The Chilean Media Bubble
English-speaking readers may be excused for thinking that nothing much goes on in Chile. The ‘long and narrow strip of land’ (as it was once called by poet Óscar Pérez) that runs from the arid Atacama Desert in the north to the threshold of Antarctica in the south does seem to exist in a hermetically sealed media bubble, from which only the occasional – usually anodyne – story can escape. One such story was the recent Guardian article by Jonathan Franklin, which discusses the exemplary response to the recent 8.4 magnitude earthquake in the Valparaíso Region (whilst failing to point out the government’s much more frequent, suboptimal responses to Chile’s ubiquitous natural disasters). Apart from the odd earthquake or volcano, the trapped miners, and the occasional retrospective on the 1973 CIA-backed coup, the Chile coverage of Britain’s two most progressive mass media outlets – the Guardian and the Independent – consists almost entirely of football news and holiday planning pieces.
It is a commonplace of what little English-language political reporting on Chile there is that Chile is a thriving democracy that has successfully put the bad old days of Pinochet’s dictatorship behind it. Since Michelle Bachelet Jeria’s centre-right Nueva Mayoría coalition, which had taken a four-year hiatus after governing the country ever since Pinochet’s departure from office, was returned to power by just over 20 % of the electorate in an election boycotted by over 50 % of eligible voters, one even occasionally reads that Chile has a ‘left-wing’ government.
The Anglophone left isn’t much better at keeping up with developments in Chile, let alone heaping the media tropes described above with the derision they deserve (and regularly get within Chile). Occasionally, notice will be taken of the ongoing student mobilisations for free public education, but the coverage is almost always superficial, with little attempt to engage the mass popular movements (for there are several). It is hard to believe that, just thirty years ago, there was a vibrant Chile Solidarity Movement disseminating the news of Pinochet’s atrocities and US/UK complicity in them and organising support for those resisting the dictatorship. Today, several generations of Chilean workers and indigenous Mapuche people together carry on the fight against the régime Pinochet built, but without arousing any noticeable interest from the English-speaking left.
One depressingly typical example of the Chile ‘coverage’ by progressives and leftists in the English-speaking world is a meme posted in February 2015 by the US Uncut Facebook page, congratulating Chile for guaranteeing free university education for all and comparing this favourably with the situation in the US. The meme has been circulating without correction ever since. The news that free university education is a reality in Chile would come as a great surprise to those who have braved increasingly violent military police (Carabineros) repression in Chile in recent months demanding just that.
Several such demonstrations took place in Santiago de Chile on 28 May of this year. The following account is based on what I personally witnessed and documented that day, as well as the recollections of others I have interviewed.
The 28 May 2015 Mobilisations in Santiago
The tear gas hung in the air of Santiago city centre throughout the day on 28 May 2015. A wide range of student organisations and trade unions, including the university student union CONFECH, the horizontalist secondary student federation ACES, and the supermarket workers’ unions, had called for a day of mobilisations and reflection in response to the escalating military police repression of student demonstrations.
Just a few days prior, the Special Forces of the Chilean military police (Carabineros de Chile) had violently attacked a student demonstration outside the Congress in the coastal city Valparaíso, where president Michelle Bachelet Jeria of the centre-right coalition that has ruled Chile for all but four years since Pinochet resigned in 1990, was giving her annual Public Accounting of her government’s policies. One Universidad de Chile (Chile’s Oxford) student, Rodrigo Avilés, suffered near-fatal head injuries when Special Forces had aimed at him with one of the 4000 litre/minute ‘guanaco‘ water cannons that are ubiquitous at any opposition demonstration and fire a potent combination of water and a classified blend of chemical irritants.
On 28 May, Rodrigo Avilés was in an artificial coma from which he would awaken only weeks later. The occupied main building of ‘la U’, as Universidad de Chile is popularly known, was adorned with a banner three storeys high with Rodrigo’s face and the legend FUERZA RODRIGO (‘Hang in there, Rodrigo!’) In the hope that he would not become yet another name on the growing list of those ‘murdered in democracy’ by the post-Pinochet regime.
The day of mobilisations began with an unauthorised demonstration by the ACES in Santiago’s central street, the Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins, commonly known as the Alameda, and was to culminate in an authorised march starting at 8 pm down the Alameda from Plaza Italia, in the heart of the university district, past the presidential palace of La Moneda to the junction of Alameda and Echaurren, a distance of roughly 2.5 miles.
An estimated 150,000 people – fully one percent of the country’s population – turned out to march, filling the Alameda with the banners of the various faculties and universities of Santiago, trade unions, political parties (including Bachelet’s own Socialist Party and the Communist Party, to the likely embarrassment of the government), the MIR (Revolutionary Left Movement, one of the main armed resistance groups during the dictatorship), the liberation movement of the indigenous Mapuche people, numerous anarchist groups, and countless others.
The air carried the sounds of drums, guitars, and charangos (an indigenous Andean flute) played by various musical groups, who were accompanied by troupes of dancing women. Street vendors circulated selling snacks, cans of Cristal and Escudo lager, and cigarettes. The small hill that divides the dual carriageway of the Alameda was full of photographers and television cameras.
In the hour or so that preceded the departure of the march, the procession grew to fill the dual carriageway for a distance of at least ten blocks.
