Chile Protests for Dummies: Part two of a two-part series

And here, Part Two, is where things really get interesting.

Why are people so angry anyway?

I covered some of this in Part One, but that was more about policies and this answer more about emotion. Because the people on the ground in Santiago are not just calmly advocating for change. They are truly deeply, angry at everyone in any position of power. At the President and his cabinet, at the Congress, at the leaders of the military and the nationalized police (los carabineros), at the wealthy corporations, at foreign entities who’ve spent decades getting rich on the backs of hard-working Chileans.

Protesters are not asking to be rich, they’re not asking to have anything handed to them that they don’t believe they deserve. They’re asking for a chance, for the opportunity to go to school, get a job, work hard every day, and then be able to afford their rent. Be able to see a doctor when they’re sick. Be able to pay to take the train to work or school and not have it cost a fifth of their salary. Be able to retire after forty years of labor and still put food on the table.

They’re asking to be seen, to be heard, to be acknowledged. They’re asking for dignity.

In fact, they’re demanding it.

How are they being treated in return?

Short answer: violently.

Long answer: Once President Piñera declared a state of emergency on October 18, he unleashed the full force of the nation’s Army and its nationalized police, los carabineros, upon the protesters. Amnesty International and other human rights watchdogs have accused Chile’s security forces of reacting in a manner that is way out of proportion with the behavior of the protesters they’re trying to contain.

The mismatch between those armed with tanks and guns facing off against those armed with rocks and homemade shields has highlighted the very issues that caused the protests in the first place: an uneven playing field, an imbalance of power, the elite crushing the common man while the common man fights back.

Piñera and the state-friendly media have focused disproportionate attention on the violence of some outside looters and criminals, making the case to the outside world that the protesters are lashing out in dangerous and destructive ways.

Indeed, there has been some extraneous violence, as there always is. There have been looters taking advantage of the chaos, especially in the initial weeks. Some have reported drug cartels filling the void of leadership in various neighborhoods. But the protesters themselves have largely limited their own acts of violence to throwing rocks at the police and setting fires in the streets.

The police and the military, meanwhile, have used “less lethal weapons” such as tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets in a pretty lethal way. Twenty-nine protesters have been killed, thousands more injured, with well over 300 losing sight in at least one eye after being shot at close range with rubber bullets.

There have been additional reports of carabineros torturing detainees and sexually assaulting and raping protesters, both adults and minors, male and female.

Tell me more about the role of women in the protests

Feminism is alive and well in Chile and women’s rights and women’s safety have absolutely been at the forefront of the uprising, along with the women themselves.

A woman banging on a pot in a traditional Chilean protest known as el cacerolado. Photo by Pablo Bell (@_pablobell on Instagram)

The song “A Rapist in Your Path” (Un Violador en Tu Camino) has become a feminist anthem in Chile and has been sung and performed by thousands of women in the streets there and in solidarity marches across the globe. The feminist performance group, Las Tesis, released the song early after hearing reports of female protesters being raped, forced to strip, or otherwise sexually assaulted during their detention by the police.

The song equates sexual violence with state violence, making rape less of an individual, moral issue and more of a political one. Consider this verse: “The rapist is you/ It’s the cops/ The judges/ The state/ The president.”

One of the few aspects of the protests that was covered repeatedly by the mainstream media in the U.S. was Chilean singer Mon Laferte baring her breasts at the Latin Grammys with the Spanish message, “In Chile, they rape, torture, and kill” written across her chest.

What other groups are involved in the protests besides women?

The indigenous Mapuche have been an integral part of the protests. They have long been speaking out against government policies, especially as they relate to the environment. “They are fighting for their own rights, but also for the land, the trees, the water,” said Santiago resident Josefina Cardenas.

She reports that there as many Mapuche flags being waved at the protests as there are Chilean. “They are a symbol of repression. They’ve been fighting for centuries.”

Protesters flying Mapuche flags from Plaza de Dignidad. Photo by Pablo Bell (@_pablobell on Instagram)

She hopes that their voices will be included in any potential constituent assembly following the April plebiscite. “It’s a must,” said Cardenas. “We owe them our respect.”

