Many Chileans see similarities between the Chile of today and the one under General Pinochet’s rule.
Santiago, Chile- Over a million Chileans mobilised in Plaza Italia, Santiago, over the weekend, according to reports, demanding a system which guarantees equality for all.
Local journalists say that Friday’s demonstration was the biggest mobilisation since 1990 when the country returned to democracy following the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.
“Today is a historic day because we have surely achieved the biggest march in the history of Chile,” said Pamela Quijada, a 30-year-old commercial engineer. “It has all of the demands by the people, united on a single day in a single demonstration.”
A violent military coup against socialist President Salvador Allende, who took his own life as the military bombarded the presidential palace, resulted in a dictatorship which instituted a repressive and violent regime over the daily lives of Chileans from 1973 until 1990, when the country returned to democracy.
During that time the dictatorship violently repressed all forms of expression and direct action in the country. Chileans caught showing any form of dissidence against the military junta could be executed, tortured or disappeared by the military.
Reportedly more than 3,000 Chilean dissidents were murdered by the military, whilst tens of thousands were tortured and 80,000 interned.
“I fought during the dictatorship. Today I fight for our children, for our youth and for our future,” said 66-year-old Poly Oteiza, an agricultural engineer.
Seeing what has happened across Chile in recent years, Poly is ruminating on Chile’s dark and troubled past.
“The dictatorship committed abuses. Today people have lost their fear from that abuse, which has been tremendous. This [mobilisation] is transversal across all sectors of society because in Chile there is injustice with education, housing, health, food, with miserable pensions, with the collusion of big business impresarios - there’s impunity. There is still impunity against those who have violated human rights. It’s tremendous,” she said.
There have been 19 reported deaths in unrest so far.
The National Human Rights Institute (INDH) reports 535 people have been injured, 230 by firearms.
The UN is sending an independent delegation to investigate alleged abuses and allegations of torture by the military.
Around 20,000 state forces have been deployed, as the local news informed citizens of curfew times.
“We’re here with a constitution that was approved fraudulently in the era of dictator Pinochet. We want a radical and structural change,” said Poly.
In 1980, Pinochet changed the constitution, ensuring he would stay in power for another eight years.
A lively swell of Chileans break out into song in Plaza Italia, singing Victor Jara’s The Right to Live in Peace. Jara was murdered during the dictatorship and his song has been adopted by the movement as a symbol of their struggle and defiance.
“Thanks to the youth who are brave and who dare on our behalf, so that’s why we are here fighting, because people have been abused for over 30 years since the dictatorship,” said Poly.
Across all sectors of Chilean society, the feeling in Plaza Italia was one of unity against injustice. Fireworks were released as protestors climbed bus shelters and protected themselves from tear gas released by police.
At one moment a huge LGBT flag passed over the heads of the protesters. There were banners and chants against the military and the government, as military helicopters patrolled the skies above Santiago.
“We want our demands to be heard and they shouldn’t expect us to conform and accept just a little. It’s been many years of abuse,” said Isadora Fanfrenbulher a 20-year-old student.
“Sadly the only way to resolve this and to be heard is to go out and protest and that means bring the country to a halt. If you do it any other way, they don’t listen to you. I don’t condone the violence, the looting but if you read history books from the past, the biggest achievements, the socio-political changes have had to endure violence. This is a peaceful protest,” said 30-year-old Gonzalo Quiroga, a journalist protesting alongside several of his friends.
'Chile woke up'
The indignation is expressed by many Chileans banging their pots and pans loudly in defiance.
“Chile got tired and Chile woke up,” said Cristian Galaz Zamorano a 26-year-old speech therapist.
“We’ve reached a point in which wealth is held by a small elite in our country. We’re at the point where economic development doesn’t translate into anything positive for people - for the middle class or the poorest people and we’re tired of this. We want access to education, better health better culture, social security, better inclusivity for people with disabilities. We have a system which is not made for any of these types of people.
“We want to resolve things right now and not in the future, starting with the resignation of the president.”
Many Chileans felt unified shouting: “The people are on the street asking for dignity.”
Soledad Valdebenito is a 30-year-old Chilean nurse. She said that Chilean nurses like her working in the public health system are in a precarious state regarding their contracts and are decrying the poor state of the health system.
She was joined by a number of colleagues dressed in their blue uniforms.
“We want a dignified healthcare, we work in the public healthcare system. We don’t have resources to attend our patients. We don’t have medicines or therapy for cancer patients. There are people dying because they can not have their therapy,” she said.
Chile operates two systems of healthcare; public and private.
Others have issues around how privatisation has impacted Chilean society.
Martin is a 21-year-old student. He said Chileans are fighting for their social rights since the dictatorship of 1973.
“It formed a completely neoliberal system which takes a lot away from us as people,” he said.
Martin was carrying a homemade cardboard placard to highlight the issue of water privatisation in Chile.
“One of the most important things that the constitution contains is that it allows the privatisation of water, which is extremely serious because it leads to droughts which is what happened this year,” he said.
“We have droughts in all of the central areas of Chile, because the big companies take all of the water, privatise it and leave people and animals without water. In Petorca a lot of animals died,” said Martin.
'Dictatorship never ended'
Cristian Castanon Diaz is a 43-year-old truck driver from the Chilean Mapuche indigenous community. He brought the flag in solidarity with his community.
“There were many years when they said the dictatorship ended and it never did.”
The Mapuche have lost much of their land for development by the Chilean government. Last year Pinera asked a Chilean police chief to step down after the death of a 24-year-old Mapuche man.
One of the defining images of the day occurred in the evening. It was an iconic moment when a Mapuche flag was raised by a protestor on the highest statue in Plaza Italia, above the sea of Chileans below. The photo was taken against a backdrop of smoke which engulfs the red sky.
“It’s a unique day, a day in which the people decided to unite their colours, their music, ideals against all of the inequality which is carried out by politicians towards the people,” said Cristian.
By Friday night Chilean President Pinera said he had “heard the message” from the protestors.
On Saturday he had asked his ministers to resign, as the military announced an end to the curfew after seven consecutive nights.