Chile pro-rights demonstrators
All photos: Catalina Juger, Alfonso González, Jotge Vargas and Eric Allende | Migrar Photo
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The Daily Reality of Chile's Turbulent Anti-Government Protests

More than a million have reportedly marched and 20 died in inequality demonstrations.
October 28, 2019, 12:23pm

This article originally appeared on VICE LATAM.

The sun is going down in Santiago, the capital of Chile, as the metallic, monotonous drumming noise coming from pots and pans competes with the military helicopters roaring overhead. Soldiers patrol the streets – the evening creeps into the last hour before the curfew starts by. From a balcony, the deep voice of Víctor Jara, the Chilean artist assassinated by former dictator Augusto Pinochet's regime, echoes with his old hymn "El derecho de vivir en paz" (The right to live in peace). Tear gas grenades fly through the sky and a group of protesters battle, stones in hand, the Guanaco – the police's truck-mounted water cannons – while waving black Chilean flags.

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More than a million Chileans marched in Santiago last week. A marginal metro fare increase sparked a revolt, which quickly snowballed into mass demonstrations against wealth and gender inequality, rising cost-of-living, government ethics and climate change. After bringing in military forces and imposing nighttime curfews, President Sebastian Piñera announced on Saturday he had asked his entire cabinet to resign, promising to "restructure" the government as he worked to meet the people's demands. "We are in a new reality," he declared, saying he would lift the state of emergency at midnight on Sunday. But with more protests planned, Chileans are continuing to call for the president's resignation and an entirely new constitution.

On the ground in Santiago, if you ask people what they are waking up against, you get various answers. There are no leaders or spokespersons, just regular people uniting together. The best way to understand each person's motivation is to read the banner they're carrying. "They took so much from us, they even took our fears," says one. On another: "Until dignity becomes a habit."

protestas Chile 2019

Some people are here to protest poor public pensions schemes, others to reform a deficient healthcare system, but most are fighting for equality. Among the crowd is 70-year-old Amelia Rivera, who raises her placard in defiance. She's wearing a bandana that she'll use to protect herself from the tear gas as it spreads closer. For five days now, Rivera has been coming into the city from San Bernardo, a commune just outside of the capital, to join her children and grandchildren at the protest.

Rivera tells me that she's demonstrating against the classism rooted in Chilean society. She believes that her daughter, who is currently finishing a PhD, will never find a decent job because she's black. She's also fighting for all the young people that she's met over the decades living in the most marginalised neighbourhoods of Santiago.

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"I’m marching against inequality, against the abuses, against classism," Rivera says. "I realised many years ago that this country was only for rich men. I have met thousands of children that live on the street, homeless, ill-fed, bullied in school, without rights."

Rivera is holding a sign that she made and framed with red bougainvilleas. It reads: With my pension, I was able to buy FLOWERS. Great news, minister!" The sign is a reference to the time the Finance minister, Felipe Larraín, recently went on television to brag about how government action had ensured that flowers were now cheaper, so more people could buy them for their partners.

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The protests – which have led to nearly 3,000 arrests, 584 injuries and 19 deaths – initially sparked after the average price of a metro ticket went up, making one of the most expensive transportation systems in Latin America even less affordable for the working class people who rely on it to get into the city from the outskirts. After initial complaints, Felipe Larraín simply advised people to wake up earlier and travel before 7AM when the fares were cheaper.

The first round of demonstrations came from students who organised widespread fare dodging raids on metro stations, chanting: "Dodging, not paying, another way of fighting." The fare-dodging carried on for days, until things escalated on Friday the 18th of October, when students crippled the transport network by vandalising and setting fire to 19 stations. A week later, 25 metro stations have been burned down, 79 more have been attacked and 200 supermarkets have been looted.

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The Chilean president, Sebastián Piñera, has claimed the perpetrators of the metro attacks were organised groups "with logistics commonly seen from criminal organisations", adding that the country is "at war against a powerful enemy". The government's decision to deploy the army in response and impose a curfew has backfired. Despite the military presence on the streets, looting continues across the city. Earlier this week, a hotel was destroyed right in the centre of the city while the manager tried to call the police. He reported waiting for 40 minutes until they arrived. And the movement has only grown as images of police brutality spread – such as the horrendous video of 25-year-old José Miguel Uribe being killed by a bullet allegedly fired by a soldier as Uribe was coming back from a demonstration in Curicó, a southern town that doesn't have a curfew.

protestas Chile 2019

These images, coupled with a decision by the country's National Institute for Human Rights to file dozens of lawsuits against the military – including five lawsuits for homicide, nine for sexual violence, and 24 for torture – have boosted support for the movement around the country. According to a recent survey by Pulso Ciudadano, 84 percent of the population supports the movement.

The government is starting to give in to the pressure. Piñera recently announced that metro fares wouldn't be going up. He also promised the government would raise the minimum wage and pensions, and the cost of utilities would stay at their current level.

Nobody can predict what the coming weeks will bring, or even whether the government will be able to regain control of the country any time soon. Many of the demonstrators are asking for the introduction of a new "social pact" to help the public regain their faith in politics. Until then, the protests continue. "It’s not 30 pesos, but 30 years" reads one sign here – a reminder that public anger is not only centred around the rise in metro fares, but steeped in decades of frustration about poor governance from both left- and right-wing governments.

"Emergency rooms are overcrowded," explains Nisel Quiroz, 30, whose banner reads: "Dying waiting for attention is violence". Quiroz is a doctor who works at a hospital north of the city. She's joined the protests to demonstrate against the huge waiting lists that have formed in hospitals without enough resources to treat patients. "We have patients hospitalised in hallways, and on chairs," Quiroz tells me. "People are being discharged because we do not have enough space to assist them all. Some patients have been on waiting lists since 2016. They cannot continue living like that."

On the back of Quiroz's banner is a picture of her 89-year-old grandfather, who wanted to be at the demonstration but couldn't make it. He only receives the minimum pension of $150 a month. "For our grandpa Luchito Segovia – decent pensions for the elderly!" The text is accompanied with an image of a smiling Luchito, with a hat and a cane. Quiroz waves her banner as "Chile woke up" rings loud in the background.

This article originally appeared on VICE LATAM.