Santiago de Chile, in the heart of the protest district
Santiago de Chile, after 45 days of near-paralysis of economic activity; with protests, riots and violent repressions, is finally taking a deep breath. On this hot and sunny spring morning in late November, the city goes about its business as if nothing had happened. La Alameda (Providencia Avenue), topped by the impressive Cerro San Cristobal (on the other side of Mapocho River) showing of the protest only the equestrian statue of General Baquedano covered in grafitti, Plazza Italia *.
*Plaza Italia renamed by the demonstrators Plaza de la Dignidad (Dignity Square). Plaza Italia, a real hub in the center of Santiago, is the usual place for Chileans to gather for improvised or planned celebrations, demonstrations and as well major sporting victories. This is the place in Santiago where parades are held for the rights of students and workers. It has become quite naturally, during the last 7 weeks, the neuralgic point of the contestation.
The obelisk, flanked by the statue of President Balmaceda, did not escape the vindictive action of the protesters. The Bustamante and Forestal parks start here, as well as the popular streets Pio Nono and Vicuña MacKenna. The shy cleaning with a karcher water cleaner seems here anachronistic as there is so much to do. The smell of tear gas is everywhere. The botilleras are open along with the sellers of Completos Italianos, a hot dog with avocado, tomato and mayo (the trilogy of fast food in Santiago) occupy the streets.
Palacio de la Moneda, obligatory passages of demonstrations
In front of the Palacio de la Moneda, the first demonstrations of the day parade past. That of the 28th, very impressive will take place at 5pm. Most of the traffic lights were torn off. Not a policeman in sight, no soldiers either. The city delivered unto itself. Then, it is the students, these demonstrators so much criticized by the power who take care of the circulation (red diamond in the hand: Pare / Sigue). Their faces uncovered or encapuchados (hooded). No traffic jams. Our driver raises his window, a few pesos of mutual help for the movement exchange hands. Everywhere bilboards announce La Sylphide a ballet production by Peter Schaufuss. It runs from 26th November to 2nd December at the Municipal de Santiago (National Opera of Chile) prices from 3.80€ . And we went between 2 demonstrations!
Understand everything about the Chilean crisis in 3 minutes of reading
To go through this amazing city at the end of November 2019 is first to catch one word. It appears everywhere, it screams on the walls, it ignites buildings, it congugates with all the hatred, it’s pacos (cops): nos estan matando (they’re killing us).
In the heart of Santiago, Plaza Italia, the nerve center of the protest, the ten kilometers of Alameda, the main avenue of Santiago * are impregnated with the trace of the demonstrations. Graffiti, stencils, posters with the most unbridled imagination cover everything that can be covered. The words are violent. They reflect the extreme brutality of these events which follow each other without weakening for nearly 50 days in a strong smell of tear gas. Most of them have been brutally repressed with spilling of blood, leaving hundreds of victims; amputees, hangings, rapes, missing persons (Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International at the end of November were talking about systematic violence: torture, rape, mutilation by the police, with 23 dead, five killed by police, 8100 arrests and 240 eye injuries caused by lead shot).
*The Avenida Libertador General Bernardo O’Higgins colloquially called Alameda, is the main avenue of Santiago. It measures ten kilometers, starts at Central Station and ends at Plaza Baquedano. It is on this huge avenue that one finds the Palace of La Moneda (residence of the president), the Santa Lucia hill, the University of Chile, and the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. Line 1 of the metro travels in its entirety from Pajaritos to Escuela Militar.
These dogs called mata pacos (Cop killers)
Faced with these pacos, a determined youth! But as incredible as it may be, it’s the presence of dogs leading the parades. They are in the front lines facing the police “Negro mata paco, santo patrono de los manifestationes”. They have become emblematic during these days of riots, the walls are covered with their effigy and the demonstrators even mask their faces.
The dog El Negro Matapacos symbol of the social revolt in Chile
Since the beginning of the events, dogs have become symbols of social protest in Chile. This is the memory of El Negro Matapacos, a legendary dog associated with the massive protests of the student movement in 2011, and those of 2012 and 2013. It was a black quiltro dog (bastard in Chile) recognizable with a red scarf tied around the neck. He stood at the front of the parades, constantly barking at the men in uniform amidst water spray and tear gas. His reputation is world-known from Tokyo to New York where he is depicted jumping a turnstile from the subway to protest last November against the police crackdown on a young black man. When in Santiago, the statue of General Manuel Baquedano, Plaza Italia was degraded by the demonstrators, a petition quickly circulated: replace the soldier thrown to the ground by the statue of El Negro Matapacos that became an icon of revolution and rebellion in the world.
*The monument in Baquedano is flanked by two characters: “Libertad”, a woman holding a wreath on one side and on the other, a soldier whose statue was torn off.
The democracy of the rich, the dictatorship of the poor
Never has a democracy experienced such a divorce, a separation with such violence (The democracy of the rich, the dictatorship of the poor could be read on the walls). How could the Chilean youth strongly supported by all the oppressed classes still bear this unfair model born in the jolts of a misguided military dictatorship. It is that of Pinochet that ended in 1990 but left behind him, 3200 dead and missing while he died in bed in 2006 at 91 without ever being convicted. As a result, an ultra-liberal un-tested model and a democracy (vaunted by the elite) so insecure that it sent not the police but the army and tanks (followed by a curfew) to the streets of Santiago during the first demonstrations. Unheard of since the end of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.
No son 30 pesos, son 30 años!