At the assembly point in Plaza Italia, the military police presence was limited to a few motorcycle units and a handful of ‘pacos’ (the Chilean term for ‘copper’) with video cameras on the periphery of the growing multitude. They remained visibly absent between the point of departure and the presidential palace at the junction of Alameda and Morandé; not coincidentally, the march traversed the approximately one mile between those two points without incident.
The mood changed abruptly as the march reached La Moneda. There, marchers were awaited by multiple Special Forces armoured vehicles, including the omnipresent guanaco. Without any discernible provocation, the military police began spraying demonstrators with the guanaco, rendering the air practically unbreathable over a wide radius. To avoid succumbing to the gas, the protesters immediately began covering their faces with scarves, HEPA filter masks, and even full-face gas masks.
A new chant rang out amongst those assembled, one popularised during the national days of protest against the Pinochet dictatorship during the 1980s ‘¡Allí están, ellos son los que matán sin razón!‘ (There they are – they’re the ones who kill without justification!).
As the pacos formed a line to charge the marchers with truncheons, the march virtually spontaneously divided into two groups: those seeking safety and breathable air further down the Alameda, and those who remained at the front line either to document the attack or to defend the other marchers by slowing the advance of the military police.
Those who defended the march set about their task with a professionalism born of generations of repression and resistance. In very short order and with hardly a word between them, they took out every light source (to make it harder for the pacos to aim) and built flaming barricades between the marchers and the military police line.
I remained with this latter group just long enough to get footage of the attack, and proceed down the originally planned route towards Plaza los Héroes in hopes of putting some distance between myself and the guanaco. The retreat was remarkably calm and orderly – thanks in no small part to the barriers set up to hold back the military police – and, even in the face of this danger, the atmosphere remained as cordial and comradely as it had been at the start.
Just as I arrived at Plaza los Héroes, roughly fifteen minutes’ walk away from the site of the initial military police attack and the first place where the air was not heavy with irritants, whistles – which demonstrators in Chile use to signal that the military police are near – began to sound from further down the road. Seconds later, hundreds of people came running in the opposite direction.
At breakneck speed, we abandoned the Alameda, seeking refuge in side streets, heading towards the designated safe house, the occupied central building of the Universidad de Chile, half a mile back the way we had just come. Every perpendicular street we passed was blocked by burning barricades, which were practically the only remaining light source in the city centre.
Our retreat to La U passed without incident. Our arrival was greeted by the sound of Impío (Impious) by Guerrillerokulto, Chile’s equivalent of Fuck the Police:
Que nadie se alarme
Si un impío arde.
El que protege al amo
Es el más cobarde.
(No one should be alarmed
If an impious one burns;
The slaves who protect the master
Are the biggest cowards.)
The 28 May 2015 march, and numerous others in Chile in the last six months, form part of a renewed cycle of popular mobilisations that respond both to the current government’s intransigence on the student movement’s demands for free, public, secular, not-for-profit education and to a series of ever-expanding revelations about the illegal financial dealings of the centre-right governing Nueva Mayoría (New Majority, previously: Concertación) coalition and the far-right parties with corporations intimately linked with the Pinochet family. These mobilisations have combined with a nationwide teachers’ strike against the government’s reform to the teaching profession that has left in place a system of privatised pensions paying less than the minimum wage (currently roughly £175/month) and precarious working conditions, and with trade union mobilisations against the Bachelet government’s union-busting ‘labour reform’.
A generation after Pinochet’s departure from La Moneda, the Chilean government remains in a permanent crisis of legitimacy. The managed ‘transition to democracy‘, far from meeting popular demands to abolish the neoliberal regime installed by Pinochet, actually went further than Pinochet ever dared. Since Pinochet’s departure, successive governments have privatised the telephone system, the motorways, the water supply, and have carried out a de facto privatisation of Chile’s vast mineral wealth. The neoliberal 1980 constitution, imposed by Pinochet in a ‘plebiscite’ with no electoral rolls, no opportunity for the opposition to campaign, and massive military repression, remains in force with only minor modifications, as does Pinochet’s draconian Ley antiterrorista (Terrorism Act), which denies basic procedural safeguards to anyone accused of vaguely defined ‘terrorist’ offences, and is principally used against indigenous Mapuche activists. The electoral system is designed to guarantee that the far-right parties (UDI and RN) always get enough seats in the Congress to block any proposal they object to, despite having negligible popular support.
Above all of this hover the Chilean armed forces (which include the Carabineros, a military force in their own right under Chilean law), which have not been even cosmetically reformed since the days of Pinochet, and whose official doctrine – inculcated into every class of officer candidates – continues to justify the 11 September 1973 CIA-backed coup and whose top officers all made their careers during the dictatorship.
28 May 2015 was just one day, and the march described above just one mobilisation, in a long and ongoing mass struggle against the régime Pinochet built. Chile was the laboratory in which the neoliberal model that dominates US and European politics was field tested. We have much to learn from those in Chile who today struggle against that model and for indigenous rights, the abolition of the Pinochet constitution, an end to Pinochet’s union-busting laws, the legalisation of abortion, and free, public education. It is clear that we can no more expect even ‘progressive’ outlets such as the Guardian, Independent, or even the Morning Star to keep us informed about these developments than we can expect the dominant media to provide accurate information about Venezuela. It is well past time that we on the US and European left started giving the struggle in Chile the attention it deserves.