What is this April plebiscite?

In an effort to quell the anger of protesters, President Piñera has agreed to hold a plebiscite (what we in the U.S. would call a national referendum) in April 2020 to ask two questions of voters. The first asks if Chile’s constitution, which has been only slightly modified since it became law in 1980 — right in the middle of Pinochet’s 17-year long dictatorship — should be rewritten. That will be a simple Yes or No vote.

The second, and more complicated, part of the plebiscite is question two: If you think yes, who should rewrite it? The exact wording has yet to be released, but it sounds like the options would be that politicians write it (members of either the Chamber of Deputies or the Senate) OR that representatives to a Constituent Assembly be chosen by the people specifically for this purpose OR some combination of the two.

Unsurprisingly, those currently in power want the power to rewrite the constitution (largely so they can retain their power). Those out on the street do not trust any politicians from any end of the political spectrum and demand the right to choose who writes it themselves (“Asemblea constituyente!” can be found painted on walls and posters across Santiago).

The people are calling for members of this assembly to be elected by their fellow countrymen (and women, more on that below) for their expertise and passion. Some have proposed that those members would be banned from running for office for a set number of years and that they would be ineligible for the job if they had run for or held office in the past x number of years (most things I see say ten). Like I said, distrust of politicians runs deep.

All of this takes time. First, the plebiscite. Then, depending on the responses to question 2, there’d have to be a second election to chose the members of the assembly. Then, of course, the actual act of writing the new constitution. Then there would surely have to be some sort of approval period, whether that be by the elected congress or by the people. Safe to assume a three-year minimum, at best.

Change can come, but it’s gonna be slow.

Can a plebiscite really change the course of a nation?

Oh yes. It has. In Chile.

General Pinochet was so confident in his power that when the 1980 constitution was written, he included a promise to hold a plebiscite in 1988 to determine whether he should remain as President (he started out as Army General, then renamed himself Supreme Leader, and finally settled on President even though he had never been elected to a single office by a single Chilean).

So, imagine this: A country that has lived in complete repression — no free press, no political parties, no elected representatives, the constant knowledge that saying or doing anything that threatened or criticized the current government could land you in jail or worse — and they were holding a referendum that basically asked, “Do you want to continue living like this?”

The obvious answer was No. But you can easily see how many people would have been scared to say so. Or how the election itself could have been rigged since there was no oversight except by those already beholden to the dictator.

But the people managed to organize an enthusiastic No campaign and, miraculously, on October 5, 1988, the Chilean people showed up at the polls and voted Pinochet out of office by 56% to 44%. It took two more years before he actually stepped down in 1990 (leaving himself in control of the armed forces and a Senator for Life), finally returning the nation to democracy.

So yes, a plebiscite can change the course of a nation. But it’s gonna take a damn long time.

What will make these protests stop?

I’ve talked to people on the ground and everyone has something different to say.

68-year old Ricardo Morales thought that the Christmas holidays and subsequent summer vacation would kill the momentum. That hasn’t happened yet. People are still out on the streets every single day.

Recent college graduate Schuyler, who didn’t want to give his full name, thinks it will ultimately come down to real life getting in the way: People will have to return to work or school, the crowds showing up will get smaller and smaller putting those present at greater and greater risk of police retaliation, and then they’ll eventually stop coming as well. He is not confident real change will come.

But 28-year old Josefina Cardenas says she won’t be satisfied until Piñera resigns or until “the changes stick.” The plebiscite and the constitution are just one of many changes she is willing to fight for. “We have to change the system from the roots.”

What lessons should the rest of the world learn from Chile?

It could take years before we really know the answers to that. But the rest of the world should definitely be paying attention. Chile is a developed country with a booming economy and a functioning democracy that is being threatened, not by the protests, but by massive inequality. Every other nation with massive inequality (hello, United States) should take notice.

Chile’s uprising is not one political party against another. It is the elite against the people. And because of that, it could be replicated nearly anywhere on earth.

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