One Week in Santiago – Protest, Power and Performance

While we were in Santiago for only one week, we were fortunate enough to attend a series of events that gave us an insight into Chilean politics and the power dynamics that construct Chilean political identity.

Santiago is a wonderful city, with beautiful street art, proud people and a lively scene of cultural activities. Out of this social vibrancy you can also recognise a people that are still coming to terms with the dark, recent  history of the military dictatorship.

In one week, we visited the Museo de Humanos Derechos (Museum of Human Rights), attended the funeral march of President Alwyn (the first president following the Pinochet regime) and joined a 100,000 person strong protest which demanded a better education system.

There was something about how this sequence of events unfolded – they seemed to occur in a narrative fashion, elucidating something larger than what each individual event could offer. This narrative form and also the nature of the events we attended inspired us to think about them in terms of performance, and to view each of them as demonstrations of power.

The Museum

On the Tueday we visited the Museo de Humanos Derechos, a building dedicated entirely to recording the human rights abuses during the military dictatorship which defined Chile from 1973 to 1990. It is an incredible museum, with exhibitions spread across four floors the size of airport hangars.  The videos, audio clips, images and text occupy almost every wall, as it explains the inception the dictatorship through the coup d’état which overthrew the democratically elected Marxist President Salvador Allende, and describes in graphic detail the oppression and torture which ensured the continuation of dictator Augusto Pinochet’s rule over seventeen years. It is impossible for us to do service to the story of Chile during this time in this blog, and we would strongly recommend everyone to familiarise yourself with this dark period in recent history. An easy way to start is the Shock Doctrine documentary.

Both of us having read about the dictatorship, we were aware of the global economic and political context surrounding the coup and the doctrine of the military junta.  We left the museum after four hours of taking it all in, and while we agreed that it had been a powerful and informative experience, we felt a key element of the story had been omitted.

The military offensive in 1973 had followed years of economic warfare largely orchestrated by the US government, which was designed to weaken the Marxist, nationalist government of President Allende. Pinochet and his government was supported by the US government, and they implemented economic strategies scripted by the Chicago Boys of Chicago University, which opened up the Chilean market, most notably natural resources such as copper, to benefit US corporate interests. Under the pretext of ridding the country of communism, the junta specifically targeted Chileans who had been members of socialist or communist organisations, including trade unions and advocates of human rights, and they were arrested, imprisoned, tortured, disappeared or murdered in broad daylight.

The influence of the United States was not mentioned in the material we saw. The Chicago Boys and the CIA were not described as actors, and any analysis of the economic system imposed, neoliberalism, was missing. While it was recognised that a large number of the victims of the dictatorship were left-wing activists, it seemed to be offered as purely descriptive information, rather than providing a frame for understanding the period. It struck us that if the above information had been included, the museum could just as easily have been named the Museum of Class Warfare.

Of course, how events are remembered is a political decision. Everyone agrees with human rights. Not everyone agrees with socialist principles or a world view of class antagonism.

Remembering an event is also a performance, as the interpretation happens in a public sphere, through speeches, memorials, exhibitions, and protest. If you locate the atrocities within the frame of human rights abuses, then you don’t have to asses the economic imperatives that may extend beyond the official period of state oppression. The museum provided a holistic experience from start-to-finish, where Chile was seen to have moved beyond the evils of the time because Pinochet’s government had been deposed through democratic election. Our experiences later in the week gave us a different perspective.

The Funeral

The next day, the Wednesday, we ventured out for two very different public events. President Alwyn, the first president following the dictatorship had died the week before.

2016-04-21 10.47.30The military procession which announced the second day of his state funeral marched past our flat, and we joined a troop of men wearing formal dress, with grey uniforms and spiked
hats, riding horses which had miraculously colour coded bodies.

We enjoyed this escort all the way into the city centre, where we came to a gathering of people in the road standing outside of a locked gate and row of railings. On the other side, was an exclusive gathering of the Chilean elite, taking turns to offer their condolences and state their gratitude to the efforts of President Alwyn.

Leading a centre-left coalition that defeated Pinochet in a democratic election, President Alwyn presided over the transition from dictatorship to democracy between 1990 and 1994. He has been celebrated for huge social reforms which included reducing unemployment, investing in education and health, and lifting many Chileans out of poverty.

