just asking questions

A Chilean Activist Explains the Protests: ‘People in the Streets Are Experiencing an Awakening’

Photo: Martin Bernetti/AFP via Getty Images

In Chile’s streets, protesters chant a message now heard by the rest of the world. “Chile is waking up,” they say. But the center-right government of the country’s president, Sebastián Piñera, would prefer they stayed asleep. Chile is rich, but on Piñera’s watch, it’s also the most unequal country in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Reuters reported that it has “an income gap 65% wider than the OECD average.” A new subway fare hike, then, represented something more than an inconvenience to the people of Chile — it became a symbol of that stark wealth gap, and subsequently, a rallying point for protesters. Since early October, people have protested daily in the country’s capital, Santiago, and elsewhere, demanding not just the reversal of a fare hike, but fundamental political reform. They want Piñera gone.

In response, Piñera declared a state of emergency, and sent the military into the streets. For many Chileans, the move was troublingly evocative of the kind of government tactics that were commonplace under the bloody rule of Augusto Pinochet, a far-right dictator who ousted the country’s democratically elected socialist president, Salvador Allende, with help from the U.S. government in 1973. Pinochet’s government murdered thousands, and tortured and raped thousands more. Piñera is certainly no Pinochet, but protesters are reporting serious injury at the hands of riot police and the military. At least 20 have died, though it’s not yet clear how many were killed by police, and how many died in protest-related violence. Though Piñera has made some concessions — freezing the rate hike, appointing more centrist ministers to his Cabinet — protests continue.

Pablo Abufom is a freelance translator based in Santiago, Chile. He’s also an organizer with the feminist, anti-capitalist Solidaridad movement, and spoke to New York about the protests and the years of activism that preceded them.

Sarah Jones: Things in Chile have obviously been unequal for a long time. Why did the protests start right now?
Pablo Abufom: The government announced on October 4 a hike in the subway fare, and at that time the high-school students — who have been very active politically for the past, I would say, 15 years — organized to protest against it. And they did this by organizing mass fare-dodging. They went from their high schools to the subway station and started jumping the turnstiles. Students in New York City are doing this now, right?

Yes, that’s right!
Amazing. Anyway, the government responded by saying they were just criminals. Then people reacted in a very interesting way. Even grown-ups joined the protest, and started jumping turnstiles to evade the fare. That was on Monday, the 14th. By Wednesday, a lot of people started talking. And I remember watching a video of like 100, 200 people inside a subway station chanting, “The people united will never be defeated.” That, you may know, is a super-relevant song for the Chilean people during the ’60s and ’70s.

On Friday, they suddenly decided to suspend the subway service. Thousands of people that would normally use the subway were just walking around the city trying to find a bus or just walking back to their houses after work. So people were really fed up. You could sense that in the air. And then people started attacking subway stations. Some were burned. We still don’t know how much of that was done by protesters. There has been some evidence that the fires started inside the stations, in places with restricted access. That created the idea that maybe it was a setup. We don’t know. By Friday night, the government decided to declare a state of emergency, and that means basically bringing the military to be in charge of public order. That was when definitely this thing exploded. No one wants to see the military in the streets. It reopened a very deep historical wound.

There’s also been a lot of police brutality, correct?
Yeah. During the first week and a half that we’ve had the military out, there was also military violence against civilians. We’re somewhat used to riot police responding to demonstrations. But it was a completely new thing to see the military not just beating people up, but also shooting at them, shooting up their buildings, trying to make them go into the buildings after curfew hours. Because, also, a state of emergency was not enough. They put in place a curfew.

From the first day, the National Human Rights Institute started putting out reports every day. And by a week later, after the state of emergency was declared, you had over 3,000 people detained. A lot of them were children and teenagers. Minors in general. You have over 200 people who lost one or two eyes due to being shot by nonlethal ammunition. And then at least 20 people killed on official records. And that’s only one week. That’s really brutal, man.

Do you think the government anticipated that there would be such a backlash? It seems like they should have.
I still don’t know if they’re really stupid, or do they have their own calculator that works in a completely different way? Because from my point of view, it was a complete mistake to declare the state of emergency. They didn’t even try a political solution for it. It was only two or three days after the state of emergency was declared that the president announced that they were going to freeze the fare hike. And of course people didn’t really care about it at that point, with the military in the streets, with people being accused of being criminals by just being on the streets and protecting their living conditions. Piñera literally said we are at war with a powerful enemy that doesn’t respect anything, which is basically a word-for-word repetition of something that Pinochet said during the dictatorship. Of course the reaction to that is very angry.

