Living Through the Social Explosion

Nikola Garcia

Dignity against dictatorship.

In early October of last year, Transantiago, the Metropolitan Transit system in Chile’s capital, raised the train fare by thirty pesos. That week, a flier circulated on Instagram and Twitter: “October 7–13: Week of Evasion, Agitation, and Sabotage! No more fare raises! Evade in every metro station and Transantiago Bus!”

In Chile, the cost of basic needs like transportation has risen much faster than the stagnant minimum wage. Millions of Chileans now rely on credit to buy essential items. The latest increase of the metro fare was the fourth in two years and for many it was the last straw. During the Week of Evasion, high school kids began collectively jumping turnstiles after class. This tactic became known as Evasión Masiva (Mass Evasion). Around it, a movement emerged that continued long after the initial call went out. In many instances, evaders sabotaged the turnstiles to let other commuters enjoy a free ride. When journalists interviewed adult bystanders, many exclaimed their support for Evasión Masiva. One commented, “I spend one-fifth of my salary on the metro, this fare hike has gone too far!” Another added, “I have a bad hip and I can’t jump a turnstile, but I’m happy these kids are taking action for all of us.”

On Friday, October 18, the Evasión Masiva shut down Santiago’s metropolitan transit system during rush hour. Crowds gathered across the city. By nightfall, barricades guarded by singing revelers burned in every major intersection. Meanwhile, pharmacies and supermarkets were looted, banks and government buildings set ablaze, as an exhausted and overwhelmed police force made blunder after blunder, such as firing tear gas inside metro stations in front of news cameras and cell phones, affecting protestor and bystander alike. At midnight, President Sebastián Piñera held a press conference to declare a “state of emergency” in the city. Twenty-four hours later, tanks and Humvees patrolled the major roads in Santiago, military curfews were enforced, and civil liberties were suspended for the first time since the Pinochet dictatorship.

Rather than quelling the crisis, the state’s repressive response added fuel to the fire. Protests erupted across the country without the direction or leadership of civic organizations or political parties. This created a phenomenon dubbed the Estallido Social (social explosion). By the end of the week, the government had declared a state of emergency in half of the country.“It’s not just thirty pesos, it’s thirty years.” A month into the Estallido Social, this phrase was spray-painted on buildings and chanted in the streets nationwide. The slogan has even made its way into the latest Santiago rap and reggaeton tracks. This simple sentence explains how the Evasión Masiva escalated into a crisis of legitimacy for the entire post-dictatorship political order. Protesters march daily and will continue until their two demands are met: “No more abuses” and “Until dignity becomes
a habit.”

Protesters have renamed Santiago’s Plaza Italia Plaza de la Dignidad. This central plaza, the transit hub of downtown Santiago, sits directly above the Baquedano metro station where military officials detained and tortured protesters during the first week of demonstrations. When news of this violent repression leaked, protesters broke into the station, set fires, and barricaded the entrances with concrete rubble. Like many other transit hubs, Baquedano has remained closed for repair amidst the ongoing protests, radically transforming the daily life of the city.

Like other states facing intransigent movements last year — China in Hong Kong, for example — the Chilean government is incapable of meeting the demands of the protesters. The calls for dignity emerging from the Estallido Social are not only directed at the government, but also at broader Chilean society, and the protesters themselves. They are both transitive and intransitive demands, calls for and calls to, indicating both desired reforms and actions protesters themselves can take. Given the rampant inequalities in South America’s richest country, the movement demands that everyone in the streets, their families, and their neighbors re-evaluate what it means to live with dignity, to live a good life, a life worth living. The movement asks that its constituents and others rethink the meaning of political participation in the post-dictatorship era, when democratic reforms have failed to adequately empower everyday Chileans. Lastly, it is a demand that after this struggle, the institutions and individuals responsible for increased suffering and rampant human rights violations will not be treated with impunity like those in the Pinochet dictatorship before them.