It all started with an inconsiquential small nothing, the refusal to pay an increase in the metro ticket. It was followed on the night of October 18th, by a veritable explosion of anger (from high school students and university students): ransacking more than seventy metro stations (the most modern in Latin America), banks, the Enel electricity company buildings, all burned. No son 30 pesos, son 30 años! replied the demonstrators. Faced with the popular surge, Sebastián Piñera (President of the Republic from 2010 to 2014 and again since 2018) panicked. Was he able to really feel the exasperation of the Chilean people towards his government? This billionaire businessman is none other than the incarnation of the Chilean elite in all its liberal arrogance. Did he not build his fortune during the Pinochet era? When he became aware of the extreme gravity of the situation, it was already almost too late: si acabo tu tiempo, viene el estallido, retorts the graffiti by the demonstrators.
Finally, a revision of this constitution inherited from Pinochet
Promises, this president has already made a lot : a raise for basic pensions, lower prices of medecines, freeze the price of electricity, lower salaries of members of parliament, higher taxes for the richest echelons … But what about the demand of unions with a minimum wage of at least 500 000 pesos (637 €) instead of 301 000 pesos monthly (383 €) *? And how long can it be forgotten that in this rich country, about 1200 individuals hold and control themselves 10% of the national wealth? Finally, yes finally, a historic agreement was signed on November 15th for the revision of the Pinochet Constitution, inherited from the dictatorship. It will be put to a referendum in April 2020. A last measure dating from December 3rd, Sebastián Piñera decided to grant an exceptional bonus of 50,000 pesos (57 €) per child for the most vulnerable families, ie some 6 million Chileans out of the 19 million inhabitants.
Everything is privatized in Chile.
In Chile, half of the workers earn 400,000 pesos (€ 510) or less per month, while the cost of living is equivalent to that of a European country, explained the newspaper Le Monde, the analyst Marco Kremerman adding that in recent years, a problem has also particularly worsened: that of the indebtedness of the population. Of 14 million adults, more than 11 million are in debt. But how could one live here otherwise? Education, health, pensions … and even water: everything is privatized in Chile. It is against this system that the people revolt, against the universities with exorbitant registration fees, against pharmacies, accused of maintaining an agreement on the prices of drugs, against the private pension funds charged to make the money grow allowing wage savings to provide workers with a funded retirement pension, but which are illegally used extensivelyduring the transition. It is against them that flourish the most popular slogans: No + AFPs (Down AFPs) aimed at Directors of pension funds accused of making huge profits by distributing only low pensions.
The monster event of November 25th.
So far, nothing seems to put an end to the crisis with regard to the historic mobilization of 25th November. Rampage, looting and burning of businesses continued in several cities across the country. It is a gigantic event that manages to gather in Santiago, 1.2 million people (about 7% of the Chilean population) Plaza Italia and on the Alameda, the avenue that leads to the presidential palace (La Moneda). And yet, for the first time, the president admitted excessive use of force against protesters. He also asked his government to hold a first meeting with the representatives of the “Platform of Social Unity”, a collective of social and trade union organizations behind many calls to protest. Meanwhile, the Chilean peso was devaluing (today, 1 € = 785 Chilean pesos). $ 20 billion was injected to curb its downfall (and the promise to create 100,000 jobs); a fall due to both the anxiety of the markets in the face of a social crisis that has not subsided and also to the fall of the international copper price, of which Chile is the world’s largest producer. Another consequence, the Chilean government gave up hosting the summit of the Asia-Pacific economic cooperation forum (Apec) mid-November and especially the COP25 climate conference transferred to Madrid.
If on this prestigious Alameda, almost nothing seems to be spared, alone in its dazzling whiteness the Moneda, the presidential palace (where President Allende committed suicide), remains miraculously intact. Respect for the institution, no, he is under good guard! But beware ! Chil, through violence has just turned a page of its history and nothing will be like it was before.
journey through the scent of tear gas
The contrast is striking! Starting from Barrio Italia with its tree-lined streets and low-rise houses, this is probably Santiago’s trendiest neighbourhood (antiquaries, art workshops, avant-garde clothing and decoration boutiques, theatres, trendy cafes…).
The historic heart of Santiago, the setting for the protest
On the outskirts of barrio Italia, av. Condell (where the French Embassy is located) leads right to the Alameda (av. Providencia, Parque Balmaceda) and Plaza Italia, the nerve centre of the protests. You only have to follow this huge avenue past Obelisco Plaza Italia, to cross Plaza de la Dignidad (Plaza Baquedano) and then continue on Parque Forestal to Bellas Artes.
From here, via Miraflores Street, we reach Cerro Santa Lucia, a hill that rises at 629 m, in the heart of the historic district of Santiago (a double staircase, erected by the Chilean architect Victor Henri Villeneuve leads to Castillo Hidalgo). Joining the Alameda Bernardo O’Higgins, it is impossible not to stop at the Iglesia of San Francisco and its adjacent convent, arguably the oldest colonial buildings in the country (1622). Finally, once the Universidad de Chile, founded in 1842, Chile’s main institution of public higher education, arrives in Plaza Libertad, in front of the Palacio de la Moneda. It is the obligatory crossing point for all the demonstrations that have been marching in front of this huge building of brilliant whiteness and which no tag so far has managed to tarnish.
In the shadow of the Moneda
“La liberté guidant le peuple”
Looking closely at this sign on the obelisk of Plaza Italia, would it not bear some resemblance to Delacroix’s painting: Freedom Guiding the People. How many times has this revolutionary song “El pueblo, unido, jams ser-vencido” (the people, united, never will be defeated) resounded during these demonstrations?