Eyewitness: On the streets of Chile’s cities people continue to demand social justice and dignity

November 11, 2019
'System violence is the worst crime.' Photo: John Englart.

After three weeks of protest and social upheaval, people are still taking to the streets in Chile in overwhelming numbers, calling for social justice and demanding dignity.

I have spent a week in Santiago, witnessing first-hand the police use of force and repression.

An armoured vehicle with a water-cannon chased protestors down my hotel’s small street at least twice and multiple tear gas attacks occurred outside my hotel window on several days.

Friday November 8 also marked the third huge manifestation on the streets of Santiago. Protesters have colloquially renamed Plaza Italia as Plaza de la Dignidad (Plaza of Dignity).

The police estimated 75,000 people attended Friday’s huge rally in Santiago, it was probably much more.

During the day the Carabineros (Police) used water cannon and periodic tear gas attacks to disperse people in Plaza Italia. I witnessed the first attack being launched at about 1.45pm.  There was no disturbance, there was no provocation by the small number of protesters already in the square.

As the afternoon unfolded, and especially after 5pm, when the rally started, the numbers of people swelled. They were all ages, families with children, people in wheelchairs and students. The main march was lead by a strong feminist contingent.

I left my hotel about 6pm and spent an hour in the throng of ordinary Chileans, calling for social justice from their government and political leaders. I felt safe among this crowd. I asked some people if I could take a photo of them with their signs. I told them I was Australian, they smiled and happily posed.

A key demand of this movement is for a new constitution, another is for current President Sebastian Pinera to resign. Demands to address education, health, pensions, low wages and ongoing human rights violations also featured prominently.

There is a high degree of distrust of any politician, hence the call for a new constitution and the establishment of citizen assemblies (Carbildos) by the social movement, to systematically survey and listen to the population and their concerns.

What has been offered so far, is a government Cabinet reshuffle, a rollback of the Santiago metro fare rise, a slight increase in minimum wages and a promise to have human rights violations investigated and prosecuted.

Most people I have spoken to don’t believe these changes are enough -- they are token breadcrumbs when the whole system needs to change.

Chile, under General Pinochet adopted a radical neoliberal economic agenda that has seen wealth inequality grow substantially. Most Chileans want an end to the neoliberalist policies and a fairer society.

On Friday night, tens of thousands of citizens in Santiago turned on their mobile phone lights in the “Plaza of Dignity”, to shine a light of hope in the darkness, on a state that talks freedom of expression and assembly, but practices repression and multiple human rights violations.

Even while the protest was happening, the police were attacking the edges of the crowd. Street barricades were set up by students and youth protesters and set on fire. A church was ransacked for furniture to use on street barricades.

This is what happens when continued police repression is maintained. Those who are marginalised, those who have little to lose, engage in resistance -- rocks against armoured cars and street barricades.

Amid this chaos, there will be invariably be people who take advantage of the situation to engage in looting. Often the police turn a blind eye to these actions, as they know the media will feature them to slander the great many people calling for social justice.

This is a direct consequence of the endemic practices of the Carabineros, which appear to have changed little from the days under the Junta.

I always felt safe when I left my hotel and was among or near the protesters. It was the police I feared.

The police shoot rubber bullets and pellets straight at people's faces here. More than 160 eye injuries have been documented in the last three weeks, a world record for this type of injury.

On Saturday afternoon I walked through the streets of the Santiago central business district. Public sector workers have been on strike. Most museums are closed. Garbage is accumulating in the streets. Most of the traffic lights in the Providencia area around the Plaza of Dignity have been destroyed, along with all security cameras.

Up towards the Plaza of Dignity, there were people around on Saturday afternoon -- no more than a couple of hundred, but the police used their water cannon and tear gas to move them east. I soon saw tear gas landing on the road near where I was walking. Time to run.

At the next intersection there was a person with a spray bottle, offering to spray bandanas or faces to quell the impacts of the tear gas.

I crossed the Mapucho River and walked west to observe what the police were doing in the plaza areas. The tear gas was in thick clouds around the plazas, and it blew eastwards. Despite being several hundred metres away, it stung my eyes and throat.

A family with children walked by -- a boy about 7 years old was obviously distressed. A cyclist stopped, got out a water spray bottle and gently sprayed his face. This is the face of Chile on the street.

It is a shocking indictment that people have learned to live among the police attacks and the tear gas, to carry their bandanas ready, to know that chewing a slice of lemon eases the soreness in the throat.

On November 8, Pinera convened the Security Council with a plan for a harsh crackdown on protests, but nothing to reign in the repeated repressive use of force by police.

The Central Union of Workers (CUT) has called a general strike for Tuesday November 12.It will be the next major mobilisation by the Chilean people.

Union leaders from the Port, Mining, Construction, Industry, Commerce and Financial Services, Education, Health, Agriculture, Agribusiness and Public Services sectors will join the social movement in the general strike arguing that “much of the demands that are being demanded in the streets with force, have to do with transformations in the working world such as a minimum salary of 500,000 Chilean Pesos. We don't want 350,000 gross with a state bond that doesn't solve the problem.”

It is not just the capital Santiago that is out in the streets. People in the cities the length of Chile are protesting, calling for change, a new constitution, an increase in the minimum wage, reduced working hours and addressing the problems in health, education and low pensions from a privatised pension administration.

[John Englart is the convenor of Climate Action Moreland in Melbourne, and is traveling to attend the UN Climate Conference COP25 in Madrid from December 2-13, via Chile, where the conference was originally scheduled, but was cancelled due to the social uprising. You can follow John’s climate bog here: https://takvera.blogspot.com/]

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