by Cinthya Muñoz
One of my first memories as a young child in southern Chile was my father scolding me for saying the word “democracy”. Walking down a street in our small town, I asked him what democracy meant. He looked around nervously and sternly said, “don’t repeat that word.” It was the 80s and we were living in Pinochet’s authoritative dictatorship. Though Chile transitioned into a democratic government in the 90s, the legacy of his dictatorship lives on in the form of policies that have created deep socio-economic inequality.
Since October 18th of 2019, people across Chile have been flooding the streets to demand equality and dignity in the form of improved health care, pensions, wages, and education. High school students ignited the protests shortly after the Chilean government announced a 4 cent subway fare increase. Although students are exempt from the fare hike, they began jumping over turnstiles in solidarity with their family members.
According to the UN Development Program, 33% of the income generated by the Chilean economy is acquired by the richest 1% of the population. The 4 cent metro fare increase was the drop that spilled the glass.
They are demonstrating against structural adjustment polices, introduced at the point of a gun, during Pinochet’s bloody seventeen-year dictatorship. What we are witnessing today is a confrontation with this violent legacy of neoliberal capitalism.
Protests were met with police and military repression and human rights abuses that feel all-too familiar to those of us whose families lived through the dictatorship. A few days into the protests I received a text from my cousin in southern Chile. It was 1am and she was hiding from police in the restaurant where she works. “I’m terrified. I can’t go home,” she said, “the roads are blocked and they are shooting at people point blank. We’re in a dictatorship.”
A few days later I received a voice message from my friend in the capital city of Santiago. He was at a peaceful protest and cops tried to arrest him. He ran several blocks and hid from them. He told me that he left his ID at home, “if they had caught me, you wouldn’t have seen me again.” Chileans know what law enforcement is capable of, it is part of our collective memory of Pinochet’s dictatorship.
Pinochet’s military coup in 1973 initiated the first worldwide experiment with neoliberal state formation. Following advice from economists trained under Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago, Pinochet restructured the economy by privatizing public assets, opening up natural resources to private exploitation and facilitating free trade and foreign investment. Soon thereafter, the International Monetary Fund began imposing the Chilean model on all Latin American countries that defaulted on unjust debts. There is a link between what’s happening in Chile and the revolts unfolding in Honduras, Argentina, and beyond.
This economic shock treatment, often lauded as a “Chilean miracle” by economists, came at a great human cost. It was methodically implemented through a capitalist dictatorship of repression, kidnapping, torture, disappearance and homicide of tens of thousands of opponents.
During that time, many intellectuals and activists were “disappeared”. My own mother and aunt had college professors that went missing and were replaced without explanation. Approximately 200,000 exiles fled the country in fear that they too would be targeted.
Pinochet himself claimed that the only way to free the market was through force, and that once the economic experiment succeeded, Chile could go back to being a democracy. Yet the democratic governments of the past thirty years have not done enough to divest from Pinochet’s violent social and economic legacy. They continue to criminalize people who protest economic inequalities with the same “antiterrorist law” created to intimidate dissidents during the dictatorship.
Mapuche peoples have suffered the brunt of this repression. If you have seen pictures of the recent protests you have likely seen the Mapuche flag, a prominent display of anti-neoliberal sentiment. The Mapuche are the largest Indigenous group in Chile and make up 11% of the country’s population. They view their struggle against resource extraction and the corporate takeover of their territory as necessary to heal people and the earth from “the illness that is capitalism,” in the words of Mapuche healer Millaray Huichalaf. Police have staged arson of corporate property to blame Mapuche communities and have murdered Mapuche activists. Some Mapuche leaders have responded to the recent police brutality against protestors by saying, “now the Chileans know how Mapuche have been treated.”
President Piñera issued military martial law during the first days of the protests, seeding terror throughout the country. Since then, social media has been ablaze in viral footage of police and military shooting rubber-coated steel bullets point-blank at peaceful protestors and by-standers, among them elderly, homeless, children, and pregnant women. We’ve also seen police dragging people from their homes in the middle of the night, beating pedestrians with batons, firing tear gas canisters directly at people, and spraying water cannons laced with caustic soda at protestors. The brutality has been too much for me to bear at times, but my friends and family on the ground tell me, “we have nothing to lose. The knowledge that this is what the country needs helps mitigate the fear of police repression.”
Numerous reports of human rights violations, sexual violence, and torture of detainees have surfaced. Few of these violations have made headlines outside of Latin America until the viral performance of the song “The Rapist is You,” by Chilean feminist collective, Las Tesis, which denounces state-sanctioned sexual violence.
Over the past couple of months, police have intimidated medical professionals to not release information about patients treated for injuries during the protests. Agents of Chile’s human rights commission (INDH) have also not been given full access to carry out their investigations. According to the INDH, over 8,000 people have been arrested (including over 1,000 minors); 3,557 people have sought medical help for injuries; and 943 legal actions have been filed against police for torture, sexual violence, and murder or attempted murder. The latest INDH report claims that these are the worst human rights abuses since the dictatorship.
All eyes must remain on state-sanctioned violence against Chilean and Mapuche peoples. But we must also be mindful of the daily pervasive violence suffered by those who cannot access adequate healthcare, the elderly who have to panhandle because their pensions are not enough to cover the cost of living, the youth who go into insurmountable debt to get an education. In the supposedly wealthiest country in Latin America, this is what 40 years of neoliberalism looks like. It appears that the wound left behind by the dictatorship was never fully healed.
United in our collective trauma, this uprising is the medicine we need to restore our democracy. With millions of Chileans on the streets, the government has no option but create profound reforms. We were the model for neoliberal capitalism, and now we might be leading the way in its undoing. Stay tuned. This is a historic moment, not just for Chile, but for the world.
To contact the author: Cinthya.firstname.lastname@example.org