Protests in Chile: “The Pursuit of Dignity”

Translated by Lauren Valentine, proofread by Marie Peltomaki

Antonia Zegers, an 18-year-old Chilean girl, speak out about her experiences. Despite being young, she has lived through a historic moment for her country: the biggest protests of the century. The entire population takes to the streets to demand better living conditions.

What were the protests like?

They were very intense. It’s a social upheaval. The people were tired and set to explode. Everybody was outside with their signs and their pans. I went to the Plaza Ñuñoa, which is calmer than the other areas. I remember going out with my friends. We had a big sign with “the TV lies” written on it. We were prepared with a bottle of water with bicarbonate and some lemon for the tear gas. My mother didn’t want me to go out given what was going on (laughs), but I went anyway.

It was very violent. They completely violated our human rights. You only have to look on Instagram to see the evidence: tear gas, buckshots… The police were firing at everyone, which left a large number of people blind and injured.

Were there as many people at the beginning of the movement?

No, to begin with it was just students. The elderly watched, confused. Some didn’t even agree with the protests, but they quickly joined the movement. We’ve now been in quarantine since March, so the movement has been put on hold since we can no longer go out, but it will come back. The biggest problem now is the hunger; there are people who have no money left to buy food. There are some shared meals, but it’s not enough. Some people have protested all the same.

Are you personally affected by the reasons for the protests?

The situation angers me, but I can’t complain. My circumstances are good; my mother earns a good wage. Personally, it doesn’t affect me because I feel privileged, but I have empathy for others. I am beside myself with knowing that others have to go through that, and that they can’t make it to the end of the month.

As far as my grandmother is concerned, she lives with my aunt and my cousin, and she receives a reasonable pension. It’s my aunt who maintains the house, but my other aunt isn’t so well. She is lacking resources and hasn’t received any help.

Président Piñera stated “we are at war” when he declared a state of emergency in October 2019. How did that happen?

It was right at the beginning of the protests and it all happened very fast. He imposed a curfew, and deployed the army onto the streets. They were shooting everywhere and at everyone, without looking who it was.

I remember one of my brother’s friends calling for help one day. His father (I can’t remember what happened to him) had to go to the hospital but the ambulance didn’t show up. Despite the curfew, my mother went to see him. She received written permission from the police station next to us and she left. I was really worried at that point. She had to put up a white flag in the car to show that she “wasn’t going to do anything”, but she still got stopped twice. Fortunately, nothing bad happened to her nor the ill man. My grandmother, like most elderly people, compares the news to the dictatorship period. She was against the protests, telling me that we were going back to those times.

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Hoy se cumplen ocho meses del inicio de la revuelta popular. Ocho meses desde aquella jornada histórica de rebelión de las y los oprimidos. El pueblo se ha organizado, ha levantado ollas comunes, canastas familiares y las organizaciones territoriales se han multiplicado en pos de la sobrevida de la clase trabajadora. Seremos francos, no nos hemos ido, tampoco hemos olvidado. El despertar no tiene que morir nunca más y por eso estamos de pie, con la frente en alto, con nuestro pueblo y más temprano que tarde recuperamos las grandes alamedas y de una vez por todas conquistaremos la dignidad para nuestro pueblo. @resistencia_visual y @primeralineaprensa Apoyo con algunos registro: Tele sur – asamblea villas unidas – Opal – piolavaguita

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How come some minor student’s protests have become a national movement?

People are tired; they’re fed up of being robbed. It all escalated very quickly. At the beginning, it was the students. They were protesting against the increased prices of public transport tickets. They have increased by around 20 Chilean pesos (less than 50p), which actually wasn’t that much.

People immediately went out to protest for a fairer life altogether. Pensions are very low, medication is extremely expensive and the people can’t take it anymore. There are people who receive a pension of 20€ – what can they do with that? Fortunately, my household is in a good situation: my grandmother gets more thanks to my grandfather, 200€ I think.