The Legacy of the Pinochet Dictatorship

The Pinochet dictatorship faced mass, near-insurrectionary protests throughout the 1980s. In response, the regime agreed, in conversation with opposition parties, to establish a “transition to democracy.” This transitional process split the Chilean left in the early 1990s and 2000s, between those who thought the compromise with the regime maintained the political system and institutions established under Pinochet and threatened regression back to democracy and those willing to work through established institutions. The Communist Party, for example, continued to work with the transitional process, while autonomous, left-wing organizations rejected it.

In the years since the dictatorship, most social movements in Chile — such as the student movements of 1994, 2006, and 2011 — have suffered from a similar cleaving. The split between the institutional and non-institutional left has, in fact, reemerged each time a segment of the movement has attempted to negotiate with authorities. Autonomous protesters feel betrayed, while those negotiating with authorities feel they are doing what is necessary to achieve tangible reforms. Despite these institutional arrangements, even mildly progressive reforms have failed; again and again right-wing politicians challenge their constitutionality in court. Often the courts find proposed reforms unconstitutional, because they are. That is, right-wing lawmakers have thwarted the attempts to reform Chile’s pension system, education system, and healthcare system because these neoliberal institutions are enshrined in the existing constitution, written by experts attached to the dictatorship.

After thirty years of fruitless reform efforts, the current uprising has seen more and more people turn away from the institutional Left’s offers of representation. Amidst their deteriorating quality of life, the stakes are too high for most demonstrators to either wait for suitable representatives to emerge or trust the authorities and their institutional promises.

Juan, a 25-year-old college graduate, is one of many protesters who goes to Plaza de la Dignidad several times a week with his friends instead of attending the town halls that political parties, municipal governments, and social organizations began hosting when the street protests emerged. We met when he was selling handrolls on the side of the road, something he does every Friday between a shift at the local supermarket and the start of the Friday protests. Juan told me, “Since the Estallido Social, a bunch of organizations have called for Cabildos (town halls) to understand the current crisis and get people to articulate demands they can bring forward to the government. But,” he added, “these meetings are a waste of time because we’re facing the same problems we’ve always faced, the same problems these organizations and political parties have failed to solve. People now just have to fight and change everything.” Juan is from El Bosque, a poor suburb outside of Santiago. He lives with his parents and his older sister, a single mother who has been waiting four years for a kidney transplant. “I wanted to donate my kidney last year,” Juan explains. “But after a year of waiting to meet with the surgeon, he told me that my kidney was incompatible. Now my mother is planning on donating her kidney, but we still have to wait another year for her initial consultation.”

Despite living below the poverty line, his sister does not qualify for the publicly subsidized healthcare system because of her preexisting condition. She must pay for a more expensive private health insurance. “It’s tough now that my sister has been waiting years for a kidney transplant and uses most of her income to pay for dialysis,” Juan said. To pay off his student debt, Juan works at a supermarket downtown and sells secondhand clothes or sushi at a metro station to help support his family. His mother is in debt to the supermarket because two months ago she didn’t have enough money to buy groceries; she’s doubled her hours working as a maid to pay it off.

Juan’s family is in the lowest economic quintile, but most Chilean families spend approximately 60 percent of their monthly income paying off debt used for basic needs. Meanwhile, numerous lawsuits and court cases over the last decade have found collusion and price fixing among the largest supermarket and pharmacy chains in the country.

Many Chileans mistrust attempts by social movements to achieve institutional reform because even hard-won agreements rarely help the people they are intended to benefit. All the while, government officials continue to blame the poor for their own deteriorating quality of life. In early December, I met with Carlota, a Mapuche woman from an indigenous community near Temuco, while she was in the city selling the produce from her farm. She discussed her disillusionment with the government’s indigenous social services, one of the many reasons she joins the protests every time she is in Temuco. “A few years ago, the national government responded to the Mapuche movements’ demands for increased public funding to help indigenous people build or improve their homes,” she said. “But to qualify for a grant one needs to work with an approved list of contractors and vendors. These contractors are overpriced, use poor quality material, and often do a poor job.” Housing projects have been left unfinished, with grant money taken and unrefunded by contractors who have gone out of business. “Despite all these ordeals, government officials have the nerve to claim that the government gives all this money to indigenous communities, yet we are still poor because we are lazy and don’t work our land,” Carlota said.

