Chile has woken up

Felipe Torres and Cécile Stephanie Stehrenberger [1]

First published on November 24th 2019

      On October 22nd, a small group of around 25 people gathered near Erfurt’s Krämerbrücke to demonstrate against the Chileanen government and its repressive response to the protest movement that had begun to shake up the Andean country by fundamentally and radically questioning its social and political structures.
      Since then, the sentence ’’Chile has woken up’’ has been running through social media networks alongside with the pictures of crowds of marching people and brutal police violence. Moreover, an increasing number of activists/thinkers/artists have used different media channels – ranging from articles published in print media to hip hop songs – to criticize not only the country’s government but also its elites and their complicity in the abuses committed by that government – a complicity consisting of being indifferent to, but also benefiting from those abuses of others.
      In the following article, we will briefly discuss some of the issues that motivated these activists to protest against the status quo in Chile and against what and who is holding it in place, but to also formulate alternatives to the status quo.

Chilean Demonstration in Erfurt. October 22nd, 2019

      Chile is characterized by an enormous discrepancy between the political, social and material expectations and the experiences of the vast majority of its population. The massive economic growth the country saw over the last three decades led indeed to an improvement of the living conditions of some segments of Chilean society, but it did not create a more egalitarian, or a merit based society. On the one hand, this apparent success was mistakenly interpreted as a result of (neoliberal) economic policies implemented by the government in close alliance with big corporations, and not a success produced by the labor conducted by the working classes. On the other hand, and consequently, the macro-economic ’’achievement’’ did not increase social equality – rather the opposite occurred. The ’’return’’ to ’’democracy’’, after the end of the Pinochet dictatorship, saw the prevailing gap between social classes was not only being maintained but even amplified. Wealth remained highly concentrated within the traditional oligarchic groups, with the country actually having one of the most extreme concentrations of wealth in the world. Only 1% of the population controls close to 30% of the GDP and of this 1%, a tiny 0,1 controls circa 20% of the GDP).[2] These socio-economic structures, but also those set up by urban segregation, the government’s prioritizing large companies and foreign capital to the detriment of small traders, and the wide-spread corruption in police, military and political institutions were the underlying causes for the social outburst that was sparked by several particularly scandalous cases of judicial and law enforcement abuse coming to light as well as the infamous 30 pesos increase in the price of public transportation tickets. To be clear: as stated in those protest banners that were carried over the Krämerbrücke and as musician Ana Tijoux underlines in a newly created song – for the people taking their anger to the streets, their protest was never (just) about 30 pesos but about 30 years of socio economic injustice following the decades of the political injustice of the dictatorship.

Iconic image of the protest shot on October 26th, when 1.2 million people gathered in the capital’s main square, the Plaza Italia, in Chile, the name of which has been later symbolically changed by the protesters into: Plaza de la Dignidad (Square of Dignity). (Public domain)

      The government’s failure to acknowledge this fact when responding to the protests was pivotal in converting those protests into an authentic governmental crisis. But of course, the demonstrators’ demands were too radical to be met by the institutional power whose entire make-up and legitimacy was being questioned. The Chilean society is, in other words, living a real catharsis wherein several of its deeply rooted social and political values are being challenged. Starting with affordable public transportation, the protesters rapidly added demands for a new pension system, better public health, more egalitarian education, and better work conditions to their initial requests; all of these turning the demonstrations into an articulation of general dissent with the very system and core elements of the neoliberal governing of the population and the government enabling it. The neoliberal dogma of searching for individual and private solutions for social problems, is under public scrutiny now – a fact that in itself implies a crucial defeat of the mindset that had been dominating governmental reasoning and practices during the last 40 years.
      Protesters have however also expressed outrage with systems of domination going even further back than the past 40 years – although clearly underpinning these past few decades.
      The colonial heritage that has always been present in Chilean culture in the form of patriarchy and eurocentrism respectively – and these both being linked to Catholicism, is being criticized louder than ever. The struggle of feminist and indigenous activists – especially coming from Mapuche (the largest native population) communities – for equality and justice have been gaining momentum and international visibility, and the current critical situation has been understood as an opportunity to radicalize demands. At the same time, the racist and sexualized violence employed in the (police) repression against demonstrators, which often treated indigenous and women protesters particularly brutally, once again exposed this eminent (state) racism and sexism very clearly.
      The indigenous struggle had been registered in each demonstration through the presence of the Mapuche flag – the Wenüfoye which has been hoisted not only by people belonging to the Mapuche ethnic group, demonstrating its transversality among the protesters.

