The Awakening of Dignity
- By Manuel Garcia
The ongoing crisis in Chile has brought the country to a standstill, unsettling the daily lives of all citizens. However, it has done more than just that. Mass protests have a way of altering the personhood of everyone involved in ways previously unimagined. Over the last week, thirty days after the eruption of social unrest, I have talked extensively with four people from Santiago who have lived the uprising from the ground up. Here I will share some of their experiences and testimonies during this process. To the best of my knowledge, none of them know each other. Let me introduce them to you now.
Maria is thirty-eight years old, married and the mother of two. She is self-employed as a baker and works mostly from her home in La Pintana. La Pintana is one of the most spatially and socially segregated boroughs of Santiago. Bernardita also lives in La Pintana. She is forty-one and lives with her husband and three children. Just like Maria, she bakes goods from her home for a living. Both Maria and Bernardita self-describe as non-political, and, even though they support the demands of the protesters, they have not actively participated in the protests. Just up north from La Pintana is the borough of La Granja. This is where Felipe lives. He is twenty-seven, lives with his parents and siblings, and recently graduated from the University of Chile. He has been politically active since he was thirteen years old and has participated eagerly in the protests. His political tendencies have always been a bit of a mystery to me, but I guess the best way to describe him is as an anarchist. Nicolas is thirty-four, a professional musician who lives at the edge of Providencia and Downtown Santiago, the area where the largest protests have taken place. He lives with Flo, his partner (who makes a brief appearance in this text), and their two-year old Luna. All four of my correspondents have vastly different experiences, both in life and during the protests. However, they each agree that this past month has had a profound change on how they view themselves and those around them. In what follows I will try to dissect some of these changes.
The first layer of change takes place at the level of their feelings about their economic conditions. Acknowledging that many people’s economic situation has been insufficient to reach the end of the month is nothing new. Maria, for example, has long worried about the future of her son, who has a cognitive disability: “What is going to happen to him when I’m 65 and unable to work? My pension is going to be miserable and disability pensions are not enough for anything”! Bernardita, who had a stroke last year, was tired of the constant lack of resources at public hospitals as well as the high prices of her medicine. “The municipal health service has been out of aspirin from way before the mobilization began.” Bernardita says. What is new is the shared recognition that their situation is unfair, and that compensation is due. “There is no more time,” Bernardita adds, “we need solutions now”.
The social demands of the protesters, deemed as just by most, were met with brutal repression from the state. Which takes me to the second layer of transformation: the relationship between people and the different institutions of the state. The police, not so long ago one of the most highly esteemed public institutions, has earned the overall disapproval of the people. Their indiscriminate use of rubber bullets to combat protesters have left hundreds with a partial or full loss of their vision, and thousands of civilians wounded. Felipe is among the wounded. On the first week—which everyone agree was the most terrifying and brutal week of the protest so far—he was shot on multiple occasions with rubber bullets. Though this form of ammunition is non-lethal, it is very capable of penetrating soft tissue. Felipe still has two pellets inside his left arm. “Even among my friends, I didn’t have it so bad,” he tells me, “a buddy of mine was shot in his genitals, for which he had to be treated right there on the spot”. Marches, moreover, are not the only points of repression. Police stations have been officially accused of being centers of psychological, physical and sexual abuse. “I wanted to trust the police,” Bernardita tells me, “but I guess that is impossible now”. “We don’t know who the good guys are anymore,” Maria adds.
Nicolas believes that the police are the villains of this story. The unlikely heroes, he tells me, are the kids who veil their heads to remain anonymous. The so-called first line of defense—people who use shields, rocks, and Molotov cocktails to fend off the police. Activists that the government labels as criminal aggressors are the “people who allow us to protest in peace,” Nicolas says. “You see”, he tells me, “when we see the front line in combat, after experiencing all of this brutal repression, we do not see it as violence, but as justice”. Felipe agrees with this point: among the protesters, violence against police forces has being widely legitimized as a form of self-defense.
Of course, the legitimization of violence among active protesters does not mean that everyone wholly supports it. Many, in fact, are scared and tired of such open conflict. This may be especially true for the urban poor residing in peripheral regions of the city. The violent confrontations between the police and protesters, alongside the looting and incendiary attacks on private and public infrastructure, has severely constrained their capability to move across the city. For Maria and Bernardita, this has meant that they have not been able to work for a month. “I am out of savings,” Bernardita tells me. Maria, in anger, says “All of this shit going down, and politicians are doing nothing”! Which brings me to a crucial point in the changed relationship between the people and the state: increasingly, there is strong distrust about the capacity of politicians and political parties to provide sound solutions to the social demands and to secure the safety of the people. “It is as if they lived in a different world,” Maria argues, “I mean, they have never experienced what we have, so how can have trust in that they will be able to help us”? Differences in ideological positions among the various politician, moreover, matters very little to Bernardita: “They are all in this together,” she tells me.
