Commentary. Urgently, Chileans need solidarity to remove military forces from the streets, and for the restoration of democracy the president would need to make some personal sacrifices.

From flowers to Bella Ciao, the origins of the Chilean revolt

After 44 years of extreme neoliberalism, Chileans have finally understood that the system was abusive for the many and highly profitable for the few. Although the country saw outbursts in 2007 and 2011 against the educational system and in 2017 against pensions, the current protests are against neoliberalism itself rather than to specific effects of it. 

The king is naked. We are now witnessing a concerted revolt against the sacrosanct free-market economy forged by a conservative and Catholic elite, who persistently tried to convince the world that Chile was the holy land of freedom, an oasis in South America, which was a mirage.

Though neoliberalism started in Chile, maybe its time has come to an end there. The public space is the arena of struggles between repressive forces defending the regime and people with pots and spoons clamoring for the change. On Oct. 25, two million Chileans marched in different cities in the greatest demonstration ever for Chileans to reawaken — “Despierta Chile” — as the event was called. 

It all started with a joke. Public transport fares increase yearly by law, and this year the price raised €0.04, but only during peak times. After complaints about this pricing, the Minister of the Economy said: “The early bird gets the cheaper fare”, alluding to the fact that off-peak times kept their old price. A joke about pricing when the discussion in the media was truly about inequality. 

A few days later, the Minister of Finance, asked about the poor economic performance under his administration, said: “for those romantic people … those who want to give flowers this month, the (price of) flowers has fallen by 3.7%.” It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. 

Chile is the most unequal country among OECD members, a historic condition that after 150 years of data remained around a Gini Index of 0.5. As the historian Javier Rodriguez said: “Those who today want to change the levels of inequality in Chile will have to confront the elite.” Rodriguez was right, and it is happening.

The outrageous declarations of the ministers triggered an urban revolution expressed in the rioting of the Metro system. Afterward, students from the Instituto Nacional (an influential school) called people to evade the Metro turnstiles. The movement started on Wednesday and quickly became a deluge of people evading fares. By Friday morning, the police began to guard stations with harsh repression against high-school students. Faced with this abuse, the city stepped in to defend the pingüinos (high-school students) against batons and tear gas. 

Resistance scaled up toward the evening of Oct. 19, with 14 metro stations burned to ashes and other 56 vandalized. No organization claimed credit for these events. It was collective anger against the neoliberal representations in territories, politics and everyday life.

It started in Santiago but now is a nationwide, self-organized movement. Without leaders, the government has nobody to discuss the terms of peace. Just demos. Cities as social products are under transformation by their inhabitants, protesting against those who transformed urban life into a source of profit, eroding the significance of community. 

People in the streets of Chile now are demanding cities for people not for profit. Chants and billboards demand a whole new order in which old politicians will play no role. In many plazas, Chileans sang “Bella Ciao” as a way to recall that this is seen as an antifascist struggle, while elevating the banner of the Mapuche people as a symbol of resistance and ferocity against an imposed social order. 

President Piñera offered some solutions trying to end the conflict, but the people’s reaction was to flood the streets bashing pots with spoons in defiance of a curfew. This movement emerged after a sort of realization that changes are only possible through a national reset. Chilean leaders have not been able to address these demands while citizens are demanding control of their city. So the government opted to militarize the city instead.

Piñera is a business speculator, a symbol of neoliberalism. In politics, he speculates and bids on brutality as a strategy to intimidate the masses. The cities are under siege to keep a tense calm, with repressive actions against protests and random killings just to make clear that the bullets are live. It recalls the dark days of dictatorship under Pinochet’s endless curfews. 

Since the declaration of state of emergency, repression accounts for 19 dead (including a child), 1,092 were wounded by gunfire (more than 100 people lost eyes to rubber-bullets), 3,193 were illegally arrested, 50 were tortured and 17 women exposed to sexual harassment, including a number of rapes still to confirm. 

Despite the fear, people are aware of the power of their collective actions and they continue striking the streets. Some try to compare this outburst with the gilets jaunes, but it feels more like the French revolution. Times have changed. Maybe Piñera will not end up like Louis XVI, but he will need a quick mindset change to gather a national assembly or abdicate.

The public space of Santiago is the scene of a powerful attempt to profane neoliberalism. Urban struggle against the rule of law for the sake of the many. The stubbornness of the authorities has made the protesters realize that peaceful demonstration is useless in relation to riots and looting. It was necessary to annihilate the whole metro system of the city just to make a dent. As one of the billboards dedicated to Piñera read in Monday’s march through Alameda street: “Tu represión fomenta nuestra revolución.” Your repression foments our revolution.

Although it is not clear, the demands of the protests could be summarized as a new constitution that ensures the creation of welfare state under the rule of human rights and the common good. A whole new beginning would be required. Urgently, Chileans need solidarity to remove military forces from the streets, and for the restoration of democracy the president would need to make some personal sacrifices. He knows confronting people with military forces is not democratic, a Pinochetist measure against dissent. 

Oct. 25, 2019, will be remembered as the day Chileans reunited for democracy and for a new nation. The presence of the current government has been, so far, an obstruction.

This is a sign for many other struggles against neoliberalism in the world: Chile, the home of neoliberalism, faces the last days of its rule. If it is the end, it can be finished all over the world, too.

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