However, the extent of genuine political change during this period continues to be a contested issue in Chile. At the time, the country was slowly emerging from the long, brutal grip of the dictatorship, and military officials still held huge influence in important political functions. On several occassions they blocked policies and even threatened military intervention.

Within this climate, Alwyn took a cautious approach to the detested, yet feared, military institutions, which won him both criticism and praise. He pursued the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated the crimes committed under the military junta. But he was not able to bring those responsible to justice, nor even oust many top leaders of the junta from key military positions. Most notably, Pinochet remained head of the army for eight years, afterwards taking a seat in the senate, and the constitution which his government enacted in 1980, a constitution which laid the foundation for years of repression and wealth expropriation, remains the legislative backbone for the Chilean constitution to this day.

During these years, there was so much opportunity for change. At the same time, it was a deeply sensitive and volatile political situation. Chileans look back on this time in two ways – either as either a period of unprecendented progress, or as a golden opportunity lost.

At the funeral, we saw an expression of the former. Alwyn was clearly someone with whom the members of Chilean high society wanted to be associated. The funeral demonstrated to  us a nation unified in mourning for a great man, celebrating the achievements which had brought Chile away from the dark days of the dictatorship. We also saw a state which commemorated this through a military parade.

We didn’t stay in the crowd for too long. Earlier in the week we had spoken to some students painting banners who told us about a protest, and we concluded that, in general, angry, young people are more interesting than dead people.

The Protest

The Chilean education protests started in 2011, exhibiting full strength up to 2013. The march we joined still championed the same causes: they demanded a free public education system which would be regulated by government; massive investment which would improve the quality of existing programmes, reduce debt and extend student intake; and the removal of the private sector and profit incentive from education.

The current education system was implemented by Pinochet and his economic advisors in 1990, and is heavily modelled on free-market principles. There is no public education in Chile, and the cost the entry to any form of higher education is extremely high, forcing students to take on crippling debt. Any state funding is distributed on a voucher-based system, and is awarded to high achieving, privately funded institutions. When we spoke to Chileans about education, they described how the system entrenched inequality and class structures at the root of society, as peoples’ opportunities to network, meet partners and find employment would be defined by the name of their school, rather than their grades.

These demands emerged from young people who have grown up in one of the most unequal countries in the world, in a political system and economic structure which is still largely defined by the era of dictatorship. These protests are about more than an improved education system. They are about changing the entireity of Chilean society.

We joined what could have been the back of the protest. The sea of people stretched far into the distance, as the protest had occupied one of the main roads through Santiago city centre. The bands were warming up and waiting for the multitude to move forward so they could have some space to play, but shortly after we arrived, our section of the protest started the march.

There were dance troupes, brass bands, samba bands, students covered head-to-toe in body paint, signs with messages, signs with pictures, banners that stretched the width of twenty people and a giant Chilean flag which soared over the crowds as the runners navigated the edge of the crowds from front to back. It felt like a festival rather than a protest, and was definitely more musical and colourful than any demonstrations we had joined in the UK. We progressed through clouds of weed smoke as a man sold beer from a plastic bag to teenagers off school. One man was dressed in a military police uniform and was followed by a camera and groups of people in fits of laughter, as he made satirical, staged news reports about the protest, imitating Chilean corporate media networks. It didn’t feel particularly well organised or have a single, coherent message, but the politics of the crowd were very explicit. Pictures of Salvador Allende, Marx and Che Guevera complemented placards with demands for free education and grievances expressed by students of art, drama and social sciences. Graffiti on the wall of a building countered the image on public solemnity we had seen just an hour before, simply stating ‘Fuck Alwyn’.

There was a playful yet determined atmosphere, and everyone was in good humour as we marched down the street. Until the confrontation with the police began.

The crowd ahead of us changed from a unified mass to dispersed groups. It would be impossible to tell who made the first provocation, but our introduction to the new situation was an armoured police van speeding up alongside the protest, spraying tear gas indiscriminately into the crowd. They were also spraying water cannons, as water attracts the gas and accentuates the effects.

At first, we noticed a tickling at the back of our mouths, an itchiness around the eyes. This soon progressed to the sensation of the throat closing up and any exposed skin burning as if we had been using scotch bonnet chillies as lotion. Those who had come prepared for the routine police tactic put on gas masks and brought out bottles of vinegar.  Not surprisingly, the mood took a turn for the worse. While tear gas causes pain, it also elicits a stressful reaction from your body. You become edgy, reactive, as the people around you are struggling to breathe. The purpose of the protest turned from demonstration to confrontation.

