On September 11, 1973, Chile’s democratically elected president Salvador Allende was overthrown in a bloody military coup marking the beginning of Augusto Pinochet’s fascist regime. Throughout the decades-long dictatorship from 1973-1990, Chile was ruled by the military junta with the conservative Pinochet as its ruling commander. Known as the most violent dictator in South American history, Pinochet’s military orders were responsible for the deaths of more than three thousand Chileans (many of whom were college students), the disappearance of eleven hundred people, and sending over two hundred thousand Chileans into exile (2% of the Chilean population at the time).
Although the United States government was aware of Pinochet’s implementation of routine executions, gestapo style roundups, and the suppression of media outlets, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger strategically waited for other countries to back Pinochet in order to create an illusion of neutrality. However, America’s soft approach towards military conflict in Chile was hardly surprising, as the Nixon administration had previously taken direct action to prevent the democratic election of Pinochet’s socialist predecessor, President Allende.
Chile has since freed itself from Pinochet’s oppressive grip, but the remnants of his capitalist driven leadership continue to trouble the region. Neoliberal policies originating from the period of structural adjustment in the Global South currently fuel the Chilean economy. However, this economic system (favored by Pinochet) is beginning to implode as the country’s capital, Santiago, has experienced intervals of unrest for multiple decades.
Last year in October 2019, the Chilean government announced a $0.04USD increase in the metro fare during rush hour drawing an estimated 1.2 million Chileans to the streets of Santiago. The lack of perspective by Chile’s elite class regarding the country’s income inequality where in 2015, 7.9% of the population lived on $4USD a day sent those who rely on the rush hour metro lines into a panic. A four cent increase was considered an insignificant amount for the Chilean elite, but for the country’s working class the inflated price of bus tickets posed a great financial burden. In response to the initial demonstrations, then-Minister of Economy, Juan Andres Fontaine declared that “those upset with the price rise could wake up earlier and pay a lower rate,” further exacerbating the civil unrest.
Upon the initial protests in early October 2019, the Chilean President Sebastián Piñera did not hold back as he sent in the police to violently quell the uprising, fueled by the rising cost of living and the high levels of class inequality, by occupying the streets of Santiago. As a result of the metro fare increase and in spite of the armed forces attacking and/or shooting groups of peaceful protesters, student organized mass fare evasions have been utilized by protesters as a form of political and economic pushback in which the far removed upper class minority are forced to witness the repercussions of their lack of class awareness. In addition to overt resistance to the metro fare, Chileans in Santiago and across the country marched in the streets, as they chanted “Chile has woken up,” referencing the frustrations felt by many working class people towards the wealthy upper class.
On Tuesday, October 22, 2019, President Sebastián Piñera issued a public apology on national television where he expressed regret to those impacted by the metro fare increase by promising to increase wages and pensions, appointing new cabinet members, raising wealth taxes, and rewriting the Pinochet-era constitution. The military and police presence did not subside after the presidential apology, however, and those who survived the Pinochet regime were confronted with painful memories of Chile’s recent political history.
Although Piñera has repeatedly denied all accusations of human rights violations, there is increasing support for the contrary. According to Amnesty International, during the 2019 protests, a special forces officer (code name G-3) was utilized by the Chilean government to apprehend protesters with a rubber bullet shotgun. Footage captured on multiple dates in different locations show the commander of the Carabineros special police force, G-3, recklessly aiming at protesters’ faces at close range, then firing multiple shots. According to the Associated Press, by December 2019, the protests had almost entirely died down as the country “went on summer vacation.” However, evidence is piling up surrounding the concealment of human rights abuses by the Chilean government as the protests begin ramping up again exactly one year later. Multiple victims of G-3’s use of excessive force have come forward claiming to have been blinded by rubber shotgun bullets fired by G-3 at point blank range and it has been stated that G-3 fired his weapon at protesters one hundred seventy-one times in a single day. In spite of the reports filed by his victims and their families, G-3’s identity remains a secret of the Chilean government although it has been speculated that he is a former special forces officer for the military.
In conjunction with G-3’s actions, United Nations investigators confirmed “four unlawful deaths involving state agents,” over three hundred individuals who have suffered eye trauma at the hands of law enforcement during demonstrations, twenty eight thousand people had been detained, and an estimated sixteen hundred individuals remained in pretrial lock up from October 2019 to December 2019. Sexual assault and torture have been also been documented and an additional twenty-six people were killed and hundreds injured while participating in the 2019 protests.
After a brief hiatus, protesters in Chile are taking to the streets again as the push for a constitutional referendum which would permanently remove the Pinochet-era constitution from Chilean legal doctrine. During October 2020, violent protests broke out in Santiago with tens of thousands of Chileans marching in the streets fearing that the undertaking of a new constitution will unlikely resolve the social and economic inequality in the country. In addition to inequality, there is also fierce resentment among many working class Chileans towards law enforcement and military personnel. And on October 18, 2020, buildings were set ablaze in Plaza Italia. A monument dedicated to the Carabineros police force was torched symbolizing the end of an oppressive regime, and arsonists stormed two nearby churches. Although President Piñera vowed to press charges to anyone identified as an accomplice, the push for a new constitution stood up against the president’s threats or legal ramifications.
Towards the end of October, the stadium at Santiago’s Estadio Nacional was repainted as a symbol of democracy rather than fascism. Once used as a torture chamber where mass killings of those who apposed Pinochet were conducted, the stadium at the university was utilized as a polling station where people casted their votes to decide whether or not to rewrite the Chilean constitution. After the votes were counted, it was determined that 76% of voters agreed that a referendum is necessary for social and economic progress for the working class.
The processes undergone in Chile in order to arrive at this moment of jubilation and a vision for a brighter future were achieved at a great cost; however, this struggle has fortified bonds among Chilean citizens as the majority outwardly expressed their refusal to return to Pinochet-era political domination. Affordable healthcare, increased access to education, lower costs of living, healing ethnic and racial tensions, ending rampant police violence against civilians, and gender discrimination are on the agenda for the new Chilean constitution. After a year of violent political clashes, there is now time to celebrate before the official documents are drafted.