The demand to “make dignity a habit” starts by rejecting the humiliating narrative pushed by the establishment that poverty results from either a poor work ethic or refusal to take advantage of existing institutions. Life in Chile is untenable because public institutions have been designed to allow companies to profit not only from public spending but from survival commodities and utilities — like water — which in Chile is totally privatized. Demanding dignity means calling for new forms of political action that respond proportionately to this type of systemic abuse.

A Crisis Escalates

The uprising in Santiago escalated into a crisis of legitimacy for the government after residents directed their rage against institutions deemed particularly responsible for their indignity. The week the national state of emergency was declared, the president claimed that the military was needed to suppress the “delinquency” hiding behind the protests. President Piñera announced that Chile “was at war with a powerful and relentless enemy” against which the whole country needed to be vigilant. However, this discourse failed to mobilize the Chilean middle class against the revolt. Many even believe that the more spectacular acts of destruction were carried out by police or contracted by the government to justify increased repression against the uprising. Some think that the police set fire to the electricity company’s headquarters the first night of protests to justify the state of emergency; that the people who loot small businesses are undercover police officers trying to divide the movement; and that supermarket chains collaborate with the police to set their own stores ablaze, allowing them to file insurance claims. Chileans who believe in these theories cite the many videos circulating online, uploaded by users who claim to have captured police or paid actors on camera igniting fires or looting stores. However, these acts of property destruction, whether by proletarians or by police, only further erode the government’s legitimacy. Piñera’s choice of words, accompanied by the Pinochet-esque images of troops deployed in the streets of Santiago, accelerated rather than calmed protests.

Describing protesters and the urban poor more broadly as armed insurgents was a practice favored by the dictatorship, and many feared a return to Pinochet-era policing during the early days of the uprising. Police repression during the dictatorship instilled long-lasting fear in citizens; political dissidents and the urban poor were “disappeared,” secretly abducted, imprisoned, and murdered. Echoing the era of the dictatorship, the return of the military to the streets in the first few weeks of the uprising resulted in 150 disappearances, 192 accounts of torture, 52 accounts of sexual assault, and 11 protester deaths. Unlike in previous decades, social media has allowed regular people to document and share these abuses on a large scale. Videos circulated showing the military running over bystanders and firing tear gas and birdshot rounds at crowds of peaceful protesters. Recorded testimonies describing torture and sexual assault at the hands of police have spread swiftly via audio message on WhatsApp.

Older generations previously unwilling to talk about the trauma of those years also began to open up about daily life under military rule with their families and neighbors. Military helicopters flying once again over their poblaciones (poor neighborhoods in the periphery of the cities) reminded them of the friends they lost when helicopters peppered the tin roofs of those same neighborhoods with machine-gun fire. As young people return home from the current uprising’s barricades and street battles, their parents share stories of the brutal seventeen years of military curfews, which they say must not be allowed to return. During Piñera’s state of emergency, both working- and middle- class neighborhoods challenged the military curfew and the suspension of the right to assemble during the week of October 20 by getting together with neighbors after dark to protest.

The Right to Breathe in Peace

Rather than being dissuaded by the fear of repression, the Chilean uprising has led millions to view militant forms of street politics as a necessary and proportionate response to police abuse and impunity. The general crowd has a favorable view of the masked protesters — called encapuchadxs (after the capucho, or hoodie) — who form a frontline on the barricades and throw rocks at the police as protectors, making possible the right to assembly. Once feared and demonized, the encapuchadxs (the gendlerless x is prounced like a short “e” in Chile) are now seen as protectors. Many young people themselves willing to don masks or support the encapuchadxs believe that their main role in the uprising is to defend the streets from police repression. As one young protester explained: “When my grandparents were living under the dictatorship, every political decision they made was based on the safety and security of their children. They took risks to squat land and build a house because they had no other option for survival, but they couldn’t take risks during the dictatorship.” The demonstrator added, “But I’m a 26-year-old college student without kids and no future, so I can take the risks they couldn’t when they were my age, when fathers and mothers would disappear and leave their children with nothing.”

