“Por la Razon, o la Fuerza”
This motto on Chile’s national emblem, adopted in 1834, would suggest that the “Chilean way” is to try to reason through a conflict, and only as a last resort use force to prevail. Por la Razón, o la Fuerza!!
Early the morning of November 15, after almost a month of massive street protests, an agreement was reached to begin a process to rewrite the constitution of Chile and hopefully bring to an end the very destructive and threatening social crisis. This Agreement For Social Peace and a New Constitution is aimed at bringing an end to the wave of extensive violence, looting, and destruction of public and private buildings and monuments, and injuries to protesters including by a police force accused of using unacceptable crowd control methods, and as such violating their citizens’ human rights.
This formal agreement was signed by all political parties except the Communist Party, although they have stated they will sign on. It responds to the feeling that the best and most rapid way to return the country to some sort of more peaceful state is to recognize that a prime demand of the “people”, the “street”, “el pueblo“, is to begin a process to replace the Constitution prepared by the Pinochet dictatorship in 1980. Even though that Constitution has been legally amended many times and actually re-signed with these important amendments by democratically elected President Ricardo Lagos, it still carries the guilt of illegitimate parentage.
Since Friday, October 18, now almost a month ago, Chileans have been exercising in full open view to the world, the struggle between reason and force. The conflict was ignited over the fare increase of the underground Metro, and subsequent torching and forced closing of much of the extensive system of public transportation that moves millions of Chileans around the capital city of Santiago daily.
It soon became obvious this protest reflected broad and deep public dissatisfaction, although initially the demonstrators were predominantly school aged middle class youth. As the protest persisted through the next two weeks, it became less and less clear how the struggle between protesters and the authorities with the responsibility to provide security to the citizenry would end. Although no focal point or individual emerged leading the protests, a generalized desperation for peace to be restored one way or another was palpable.
On the 23rd day of what can be called Chile’s social uprising, this blog published the posting entitled “Transition in Chile“. To be clear, the “transition” we were focused on is the three decades of the ongoing political transition from a military dictatorship to democratic governance. Especially as the first acts of violence were breaking out across parts of Santiago, and when President Piñera declared a State of Emergency and curfew authorizing the military to enforce both, the whole situation recalled all too vividly the darkest years of the dictatorship.
Even though the president rescinded these orders (Monday, October 28), the protests and associated violence continued to ebb and flow, building up to a notably expanded demonstration (Wednesday, November 6) at the Costanera Center tower, the grotesquely tall symbol of Chilean wealth (and arrogant insensitivity). As this building sits at the front door of the more affluent sector of Santiago, the “barrio alto”, demonstrations spilled over into the neighborhoods where upper middle class Chileans and members of Chile’s political, social, and economic elite live. It is also where the far right UDI party has its headquarters (in an old house coincidentally used many years ago as the office for the US Peace Corps in Chile; where fifty years ago I spent several days recovering from mononucleosis under the caring hands of Peace Corps nurses Sra. Mena and la Santitos). Protesters attacked this building, although it survived to serve another day.
Another lull in the protests, but no resolution of issues being put forward, resulted in a fairly calm but simmering period building to Tuesday, November 12, when a National Strike was called. Over a hundred civil associations, unions, and clubs signed on to the strike, nationwide. It promised to be huge, and threatened to shut the country down.
Timing is everything, as we know. Up to this point, we had been observing the situation in Chile from afar in the United States, but this changed around midnight Sunday, November 10, as we arrived at the newly expanded international airport of Santiago, still officially named Aeropuerto Comodoro Arturo Merino Benitez but locally called Pudahuel (for the locality it sits upon).
Needless to say, we were on high alert (expectation is a better term), as we landed. There was a time , especially after the return to democratic government when many people who had left Chile were returning, that applause would break out as the wheels of the aircraft touched down on Chilean soil. Not this time. An eeiry, dead silence throughout the cabin surely reflected what others like we were thinking: what will we find? Is it as awful as the videos and Whatsapps have been depicting?