Whether or not you directly engage with the police on a political demonstration, they demand your attention. If you are not aware of their presence and formation, you may end up arrested, kettled, gassed or beaten. Once the police start their ‘crowd management’ tactics, you cannot maintain a light humour, and those marching cannot continue to express their specific demands or concerns as if they were in a public space. It is impossible to chant with tear gas in your lungs, and you would be foolish to dance samba when confronted with riot shields.

This is a situation which suits the cops. They are trained, armed and, most importantly, organised. They have practised manoeuvres and can communicate effectively to pull them off. Any protest movement should think of ways to prevent provocation of the police and how to organise a disparate crowd. This could include using signs, signals, megaphones, hosting large-scale training and exposing agent provocateurs. An unorganised mass engaging with the police is like playing a game with someone where all the rules have been written to align with their strengths, and they know what to do with the winnings at the end of the game. Not only do they get information and arrest numbers, they also get to reclaim public space from people who have been encroaching on ‘their turf’.

Of course, it isn’t always up to the protesters if the police feel provoked. We were reminded of a section in the book, Disobedient Objects. In this presentation of protest materials and theories of activism which came out of an exhibition in the London VA, the writers focus on the universal dislike by police of large puppets at protests. One of the conclusions is that the police do not like such large, colourful structures because they are jealous of something stealing their limelight. The police desire to be the biggest show in town, and detest anything that threatens to take attention from them.

We had also recently watched a Novara Media video by Shon Faye, who had conducted a brief exploration of masculinity. To adapt an analysis of the film Goldeneye referred to  Shon, the police at the Santiago protest – with their built-up uniforms, armoured cars, flashing lights and giant cannons ejaculating unnecessarily into the crowd – appeared to be like hyper-macho drag queens, determined to prevent  anyone else from claiming ownership over public space.

Back at our Couchsurfing host’s flat, we learned about how the protests had changed significantly over the past few years. At the strongest point, there would be demonstrations twice a week with well over 100,000 people, and the organisation was much tighter. There were people within the protest movement whose role was to identify and photograph protesters who were provoking the police to prevent a situation escalating. It came out that many of those exposed were undercover police deliberately attempting to turn the crowds violent, and they were subsequently fired. Since leaving Santiago we’ve also heard rumours that the riot police would be deliberately denied food in the 24 hours leading up to a designated demonstration date. This would ensure they were in a foul mood when facing loud students.

Any political demonstration is exactly that… a demonstration. It is a performance of strength, anger, threat, solidarity or discontent. What we saw in those few days were competing performances of Chile’s identity.

We saw a country that commemorates a dark time in their history as a closed chapter that must be remembered, but not analysed for economic or class dynamics.

We saw a nation unified in mourning for the man who had taken them away from a dictatorship and nurtured a democratic society.

We saw people who wanted to challenge the narrative of a national consensus and reawaken class antagonism, asserting their long-standing political demands, prepared for confrontation with the police.

We saw an establishment that would prefer to assert coercion and control rather than acquiesce to popular demand.

The Play

A final presentation of Chilean identity was given to us on the Saturday. More easily understood as a performance, this was a play entitled ‘La Victoria’. The play focused on the true story of a group of women who ran a soup kitchen to feed starving people in the south of Chile under the dictatorship. They faced intimidation, physical violence and the threat of arrest for trying to save people deprived under the Pinochet government. A beautiful and powerful story which we will not give away here, it finished with the audience standing up to give applause, and the entire room, from actors and audience to technicians, crying with deeply felt emotion.

Here we were shown a people who connect strongly with the pain suffered under the dictatorship; people who wanted the economic depravation of the time to be at the forefront of the memory of the dictatorship; people who associated starvation and state oppression with a dictatorship.

The Bit at the End

We left Santiago with very fond memories of the city and the people. Perhaps it was just the week that we had, but, as you might expect from reading this blog, we found Chileans to be very politically engaged, with a desire to be active in constructing their own identity. We also learnt that memory and interpretation is just as much a political act and performance as street demonstrations. These are perspectives we continue to carry with us.




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