Now that we have been in lockdown for several months, the protests have taken a bit of a back seat. I’m sure that they’ll be back though, and even stronger. The situation will be worse, but it’s necessary. There are people who can’t afford to buy food at the moment. People can eat from shared saucepans, but the police enjoy throwing everything away. There were also food packages, but not many. I saw a programme recently where they offered help to those calling for it. There was a woman asking for computers so that her children could attend school, because she was taking books from the bins without paying attention to their level. When she received the computers, they realised she didn’t even have clean drinking water, nor electricity at home. They are currently making her a little, more liveable house for her and her family. What annoys me though, is that many people here are in the same situation.

Has the government acted upon your requests?

No. There have been some reforms, but nowhere near enough to calm the tension.

How has the government handled the pandemic amid the social tension?

Very badly. There has been bad management from the government. The health minister used to say that the virus would never reach Chile, whilst we were seeing thousands of daily deaths in Spain. We stayed open until around 34,000 cases had been detected. Then they quarantined us by area: there were some areas in lockdown and others weren’t. Then, everybody found themselves quarantined. It won’t end any time soon.

How are schools organising themselves now?

Well, I know that TV Educa (TV Teach), a channel that helps children to learn, now exists. I’m in my first year of journalism at Finis Terrae University and all of my lessons are on Zoom. It’s all theory, which becomes tiring, but you’ve got to get used to it. I feel deprived of my first year of university. Since the first day of lessons, I’ve been quarantined. I haven’t even really met my course mates, and I know some of them haven’t even got the materials they need. For example, my school gave out 100 tablets. I’ve got a classmate who hasn’t got a computer. Although she can listen to lessons over the phone, they teach us how to use Photoshop, which she can’t do.

What is life like over there?

It’s expensive in relation to what people earn. The Chilean pension fund management causes problems for everyone. It’s a private company that was created by one of President Piñera’s relatives, but the people receive nothing. Some have a pension of 20,000/80,000 Chilean pesos. When I go to buy food, I spend around 100,000 Chilean pesos. Let’s say a public transport ticket is 200,000 pesos if you’re lucky. A daily ticket is 700 pesos, plus food, rent and gas and the rest… People just can’t go on like this. In the protests, they were asking for dignity.

I remember that in France, everything is more normal in terms of rights. Here it’s an accumulation of problems following a dictatorship, of lots of things that haven’t worked. They have made a capitalist country with the single market and we have started to sink. After a while, the bomb will explode.

What was your school year like with all of these protests?

Good, I was getting good grades and the protests began towards the end of my year. The PSU (university admissions test) wasn’t far from my house. I don’t remember how long the curfew lasted now, but at the time of the PSU, many people were against it. They were knocking on the windows and everything all the while exams were taking place. I don’t really remember what it was like; I didn’t pay much attention, but it was difficult.

When we came outside, there were barricades and fire. You get used to it after a while. They had burned the metro, the stations… There was a lot of violence and nothing has been solved. But there has been a pandemic and that’s the best thing that could’ve happened for the government.

Why so much violence?

People were so angry and upset that they resorted to violence. Some, not all of them. I remember my brother yelling “pacos culiaos” (bastard cops) out of the window. One day, I was smoking on the terrace and I saw a group of girls approaching. They were doing the “el violador eres tú” (the rapist is you) in front of the police station. There were more peaceful protesters too, but the media didn’t show them. That’s why when the cameras showed up at the protests, they pushed them away, sometimes by hitting them. The media rarely showed what was really happening; they were more on the government’s side than ours. The police violence therefore hasn’t been highlighted as much as it should have been.

Not everybody was violent, but it’s true that there has been an increase in violence towards women. I saw videos where the military were shouting at women, asking them to get naked. Sometimes, when women were arrested, they took advantage to touch them. There have been a lot of complaints filed but nothing has been done.

What is the atmosphere like now with the pandemic?

We are all in lockdown. The protests have had to be postponed, but they are not over. A short while ago, there were protests in El Bosque because people could no longer afford to buy food. This pandemic came at an excellent time for the government, not in terms of deaths and health facilities, but thanks to the lockdown. Due to quarantine, we can no longer go out to protest, but as I said, the protests aren’t over. People are really fed up. I’m sure that when this is all over, the protests will return, and they’ll be even stronger. I will never forget what’s happening now. Seeing the whole population singing, dancing, protesting, all together, in solidarity, for a common cause… It’s really great to see.

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