“Not so long ago, three things were forbidden at Chilean dinner tables: politics, religion and football. Now, there is so much talk of politics that even if we wanted to talk religion or football, we wouldn’t have time.”
My buddy Gert and I are chatting over a terremoto (also known as an earthquake, it’s a sickly sweet concoction of white wine, grenadine and pineapple ice cream which derives its name from the fact that it is so easy to drink, the earth seems to be shaking when you get up from the table) in La Piojera, a spit-and-sawdust watering hole in the centre of Santiago. He’s explaining to me how and why there have been protests and demonstrations on the streets of Santiago since October 2019, why city-centre shops and businesses are boarded up and walls covered in graffiti, why the government has been responding to the protests with mounted police, rubber bullets and tear gas, and what might happen next.
Gert explains that to understand what’s happening in Chile today, we need to go back in time to 1973, when a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet overthrew Salvador Allende’s democratically-elected Socialist government. Pinochet’s rule in Chile was brutal and violent, with extra-judicial arrests, beatings, imprisonment, torture and even murder of government opponents a commonplace occurrence. (To read more about the coup, the junta and Chile’s eventual return to democracy in 1990, check out my post on Santiago’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights.)
At the height of the Cold War, Western governments were willing to turn a blind eye to the junta’s human rights abuses in exchange for a solid right-wing bulwark against Soviet power in Latin America and a free-market economic policy, preferring to focus instead on the so-called “Chilean Economic Miracle”. Since the 70s and 80s, Chile has consistently outperformed its Latin American neighbours in macro-economic terms, with strong, stable long-term growth, low unemployment and low inflation. But these numbers hide a darker story of growing economic inequality, which sets the scene for the social unrest the city is experiencing today.
Transport Minister Gloria Hutt lit the fuse for the October protests when she announced that the metro fare in Santiago would increase by 30 pesos per journey. This may seem like a nominal amount – 3p in sterling, or 4c in US dollars – until you consider that the minimum wage in Chile is only 301,000 pesos per month (about £300, or $375 US). Not only was it the fourth price increase to the metro fare in twelve months, but prices for food, utilities and housing in Santiago are roughly equivalent to any other major world city.
In protest, Chilean students took to the streets and subway network of the capital in a coordinated fare-dodging campaign and held demonstrations at metro stations. Tensions escalated, culminating in damage to property and even pitched battles between protesters and the police force.
After two weeks of unrest, the government’s response came straight from the “hey-lets-put-out-this-fire-with-a-can-of-petrol” playbook. Government spokeswoman Cecilia Perez branded the protesters “delinquents” on October 18th, and later that night, Chile’s President Sebastian Pinera announced a 15-day state of emergency in the capital, allowing the armed forces to patrol the city alongside the Carabineros, Chile’s militarized national police force. The following day, Chief of National Defense Javier Iturriaga announced a 10pm curfew on the streets of Santiago. On October 20th, President Pinera, opened a televised announcement with the words “we are at war against a powerful enemy that doesn’t respect anything or anyone” and extended the state of emergency to the rest of the country.
Criminalisation of political opposition. Soldiers on the streets enforcing a curfew. Manipulation of the media. For Chileans old enough to remember life under the military dictatorship, these policies brought back all-too-vivid memories. Soon the protesting students found they had company from all sectors of society, opposing not just the metro price rises but the wider context of inequality and lack of opportunity, particularly linked to healthcare, pensions, the minimum wage, access to education and rising prices. (As a case in point regarding inequality, it’s also worth bearing in mind that Congress members in Chile earn over $23,000 US per month – one of the highest government salaries in Latin America.) Over 1 million citizens (Chile’s total population is estimated at a little over 18m) took to the streets on October 25th in the largest peaceful demonstration Chile has ever seen to demand President Pinera’s resignation, meaningful political change, and constitutional reform.
The focal point for the protests has been, and still is, Plaza Baquedano – an oval-shaped plaza named after a 19th century general where several of the city’s main thoroughfares and parks intersect. The protesters have renamed it Plaza de la Dignidad (“Dignity Square”).
In response to the mounting crisis, eight government ministers, including the Minister of the Interior, resigned. Meanwhile, protests continued, often escalating into violent clashes between protestors and security forces, claiming multiple lives, injuring thousands and attracting international censure. In November, Pinera’s government offered concessions: an increase in the minimum wage, increasing the state pension by 50% for the over 80s, and eliminating the 30-peso metro fare price rise during peak hours. But the most significant development was a cross-party move in Congress in favour of constitutional reform. Over the next two years, Chileans will go to the polls seven times to vote on a new Constitution for the country, and new representatives.
Since December, following the government’s policy reversals and the announcement of the votes on reform, it has been relatively peaceful, although smaller-scale protests have continued in the area surrounding Plaza Baquedano. The streets contain stark visual reminders that this story is not yet over. Armoured vehicles used for spraying tear gas, water cannons, and police vans park openly in the streets, and the city is covered in graffiti – some are no more than clumsily-daubed slogans berating the police and the government; others are extraordinary works of resistance art.
Is it safe to visit Santiago? Broadly speaking, yes: it’s a major world city and in the main, life and business continue as normal. That said, in terms of practical advice for travellers, you’d be wise to avoid Plaza Baquedano on a Friday evening. This is when the ongoing protests typically reach a peak: mounted police gallop through the streets to disperse the crowds and spray tear gas around for good measure. Don’t be surprised if taxi drivers refuse to go near this neighbourhood when protests are taking place. A live video stream from Plaza Baquedano is available on YouTube so you can check what’s happening and how busy it is before you make plans.
If you’re booking accommodation in Santiago, other neighbourhoods like Las Condes may feel less “authentic” (and cost slightly more) than the city centre, but could be a slightly safer option. During the day you can easily get around to all the city’s many attractions by metro: Baquedano station is closed due to damage, but all other stations are operating as normal (or were at the time of this writing). If you’re unfortunate enough to find yourself in the path of tear gas, you can protect your eyes, nose and mouth with swimming goggles and a wet towel. But this is very unlikely unless you’re planning on joining in with the protests, in which case I have one word of advice – don’t. The protests may be small-scale compared to a few months ago, but the protesters are serious and the police aren’t messing about either.
Don’t let the unrest put you off: Santiago is a beautiful city with loads to see and do. It’s been relatively peaceful since December – protests are localised and only happen once a week. That said, the students will soon be returning to the city in March after the long summer break and things may change. The locals are very gregarious as well as very engaged with the political situation, and they’ll happily talk to you about it if you ask, although be prepared for strong opinions and passions which run high. And remember to steer clear of religion and football – those really are controversial topics.
Editor’s note: this is the second piece by guest writer Kathryn Kneller. Please follow her adventures on Instagram at @kilo.juliet.kilo as she and I debate the virtues of her becoming a regular contributor here on The Royal Tour. Oh, and I second her advice not to get involved in political protesting while traveling.
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