Santiago Rising

By Mike Phipps

In most countries the class struggle has been put on hold for the duration of the COVID pandemic. Not in Chile.

Such is the scale of the social and institutional crisis highlighted by the social explosion of late 2019 that the government had no alternative but to hold a plebiscite on reforming the country’s constitution in October 2020. Nick MacWilliam’s documentary for Alborada Films, Santiago Rising, explores the background to these events, in particular the mass protests In Chile’s capital that started this process.

The protests started over a 30 peso fare rise on the Santiago subway in October 2019. It became a slogan of the protests that it was not the 30 peso increase, but the 30 years of truncated democracy, set down in a constitution bequeathed by Chile’s brutal Pinochet dictatorship, that the uprising was challenging.

Santiago Rising spells this out. Immediately after the first protests, President Piñera announced, “We are at war.” Even the most peaceful activities were met with intense repression. MacWilliam films some mothers and children drenched by water cannon and abused by police after watching a samba band in the street.

As the protests spread, they quickly raised social, economic and democratic rights, challenging the neoliberal free market model of society pioneered by the dictatorship and entrenched in its constitution. President Piñera himself became fabulously wealthy under this system and is on record for expressing his solidarity with Pinochet in the late 1990s.

Feminists were central to these protests, challenging the sexual violence of the state, ranging from the torture and disappearance of activists under the military dictatorship to the everyday attacks on women by the police today. A song written by feminist theatre group Lastesis entitled Un Violador en Tu Camino – A Rapist in Your Path – and performed in the protests became an international feminist phenomenon, as videos of it went viral across the world.

The high level of state violence with which the protests were met did not spare independent media personnel. Activists claimed that the firing of projectiles by the police at point-blank range was deliberately intended to blind participants. More than 300 people lost an eye in the uprising and the film-maker himself was struck on the head during a charge by mounted police.

Protestors carried as many Mapuche flags as Chilean.  Indigenous Mapuche activists have been campaigning against multinational exploitation of their lands in the south of Chile for decades, since the dictatorship encouraged it.  Under Piñera, this erupted into a war in which Mapuche leaders and healers were targeted for assassination. The 2019 uprising made common cause with them, calling into question the whole foundation of the ‘democracy’ that had been arranged to allow Pinochet to step down, but not to threaten the privileges of those who brought him into power. 

Thus a central feature of the uprising was decolonisation. This included the toppling of statues that symbolised the Spanish Conquest and enslavement of people. The protestors represented a multicultural, pluri-national, feminist Chile that rejected these emblems.

Watching these protests, one is struck by the large number of ordinary people involved, from cycle clubs to pensioners, and the bravery of those taking part in the face of heavily armed law enforcement. Hundreds of people were detained and many were tortured. “We are not all here, the prisoners are missing!” was a frequent chant.

There is outrage when the forces of repression target an arts centre which was being used for treating casualties with first aid, setting it on fire. This intensifies following the death of a member of the “Front Line” – the young, able-bodies volunteers, who physically protect the demonstrations from the police and allow other protestors to take part in safety. Human rights groups estimate there were 34 killings, 1,200 cases of torture and 282 cases of torture with sexual violence during these weeks.

As part of the uprising, dozens of community assemblies sprang up across the capital to discuss aims and strategy. The great strength of MacWilliam’s film is that it allows grassroots activists to speak for themselves, conveying a real sense of the maturity of these debates. It also showcases the soundtrack of the uprising, with Chilean samba, hip-hop and a stirring performance by acclaimed singer Ana Tijoux.

After four weeks, the government, fighting for its survival, agreed to hold a plebiscite on convening a constituent assembly to write a new constitution. On October 25th, Chileans voted overwhelmingly in favour and in April there will be a new vote on who will draft it. The struggle continues.

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Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at His book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

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