Mapuche’s flag Wenüfoye is part of the common landscapes in the protests (Public domain)

Protest in front of a police station denouncing the cases of sexual abuse committed by police forces (Source: Frente Fotográfico)

      The fight for political and economic justice for indigenous people is not only indicative of Chile entering a critical phase. A few weeks after the Chilean awakening in Bolivia, one of the countries with the largest indigenous populations in South America (62,2% of the total population plus a considerable amount of mestizos), Aymara president Evo Morles was forced to give up his position and flee to Mexico.[3] Wiphala flags symbolizing Bolivia’s plurinational state were burned and indigenous people were physically attacked in many parts of the country. The self-declared new prime minister, Jeanine Áñez had said before on twitter: ’’I dream of a Bolivia free of indigenous satanic rites, the city is not a place for Indians, they must go to the highlands or lowlands!’’[4] The developments in Bolivia are particularly shocking precisely because they take place in a country with one of the largest indigenous populations on the continent.

The head of Dagoberto Godoy hangs from the indigenous Mapuche chieftain Caupolicán after protesters decapitated a statue of the Chilean air force pilot in Temuco. (Source: Paulo Quintana/Araucanía Online)

      To return to the Chilean situation, during protests the statues of ’’conquistadors’’ and ’’heroes’’ of the Chilean national army were beheaded. All of them had honored white men, in most cases of the upper class. These attacks against the colonial heritage that has always been celebrated in the state’s official memory politics, demonstrates the protesters’ determination to create new ideals and new identity(ies) by overthrowing not one but at least two colonialities: that of the historical past and that of the current and savage neoliberalism. Thus, through revitalizing native cultures and memories, a truly different social pact is being configured – far removed from the ’’new’’ social contract proposed by the elites. After the incontrovertible social force of the protest, the political and ruling class has recognized that a new constitution is necessary to replace the one of 1980, designed and imposed by Pinochet’s dictatorship. The problem is that instead of creating a participative mechanism for the new constitution, there are already voices – especially those coming from the political right, demanding that it be crafted in parliament rather than in a constituent assembly. In the present context of widespread mistrust in institutional politicians, a new constitution being drafted in parliament would seem to be an inoperative solution. Meanwhile, the unorganized citizens’ movement is now beginning to form spontaneous citizens’ councils showing an increasing power of associativity. These developments are remarkable in regard to the role of social media as a fundamental driving force. The coordination of marches of this magnitude, the sharing of information as well as the public denouncements and exertion of social pressure were only possible at this level via the digital connection allowing a coordination of the protests in real-time. As expected, however, the government through the police has begun tracking social media networks and profiling leaders from different political organizations. In any case, the malaise of the existent social and political conditions is so great that people continue to demonstrate daily in different parts of the country, with calls for general demonstrations in the capital every week. Although a distant hope, the energy in the streets opens a window for instituting, for example, a plurinational state that will assume the demands of the Mapuche or Aymara people, as had been happening in Bolivia.

      In the middle of this uncertainty one thing is clear: the recent events in Chile and in Bolivia will imply a shift in the way the respective countries deal with their colonial pasts. In the Chilean case, there is a fair chance that things will change for the better. In Bolivia, on the other hand, the ’’racist, patriarchal, ecclesiastical and corporate’’ coup, as feminist Aymara activist Adriana Guzman called it, put forces (back) in power whose political and social program consists to a large degree in a continuity of the colonial systems and dynamics of oppression and exploitation. The very fact that these forces have been supported by a significant number of governments of both (Latin and North-)American but also European countries, makes it even more urgent that the violence they have started to unleash be met by an anti- and decolonial movement that transcends national and continental boundaries. One that hopefully also includes Erfurt based people.

[1]    We are very grateful to Lelah Bender-Ferguson for all her comments and suggestions!
Lelah Bender-Ferguson is an artist, and lecturer for Fine Arts at Erfurt University and a member of the Founding Society for the Erinnerungsort Topf & Söhne – Die Ofenbauer von Auschwitz in Erfurt

[2]    According to Banco Central de Chile and OCDE Accessed November 2, 2019

[3]    For more details about the racism in the Bolivian crises but also some of the mistakes inside the MAS see: November 13 2019.

[4] Accessed November 13 2019; and Accessed 12 November 2019

The Authors:

Felipe Torres  is a doctoral researcher at Max-Weber-Center, Universität Erfurt. He holds an MA in Political Thought from the IDF-UDP. He studied  sociology and philosophy at the Alberto Hurtado University. He was director of the Center for Political and Research Analysis in Santiago, Chile, editor of Pléyade, a Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities and a junior lecturer in Universidad Diego Portales, Univ. Andrés Bello and Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez, Chile.

Cécile Stephanie Stehrenberger is a researcher at Max-Weber-Center, Universität Erfurt. Her research interests include the history of disaster (research), Spanish colonialism in Equatorial Guinea, and the Franco dictatorship. She is a co-organizer of the ’’colonialism in Erfurt’’-project.