Witnessing repression from a hotel window: A reflection on the suppression of Chile protests

November 5, 2019
Water canon used to disperse protesters in Chile's capital Santiago. Photo: John Englart.

I am in Chile due to the United Nation's Climate conference being originally hosted here in Santiago. Now, I find myself an observer of the widespread social protest against the government, calling for the President Sebastian Pinera’s resignation, a new constitution and progress to addressing social inequality.

In Santiago, there have been daily protests organised in Plaza Italia. Baquedano subway station is nearby where the military established a chamber of torture when a state of emergency was declared and a curfew imposed.

After the 1.2 million-person protest that radiated out on October 31, Pinera announced a major cabinet reshuffle and ome minor changes, including reversing the fare increase. But people now want more than a few breadcrumbs: they want major progress in addressing the social inequalities.

On November 3, curious about the daily protests, I went and observed people gathering in Plaza Italia and spent some time in the adjacent Forest Park. On my walk, thousands of cyclists went past, cycling towards the vicinity of Pinera’s house, before cycling back to the plaza. 

I observed people gathering in Plaza Italia and then went to the adjacent Forest Park. Being a Sunday it was populated by families with children and pets.

Along withe others, I was also tear gassed as grenades were fired into the park. I felt the sting of tear gas in my throat and eyes. I retreated, along with many others, across the Mapucho River, to watch as an armoured vehicle used its water cannon and tear gas was released around the plaza.

Before the police intervention, people had been singing, chanting and dancing.

I had to walk a very circuitous route back to my hotel not because of the protestors, but the heavily armed police.

The Social Movement scheduled the next substantial protest at 5pm on November 4 — “Super Monday” — to continue to pressure the government to address the social crisis.

The answer from it was repression, not just in Santiago, but of all the city-based protests up and down Chile.

I decided not to go and observe the main protest. It was estimated that 20,000 people assembled in Plaza Italia.

Shortly after 6pm, the protest was violently attacked by police using water cannons and tear gas.

As my hotel is just a few streets away from Plaza Italia, I didn’t have to actually go to see the water cannon vehicle chase protestors down the street and several rounds of tear gas fired down the street, even before the main rally was attacked.

People did fight back and provide resistance.

Some had makeshift shields, some threw rocks and some used slingshots to hurl small rocks at the police lines. Some people carried containers half full of a liquid were picking up tear gas grenades, which were billowed stinging smoke, and drop them into the container to neutralise them.

Most people had bandanas over their nose and mouth, and carried water to help filter out the teargas. Spray guns of water were used on bandanas to help ameliorate the stinging gas.

Many protesters were injured, and some police.

The government needs to explain why it chose systemic repression of the protests while, at the same time, Pinera said that dialogue was necessary.

No doubt, the incident when a Molotov cocktail exploded on two heavily-armoured female police officers will be used to justify further repression, rather than assess the police's escalation of violence.

Clearly, the Chilean government is a repressive regime that is ignoring human rights and the right to peaceful assembly. It is using the same repressive tactics, the same repressive infrastructure and the same callousness as was deployed under the bloody days of General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.

[John Englart is the convenor of Climate Action Moreland in Victoria.]

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