonstration tip. The projectiles with which the bullets are fired contain approx. 20-25 about 0.8 cm sized hard plastic bullets. According to the paramedics on the inside, the bullets also have a metal core. When rubber bullets are used, injuries repeatedly occur in which the rubber bullets penetrate the skin and get stuck. According to INDH, more than 100 people have already lost their sight through the rubber bullets.
To support the front rows, the motorcycles ride forward. Accompanied by an uncanny noise the whole demo moves forward and tries to push the cops back. But they manage to disperse the crowd with rubber bullets and massive use of tear gas, which is shot far into the middle of the demonstration.
Usually gas cartridges are quickly erased or fly back to the cops thanks to an Instagram instruction. However, if there is a massive attack, the cartridges are not extinguished quickly enough and the strong wind from the coast distributes the tear gas.
If the cops manage to push the demo back a bit, they advance with the water cannon to clear the middle of the road, then speed through the road with the Zorillo (Spanish for skunk), an armored car that ejects irritant gas to the right and left side, letting the crowd flee into the side street and dissolving the demonstration.
After the dissolution, the fights with the police shift to different corners of the city center and burning barricades are erected at the crossroads around the park. The riots and the final game of cat and mouse between protesters and cops drag on for hours. Partly from noon into the night.
The burning barricades can sometimes be held for hours. Cars are diverted by the protesters and it happens that a car stops and lets music play over the loudspeakers and the crowd celebrates. At the edge of the barricades, shops such as pharmacies are plundered again and again.
Especially in Chile expensive articles like toilet paper, handkerchiefs or medicine are appropriated and distributed. Computers or refrigerators are used as barricades and set on fire until the cops move in and extinguish the last barricade in the city centre.
The next morning, everyday life continues as usual. People seem to be used to the uprising and meet at the Asambleas. The fire brigade extinguishes the last fires in the pharmacy, which was plundered yesterday and set on fire overnight.
The shops that are open can only be entered through a small door.
While some of them weld their shops with metal plates, small groups of masked people stream down the hills and set off on their way to the demonstration. By now, people seem to have gotten used to the masked demonstrators. You won’t be bothered if demonstrators with gas masks and slingshots make their way to the demonstration. They are occasionally applauded.
“We have rabies” is explained to me by a friend whom I visit in her shop. The whole week she only tattoos Anticop tattoos. The opening hours are only until noon, so that she and the people go to the demo. The events of the last week have upset the people so much that they are rabid and will not stop fighting until their demands are implemented. She sounds determined but also exhausted. 12 days of protest are dragging her strength. Meanwhile I’m on my way to the demo with one of her friends. He has a wound on his cheekbone. A rubber bullet hit him. But stopping for that reason is out of the question for him.
The demo is more a riot than a demo. It is not a large walk, it is rather a gathering with a few thousand people in front of the police barrier and attacks on the cops. All in all the demo is smaller than the day before but more offensive and Molotov cocktails fly regularly to the cops. Among other things on an armored car, which was just about to disperse the crowd. But when it was hit by a cocktail, it goes into reverse. Accompanied by cheering and shouts of “el pueblo Unido jamás será vencido”.
Altogether the Riots are better prepared. Wooden plates are torn out to erect a protective wall against the rubber bullets. In addition, the criminal police are kept on their toes by repeatedly attacking their station. The attacks are not really coordinated. Much more involved is everyone who is just in the mood for it. A large part of the demo is masked. To protect yourself from the tear gas? To attack the police or because it has become part of the demo style in Chile? We don’t know.
Only in the evening hours the cops manage to scare away the masses by using motorbike units. About 10 carabinieros drive towards the crowd in order to drive them away and then extinguish the barricades.
Only on the hills the barricades are still burning. The neighbors of the street have erected them and almost 100 people guard the quarter at various points. “The police do not protect us, we must protect ourselves from it, so a local resident justifies the barricades. She tells me about missing people, rapes, murder and cover-ups by the government. The INDH confirms the investigations. There are also videos on the Internet of cops breaking into houses and even throwing Molotov cocktails at houses. That is why they organise themselves in the neighbourhood, the cops are not trusted. They are also sceptical about me and prefer to ask twice who I am and why I am here.
The neighborhood guards are well connected with the other neighborhoods and know when the cops are coming. When the barricades in the other streets were cleared one person shouts “We are the last”. Preparations are being made for the arrival of the repression troops. Bottles, stones and Molotov cocktails are ready to defend themselves. They have been here every night since last week. During the nightly lockdown they had to flee as soon as the military arrived. The cops didn’t come tonight. Enough time for the sprayers a few meters below to finish painting their picture. “Resiste” decorates the facade of the house wall. The owner sits a few meters away.
The protests continue
Back in Santiago. For Tuesday the mobilization was again bigger. Several tens of thousands of people have gathered again in Plaza Baquedano. The mood is exuberant. On the square the two main demands are presented on banners: A new constitution and Piñera’s resignation.
In different streets it comes to riots for hours like in Valparaiso. However, the mass of protesters is much larger and better organized, so that the police units can be attacked on several fronts. The roofs of the bus stops are torn down to use them as shields in the front row and to eliminate the effect of rubber bullets. For hours, the fights shift by a maximum of 100 meters forward and backward.
The time is used to redesign the freshly cleaned subway station and some protesters try to take everything useful from a construction site for 30 minutes and then set it on fire.
In order to get an overview of the situation, a police helicopter circles over the city and is caught above the Plaza Baquedano almost by a closed firecracker, which is cheered by the thousands of protesters.
The later it gets, the more serious the cops get. Now they use the water cannon more and more to shoot rubber bullets at the distributed crowd.
With every bang, the demonstrators duck reflexively so as not to be caught by the rubber bullets. Behind the large palm trees in the middle of the dividing strip of the road, whole queues of people take cover so as not to be caught by the rubber bullets or to blind the cops with laser pointers.
Around 10 pm, after more than six hours of uninterrupted riots, the cops finally manage to break up the demonstration with the Zorillo and clear the square.
At least for the night.
For the whole week further protests and a general strike are announced. In addition, feminist groups have called for a march of witches on Halloween. A few hundred meters from Plaza Baquedano, the mostly young people return to their neighborhoods. Singing, they pass a house that just burned down and announce in their songs:
“You will see. The bullets you fire at us will fly back!”