When he was planning his study abroad trip, junior Isaac Hughes did not plan on having his experience include large-scale protests in the country. He has seen exactly that during October in Chile.
“Most businesses were not open. It was advised from our study abroad program to not leave the house,” he said. “I live in a pretty calm part of the city, so I felt comfortable walking around and leaving the house, but I know people that just yesterday they were able to leave their house.”
The protests started after a small increase in the subway fare early in October, but are driven by larger economic concerns.
Chile was under the dictatorship of Augosto Pinochet from 1973 to 1990. As Political Science professor Karen Kampwirth explained, the dictatorship’s political institutions have been undone, but the neoliberal economic policies have led to growth but also severe economic inequality.
A common symbol for the protestors to carry is a pot and a spoon to bang on it with. Hughes and his friends would know the march was coming closer to them from the sound.
Hughes is in Valparaíso, which is on the coast. CNN reported that on Saturday, Oct. 19, a newspaper office in the city was burned by protestors. There have been other instances of arson and violence, leading the president of Chile, Sebastian Piñera, to bring in the military.
“The move is rather drastic,” Kampwirth said. “In a country in which the military was responsible for terrible violations of human rights, the one thing that’s very important about the transition to democracy in Chile— which is very good, to the credit of the military — the military has returned to doing it’s job.” .
Hughes and his host brother watched the early TV news broadcasts about the protests. The images brought to mind a painful time for many of the older Chileans, Hughes said, because they were often similar and aired alongside images from the protests at the end of the dictatorship. Thousands were tortured and killed under Pinochet.
Most of the protests have been tame — Hughes even described seeing families at them. His study abroad program told the students not to participate, as they might be deported if they were arrested, and asked them to stay home as much as possible. His classes were canceled for two weeks.
There additionally was a curfew from the start of the protests to Saturday, Oct. 26, in Valparaiso.
The protests have expanded from the initial subway fare increase, which has since been undone. The broader economic concerns have not been addressed however. The only quick change that could possibly end the protests would be Piñera stepping down, Kampwirth said.
The protests came as a surprise to Hughes. Chile has had a stable democracy, including peaceful transfers of power between parties ever since the end of the dictatorship.
“I always assumed coming to Chile that Chile is supposed to be one of the more stable countries in South America, supposedly,” Hughes said. “They tout themselves, or touted themselves, as one of the most economically developed countries in South America, for what that’s worth, whatever that means because obviously there’s still problems.”
Chile saw massive protests at the end of the dictatorship. Pinochet lost a referendum on retaining power in 1989 and the first elections were held in 1990. Since then it has also seen several rounds of protests over the continued privatization of public universities, Kampwirth explained. The policy had started under Pinochet’s neoliberal economics.
That history and context is what really separates the protests from U.S. protests for Hughes.
“Even though it’s new for a segment of the population, there’s also this other generation that all of these protests, the curfew, the state of emergency, it’s all very, very reminiscent of a very painful time in the history of Chile during the (Pinochet) dictatorship,” he said.
There have recently also been protests in Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua. Around the world, more street protests are happening in places such as Hong Kong and Lebanon, where the prime minister resigned on Oct. 29.
“It’s all over the world, really,” Kampwirth said. “They’re not all for identical reasons and they’re in pretty different political systems, but this the age of street protests.”
This article originally had Karen Kampwirth’s last name misspelled in several places.