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Chileans Face State Repression as They Continue Revolt Against Neoliberalism

Despite 20 people being killed since the protests began, people are showing no signs of backing down.

Riot police officers arrest a demonstrator during a protest on November 8, 2019, in Santiago, Chile.

Serious state repression has returned to Chile. The military, who were patrolling the streets of the country until recently since October 19, when President Sebastián Piñera declared a state of emergency, have been filmed shooting at unarmed protesters in large crowds or at close range. Additionally, the Carabineros de Chile (Chile’s police force) are raiding the homes of student leaders, detaining them, beating them and holding them for hours or even days without access to lawyers and family.

The organization Swedish Doctors for Human Rights has compiled 80 videos of serious human rights abuses by Chilean security forces since the protests started in October. (Note that the footage contains extreme violence and may be difficult to watch.) According to the Instituto Nacional de Derechos Humanos (INDH) or National Institute of Human Rights, as of November 4, 4,364 people have been arrested, including 479 children and teenagers. Visiting a rundown government clinic in Santiago, a foreign journalist noted the high number of protesters with “gunshot and head wounds and head fractures.” As a result of Chilean police and military firing indiscriminately into crowds of protesters, over 180 have suffered eye injuries while at least 26 have completely lost their vision in one eye.

In the capital of Santiago, according to the INDH, youths who were detained during the initial days of the state of emergency were taken to the Metro station of Baquedano and were assaulted and tortured by the military. Rodrigo Bustos — head of the INDH — talking to Televisión Nacional de Chile stated: “There are several boys and girls who have been victims of sexual violence, teenagers who have been stripped and forced to squat.”

The current political crisis commenced after Metro de Santiago hiked the price of the subway ticket by 30 pesos (about $1.20) on October 6 — only a few weeks after the government announced a 10 percent increase in electricity bills. As high school students refused to pay the hike, they commenced evading tolls in larger numbers. With the revenue that was to be obtained, the Piñera administration aimed to subsidize private transport in greater Santiago. Along with being one of the most privatized economies in South America, Chile’s is one of the most expensive and, in the wake of the fare hike, vast numbers of citizens were furious and soon supported the students’ actions. By October 18, the evasion of fairs was accompanied with large demonstrations, violence and even the torching of several metro stations. By then, the protests also started to voice grievances against the entire economic system established under the military dictatorship in the 1970s.

Speaking to the press surrounded by military men on October 19, Piñera declared of the protesters: “We are at war against a powerful enemy, who is willing to use violence without any limits.” In a conversation behind closed doors, Cecilia Morel, president Piñera’s wife, commented that “what is coming is very grave” as “it is like a foreign invasion.” Conceding to the opportunities of her class status, she added: “We are going to have to reduce our privileges and share with the rest.” With the richest fifth of households receiving 71 percent of the country’s GDP, and four fifths obtaining the remaining 29 percent, Chile, as recently noted by Francisco Dominguez, senior lecturer at Middlesex University, is a country of vast inequalities. According to Dominguez, “Half of salary earners in Chile take home 350.000 pesos monthly ($481), with 74.3% earning less than 500.000 pesos ($688).”

“I heard about the protests on Instagram,” says 15-year-old Santiago high school student Martina Fuentealba. With the first mass fare evasion taking place on October 14, Martina joined her fellow students on October 15. Asked if the increase in fares directly affected her, Martina said it didn’t because she does not use the Metro much. But the fare hike does affect her grandparents, who are pensioners, she says. For workers earning a minimum wage, the expense of using public transport can vary from 15 to 20 percent of their wages. Martina says she is protesting because she is “tired of all the abuses by the state, the poor pensions and the massive privatizations.” The situation with the Metro was the “drop that overflowed the water in the glass.”

Giulianna Campos Coderch, a 16-year-old Santiago high school student, says she also found out about the protests through social networks. She was protesting “not only because of the 30-peso increase in the subway, but also for 30 years of abuse where [public] enterprises have been privatized….”

According to Alejandro Díaz, a 20-year-old medical student from the University of Chile, the protests should not simply be viewed as an action against the increase of Metro fares or even against President Piñera, but instead as a movement against the entire economic structure with grievances in: “health, transport, the environment.” He observes that the high school students who started evading fares were strategic: They made sure they videotaped their actions and uploaded them to social networks.

Another university student, 19-year-old Antonia Quintero Soto, who is studying agronomy and forest engineering at Pontificia Universidad Católica, recalls that on October 17 she witnessed the first fare evasion at San Joaquín metro station located next to her university. That day, she told Truthout, “I acted only as an observer, since there was only one person breaking the subway turnstiles.” But the next day, on October 18, Quintero Soto claims she joined a march from San Joaquín metro to the Vicente Valdés metro. After that, she has participated in most of the demonstrations, including the protest that took place on October 25, where over 1 million people took to the streets of Santiago in one of the largest marches in Chile’s recent history.

