I know three firemen here in Chile, a volunteer position that is terribly undervalued. Many of the firemen spend most nights at the firehouse, and there are continuous campaigns to donate money to keep the firehouses afloat. One of the firemen that I know had a birthday yesterday. And I saw on his facebook wall that after wishing him a happy birthday, one of his friends said, “hope there are no fires, so you can have a fun night.”
No fires, indeed.
Last night, as part of a protest situation that is absolutely beyond what my US-based brain can easily get around, a department store called “La Polar” was raided and set aflame. The vandals, (news reports some of them as young as ten) breached the roll-down solid metal grate and started throwing burning items inside. It’s not clear if they were molotov cocktails or simply burning lumber.
Why La Polar, and why now? And what is going on in my city?
Here’s a couple of links to other pieces I have written if you want some background.
Essentially, students are protesting the free market economy put in place by the dictatorship and its minions, many of whom, after studying for free in Chile, went on to study Masters’ or PhD programs in the United States, where they learned (and later implemented) a neoliberal approach towards economics. This approach, which has caused the cost of universities to rise in a way that makes them unaffordable for nearly everyone, has broadened the gap between rich and poor, which (it is said) can only be bridged by education.
And what does that have to do with La Polar? A scandal broke while I was last out of Chile, having to do with abusive credit tactics implemente by La Polar. Chileans often pay bills in installments. Even when you go to the supermarket, if you pay by credit or debit, they will ask you “cuantas cuotas?” (how many installments?). La Polar, instead of charging people the right amount of each of their installments, reclaculated the prices to the point where people were paying many times what they should have been paying for their purchases. If you buy everything in cuotas, it’s hard to keep track of how much everything should have cost, and so the practice went undetected for some time. It is also, perhaps, fair to note that La Polar is one of the companies that most easily granted its (store) credit card, and because of that, was somewhere where lower-middle class people could shop more easily.
Getting back to education, yesterday morning, there was a protest, run by the high school students. Or I should say, there should have been a protest. It’s too long to explain in detail, but here’s something I wrote for MatadorNetwork on the protest. The police used repressive tactics to prevent the (unpermitted) march from proceeding, interfering with student’s rights to assemble, and their right to free movement. They were not permitted to board metros or micros (buses) to get to the protest start, and closer to downtown, they were stopped, turned away, and manhandled into not walking towards points where conflict was already brewing. I saw more than ten kids get their backpacks searched, a few more asked for their ID. In contrast non-students did not have any of their posessions searched, IDs requested, and were permitted to circulate freely.
The usual aggressive tactics of water cannons and teargas were used to quash each of the small uprisings, or even groups of students singing and in one case, dancing (beside the cultural center Gabriela Mistral). I went home about two hours after the scheduled start of the high schoolers’ protest.
Later at night, the university had another (unpermitted) protest scheduled. I didn’t go out into it, but from what I could see on local media, it was worse. (or does everything just feel more sinister at night?). Rocks, violence, aggression, and one student was hit by a car, the driver of which drove away and then reported himself, saying, he was too afraid (because of all the students) to stay put after striking the pedestrian.
In the meantime, a government functionary from the ministry of culture called the head of one of the university groups, Camila Vallejos a “perra” (bitch) in her twitter feed, saying, “kill the bitch and this ends.” Camila cannot return home, because she has gotten death threats. Her home number was distributed freely and her family has had to disconnect the phone. Story in Spanish here.
There are layers of complexity beyond the scope of this blog, and beyond my knowlege. I observe and take pictures and report because I don’t know how not to. Another thing I don’t know is how all of this will end. These are the most volatile and largest demonstrations in Chile since the dictatorship ended. What does that mean for us here? Will the government bend to student demands? Will it just let them protest until they are hoarse and defeated? Will more violence erupt?
My “favorite” part of the protest so far has been the cacerolazo, or “pots and pans protest.” It’s quite simple, though I’ll bet you’ve never seen one, unless you live here. You go outside and clink a spoon against a pot or pan. And so do your neighbors. I talked to several friends last night, and in downtown, Providencia and Ñuñoa, the banging was clear, a cacophonous rhythmic clinking. People are unhappy. I only hope the politicians with their MBAs and PhDs and double paned windows and houses up on the hillsides where the gap between rich and poor is more evident than anywhere else could hear. And I hope they listen.
I have uploaded a gallery of photos. These are from the high schooler’s protest. I was not trying to sensationalize anything. This is just what I saw through my lens. What I saw with my eyes I tried to paint a picture of for you above. Click to enlarge, or see them on my flickr page. All photos copyright Bearshapedsphere/Eileen Smith. Do not use without permission.