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Protesting in a pandemic: how Chile’s estallido social continues

By Juliet Richards-


On the 14th October 2019, secondary school students across the city of Santiago began a coordinated fare-dodging campaign in response to a rise in metro prices, sparking a movement against a system that has undermined Chileans’ human rights and dignity for decades. Although prompted by the metro price hike, the protests, now known as the “estallido social” or “social uprising”, reflect the pervasive and ongoing social and economic injustices present across the country. These issues have only been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, as President Piñera’s government fails to provide adequate protections or support for the people of Chile and the gap between rich and poor widens ever still. Within the limitations and confines of quarantine and unable to take to the streets in the same way, protesters have had to manifest their anger and make their voices heard in different ways, such as socially distanced protests, cacerolazos and online campaigns.

Chile is one of the wealthiest nations in Latin America, and also one of the most unequal. The top 1% of Chileans earns 33% of its total income (for comparison, the top 1% of the UK’s population earns 17% of its wealth, already a staggering statistic), and most lower-class Chilean workers have to keep up with living costs on par with a European country, but on a Latin American salary. Since the installation of a military dictatorship in 1973 and throughout the post-dictatorship years (1990-present), successive governments have enacted a series of neoliberal policies that have left large sectors of society marginalised and unsupported. Healthcare, education, pensions and living costs were key issues brought to light in the demonstrations, which denounced the privatisation of public services as well as lack of protections and respect for indigenous communities.

The initial protests were led by secondary school students who coordinated a mass metro fare evasion campaign in Santiago. Within a day, they were joined by thousands of others, the majority from the working classes, and the protests spilled onto the streets and spread across the country. The government responded by deploying the military police to suppress the demonstrations. Over several months of public demonstrations, 29 people died and over 2500 were injured, with 352 sustaining eye damage including blindness as a result of police brutality. National and international human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, condemned the government’s use of excessive force to contain the uprising and continue to seek justice for the victims.

As the number of Covid-19 cases in Chile surpasses 270,000 and with a death toll of over 5000, satisfaction with Sebastian Piñera’s government is low, with an approval rating of 24%. Many of Piñera’s political opponents, including Guillermo Teillier, the head of the Communist Party of Chile, have called for an investigation into the government’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic, and claim that Piñera’s choice to prioritise economic stability over safety cost thousands of lives. Even before the pandemic, the systematic privatisation of Chilean public services meant that the public healthcare system was underfunded and overstretched, and higher standards of healthcare were only accessible to those with a stable income and insurance policy. This was one of the major issues at the heart of the 2019 protests and is once again at the forefront of government opposition agendas.

Covid-19 has worsened and laid bare the existing social and economic inequalities and injustices, and disproportionately affects poorer communities who have more limited access to adequate healthcare and who are more likely to come into contact with coronavirus. A strictly enforced curfew prompted an increased police presence on the streets and fines for anyone breaking lockdown without a valid permit, but the government has been criticised for failing to act quickly enough and for inadequate measures in controlling the spread of coronavirus. The Communist Party of Chile criticised the government response, saying that Piñera’s focus on protecting the Chilean economy has forced many to choose between exposing themselves to the virus and losing their jobs, an unthinkable prospect for the large proportion of society without a safety net. Representatives from all opposition parties called on the government to implement a universal basic income, and Amnesty International is campaigning for increased workplace and economic protections for health workers.


While political representatives campaign for economic and social support for the most vulnerable to cope with the crisis, the estallido social continues in various ways in quarantine. Cacerolazos, or the banging of pots and pans to make noise and show discontent, are not a new form of protest, originating in 1830s France and spreading to Latin America in the 1970s, starting with Chile. They were nightly events during the first month of the 2019 protests, particularly when the government imposed a curfew to limit physical

demonstrations, and the tradition of people leaning out of their windows, banging on pots and pans, has now become a symbol of socially distant resistance. Most recently there were cacerolazos to demand that government officials take cuts to their wages in order to support vulnerable and disadvantaged people, particularly those who are unable to work.

The 2019/20 protests are illustrated on the walls of the cities, and streets and doors are covered with slogans and murals portraying suffering, hope, and justice. The protests featured indigenous rights movements in particular, and demands for justice for the victims, including the Mapuche activist Camilo Catrillanca, continue in quarantine in the form of murals and online campaigns. Although the administration began cleaning the streets of this protest art during quarantine, new artworks are appearing, created by individuals and organised groups of muralists such as the Brigada Ramona Parra and the Brigada Chacon who have existed and protested since before the dictatorship. A common theme of these artworks is the denunciation of the disproportionate economic impact of coronavirus on the poor and marginalised and the demand for a fairer and more equal society.

During quarantine, physical manifestations are limited and irregular but still take place in major metropolitan centers, usually with social distancing and face masks are mandatory. On the 27th April, a protest in Santiago was attended by over 200 people and others took place in Concepción, Antofagasta and Valparaiso. Once again, the military police were deployed and used tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets to disperse the demonstrations.

For those unable to seek justice and reform on the streets, the world of social media and online campaigning is an alternative way to hold the government to account. A petition demanding justice for Gustavo Gatica, a Chilean student who was left blind after being shot in the face by police during the protests, received thousands of signatures, and social media plays an important role in mobilising the people, spreading awareness, and raising funds, often to care for members of society left behind by government welfare plans. A plebiscite to decide whether or not to reform the Chilean Constitution, which was written during Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1980, was scheduled to take place on the 26th April 2020, but was postponed due to the pandemic. It is now expected to take place in October 2020, and several online campaigns on Twitter and Instagram urge citizens to vote to approve the formulation of a new democratic constitution.




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