PhD student discusses uprisings, social movements in Chile

On Wednesday, nearly 30 students listened to Cesar Perez Sanchez, a PhD candidate in Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture of Spanish and Latin American Studies at USC, discuss the ongoing protests in Santiago, Chile.

Sanchez was a philosophy professor of aesthetics and politics at various universities such as Metropolitan University of Educational Sciences and ARCIS University, as well as a researcher for the Critical Theory and the Global South Program at the UMCE and Yale Collaboration.

According to Sanchez’s breakdown, over the past month, there have been strong developments in the Chilean protests. The conflict started after an announcement that fares for underground transport would increase. Early last month, the government increased rush-hour rates by $1.17 USD, blaming higher energy costs and a weak peso for the decision. It might not seem like much, but Santiago’s underground transport system is already one of the most expensive in Latin America, and low-income citizens living in developing neighborhoods are suffering the consequences. 

Sanchez said that high school students organized events around the city in protest, and numbers grew as more citizens joined them, tired of having a lack of voice in the country. In response to only raising the rates during rush-hour, the Minister of Economy, Juan Andrés Fontaine, claimed: “If you wake up earlier, you can have the benefit of the lower fare.” Following this, protests quickly turned aggressive. 

From there, Sanchez described the quick escalation of conflict — underground stations were attacked, protesters began targeting police vehicles and throwing stones, stranding thousands of commuters without transportation. Despite the destruction, however, the Minister of Transportation maintained that  fares will not go down. Instead of trying to appease the masses, the government and President Piñera deployed the police to act as private guards at stations.

The state of Security in Santiago is low: anyone who is caught dodging fares is considered a criminal and a delinquent, and if caught participating in violent protests citizens can be charged of committing acts of terrorism. Sanchez reminded students to keep in mind that the majority of these protesters are high school students. 

After police deployment, protests intensified: fare machines were destroyed in attempts to make transportation free, and in response, police fired tear gas into stations and trains. A union of metro workers sided with the protestors and called upon Piñera to remove police involvement and start a dialogue with citizens, struggling to be heard by their government for years.

Piñera declared a state of emergency, and the City of Santiago is under siege. Curfews were instituted while looting and police brutality are on the rise: protestors are being beaten, shot at, and murdered.   

Sanchez is disillusioned by the state of affairs in Chile. “We didn’t think that these were going to be problems in the twenty-first century,” he said. “But these are the problems that we need to think about today.”

He is also troubled by the analysis of news outlets in the country and the shortsightedness of coverage on the protests. “News outlets are failing to analyze why people are upset,” Sanchez explained. “There has been social discontent for years: Chile is one of the most unequal countries in the world.” 

He proceeded to cite various inequalities — health care pensions have been reduced, water rights have been privatized (even the ocean), there is no social protection, and heavily polluted areas are leading to widespread illnesses. According to Sanchez, Chile has one of the highest cancer rates of South America, and pharmacies have been charging more and more for medication. Chile is also the only country in the world with a private pension system. With the cost of living constantly increasing, and wages staying the same, it was only a matter of time before citizens began protesting. 

To Sanchez, the current pensions are not enough to make ends meet. Low monthly income pensioners are required to pay 7% health care and purchase their own medications. The older generations have the highest rate of suicide to avoid paying the fines: they resort to begins, selling, and street performing to pay off their pensions after having to work for the entirety of their lives. Sanchez explained, “It was not the last two cents, but the last 47 years.”

As of October 17, and according to Sanchez, more than 143 people have lost one or both eyes due to police brutality, more than 95 cases have been stated for rape as political torture by police on feminist and LGBTQ protestors. There are more than 17,000 people in prison, more than 23 people murdered, and at least 13 of those were burned. 

In Lebanon and Ecuador, governments step down after people die in protests, but Chile decided to deploy the military on its own citizens as it had the chance to write a new constitution. 

Students raised questions on the process of the constituent constitution, international intervention, how the current presidency came to be given its ties to the former dictatorship, whether this was a failure of democracy or of neoliberalism. Sanchez illustrated that modern democracy is a mass participation in citizens, and in the case of Chile, 51% of the population did not vote and 27% of the remainder voted for Piñera.

“Young people don’t want to vote, but we are not building new political options. We need to create another way to do politics to engage with younger generations,” Sanchez said. “And until that happens the protests will continue.”

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