Now in its second week of mass demonstrations, Chile remains in a state of flux after a proposed three-percent fare hike on public transit systems triggered massive unrest. Reports say that on Friday afternoon, over one-million people marched in Santiago alone: the biggest demonstration the country of 18 million has ever seen.
What began with students collectively hopping turnstiles as a form of protest grew into mass street demonstrations that were followed by looting, riots, and deadly clashes with military and the police. On Saturday, October 19th, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera declared a state of emergency, instating a curfew in several major cities and dispatching over 20,000 troops and police in Santiago alone. Barring the 2010 earthquake, this is the first time Chileans have been under martial law since the country ousted dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1990.
Chile’s economy has been lauded as the most stable and developed in Latin America, but protesters argue that under its conservative president the wealth has not reached middle- and working-class populations. Chile remains the only country in the world where water is privatized; other privatized services include electricity, education, housing, and health care. Although the fare hikes would have amounted to only 30 pesos, or four U.S. cents, they would have presented a significant burden to minimum-wage earners, who work 45-hour weeks and make up to $426 a month. Factor in the cost per train ride — currently at $1.10 — and the economic strain is more pronounced.
Disturbing footage shared across social media shows bedlam in Santiago. Chileans exchange scenes of train stations and buildings set aflame, military tanks roaming the streets, soldiers firing at civilians, and police dragging protesters into a subway tunnel. As of Thursday afternoon, Chile’s National Human Rights Institute (INDH) confirms at least 245 civilians injured by firearms in the past week; more than 584 have been injured and 2,686 civilians have been detained. Of the 20 people reportedly killed during the protests, INDH director Sergio Micco has stated that at least five were murdered by soldiers or police. The Institute has also documented reports of torture and sexual violence.
“[Chile] is at war against a powerful enemy who is willing to use violence without any limits,” Piñera said during a televised address on Sunday, referring to demonstrators. Using the slogan “no estamos en guerra” — “we are not at war” — many Chileans say Piñera’s statement recalled the bloody regime of Pinochet, a far-right general who came to power by way of a U.S.-backed military coup in 1973. Until his removal in 1990, tens of thousands of Chileans were imprisoned, tortured, murdered, and disappeared; and as recently as this Feburary, former officials of the regime have been investigated and continue to be charged for crimes against humanity.
By Tuesday night, Piñera announced that he would roll back the fare hikes and apologized for “a lack of vision” regarding the proposed austerity measures. In hopes of quelling the discontent, he also pledged to replace the members of his cabinet, as well as implement a financial reform package that would increase pensions from $151 to $181, and raise the monthly minimum wage from $413 to $481. The boost would be funded by increased taxes on those making over $11,000 a month — a modest, yet desperate move by the Harvard-educated billionaire and media mogul, who is currently serving his second term as president.
“The president’s apology is absolutely insincere,” singer-songwriter Alex Anwandter writes to Rolling Stone. “In the same statement, he [thanks] the armed forces that have been repressing and, as we now know, torturing Chilean citizens. People want to live a dignified life and President Piñera is saying, ‘Here’s 30 bucks!'”
The Latin Grammy nominee joined a peaceful rally in Santiago on Monday and performed his 2016 fight song, “Cordillera.” But at Wednesday night’s march, Anwandter says, he and other protesters were dodging bullets.
Despite Piñera’s apology, soldiers remain in the streets. On Wednesday morning, students and trade unionists across the country called for a general strike: Demands include the president’s resignation, an end to martial law, a 40-hour work week, and even a complete rewrite of Chile’s constitution, which was originally drafted under Pinochet’s rule. The strike continued through Thursday.
“It’s the entire system we want to change,” adds Anwandter. “The system enforced by the undemocratic constitution, written during the dictatorship without any input of the Chilean people.”
A longtime champion of social justice, Chilean-French rapper Ana Tijoux shared an original song on Monday, calling for the resignation of Piñera. Produced by Jonathan Grandcamp, Tijoux’s bite-size track “#Cacerolazo” pays tribute to protesters banging cacerolas, or, pots and pans, by sampling the real-life racket on the streets. “Burn, wake up/Piñera resign,” spits Tijoux in Spanish, “Wooden spoons/In front of your bullets!”
Many of the country’s musicians are helping organize protests themselves — and using Instagram to help amplify their message abroad. On Wednesday, Chilean-American pop artist Francisca Valenzuela broadcasted a meeting with the University of Chile’s student union, and shared calls for medical supplies and food donations. “It’s time to wake up and activate,” writes Valenzuela. “We have to change the course of Chile now.”
“We’re here to tell the Chilean government that we are not with them, we are with the people,” said rock singer Fernando Milagros in an Instagram video, which features Valenzuela and many other Chilean artists voicing solidarity with the protesters. Some honor the legacy of Chilean folk luminaries like Violeta Parra and Victor Jara — the latter of whom was tortured and executed under Pinochet — by singing their forward-thinking songs in the streets. Songs by the post-punk band Los Prisioneros also made the rounds on stereo systems across the city of Santiago: namely “El Baile de los Que Sobrán,” or, “The Dance of Those Who Remain.”
“I want to ask Carabineros [Chile’s national police force] and the army,” stated folk-pop singer Mon Laferte in a video clip. “You are the people too.… You swore an oath to the flag and the homeland, but what is the homeland but its people? Take off your uniform and get on the right side.”
“President, please listen to the people,” she added on Wednesday. “I ask for our families. Enough blood has been spilled already.”
This story is developing.