We usually try to keep away from politics in our blogs and focus on the people we meet and the sights we see. In Chile this time, however, politics are so intertwined with the people and the sights, we cannot avoid commenting on what we saw.
On our first trip in 2015, we saw a country recovering from its horrible dictatorship era. They had not forgotten what they suffered (a big topic in their cinema and literature), and the country seemed to be moving forward to the brightest economic future in Latin America. In certain neighborhoods, stunning murals –a uniquely Chilean art form–were being painted on virtually any bare surface, from a simple fence to the sides of tall buildings.
On our next trip in 2018, things had begun to change. That time we witnessed popular demonstrations in downtown Santiago. We watched crowds of demonstrators gather at a downtown Santiago university with the intention of blocking the main thoroughfare. The police allowed the crowd to march, but they had to stick to the sidewalk and not block traffic. We watched the results as protesters moved in an orderly fashion down the sidewalk, waving their banners.
On this trip, however, we were stunned at the escalation in the protests. We knew the reasons for the increased protests, as Chile has one of the highest income inequality rates on the planet and pensions so low that the elderly cannot afford to live.
We saw the downtown Santiago area we remembered as beautiful, now with burned-out and boarded-up stores, closed hotels, torn-up paving stones, and defaced nation monuments. Anarchists had helped turn peaceful protests violent, and the police had over-reacted.
One day we watched middle school students waiting to start their “students’ protest” in the main square. Later that night, we watched the live video feed (from cameras high in surrounding buildings) on the official protest website. Police moved in to break up the protest, and it turned violent.
Police often reacted by firing tear gas and plastic bullets into crowds, causing injuries and deaths. So many protestors lost eyes, that the eye became a protest symbol on graffiti and murals. Even the government’s own Ministry of Culture building has large eyeball posters in all its windows.
“Kill all police” slogans are spray-painted on walls. A black dog that bit a policeman has become a national hero nicknamed “mata paco”(cop killer). The face of the dog is painted on murals and T-shirts everywhere.
With the police occupied downtown, often exhausted by working too many shifts, criminals increased opportunistic crime in local neighborhoods. There now is an overwhelming negative attitude towards the police, while firefighters are still considered popular heroes for fighting the blazes caused by rioters.
One of our friends we intended to visit in Santiago is married to a police officer. As it turned out, we could not see the family and left a package for them at our hotel. The husband came by to retrieve the present…carefully NOT in uniform. The saddest photo we did not take was of a line of police horses waiting to go on duty with plastic face shields to protect them from projectiles.
Oddly, though, Chile is still seen as the land of opportunity to many in Latin America. Many of the shop keepers, cleaning staff and Uber drivers we met were from Venezuela, Haiti and other nearby countries. Not being citizens, those foreign workers just kept their heads down and hoped their jobs would not be affected by the protests.
The hope of everyone we talked to lies in the writing of a new constitution to replace the one written during the Pinochet dictatorship.
A national vote is scheduled in April to commence this rewriting and is expected to pass. Everyone seems to see the process to be a magic pill which will bring order to the chaos. We just hope the new corona-virus-lockdown does not postpone this important vote. Chile needs a new start.