A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.
Back in October 2019, Belgian photojournalist Aurian Merlin Cerise was visiting a friend in Buenos Aires, Argentina, when neighbouring Chile began sliding toward widespread social unrest. Within days, what began as a student-led protest against the rising costs of public transport in the capital of Santiago turned into a nationwide mass demonstration against inequality, corruption and the quality of life in the country.
A month on – and despite brutal attempts to quash the movement – the protesters had achieved more than what many had thought was possible. The government agreed to one of the protesters’ key demands: they’d organise a referendum to let voters chose whether to keep or discard the country’s constitution, written under Chile’s former far-right dictator, General Augusto Pinochet.
Chile’s Pinochet-era constitution created an electoral system biased in favour of incumbents, which disincentivized politicians from listening to voters and common people from running for office. It also enshrined radical neoliberal principles into law, making the provision of social rights – including to water, healthcare and education – the responsibility of private services rather than the state. These principles turned Chile into one of the wealthiest and most investment-friendly countries in South America, but they also created massive inequality and discontent.
A year after the protests, the 2019 movement for constitutional reform won the vote. Not only that – Chileans arguably elected the most progressive constitutional assembly in the history of the world, with half of its members being women and a third representatives from Indigenous communities. The assembly is still at work, and is set to centre average people’s needs and environmental protection among the country’s new fundamental principles.
In December 2021, Chile also elected its new leader. Gabriel Boric, 35, came up through student protest movements with a progressive agenda, campaigning on promises to institute high-quality, free education for all. He’s now the youngest president in the world.
The protesters waved a number of flags, including the rainbow coloured Aimara wiphala flag of the indigenous people in Bolivia and the yellow, red, black, green and white flag of the Mapuche indigenous people of Chile and Argentina.
But back in 2019, when photojournalist Merlin was about to head to Santiago, nobody knew these historic wins were right around the corner. The clashes between the protesters and the carabineros, the Chilean police, quickly became extremely violent. Over thirty people were killed and thousands more injured. People reported being raped by the police, blinded on purpose by rubber bullets, kidnapped and tortured.
“Before long, I’d lost any notion of neutrality, even though I was documenting a reality without personally participating,” Merlin said. “Every town I passed through was turned inside out. The repression I saw was violent and unjust.” Eventually, a nation-wide curfew was set and a state of emergency declared to prevent people from gathering on the streets. “Only a few well-off neighbourhoods and rural communities were spared from the mayhem,” Merlin continued.
Eventually, the circumstances proved too dire for Merlin to remain removed from the scenes he was documenting. During one of the protests, while the police was charging at the crowd, he sustained a head injury, although he doesn’t know exactly who dealt the blow. The next day, Merlin decided to quit his job reporting for a news agency and help out people from the movement he’d previously met.
In time, the events in Chile became an inspiration for progressive movements worldwide, especially over these past two years marked by the pandemic. After all, the issues at play in the Chilean revolution go beyond the country’s own political problems. “Globalised neoliberalism and the inequalities it causes concern everyone,” Merlin said. “I might not be Chilean, but I was overcome by the sense of a shared fight against injustice. I felt I was exactly where I needed to be.”
Scroll down to see more of Merlin’s pictures of the time:
protesters wore goggles and face coverings to protect themselves from tear gas and rubber bullets.
Protester holding a chilean flag which reads "Wake up, Chile. The dictatorship is called neoliberalism"
Protesters running towards the police barricade to take control of a monumental square formally known as Italy Square and later symbolically renamed Dignity Square by the movement
Someone looking over a wall onto a barricaded street.
During his trip, Merlin met and became close with a lot of people in the movement.
Within days of them starting, the protests spread to all main cities in the country.
Merlin showing off his tattoos which he got from local artists he befriended.
The protest saw a huge participation from indigenous groups that have been historically ignored and discriminated against by Chile's governments.
Even the medical personnel – mostly composed of volunteers – helping injured protesters had to show up in protective gear for fear of the police.
The police sectioned off vast areas of the city to prevent protesters from freely moving through the streets.
Santiago's metro became one of the movement's main targets. Management would shut down all lines exactly at the time of the scheduled demonstrations, making life very difficult for protestors who needed the service to take to the streets.
The police repression was so brutal it was condemned by international organisations including the UN.
Posters of dissidents who disappeared during the chilean dictatorship and never accounted for.
Besides those directly attacked during the clashes or their aftermath, many people were traumatised by the violence they saw happening in the streets.
The protests involved many different groups – student organisations, various political groups but also many unaffiliated young people.
A protester holding a sign protesting Chile's privatised pension system.
Some of the protesters threw rocks at the police in response to their violent repression.
People watching by as the protesters attacked the police's main precinct in Santiago on the 4th of January, 2020
Aurian Merlin Cerise decided to hitch-hike from Buenos Aires to Santiago to meet people on the road and get a sense of where he was heading.
Some of the people Merlin met on his hitch-hiking trip