ourEconomy: Opinion

They cannot steal our joy: authoritarianism and collective effervescence in Chile

Even amidst the tear gas and state violence, excitement for an alternative to neoliberalism can be felt all across Chile.

Macarena Gómez-Barris
22 January 2020
Protestors in Santiago de Chile highlighting the abuses committed by state security forces, 29 November 2019
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Federico Rotter/NurPhoto/PA Images

On October 18, 2019, Chilean President Sebastian Piñera ordered a 3% hike in subway fares that ignited massive protests in Santiago with more than 1.2 million participants. In a society where 33% of the nation’s wealth resides with the top 1%, and where ex-military officials and a tiny elite control the majority of the country’s remaining precious natural resources, Piñera’s fare hike led to what became a key slogan of the movement: “Chile se despertó”, or “Chile woke up.”

Since October, mass mobilizations have expanded into every city in Chile, blossoming into a transformative social movement that has had local, national, and global reverberations.

Recently, I was in Punta Arenas and noticed that even in the extreme south of the country, hundreds of protestors actively engaged in skirmishes with the military police – toppling colonial monuments, and targeting the city’s cultural institutions with revolutionary inscriptions. Indeed, the movement has reached into every sector of Chilean society and presents an uncertain, if hopeful experience for undoing the excesses and failures of neoliberalism.

Statue of Portuguese Explorer Magallenes Ferdinand, Punta Arenas, Chile | Macarena Gómez-Barris

State-sanctioned violence

In the immediate aftermath of the fare hike, dozens of Santiago’s subway stations were burnt down and in a well-choreographed media campaign, Piñera blamed protestors for illegal arson, declaring a state of emergency. Reminiscent of Pinochet’s authoritarian period (1973-1990), Piñera also used heightened rhetoric explicitly referring to protestors in his national speeches as the “the enemy of the state.”

In the four months since the protests began, Piñera’s executive branch, the nation’s security apparatus, and right-wing supporters have shown even more similarities with the Pinochet regime – by criminalizing dissent through invoking anti-terrorist laws and deploying militarized police. In homemade videos that circulated in online chat groups, robocop-like uniformed police could be seen roaming the streets of Santiago, where they entered marginal neighborhoods, ransacked homes, and beat up residents in front of terrified family members and neighbors. Using fortified vehicles with tinted windows, these police would arrest those they deemed “vandals” or “criminals”, often without evidence of a crime being committed. Piñera denied such visual evidence by decrying the reports as “fake news”, which sparked fury and even more protests.

One defining feature of the last few months is the pervasiveness of state-sanctioned violence and impunity. Chilean security forces have detained, tortured, and maimed tens of thousands of protestors, murdering dozens. According to a thirty-page report released on December 13, 2019 by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, more than 28,000 people were detained between October 18th and December 6th. The report also documents how torture, rape, abuse, and murder have been systematically used as weapons of repression.

In what many describe as an epidemic, dozens have lost their eyesight due to rubber bullets, and tear gas canisters. As I discussed in 2018, prior to this current epidemic, Mapuche youth regularly lost their eyesight in the face of the Chilean state’s occupying forces upon Indigenous territories that had been privatized for forest exports.

Thus, contrary to the dominant media narrative, the Chilean state and its military apparatus has not conducted new forms of violence, but rather has intensified and transferred the violent practices against the Mapuche nation to the nation’s urban centers. Until the death of Indigenous youth and farmer Camilo Catrillanco on November 18th 2018, the systematic violence against Indigenous peoples since the 1990s “transition to democracy” period was largely met with indifference and impunity.

Though most analysts have not concurred on this point, it is apparent that President Piñera’s government has been delegitimized by the size and coalitional force of the opposition. The massified use of repressive tactics by the state reveals the weakness of the current government-led model of democracy. In contrast, profound democratic processes and a deepening of horizontal power has taken place through hundreds of mobilizations that traverse all sectors, genders, social strata, and generations of Chilean society.

“Chile was the birthplace of neoliberalism, and Chile is where neoliberalism will die”

Since 2006, the mass mobilizations effectively built upon recent social movements against debt and privatized education. More recently, constituent assemblies fortified a sense of community and participation, fending off the social fragmentation and disarticulation that characterized the period during and following Pinochet’s rule. To its credit, the new movement has also been leaderless, making it very difficult to co-opt or corrupt individual interests over collective ones. Further, the movement has not been articulated through single-issue concerns, but instead through an expansive and transformative agenda that is aimed at changing the elite economic, political, and legal model of the nation-state, beginning with the still to come project of rewriting the Chilean Constitution that was left in place by Pinochet in 1980. The phrase, “Chile was the birthplace of neoliberalism, and Chile is where neoliberalism will die” encapsulates the sentiment that the political economic model of global capitalism has failed the majority.