The long walk from newly finished terminals to the immigration windows, arrival lounges filled with passengers at midnight, and long lines of taxis waiting at the door depict a Chile that has experienced incredible growth in national and international travel, tourism and business. A first thought upon arrival to Santiago is how a prolonged and serious social upheaval will affect it all.
The taxi ride to our apartment in the mostly upper middle class Providencia neighborhood took us past some areas affected earlier by the violent activities, but at first blush it really didn’t seem too terribly impacted. The following day we did what we always do upon arrival in Santiago, we went to the main business area of Providencia to arrange for re-installation of our internet connection and then renewal of mobile phone service.
People were going about their business, as usual, but not as many as usual. Clearly, the paint and metal shutter people are in high clover. Every exposed store and home front was loaded with explicitly angry graffiti. Many banks, pharmacies, and insurance offices were having metal panels installed over their floor to ceiling windows which earlier depicted Chile’s “progress towards modernity”, but now depicts a country at war. But most people were going about their business, at least in the morning and early afternoon. That’s what we were told by relatives and friends; it was OK to go out in the morning and until mid afternoon, when the protests began to form around town, eventually heading down to Plaza Italia, the central meeting point for protests in Santiago.
Monday, November 11, was a fairly calm day although at night there were some reports of damage in different spots around the city. Tuesday November 12, the day of the General Strike, turned out to be a turning point in the ongoing struggle for social justice and political reform, and the government’s feeble attempts to control the looting, arson, and extensive destruction that follows interspersed with otherwise peaceful demonstrators.
We had a dinner commitment the night of the general strike, with friends we have known for years. We shared ideas about the protests and the government’s response. As we talked, we knew the general strike had been huge and the nightly violence begun. The social media rumor mill was working overtime, and our hosts, after hearing that the protesters had burned a historic church in the central Lastarria neighborhood, feared there would be a new State of Emergency declared. We did not want to get trapped in a curfew, so we returned to our apartment, driving through almost desolate streets, but there was a feeling that something worse was sure to happen.
However, what happened was that Chile dodged a bullet. Stories fly, and it is really hard to know exactly what was happening, but it seems that the president called a meeting of the national defense committee, and was prepared to reinstate the State of Emergency to crack down on the demonstrations and especially the violence. Someone talked him out of it, maybe the military themselves, or maybe his newly appointed minister of Interior, but instead he made a public pitch to the leaders of the political parties and the two houses of Congress, to come together to produce three interrelated accords: Peace, Justice, and a New Constitution. The latter was a significant change to the president’s position. Up until this night, he and his coalition were only willing to consider amendments to the existing constitution, not a new document.
Wednesday, November 13, began with a combination of tension and expectation as to what would be the impact of the prior night’s violence and the President’s challenge to the political leaders. I thought it would be a good day to visit the Plaza Italia, so I did just that. Via taxi to Avenida Vicuña MacKenna, a short walk to Plaza Italia to check out the condition of the much maligned but still standing General Baquedano, then continue walking up Avenida Providencia, to Avenida Suecia, observando along the way how most people attempted to go about their daily lives in the midst of innumerable signs of protest, hate, creative graffiti artistry, and vandalism.
A recurrent message left on the walls and in interviews with protesters and politicians is that the Chilean State through its Police force, the Carabineros, has a very negative reputation in terms of violations of Chilean citizens’ human rights. The protocols for police action in the context of civil disturbances, marches, and protests, especially where there is violence and criminal actions like arson, theft and constructing barricades to block traffic, may be in place, but not sufficiently observed. Addressing this issue will be a painful and difficult chore for international and national human rights groups who are in Chile observing, and Chilean legal institutions responsible for processing the citizens and peace officers charged with legal violations.
