Reflections from the frontline of the protests in Santiago de Chile


21 Feb. 2020

By Lennart Rogenhofer, Julneth Martinez Atencio and Julius Rogenhofer

Who does a democracy serve when vast sections of the population feel marginalised and indignant, expressing their anger in forceful weekly protests? What is the function of the state and its institutions when the police is associated, by many, with crimes and insecurity? And what is the way forward for a divided country, in which large sections of the population find it increasingly difficult to make ends meet? This conversation brings together local and international perspectives to tap into these and other questions about the protests that have brought turmoil to the streets of Santiago de Chile over the past months. 


JULIUS: The two of you have now spent almost one month in Santiago de Chile. Julneth for you this is home, Lennart this is your fourth visit. What is your relationship with Chile and Santiago specifically?


JULNETH: For years Chile has been something like a second home to me. It was a place I felt safe after my family and I had to leave my first home in Venezuela, as the conditions in that country worsened. We chose Chile because of its economic promise. My father is a Chilean national and my grandmother had already moved back to Chile from Venezuela. Santiago was a place of many firsts for me - my first university, my first job and a place where I felt you could move ahead in life, unlike Venezuela.  


LENNART: Chile and Santiago, specifically, is the place of my new family. Before that if was the stopover point on my journeys through Latin America. As far as Latin American capitals go Santiago felt almost North American to me- in its city centre. It wasn’t until meeting Julneth that I really saw the parts of the city where most ordinary people live. 


JULIUS: How was this visit different? How did you experience the protests?


JULNETH: Chile has a culture of protest. People come to the streets for almost everything. I remember clearly the student protests in 2011, when Piñera was also president. This time the protests feel different. They are much more destructive. My local metro station in Maipu was torched, many places were unrecognisable because of the destruction. Protesters have broken and taken street and traffic lights- the feeling of safety was gone. Unlike in previous protests I could feel some people using the protests for their personal gain, in effect, to commit crimes. Perhaps this is what the London riots felt like. You could feel anger, tension and aggression. At the same time the people you meet in public spaces seemed more united than usual, you saw people speaking in the cue at the supermarket. ‘Chile desperto’ they said, ‘Chile woke up’. 


LENNART: I felt a tangible hatred towards the police, which in Santiago resembles a military in its equipment and appearance. I know that distrust towards the police is a longstanding phenomenon in Chile, but the enmity was much more visible this time. Take the street art- a picture of a dog named “Mata Paco”- cop killer- has come to symbolise the protester’s struggle. It is seen on bandanas, flags and stuffed animals. Come to think of it the protests have been effectively commercialised- there are people selling flags, sandwiches, beer and “Mata Paco” memorabilia. At the same time, you see people jumping the turnstiles of buses and the metro… JULNETH: This is not entirely new… LENNART: But avoiding these payments has become something like a political statement – “evade”. 


JULIUS: What seem to be the main grievances you come across among the protesters, are the issues raised new or are they more forceful articulations of long-standing social problems?


JULNETH: Most of the grievances are not new. They are linked to the basic quality of life in Chile and the inequality between social classes. The upper classes have been shielded from the experiences of those marginalised in society. There were politicians on TV attempting to show that one could live with Chile’s minimum wage, but they made so many mistakes on live tv that the program came to underscore political detachment from the lived realities of ordinary people. This is aggravated by the fact that politicians in Chile receive relatively high salaries, particularly members of the Senate. There are also ongoing problems with the education and healthcare systems- while private providers in both areas are expensive, the public system is marked by problems. The same also goes for the retirement system. Many senior citizens are forced to work at a very old age as pensions are insufficient. During and after the dictatorship, Chile underwent a comprehensive privatisation of public transport and utilities, even including basic necessities such as water and electricity. Now protesters are turning against capitalism and the large companies that they feel have profited at their expense. Thus, the big chain pharmacies, supermarkets and banks have been key targets of looting and arson by the protesters. Still there are two sides to this story- the arson attacks have cost many jobs, particularly for ordinary working people. Many people have no choice but to shop at the chain stores- both because of the choices available where they live and because of their lower prices.


