Violence in Chile is an idea that I tie closely to my parent’s generation. Sept. 11, 1973 — a day that echoes in the history of Chile.
Sept. 11 was the date of the military coup that would redefine Chilean politics, economics, and by extension, society. The coup brought on a complete overhaul of the health care system (loosely based on the American system), failing schools, poor pensions and even the systematic privatization of water.
It marked the beginning of two decades of violence. It was on this day when the CIA-backed military took the country away from the people and with the mantra of national reconstruction, completely altered the fabric of Chile. Those decades would be marked by systematic political repression and the persecution, torture and murder of dissidents.
The consequences of Sep. 11 are not just a traumatic memory for Chileans: The day’s legacy lives on in the country.
But now I am seeing violence play out during my lifetime. Violence lives on in response to the protests that broke out in Chile about a month ago. Onlookers are in shock as the often-lauded capitalist success story is going up in flames. But to really understand what is happening in Chile, we first have to understand its history.
From abroad, Latin America is a region plagued by economic and political instability. Uncertainty is a word that thrives in Latin America, and it takes hold of every political party — left or right. Systemic corruption runs in Chile and the rest of Latin America.
But it wasn’t always like that.
We need to think about the history of Latin America with an understanding of the broader geopolitical context. From the late ’40s to the early ’90s, the United States fought to contain communism during the Cold War. During this time, the U.S. government, through its use of the military and the CIA, enacted policies to expand American dominion beyond its geographic boundaries. Through economic engagement, both by private means and government treaties, military intervention or regime changes, America imposed its free-market ideology on to the rest of the world, including Latin America.
In Chile, the 1960s and ’70s represented an era of social hope. Chile was one of the first countries to freely elect a socialist president, and with the election of Salvador Allende in 1970 lay the promise of a prosperous Chile. But this social hope was a threat to the American ideological project.
In one fell swoop, everything changed. What took place in the country instead was the fast transformation of a neoliberal dreamland. At its core, this resulted in deregulation and privatization of several facets of government as well as the development of a state that guaranteed the rights to promote private entrepreneurship. As a result of the history of American intervention, Chile is now witnessing the growing inequality of its people. The imposed political transformations have left in their wake the displacement and destruction of entire communities and a country unable to reconcile its political divide under a crumbling neoliberal banner.
The idealized image of Chile’s success story is now fracturing as a result of recent protests. What originally began as unrest because of an increase in subway tariffs has transformed into a countrywide movement of Chileans demanding economic reform and the expulsion of its President Sebastián Piñera. Chileans are crying out in favor of better access to health care and education, pension system reform, nationalization of natural resources, a crackdown on government corruption, recognition of indigenous rights and a new constitution that replaces the one written during the dictatorship.
But the president has responded to the surge of protests with hostile words and actions. He first declared a state of emergency, a right of the state that has not been invoked since the dictatorship (1973-1990). Along with an enforced curfew, the state of emergency was intended to ensure private order by restricting people’s civil liberties, movement and right to assembly. Piñera has even gone so far as to claim that Chile is at war with people he deems are “enemies of the state.” He has sent about 10,000 armed military personnel to Santiago and other areas to contain the growing unrest.
Though he has since taken the military off the streets of Santiago, promised higher pensions, better health coverage, higher taxes and even supports a referendum to write a new constitution, these promises are not enough to get people off the streets. The people do not believe his words. And how could they trust their government?
Official reports of human rights violations are circulating, but the government does not take responsibility, and social media is flooded with accusations of biased reporting. There are videos of police snorting cocaine to remain more vigilant circulating on social media. There are videos of people being taken from their homes on Facebook. It was recently reported that a destroyed subway stop, Estación Baquedano, was being used as a torture room. Women have claimed to be sexually abused after getting arrested. Countless photos are circulating of people getting shot in the eye and losing their vision.
These drastic measures are reopening the wound of the dictatorship. It is invoking the memory of a violent past into a turbulent present. These protests may have been started by students, but they are now fighting hand in hand with older generations who survived the dictatorship. The timeline of Chile’s history is blurred on the streets of Santiago and beyond. The cries of the past are echoed in the cries of today.
Piñera is wrong. Chile isn’t at war with enemies of the state, Chile is still fighting the oppressive legacy of the dictatorship. It was never about the 30 pesos tariff increase. It is about 30 years of political repression and a people whose desire for an equal and worthy life has endured. What lies at stake is the opportunity for a rebirth of the country, one that can finally lay to rest the bones of the dictatorship.