Wednesday passed, with another spike in protest and violence in the evening, but Thursday would bring another level of anticipation. Sometimes it appears that fate is piling on Chile, that they can’t seem to get a break. The next day, Thursday, November 14, was the one year anniversary of a tragic killing by Carabineros of a young Mapuche, Manuel Catrillanca, in a vehicle robbery he apparently had nothing to do with, that included destruction of evidence, dishonest reporting, and cover up of bad and illegal police action. A whole series of memorials and gatherings were scheduled throughout the county to protest the treatment of Catrillanca and Mapuche people in general. The main venue for the memorial was Ercilla, where the Catrillancas live, a poor, small village in the Araucanía region of southern Chile.
There were large protests that night, but as the night was advancing, it became clear that the politicians President Piñera had challenged to produce the three pacts for peace, justice, and the new constitution were leaking that they were close to a breakthrough on agreement on the new constitution issue. The news channels, and the citizenry, were shaking in anticipation of an agreement, any agreement that might break the momentum of the month-long social upheaval.
Suffice it to say that the proposal made by the President earlier on Tuesday night, although belittled by the most extreme of the opposition as too little, too late, may actually have facilitated the serious negotiations that led to the agreement announced Friday at two in the morning, to begin the process to design a new constitution.
So, Friday, November 15, may very well represent an inflection point in Chile’s present social crisis. At least it feels that way. The agreement calls for the following:
- A plebiscite in April 2020, asking citizens to approve or disapprove a new constitution, and to choose between two types of convention to develop the new document.
- Members of the convention to be elected in October of 2020.
- Convention is limited to developing the new constitution; it has no other authorities or responsibilities.
- A quorum of two thirds is needed to approve elements of the new constitution.
- New constitution will be ratified by another plebiscite.
Only 24 hours have passed since this agreement was publicized. President Piñera has not yet made a public statement to the effect, but the exchange and stock markets surely have. US dollar to Chilean Peso reversed a significant increase earlier this week, and on Friday the Chilean stock market recovered partially from earlier losses.
But a serious analysis of the situation cannot ignore the fact that the group of political authorities (parties and Congress) that must adhere to and implement the agreement are the same individuals representing the same political institutions that presently have the lowest level of confidence of the public in Chile. They have earned this low esteem over time. It is fair to doubt their ability to make serious, beneficial agreements, and then keep them. But the Chilean public, at least after a month of costly social strife, may be ready to trust them, or at least give them the benefit of the doubt in the short term.
Possibly more importantly, there are good reasons to believe this agreement on the new constitution will not completely dissuade the protesters and completely discourage the violent actors. After all, most of the social and economic ills expressed en masse in the protests, are extra-constitutional issues. They are issues of public policy and pubic finance. They are social programs languishing in Congress which need to be expedited and probably greatly reformulated to come close to satisfying the now aroused and anxious public.
As this new situation in Chile proceeds, it is tempting to say Chile has changed. Some optimists suggest that “Chile woke up!” This remains to be seen.
At this point, I want to go back to Chile’s motto: “Por la Razón o la Fuerza”. If this motto suggests that Chileans, when faced with adversity or challenges, first try to reason to a solution, and then only as a last effort, resort to force, you would be hard pressed to claim that either the protesters or the Chilean authorities in this month of social unrest tried reason before force. After all, the first act was to storm the metro stations and torch several. And the government was awfully quick to call out the military force to repel the protesters. Many authorities and many people interviewed will state that the violence as it evolved, was a shock, a surprise, hard to explain. There wasn’t a long period of reasoning after which the violence broke out.
Or was there? Have Chileans, especially the poorest, the hardworking middle class, and the sick and elderly been trying to reason with a deaf or heartless or just selfish ruling class for years, reasoning for change, reform, more and better basic services, to no avail? Seen this way maybe the motto does fit the situation.
Or maybe Chilean society (along with a large chunk of the rest of the western world) has evolved in a way such that force is an integral part of the equation. In that case, the motto that best fits the way Chileans (and the rest of us) make decisions and effect change is instead “Por la Razón Y La Fuerza”. Reason and force, force and reason. Whatever works.
Let’s hope not.
Posted in Santiago, Chile on November 17, 2019.