The delegitimation of politicians is very much a product of their own doing. It is evident that they have not been up to the task in improving the material conditions of most Chileans. However, there is also another factor that feeds into this overall distrust of politics: social media. In the age of information, disinformation is king. Fake news has fueled panic and rage among Chileans. Bernardita, for example, tells me that she heard that the president’s family had fled the country and settled in Australia. Maria was told by numerous sources that a military coup is imminent. Felipe, who occasionally infiltrates into right-wing groups, has read posts about the president covering up hundreds of deaths among police officers. Of course, for these groups, President Piñera is a covert communist. “But, regarding social media, the biggest problem of all,” Felipe adds, “is that fake news makes us lose our focus on the real issues”.
Felipe tells me that last week news was going around that claimed the National Stadium was being used as a torture center. If true, this would be a huge deal for Chileans. The National Stadium, after all, was used as a torture center during the early months of the dictatorship. Today there is a memorial in the Stadium to the victims of the dictatorship, and a sign above the football field reads: “A nation with no memory, is a nation with no future”. In short, this was big. The people in charge of the memorial—many of them torture victims of the dictatorship or their family members—checked out these reports with due diligence and determined that there were no signs of torture taking place in the National Stadium. However, a couple of days later, Felipe tells me, the singer of a sort-of-famous cumbia band again said that he was tortured in the National Stadium. And so the public discussion on the matter became a debate about who was lying: the singer or the people from the memorial. “No one seems to be saying that maybe neither of them is lying,” Felipe tells me. “It is well known that people who have been tortured often become disoriented. However, the issue is not if the singer got tortured in the national stadium or not, the issue is that the state is torturing people”!
Protests, repression, and social media have reinforced people’s distrust for the state and state officials. However, an opposite trend—growing trust—also seems to be taking place among the people. This is my last point. Despite the different social and cultural locations of Nicolas, Maria, Bernardita, and Felipe, they all agree that there has been an overall growth of mutual solidarity. Flo, Nicolas’s partner, tells me that you can see this in the little things. “I have noticed that people in the street, who used to be glued to their phones, are now looking at you in the eyes, as if they want to start a conversation. We feel as a part of something, a togetherness of sorts”. Bernardita shares with me a different experience. She was coming back from the hospital, and the bus was not running anymore. A man, who saw her standing at the bus stop, came to her and asked if she needed a ride home. At first, she was distrustful, but she was also out of options. When, in the middle of the ride, the man stopped at a convenience store, her suspicions grew. It turned out he had simply stopped to get a pack of cigarettes. He also bought a soda for her. Then he drove her home and said farewell. “It is not normal to live in fear of people,” she reflects.
Flo and Nicolas do not miss the former state of affairs too much either. They have been able to grow deep bonds with their neighbors, whom they meet with often in order to discuss the current state of affairs as well as to give each other much needed emotional support. “Neighbors have been far more important than even our friends,” Flo adds. This form of territorial comradery has also resulted in the flowering of economic solidarity, not only among themselves, but also within the movement itself. “There are all kinds of initiatives to support the movement,” Nicolas says, “For example, people here have started to print T-shirts with symbols of the movement (e.g., “Negro Matapacos”), with all the proceeds going to buy safety equipment for protesters. This sense of togetherness is not only felt, Flo says, it is seen. Every wall and every building in our neighborhood is now covered with text and art. Some people may think this is ugly, but the streets have literally become an open book—full of information, anecdotes, and messages, right there for everyone to read. The streets are literally talking. Nicolas agrees; he tells me: “I really hope that, when things calm down, they don’t paint these buildings back to their usual opaque color. They have so much history on them”.
After a month of mobilizations, no one is very certain of where this thing is going. Everyone who I have talked to has repeatedly used the word “uncertainty”. Nevertheless, something has already been set in stone: an overall sentiment of the awakening of dignity.
Maria puts it better than me: “I believed that Chile was a normal place to live. It is only after this month that I realized what was going on. I was asleep. In dormancy I did not see how shortchanged I was. I was asleep when, in order to make ends meet, I had to go further into unpayable debt. We were all asleep. How is it to normal not to be able to pay my bills? Most importantly, how is it normal not to be able to enjoy life”!
This is not over. Maria concludes, “We will keep on fighting for Chile”.
Born and raised in Santiago, Chile, Manuel Garcia is pursuing a Ph.D. in Economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His research focuses on the political economy of everyday life.