LENNART: It is extremely difficult for young people to find jobs in Chile. Particularly for those who do not have a university degree. Online job postings show that even Baristas at Starbucks are asked to have a degree from a polytechnic. 


JULIUS: Tell us about the visual manifestation of the protests. You have taken pictures of smashed storefronts and subways stations but also of impressive protest art. Has protest become a form of youth expression?


JULNETH: Not all protest is violent. Many protesters and artists have found powerful images to express their distrust and anger at the government and the capitalist system. The all black Chilean flag seen at many protests highlights that the country is in a state of grievance. You also see a lot of identification and focus on those protesters who have been victims of police brutality. A lot of artwork references the eyes of protesters who have lost their sight as consequence of violent police crackdowns.


LENNART: The artwork shows some very violent messages, particularly about the police. In the photos I took you see slogans like “a dead cop does not rape” or “only a dead cop is a good cop”. You also see attempts to identify specific police forces allegedly engaged in violence and specific news anchors who are accused of being liars. Taken together these messages do point to a loss of civility. 


JULIUS: You mentioned the protester’s perceptions of politicians and the police. How do these views compare with (a) your experience with political institutions in Europe and (b) the views of these institutions in Chile previously?


LENNART: During this visit I had the feeling that the role of the Chilean police as a protector was really drawn into question. It seems that in the residential areas the police feels scared of the population. Discussing with other young adults you could feel a dilemma- who do you contact to report a crime? On balance, our friends agreed that you would still call the police but there was a distinction drawn by many between those police forces seen at the protests (Carabineros) and “detectives” and “investigators” (PDI). A friend who works for the police would not mention this in social gatherings. This was a distinction that I did not perceive in other countries, including my current home in Switzerland. It is also worth emphasising the very complex informational landscape. Both politicians and protesters are skilled manipulators of (mis)information and (fake)news. A lot of the images seen on social media are taken out of context or are intentionally manipulated. It is difficult to get a clear overview of the situation- especially as any consensus about the purveyors of truths and falsehoods has broken down. 


JULNETH: The videos of police violence have triggered a complete loss of respect for the police. The same is true for politics. It is painful to see that the public appearances of politicians are so blatant in their lack of understanding for the segments of the population living with lower incomes.


JULIUS: What visions do the protesters have of the future? Do they see their demands being met? What do you think will be the way forward?


JULNETH: For the moment a lot of protesters are focused specifically on changing the Chilean constitution. It seems that the people sincerely believe that a constitutional change would improve their circumstances, even if they have no trust in the government’s constitutional amendment procedures. In fact, many do not understand how that change would take place. It is also anything but clear how a constitutional amendment would solve the problems related to healthcare, education and privatisation. Still, the present constitution is associated with the Pinochet dictatorship and police brutality. When President Pinera declared a state of emergency at the beginning of the current protests, this was seen by many as a reminder of the 1970s – when there were curfews and people began disappearing. There is a referendum announced for April 2020, but it is unclear whether this will settle things. Another dimension to the protests is that they are faceless, leaderless and without a clear and consistent vision. In the four weeks we spent in Santiago de Chile we did not here a single person discussing what should be included in the new constitution- change is itself framed as the solution. You can hear my doubts. But it is disturbing to experience a complete lack of civic consciousness. It seems that people are unwilling to make sacrifices for society. While the government seeks to nurture this consciousness with campaigns on the radio and on television, for example by asking people to recycle, but the infrastructure required to do this is absent. Recycling stations are sparse and not easily accessible for those who lack time and resources. Thus, it seems that this not only a civic consciousness issue but also a failure of governance. I apologise for ending on such a dark note. Let us hope together that Chile’s best days are still ahead of it!


JULIUS: On behalf of M3Dialogue I want to thank you very much for your time and for sharing your thoughts and impressions with us. We look forward to hearing more from you in the future. All the best.



Edited by Julius Rogenhofer.