The rage that Fuentealba, Campos Coderch, Díaz and Quintero Soto feel has been channeling itself for years through mostly peaceful protests in post-dictatorship Chile. In 2006, high school students paralyzed the country protesting the poor material conditions of their schools. From 2011 to 2013, in what became known as the “Chilean Winter,” it was university students who brought the country to a standstill over the exorbitant debts they are left with once they finish their education. In both waves of protests, the students faced harsh repression, but the political commitment of many students in both high schools and universities has endured.

Raúl Sohr, a sociologist and commentator for the television channel Chilevisión, observes that the economic and wage statistics that the Chilean government has given to the public in the past did not note “how that income was distributed, where the vast majority were excluded from it.” Although Chile has long been held up as an economic example for the region, Sohr notes: “That model of economic development, of order, of stability, has been shattered. What has happened these days is the breaking of an image [which was] built on the silence of dissatisfied people.”

The silence that most Chileans lived in was built on state terror, by way of a military takeover supported by the Nixon administration and the CIA on September 11, 1973, against the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende. With Allende surrounded by the military, and the presidential palace La Moneda engulfed in fire after it was bombed by the Chilean Air Force, the president committed suicide while his supporters were soon killed, tortured, disappeared, imprisoned or forced into exile. At least 3,065 people were murdered under Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s rule while there were 40,018 documented cases of torture. In 1980, Pinochet established a new constitution without electoral registers, an open media or an operating parliament.

The objective of the 1980 constitution was to cement the neoliberal economic model into Chile’s political fabric. Although the military allowed itself 10 percent of the export revenue from the National Copper Corporation of Chile (a state-owned enterprise), the areas of health, education, social security, justice, public administration and agriculture were removed from political activity or serious influence under government ministries. As a consequence, any incumbent administration had little power to fund ministries in these areas, or even allow them to seek external loans without presidential approval. This favored the private sector who became highly involved in all those areas of Chile’s economy. With regressive labor laws, it became harder for Chileans to unionize while employers promoted individual contracts over collective bargaining. Meanwhile it also became very difficult for the Chilean State to fund new publicly owned enterprises. By 2019, as a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Chile had the lowest number of state-owned enterprises (only 25) in contrast to Brazil’s 418.

Today, while the military and police enjoy excellent state-funded pensions, most people in Chile cannot expect a comfortable retirement. Many are forced into private superannuation schemes (known as AFPs in Chile) that pay miserable pensions. In 2013, as noted by Dominguez, “1,031,025 pensioners got an average pension of 183.213 pesos (87% of the minimum wage).” This is another legacy of the dictatorship which current protesters reject.

In 2016, in a case that garnered national media attention, 74-year-old former high school teacher Alicia Morales was seen begging in the city of Tierra Amarilla in Copiapó Province in the north of Chile. After 35 years of teaching, her monthly pension of 200,000 pesos (roughly $295) was not enough to cover her medical costs. Speaking on Chilean National Television (TVN), Morales declared: “Light, water and the problem of buying medicine — I don’t have enough for anything; it makes me very sad. So many years of study, so many years of work.” While Morales’s situation is particularly difficult, cases of retired teachers who seriously struggle economically are not unusual.

Edmundo Faustino Zuñiga lives in Graneros, a commune approximately 46 miles from the capital city. At age 71 he is a retired rural primary school teacher living on 300,000 pesos (roughly $400) a month. In 1981, Edmundo says he was persuaded to shift to a private retirement pension scheme because he would have more money once he stopped teaching. He worked for 41 years. Currently obtaining only one-third of his original wage, Edmundo considers his pension to be on the higher end of the spectrum in contrast to other retirees. He states: “They lied to all of us Chileans, it was a lie, a robbery.”

Today, Zuñiga supports the protesters. “They woke up the population,” he told Truthout. “For all the social injustices, here social injustices are terrible, conditions are terrible for working people, they are very cruel.”

Edmundo contrasts the low pensions most Chileans earn with the wages of senators of “10 million pesos (approximately $1,300), 20 million pesos (roughly $2,600), and even higher.” Asked if Piñera’s recent concessions to abolish the increase in Metro fares, create some moderate wage rises and dismiss most of his cabinet were enough, Edmundo replies: “No, things will continue as usual, Piñera has done nothing.”

Given Piñera’s concessions, what’s next for the protesters? Alejandro Díaz expects that the protests in Chile will continue, as will the violence. Recently, Díaz says, he has been supporting Joshua Maureira, an openly gay medical student from Chile’s Catholic University who says he was arrested, assaulted and then raped on October 21 at a police station in the Pedro Aguirre Cerda municipality in Santiago. Maureira’s case notes Díaz is part of a longstanding homophobic culture within the police force. “They raped him simply because he is gay,” Díaz says.

The violence is not abating. On Friday, November 8, over 75,000 people protested in Santiago. Despite 20 people being killed since the crisis began, protesters show no signs of going home. While they originally started protesting against the hike in metro fairs, today, vast numbers of Chileans want to see Piñera resign, see an end to Pinochet’s constitution and bury the neoliberal economic model.

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