For the past couple of weeks, my experience in Chile has drastically changed. Perhaps you already know why this is the case. Sparked from a raise in the price of the subway tickets in Santiago, Chileans have been out on the streets protesting for economic security in a country with a skyrocketing cost of living. Most chileans want changes to the dictatorship-era pension system, which steals from more than sustains the elders it is created for. Others want major changes to the current political leadership, including the resignation of President Sebastian Piñera. But this conflict is more than just one issue. The meager rise in the metro fare represents decades of an increasingly-widening gap between the rich and the poor in the country. Ever since the end of the military dictatorship in 1990, neoliberal economics has allowed Chile as a nation to become more “developed”, but at extreme expenses to the middle and lower classes, not to mention the environment. Despite being considered the poster child for healthy economic growth for South America, Chile is ranked the worst in terms of economic inequality among industrialized countries.
The dissatisfaction of the people is quite apparent on the streets. While there are many peaceful protests, there has also been a hefty amount of looting and arson. I have experienced government-enforced curfews as early as 6pm, and what it feels like when tear gas seeps into your bus during your morning commute to the gym. Classes have been on-and-off, and professors are just as confused as we are about how we will make up all the lost class time. This situation has forced me to spend a lot of time at home. All of this time spent watching the news and talking with my host family and others in our house has allowed me to think hard about the significance of these manifestations.
One of the hardest parts of watching the news, especially during the more-tumultuous first few nights, were all of the places that were looted and set on fire. This includes large supermarkets, but also metro stations, banks, and small family-run shops. Many believed that these attacks were part of some foreign terrorist organization, or “opportunists” using the moment to fulfill their anarchist tendencies. While it is easy to push the blame of these actions to faceless people with purely malicious intentions, I don’t believe that is accurate or fair. These protests are a product of a group of people who have been economically marginalized for a very long time. It isn’t pretty to see the destruction, but it might be the only way that people can handle and process the emotional and financial damage they’ve received within their own family. In no way am I saying that violent protesting is the key to success. Peaceful marches have just as much power in creating change. But at the same time, we shouldn’t be so shocked when citizens destroy and react violently. No one wants to burn down the streets that they call home unless there is something heavily pushing them to do so.
One of the most impressive elements of these manifestations is the involvement and commitment of Chileans. Every single day, people are organizing peaceful marches across the city. Artists are painting giant murals and choreographing street dance performances. Neighborhoods have been collecting and serving food to protesters. While marching isn’t necessarily a joyful affair, there is an energy of the people here that is inspiring. Before this movement, I never quite realized the power of public protesting in creating change. While certain changes have happened within the Chilean government (mainly changes in governmental positions), there still remain many more reforms to be done. And I am positive that the pueblo Chileno won’t stop marching until those changes are realized.