The Time for Change in Chile is Now

“It’s now or never.”

That’s how 28-year old Santiago resident Josefina Cardenas describes the current opportunity Chileans have to change their country.

Cardenas is no stranger to political conflict, having begun protesting at age 14 when she and her high school classmates were involved in several unsuccessful attempts to address the poor quality of state-sponsored education.

But she is hopeful and energized by the current uprising, of which she is an eager participant. Protests broke out across Chile in mid-October following a proposed hike to the rush hour metro fare. Because most Chileans who rely on public transportation are struggling economically, the 30-peso increase was seen as the last straw, and university students led an “evasion” of the fare hike by jumping turnstiles and spilling out into the streets.

Within days, the uprising spread, with protests large and small in towns and villages across the country. On October 25, an estimated 1.5 million people took to the streets of Santiago demanding fair wages, better health care, livable pensions, and the opportunity to truly participate in their country’s democracy.

The popular refrain “It’s not 30 pesos; it’s 30 years” refers to the neo-liberal policies put in place during General Augusto Pinochet’s 17-year long dictatorship that have led to privatized — and often corrupt — basic services and widespread poverty and social injustice.

Chile has the third worst income inequality of the 39 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Extreme wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of very few families while the majority of citizens scrape together multiple jobs just to get by. The toll is particularly hard on the nation’s elderly, whose monthly pensions average $295 for women and $495 for men, less than the national minimum salary and considerably less than they were promised.

“Old people are dying. They’re committing suicide because they don’t have enough to live on. It’s awful.”

Interestingly, young people in Chile cite their parents and grandparents as a prime motivation for protesting, as opposed to their future children or grandchildren as is common in protest movements across the globe. “Old people are dying,” said Cardenas from her home in the neighborhood of Maestranza. “They’re committing suicide because they don’t have enough to live on. It’s awful.”

She’s optimistic, however, that the protests will bring about real change. She’s already seen a shift in how people in her neighborhood talk about politics. “People are more and more conscious.” There was even a peaceful march down her town’s streets with chants and flags and el cacerolazo, the common Latin American practice of banging on pots and pans. “I’ve never seen that in the 16 years I’ve lived here.”

Ricardo Morelos, 68, was also surprised by the newfound activism he’s witnessing in his friends and neighbors. “People I’ve never heard talk about politics are now talking nonstop.” Morelos has a different perspective on the events that have engulfed the country of 19 million. A resident of Cleveland Heights with dual citizenship, Morelos thought about postponing his annual visit to his homeland when the protests broke out.

“But I figured I could handle it. I’ve seen worse,” he said from Santiago.

Indeed he has. A victim of Pinochet’s brutal police force, in 1975 Morelos landed in the military regime’s most notorious secret torture center before spending 15 months in a concentration camp and eventually seeking asylum in the United States.

“The young people have no fear,” he said. “They thought they could go out in the streets and stay safe.”

They haven’t. Chile’s national police, the carabineros, have joined the army in what President Sebastián Piñera referred to as “a war with an intractable enemy,” his own citizens.

Thousands of protestors have been injured in clashes with the police, with 26 dead and nearly 300 hit in the eye at close range with supposedly rubber bullets, many of them permanently losing their sight. The use of what Amnesty International calls “less lethal weapons” has come under fire after an independent study by the University of Chile found that the bullets are mostly barium sulphate, silica, and lead, and only 20% rubber.

Both Josefina Cardenas and Ricardo Morelos have seen the effects of police violence at close range. Cardenas describes being shot a water cannon while protesting in late November. “I could feel gas getting in my skin, like I was burning. The water was so toxic, I almost fainted,” she said of the caustic soda that’s been discovered in the carabineros’water cannons.

Morelos describes walking through Santiago’s main park, el Parque Forestal, with a friend on their way to a demonstration. “People had flags and signs, but we hadn’t even gotten to the demo yet. Everyone was just walking in small groups, talking, a few people singing,” when he says the police threw a tear gas canister directly into the crowd.

“They were trying to dissolve the demonstration even though it was totally peaceful.”

Amnesty International has condemned the brutality, claiming that the police and army deliberately use excessive force and that protestors face a “policy of punishment.” Many protestors have described being targeted at close range by police and military, even when they’re armed with only rocks, signs and their voices.

Not all the protests have been peaceful, of course, with looting and the intentional destruction of metro stations and businesses, especially those owned by multinational corporations. Morelos and Cardenas both describe locally owned businesses and mom-and-pop shops in their neighborhoods being spared. Many post signs in their boarded up windows declaring “Somos PYME” (“We are small and medium businesses”).

Morelos believes the government is focusing misguided attention on the violence, as a way to distract the international media from the real problems: poverty and inequality. “They think if they stop the protests, the problems will go away. But the problems are here.”

One concession that Piñera’s government has made is scheduling a national plebiscite for April 2020 to decide whether or not rewrite the Pinochet-era constitution. Many of the economic policies that led to such drastic inequality are built right into the Constitution, and constitutional reform is a central demand of the protest movement.

“The changes have to stick this time. We need to change the whole system from the roots.”

The plebiscite will contain a second question asking voters who they think should write the constitution: citizens selected by their communities specifically for that purpose or a mix of such citizens with politicians already in office. Cardenas says she doesn’t trust any politicians, on the right or the left, and says it should be “people who represent the communities who’ve been involved in the movement . . . But they do have to be experts,” she added.

Morelos believes that 50% of any potential asamblea constituyenteshould be women and that Chile’s native Mapuche population should have a voice as well. “They’ve been ignored for too long.”

He worries, however, that the movement is losing momentum, especially as it lacks central leadership. “People have to go back to work and school.” He also worries that Christmas might kill the protests. People’s attention will naturally be diverted during the holiday season, especially in a deeply Catholic country like Chile. And it’s not just the week to ten days around Christmas and New Year’s. “January marks the start of summer,” said Morelos, “when even people without a lot of money leave Santiago for the coastline.”

But Cardenas says they will carry on. Because they have to. “The changes have to stick this time. We need to change the whole system from the roots. We were living in a dark zone for a while, and the people weren’t that interested. But this is our chance to start living with dignity. It’s now or never.”

Freelance journalist: history/politics (Chile), mothering (childhood cancer), & public education. Author of forthcoming nonfiction Under the Chilean Sky

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