Older generations of Chileans who came of age during the dictatorship are worried about engaging in protest politics. But they see the youth, risking life and bodily harm on the front lines, as leading the fight in ways they cannot. As one elderly resident of Santiago put it, “The encapuchadxs have lost eyes so that others can see.”

On the periphery of Santiago, cacerolazos — demonstrations where participants bang pots and pans — are a weekly, sometimes daily, occurrence. Younger neighbors work to make these and other street demonstrations safe and welcoming for families and the elderly. This often involves erecting barricades to prevent the police from entering certain streets. The previously quiet residential neighborhoods surrounding Plaza de la Dignidad have become zones of conflict as police daily chase protesters out of the plazas and through the adjacent streets. Rather than blaming the protesters for the street violence, residents blame the police’s indiscriminate use of toxic tear gas, water cannons spraying harsh chemicals, and lead-based birdshot ammunitions, which have left over two hundred people partially blind. Residents of the neighborhoods around the Plaza, many of whom met each other during the first week of cacerolazos, invited street medic teams to set up first aid centers on their streets. Neighbors shout words of encouragement such as “Aguante Chicx!” (Stay strong, kid!) to the injured protesters whom rescue teams carry to the first aid center. Community members provide water to the friends of the injured and prevent news cameras from filming the masked protesters and medics.

“I’ll See You Today in Plaza de la Dignidad”

In the past, protesters needed a permit to march down La Alameda (the main road in downtown Santiago), or they risked dispersal by riot police. La Alameda is now shut down almost daily by demonstrators leaving school or work early, with the largest gatherings on Mondays and Fridays. The protests feel like public festivals with crowds ranging from dozens to thousands making music in the streets using drums, hammers, stones, and their own resistant voices. Different forms of street politics are able to coexist within demonstrations precisely because this uprising emerged outside of existing political tendencies and organizations. The speed and scale at which the uprising is taking place has left traditional organizations and political parties in the dust, unable to convince even themselves that they know the right course of action.

The daily crowds along La Alameda build barricades at strategic choke points to keep the police out of the plaza and off the road. When ambulances arrive, encapuchadxs quickly disassemble the barricades and then rebuild them stronger than before. Surrounded by festivities, burning barricades take on the feeling of a bonfire party rather than a raging battlefront. Dance troupes and other groups stage performances and interventions. Movement icons emerge, comprising dancing Pikachus and dinosaurs, skeletons and encapuchadx brass bands, Marvel superheroes and motorcycle sideshows. As the city government is no longer able to enforce its ongoing war against informal street vendors, they now safely sell food, beer, flags, gas masks, goggles, and other goods to demonstrators.

While labor unions, feminist organizations, and student unions continue to call for marches and events, their activities are often oriented around strengthening rather than redirecting the daily street demonstrations. Unidad Social, a coalition of 115 unions and social organizations, called for a nationwide strike on November 11. Rather than leading the movement, this strike gave support to the uprising and the spontaneous demonstrations already occurring. In what became the largest national strike in ten years, the dynamics of the protests were the same as any other day in the revolt, save for the increased size of the crowds. On the day of the strike, student groups and unions marched down La Alameda and zigzagged through the crowds of people already gathered there.