People definitely didn’t believe in the government at that point. Or the media, who are being complicit with this narrative of criminals on one side and good citizens on the other side just protesting peacefully. The good citizens were in the streets making barricades after curfew hours. People knew that even though some of their neighbors were looting the supermarkets, their neighbors weren’t the ones bringing them down. For instance, in my neighborhood, there’s a Peruvian neighbor who died in a fire inside a supermarket. The official autopsy said he was shot in the chest, and the body was found in a way that made it obvious he didn’t die by fire.

His body was sort of relaxed before he was burned, so that means that he was already dead. It happened several times that people were killed in fires, but it seems that they were really killed by either the military or the cops and then put in supermarkets or other stores and then burned down. There’s really no trust in the government right now.

Who is Piñera’s base right now?
Mostly old people. [Piñera’s party] has been appealing to old people with law-and-order-type discourse for a long time. That’s the thing the right wing does here and everywhere. The law-and-order approach to public order, and then neoliberal capitalist economy, as a way to make society wealthy and good for everyone.

There is a very committed right wing in Chile. Some of them still adore Pinochet. And then the liberals: “Of course, I’m not for the human rights violations, but the dictatorship basically created an economic miracle.” That’s a very common narrative in the generation of the ’80s. They saw the country change. I mean, everyone has a TV and a smartphone in Chile, so that gives you a sense of a developed country. And then we have a very high per capita income, but it’s completely unequally distributed.

What economic policies led up to today’s unrest?
All of this is also within the context of strong neoliberal policies and reforms implemented during dictatorship in the ’70s and ’80s. They basically transformed the labor market in Chile, and destroyed and displaced any manufacturing job that existed in Chile at the time.

One of the things that may be the most direct cost of the whole crisis right now is the general privatization of public services in cities. So you have water, you have electricity and the phone company and education and health care and even the pension system is all privatized. That combined with low wages means that people don’t have enough to pay for their living.

What’s the mood like among the protesters?
People continue to protest, and not just in Santiago. That’s important. The protests began in Santiago, but then spread throughout the country, especially after the state of emergency. People continue to go out to the streets spontaneously. They gather around the presidential palace and they confront the police there.

You mentioned the student movement earlier, but I want to talk about it a little more. How influential has student organizing been on today’s protests?
I would say the first organized student protest in Chile was in 2001. But then in 2006, we had what they called the Penguin Revolution. That’s because the high-school students in public schools wear black-and-white uniforms. It was a massive occupation movement throughout the country when almost the entire public system was occupied. I would say they were the first to publicly, and in an organized way, reject neoliberal policies. So the slogan, no mas lucro, no more profit, became the slogan of the movement. Then it sort of entered Chilean society as a way to understand that our problems were related to, basically, a society that was organized for the profit of a few big companies.

Those same students, in 2011, were in college. And they organized the schools then. Definitely all the public universities were occupied and then a lot of the private universities. So that was definitely the moment that the more general criticism of neoliberal policies started. That also opened the way for new political parties and a new social democratic politics for the left in Chile, formed by students who were radicalized.

What do demonstrators want?
There isn’t one single set of demands right now. But people in the streets are experiencing an awakening and that’s interesting. I would say that if you go out and hear what people are saying, it’s basically three or four things. One, that Piñera and the government should resign. Two, that Chile has awakened. And then the call for a constituent assembly and a new constitution is also an important part of the demands. There is this feeling that the constitution that was written and imposed in 1980 by the Pinochet dictatorship is the root of every problem. It’s definitely not, but it is very important. It is a very conservative and pro-private-property constitution.

What do the protests tell us about this kind of heavily privatized economy?
It doesn’t work! People in Chile are living in very precarious conditions. They don’t live in extreme poverty, but they have to work two or three jobs. Like every Uber driver you talk to is working his or her second job of the day, maybe except for young people who are in between jobs or something like that. Most women in Chile have to work several jobs because they have to care for other people and they don’t get paid, or they don’t get pensions or any kind of insurance for that. The pension system was destroyed in Chile and we have basically a savings account that people are forced to put their money into every month. And that money goes to financial institutions who make a lot of profit out of that. You get paid whatever is left when you’re old.

An interesting precedent of the current wave of protest is the March 8 feminist general strike earlier this year. At the time, it was the biggest in the post-dictatorship period. Five or six hundred thousand women marched through the main avenues of Santiago and other cities in the country. This wave of protest, this rebellion, however you want to call it, it is standing on the shoulders of gigantic movements that have come before.

This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed for length.

What the Hell Is Going on in Chile? A Protester Explains.