Issue #027 Published: 15-12-2019 // Written by: Sofia Bifulco

Making themselves heard

I am a politics student currently on exchange in Santiago de Chile and participating in the demonstrations. What follows is a subjective account of recent events, drawn out through interviews and conversations.

On October 25th, Chile witnessed its biggest ever march, during which over one million citizens protested in Santiago. People were singing, dancing, and banging pots, demanding: Dignity, Justice, and Equality. This followed a week of protests, during which president Sebastian Piñera de facto declared war on his citizens, using the army to enforce a curfew and disperse protests around the country. However, anticipating a “visit” from a mission from the United Nations’ Commissioner for Human Rights, Piñera later tweeted: “we have all heard the message”. But have they? Imagine the distance between the power of the “people” and the “political elite” that results in one million people taking to the streets in order to make their voice heard.

Socio-political elitism is the result of and perpetuates deep inequality. Economic and political inequalities in Chile arise from a neoliberal economic system, the marketization of law, and economic criteria for socio-political inclusion. In their book Politics and Social Change in Latin America (1994), Wiarda and Mott draw out how the distance between people and the political elite is deep-rooted and is an inherited characteristics from times of colonialism. In Chile, the popular class lack political leverage.

The protests began small, and were purely in opposition to a metro fare increase on October 16th, but developed in a complicated manner until, one week, the movement became a contemporary symbol of the fight for politically voiceless people to make themselves heard. Many factors lead to the escalation of the protests: the presence of the military in the streets (recalling the not-so-long-ago military dictatorship); the violent repression of the protests; a curfew; the misrepresentation of the protests by national media, the violation of human rights by the military; demands not being taken seriously; the government indifference and the superficial and insufficient “social agenda” that was promised. As a whole, the factors leading to the protest’s upsurge are linked to the government’s tentative to further silence the people’s voices and mute their demands.

The demands of the people are wide-ranging. The protests represent a broad spectrum of the population, from children to young students, teachers, and retirees. Each group has different needs, and yet they are all together protesting in the same streets. Demands include better pensions to public education, improvement of the sanitary system, reduction of inequality, and the de-privatization of water, among others. Many protestors are asking a constitutional assembly to change the current constitution, which they view as illegitimate because it was written during the dictatorship and approved by a questionable plebiscite and thus reflects autocratic values.

What most astonished me during the demonstrations was the solidarity among the protestors, who were (and continue to) singing in unison and helping each other. For example, two girls spent the past week at the window of their home filling the protestors’ bottles with water. This and other images of the “Biggest March in Chile” are making history. Meanwhile, the country is due to host the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, as well as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change conferences. How these glitzy demonstrations of global power will play out alongside unrest in the streets is still unknown. In my opinion, given the evident distance between the government and its citizens, it is necessary for the president to stop silencing protestors, and even move beyond listening to his people, and start acting with the concerns of the people of Chile taken seriously. Any steps being taken should be oriented towards changing a structure that renders people voiceless.

Photo: Sofia Bifulco