All Power to the Neighborhood Assemblies

The crisis of the existing democratic political order has led neighborhoods to rediscover their own histories of self-organization, experimenting with neighborhood assemblies and mobilization committees. This is most poignant in the poblaciones, the areas from which this diffuse uprising first emerged. Santiago’s poblaciones formed during squatters’ movements in the fifties, sixties, and seventies, when poor Chileans built neighborhoods and organized the infrastructure for daily life despite the government’s attempts to evict them. Now, in these neighborhoods, young people have rediscovered local histories of self-organization by forming territorial assemblies and committees to plan for local mobilizations and improve neighborhood life. This has led to daily ollas comunes (community kitchens) that feed protesters and neighbors alike, cultural committees that program daily events, and childcare committees that facilitate kid-friendly activities. There are mobilization committees that facilitate neighborhood barricades and demonstrations, health committees that bring doctors and therapists to the neighborhood, and communication committees that develop media, outreach to neighbors, and coordinate with other territories throughout the metropolitan region.

“We started the olla común because it’s a way for politically active youth, families, and older neighbors to meet each other. We find that while they come out for a cultural event or free food, they end up staying and talking about politics and sharing stories about the previous social movements in the neighborhood,” an olla común committee member from Macul told me.
Many conceive of territorial assemblies — in urban neighborhoods, rural communities, and the sites in between — as the constituent basis for a future constitutional assembly, with the same ability as political parties to run candidates for the assembly. Others see the assemblies as a way to ensure that the mobilizations take a more sustainable form outside of protests. To them, the assemblies are a space to contest existing political institutions by directly providing solutions to their neighborhoods’ political needs. Still others see the assemblies as a space to reflect on how institutions affect their everyday life and to reimagine everyday life in their neighborhood.

Looking Forward

On November 14, the government and opposition parties signed “The Agreement for Peace and a New Constitution.” In April 2020, there will be a nationwide referendum through which citizens can vote on whether they want a new constitution. The referendum will also decide whether the constitution will be written by the parliament, by a new constitutional assembly of elected delegates, or a mixture of the two. While this may seem like a major victory, the “peace” component of this agreement refers to quelling protests rather than quelling the rampant police repression against them. The agreement ultimately corresponds with the ruling party’s position that the police must relentlessly repress the so-called delinquents in the movement.

Two days after the agreement was signed, two people died in Plaza de la Dignidad in incidents resulting from the increased police brutality against the demonstrations. The political organizations that formed out of previous social movements and assemblies of the current uprising were not consulted about the agreement and appear to be excluded from participation in a future constitutional convention.

The global movements of the past ten years, from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, from Black Lives Matter to the gilets jaunes, from Lebanon to Ecuador, all share a demand for dignity. Chileans desire the ability to decide for themselves what constitutes a life worth living, while demanding the resources needed to live it. The ongoing struggle, the emergence of neighborhood assemblies and the controversy around a future constitutional process illustrate that the demand for dignity is not merely a call for a new constitution or improved public institutions. Dignity isn’t a concrete program that politicians can first extract from the streets and later negotiate in government buildings. It emerges from daily life as it’s lived. Since Evasión Masiva, people’s attitudes towards their everyday lives have been transformed through an uprising with no end in sight. Public blame for years of suffering no longer lies with the victims. As one newly painted mural on La Alameda reads: “It wasn’t depression, it was capitalism.”

The uprising, more than perhaps anything else, has created an avenue for millions of people to reevaluate themselves, their routines and orientations, within the framework of a rejuvenated sense of community. The fine-grained effects of this are evident in new types of daily interactions, in the widespread organization of small events in the neighborhoods, in dinners and film screenings, in the constant casual talk on the streets, a phenomenon the suffocating alienation of life in Santiago once seemed to stifle.

Whether or not the constitutional assembly is formed, this revolt will likely diminish in intensity. The metro stations will be rehabilitated, streets will be cleaned, the banks will be repaired, and the supermarkets and pharmacies will reopen. Government officials will claim that life has returned to normal once the daily protests end. But those in the streets have realized that a shared indignation and mass cooperative action can shut down a country for months on end. The success or failures of the Chilean uprising rests not on the responses of politicians, but on the extent to which the conversations, experiences, and practices of the Social Explosion can shape the contours of the movements to come.