The diversity of the movement is apparent in the phenomenon of “Un violador en tu camino”, commonly translated to “The Rapist is You”, lyrics that were written and choreographed by the Chilean feminist group “Colectivo LaTesis.” Performed hundreds of times in Chile and around the world, its aim was to denounce feminicide, sexual assault, patriarchal authority, gender inequities, and state power, aims that were carefully articulated within the broader effort for lasting social, political and economic transformation. The sheer public display of hundreds of thousands of unwavering female activists made visible the immense strength and feminist undergirding of the current movement.

Revolutionary aesthetics

During this past December, I attended daily protests at the newly named Plaza Dignidad (Dignity Plaza) in Santiago, or the public square formerly called Plaza Italia. The visual cues of a protest culture were ubiquitous and ranged from artful anarchist insignias and creative images plastered on walls, to a vast informal market selling banners, masks, and colorful trinkets of the movement’s iconic dog “Matapacos.” Present too were signs of the martyrs of the struggle, those that were imprisoned or had gone missing. Music, conversations, and free food filled the green spaces, and groups of multigenerational conversations took place everywhere in the Parque Forestal, the long park situated along the petering Mapocho River and adjacent to and below Dignity Plaza. In that space, Wallmapu flags representing the Mapuche Indigenous nation number in the hundreds – becoming the new symbol of the uprising.

The Art of Protest in Plaza Dignidad, Santiago | Macarena Gómez-Barris

One of the underemphasized aspects of recent protest culture in Chile is the plethora of art making practices, graffiti, street fashion, video skits, performances, and social media activities that has spawned a vibrant revolutionary aesthetic. The use of green laser pens to take down surveilling drones, gas masks, and umbrellas borrow from the innovations of the Hong Kong protests, without eschewing important elements of Chile’s own cultural vernacular. For instance, when walking towards Plaza Dignidad, I saw two young women performing the national dance of the cueca to a soundtrack of punk-en-español. Instead of using the customary white handkerchief for the dance, they twirled away with the green handkerchief that has become a symbol of global south struggles for reproductive and sexual rights. The same sex couple enacted a joyful subversion of patriarchal and criollo nation-building culture. Though I spent several days talking with people about their motives, hopes, and fears for this period, it was impossible to imagine staying day after day in such a chemically-filled environment, as many had endured.

As my eyes and throat burned with tear gas, I imagined the courage and sense of collective purpose it took to work against the toxicity of the constant police presence. The hundreds of protestors who defend la primera linea, or first line of defense, in the street battles with police in Plaza Dignidad, Vicuña Mackeena, and Baquedano, are praised by the movement. In this highly organized rebellion, there is a strong division of roles, labor, and sense of social commitment.

What has been missing from the journalistic reporting and academic analysis on Chile’s uprising thus far, and what was not tangible through my mediated experience from afar, is the level of collective effervescence and excitement that permeated most of my encounters. Those I encountered in university settings, on the streets, working in the arts, and in my extended friendship group described this time as one of openness and of active participation in new kinds of economic and social arrangements – ones not mediated by the depersonalized consumer market, but through collective relationships, political imaginaries, concrete battles, and the lived experience of joyful encounters. Many described the rock bottom failures of neoliberalism, a model that generated isolation, debt, theft, dispossession, and extraction. In the dissonance between their relative needs and the individual gains of an elite class, this multilayered movement revels in the desire for a different future, one shaped by the difficult labors of direct collective action.

This movement is the result of hard won accumulative political experience and transversal action. The movement of the past three months has only been possible from the mass protests organized by high school and college students, union leaders, Indigenous communities, health advocates, LGBT rights organizations, and feminist efforts over for the past decade

Indeed, the pervasive sentiment besides the awful reality of state terror in Chile today is a structure of feeling, to invoke Stuart Hall’s classic term, of collective effervescence – where the streets are not only defined through geographies of surveillance, dictatorship traumas, and present-day horrors, but by the real potential of alternatives.

For those who lived through the Allende years, its aftermath, and the neoliberal consensus – the utopian and collective desire for change that motivates Chilean society today has been profound to witness. Even amidst the tear gas that permeated central and lower Santiago, it was impossible not to feel excited about the promise of collective autonomy. And yes, the present is joyful even if the future remains uncertain.

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