Is This How a Revolution Goes?
I’m sitting on the rooftop bar at Winebox Hotel, drinking sparkling wine in Valparaiso, Chile. A gentle breeze is blowing, cooling me after the day’s heat. The bubbles in the wine tickle my nose. Or maybe that’s the tear gas.
Van Morrison plays on the stereo while sirens wail on the streets below punctuated by the staccato pow pow pow of rubber bullets being shot at protesters.
I take another sip of wine. My eyes start to water. Definitely the tear gas.
It’s been a weird trip.
A revolution begins with the metro
On October 18th, protests broke out in Chile after a metro fare increase was announced. It was a small increase but it was an increase too far for Chileans. High school students in Santiago were not having it and started jumping turnstiles and breaking metro machines. The fare hike was just a spark but the air in the country had been full of gas fumes for years. The country exploded.
For six weeks now protests have been a daily occurrence. The people are asking for revisions to the constitution that will put a stop to or at least slow down the privatization of all areas of their life: health care, education, roads, water, and pensions to start. They’re asking for a fair living wage. The current constitution was drafted during the Pinochet dictatorship so it’s not hard to imagine that it doesn’t have the best interests of the average person in mind.
Rampant capitalism over the past 30 years has meant strong economic growth for the country as a whole, but for the average Chilean, it has made life very expensive. One person we talked to compared it to a famously expensive European country. “When you compare average incomes and cost of living, it’s actually cheaper to live in Switzerland. University is cheaper too.”
So the people march
Protests in cities and towns across Chile have become a daily occurrence. The people want their government to hear them. They want their struggle to be acknowledged and to start seeing change.
Though the media would have you think otherwise, most protests have been peaceful. I’ve been told by locals that they can even have a family event feel to them. But to every rule there is an exception. The exception here are those who clash with the police or vandalize and loot properties. Every town has seen fire in some form, whether it’s road blocks or buildings set on fire.
One protester we talked with said of the violence, “We don’t really want to do it but sometimes you need to break something to make people listen to you.” Unfortunately, he may be right. There’s certainly no way the Chilean government can turn a blind eye to what’s happening now.
The Carabineros, Chile’s police force, have been criticized for their hard line approach with the mainly peaceful protesters. A liberal use of water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets to disperse crowds has resulted in over 200 people being partially blinded. The UN has had to send investigators to monitor the police and protests.
Red or gouged out eyes has quickly become a common theme in street art across the country. In La Serena, not a single statue that lines the main boulevard remains untouched. In the small town of Vallenar the round white curb markers have had irises bleeding red pasted on to them, which gives an especially eerie vibe as a Carabineros car rolls down the street.
We see you. This is what you’re doing to us.
Trying to keep my distance and failing
I fully support the Chilean people in their movement, and I hope they can achieve the change they’re looking for, but this is not my fight. I had planned to stay well clear of any large gatherings of people and to just go about my tourist business. I was already on high alert with frayed nerves just planning the trip in the first place. I wasn’t about to get mixed up in it if I could help it.
But you know what they say about the best laid plans.
We took an afternoon street art/graffiti walking tour in Valparaiso that ended just as that evening’s protest started to go by. I was compelled to take a closer look as if it was a parade. I was anxious so I snapped my photos from half a block away, content that I was sticking to my own rule to avoid the unrest.
Time to head back to the hotel in the hills.
We looked at our map and realized with dismay that we’d have to merge with the march for two blocks in order to get back to our hotel, if we didn’t want to dive into a maze of steep and twisting hills.
At this point there was no sign of the Carabineros and people were loud but peaceful so we dove in. I walked briskly, clutching my red tourist map in front of my chest as a beacon that I was just passing through. I spoke English loudly to my partner. I wanted everyone to know I was just a tourist.
The crowd was mostly dressed in black. Many were waving the flag of the Mapuche people, one of Chile’s indigenous tribes. I spotted a few crews frantically pasting up revolutionary posters on poles, walls, and doorways. People banged on pots and pans. Whistles blew. I swear I heard a marching band somewhere in the mass.
We turned up the first side street we came to, adrenaline coursing through our bodies. We walked up the street and very quickly it was quiet and life as usual. That’s the weird juxtaposition I kept coming across during those first few days in Chile.
Later that night is when we heard the sirens, saw something lit on fire in the street, and got our first whiff of tear gas. But for the most part, the city was quietly tucked into their homes for the night. The thing that struck us was how nonchalant locals were about it. “Oh that? That’s just tear gas. It’ll pass,” our bartender commented to us when our eyes started watering.
Night and day
In Santiago, we were drinking pisco sours in a rooftop pool overlooking the Andes while chillhop played on the speakers. Meanwhile, we knew that protests were happening just a few miles away.
During the day, people were heading off to work, running errands, and just living their lives, while all the shops around them were boarded up with plywood and sheet metal. You can still get your latte from Starbucks but you’ll have to be content with it feeling like a cave inside.
The metro was running. Mostly. A number of stations were closed due to fires and damage but the trains were still busy. Even those stations that were open required a bit of extra leg work since not all entrances were available.
One evening there might be a burning roadblock and a standoff with police near a square, but by the next afternoon children are playing in the fountain and street vendors are hawking their wares.
It was nothing like I saw in the news.
There is a stark dichotomy between the calm and the chaos.
If you only listened to the outside media, you’d think that the entire country had descended into wild lawlessness. However, during our two week road trip through the central and northern parts of the country we encountered more peace than protest.
We met warm, friendly people who were very tolerant of our rudimentary Spanish. Even when they had no idea what we were trying to say, they greeted us with big smiles.
We quickly learned that we could still travel and enjoy our vacation by following a few safety precautions. Mainly, do our best to avoid large gatherings, talk to locals about how things are in their town, limit our walking around after dark, and keep an eye on the news for road blocks.
It’s still a good time to visit Chile
I’ll admit, I was very close to pulling the plug on this trip right up until we got on the plane, but now that I’m home again I’m so very glad that I didn’t.
While there were a few surreal, tense moments, I had some amazing experiences and have been introduced to a beautiful country. Stargazing in the Atacama Desert. Dipping our toes in the South Pacific Ocean. Stuffing ourselves full of queso empanadas. Sharing a champagne toast with a family who just opened a new restaurant and we were their first guests. Sharing a camp meal with wild donkeys. I hope I get to return soon.
I also hope that the printed copy of the current Chilean constitution that I bought as a weird souvenir is just that on my return, a historical document that has been replaced.
El pueblo unido jamás será vencido.