On the drive into Santiago from the airport, after a 17 hour flight from Amsterdam, I looked out at the suburbs – and was surprised by what I saw: slums. It didn’t seem make sense. I had read that Chile was the most modern and prosperous nation in South America – and a half of the Chilean population lived in Santiago…
We stayed in Santiago for two nights and departed on the Friday morning, taking the metro out to the bus station and travelling south west to the Andes. That very afternoon, the city exploded into an scene of mass demonstrations – and an orgy of violence. This as it turned out was the opening scene of what would become a national convulsion over the next weeks. Chile would be continually in the international news.
We had got no inkling of this impending eruption during our short stay. On the contrary, Santiago seemed like a pleasant but rather unexciting city. It had no historic centre to speak of – and certainly nothing in comparison many of the cities in Europe.
On Saturday, when we heard about what had happened, I thought of the millions of people living in the slums at the outskirts of Santiago. But actually, it wasn’t those people who were involved in the demonstration on the Friday afternoon. It was the students – the sons and daughters of the middle and upper classes.
The ostensible reason for the student protest was a rise in the price of tickets for the metro, but the real driving grievance went far deeper: the inequality in South America’s most prosperous and modern nation. Inequality is one of the major issues confronting the human race today – in the developed nations as well as the less developed ones. All over the world, wages are stagnating, whilst the super- rich are becoming even more super rich.
Yet there was something strange about the Chilean revolt. If poverty and social economic malaise were reasons for a popular revolt, then why weren’t the other Latin American nations experiencing something similar? Or was it because Chile was so much better off that the contrast between poor and rich was much starker?
The protesters demanded that the Prime Minister Pinera, a billionaire businessman heading a conservative government, resign. But he wasn´t the cause of the inequality. Pinera was elected two years previous by a landslide after 8 years of socialist government. The problem of high economic growth and increasing inequality had escalated during the reign of the Socialists – despite all their lofty claims.
In the meantime, the Chilean protest movement, born on that Friday afternoon in Santiago, was riven by some potent contradictions. It had bright side – and a dark one. Over the Friday afternoon and the weekend, Santiago was the scene of an orgy of looting and arson; 130 metro stations were extensively wrecked; supermarkets, factories and business were set alight. During those first days, 20 people – belonging to the poorest ranks of Chilean society – died.
Leading the violence were student would-be revolutionaries including Marxists and anarchists. Revolution was in the air.
Over the following weeks – and then months – the protest momentum spread from Santiago to every major city and town in the nation in Chile. When the ordinary Chileans hit the streets en masse, the demonstrations were noisy but non-violent. At one point almost a million people turned up at a demonstration in Santiago.
Yet the dark side was never far away.
Everywhere we travelled, in every town irrespective of its size, it was the same story: silent streets, the shutters on the shops and businesses drawn down and locked, the supermarkets open for a few hours and under police protection. The entire national economy was paralysed because no one wanted to see their businesses burnt down. In two places we stayed out, fires were lit at night and sirens sounded as fire services and police raced to the scene. Sometimes we couldn’t access our hotel without first knocking on the locked entrance door.
In the meantime, the peso went into free fall; two international conferences (a world trade and a climate change conferences), which would have created hundreds of jobs were cancelled. Tourism, one of Chile’s major industries, went into a long and steady decline.
Irrespective of the Pinera government’s rescinding all its former policies and promising to increase pensions and benefits and to increase taxes on the rich, the protests continued. Demonstrating became a national habit and with the summer on the way, it was destined to continue. A big problem for the government was that there were no leaders of the protest movement with whom it could negotiate. Chile was in the grips of a ‘people’s protest’, but one with no direction, no coherent ideas, no vision for a better Chilean society.
To create a prosperous economy with a fair distribution of the national product is a tall order, one which has only been achieved in some of the advanced western nations (and certainly not including the U.S.). It is one of the truly great challenges confronting the human race today: how to combine capitalism with social economic justice. It requires thought and discussion.
There is scant evidence of this happening in Chile. No one has anything like an answer to the issues at stake. The government – which ever government is charged to run the country – is faced by some hard decisions. It has to borrow billions of dollars on the international money markets to assist the thousands of businesses which have been hit hard by the demonstrations and, to repair the extensive damage to superstructure as well as finance the new reforms aimed at ameliorating inequality.
In the meantime, the demonstrations continue.
The focus of the demonstrators and the international media is on the army, which is accused of human rights abuses. These have to be taken seriously of course. But then, why was the army called out in the first place? Who was responsible for that? The dictator Pinochet? Or the student revolutionaries addicted to the romance of revolution?
Where to Chile?
Is it’s aura of stability and prosperity over? Will Chile become just another typical Latino nation: a government deep in debt, run away inflation and a worthless currency, high unemployment and dependence on ‘loans’ and ‘assistance’ from China?
One only had to look over the border at Argentina to see how bad things could get.
Perhaps the true dimensions of the challenges confronting Chile could be seen in the centre of a town we stopped at where almost every small business and shop was closed and the buildings covered in graffiti – and slogans.
One of the slogans read: ‘Kill the rich!’
Santiago is a pleasant modern city – with quite a few malls. I can’t say that I found it particularly inspiring and two nights there was enough. there was certainly no suggestion of the storm about to break….
Probably the most exciting thing in Santiago was the morning opening ceremony at the Presidential Palace, watched by thousands of Chilean and South American tourists snapping shots with their phones.
But the poor were never far away – this scene taken on our way to the bus station on the Friday morning.
People sleeping on the streets in the heart of Santiago…
The central square of Santiago on the Thursday Evening: a scene of tranquillity. By the following afternoon, a scene of urban revolution…
Surely the low point of the rebellion was reached when the churches in Santiago were sacked, statues removed, pews burnt and the walls covered in graffiti.