Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Protesting in Chile

Posted By on 02.21.12 at 08:00 AM

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  • Beatrice Murch via Flickr
In this week's cover story, Mick Dumke and Ben Joravsky reported on the upcoming NATO/G8 summit, including police worries over whether they're prepared to deal with the protests that'll come with it. It reminded me of the time I spent in Chile several years ago, because if there's one thing Chileans know, it's how to protest (consequently, if there's one thing Chilean police know, it's how to stop protesters).

Just a couple months after I moved to Santiago in 2004, the city hosted the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation conference, triggering several days of demonstrations—against APEC, but especially against the recently reelected George W. Bush, who was attending. If you think he was unpopular here, you should have heard what they thought of him in Chile. The official slogan of the march was "Fuera Bush, Chile no es una mercancia," which loosely translates to "Get out, Bush; Chile isn't a piece of merchandise."

There were several demonstrations in the week leading up to the summit, but the main one was on the day of the APEC meeting. I hadn't seen a protest in Santiago before, but had heard they inevitably deteriorated into violence, the only question being when it would happen. I didn't want to get mixed up in anything dangerous, but Parque Bustamante was right next to where I lived, so I decided to walk a couple blocks south to check out the demonstration. I was only halfway there when I saw a wave of protesters running toward me; the police had just broken out the water cannons and tear gas. I turned and ran with them, ducking into the entryway to my apartment building before I got gassed or trampled.

For the next hour or so, I watched from the window of my apartment—which overlooked the park—as the protesters faced off against lines of riot police, hurling rocks and insults and getting hit with tear gas and blasts from the water cannons in return. I had to close my windows because the tear gas was burning my eyes, which meant I couldn't lean out and see everything. Eventually the protest moved out of view.

Police using water cannons during another protest in Santiago. Theres usually tear gas mixed in with the water.
  • Will Russell via Flickr
  • Police using water cannons during another protest in Santiago. There's usually tear gas mixed in with the water.

By the time I left again a few hours later, the streets were quiet and nearly empty, but shattered street lamps, subway signs, and store windows showed the path of the protesters. El Mercurio, one of the Santiago daily papers, reported about $37,000 (U.S.) worth of damage. According to the archives of the major dailies, between 30,000 and 35,000 people turned out, 189 were arrested (including five foreigners), and 13 police officers and three civilians were hurt.

The local media was also interested in another aspect of Bush's visit: his extensive security detail. Or to be more accurate, they were openly derisive. La Tercera reported that while Bush alighted from Air Force One, his security team "practically filled the airport terminal." Another El Mercurio article, headlined "The Other 'Star' of the Summit," estimated the costs of Bush's security at half a million U.S. dollars a day for his visit to Chile. They might not have paid it so much attention if a banquet hadn't been canceled because the Secret Service demanded that all 300 guests—mostly high-ranking Chilean officials—pass through a metal detector. Ricardo Lagos, the president of Chile at the time, scrapped the whole thing instead. As an article in the Telegraph put it: "Both sides accused the other of over-zealousness, with Chilean officials mocking US agents for peering and reaching inside two antique cannons in the palace to make sure they could not be fired at Mr Bush." And that was after Bush clashed with Chilean security when one of his Secret Service agents wasn't allowed to follow him into a summit dinner; the U.S. president reached past several people to grab the agent.

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  • antitezo via Flickr

The APEC protest was the only one I saw up close while I was living in Chile, but there were plenty of others. Just before I moved back to the U.S. in June 2006, high school students in Santiago began protesting a number of aspects of their educational system, demanding better-quality education. They went on strike, occupied schools, and marched in the streets in demonstrations that started peacefully but quickly became violent. Even though I stayed as far away from the protests as possible, the streets downtown were so choked with tear gas that my eyes often burned as I was walking home. I remember watching debates on the evening news about whether the police were using excessive force—water cannons, riot gear, etc—against students who were barely in their teens. Then again, the students were also throwing rocks and inciting violence, and it was always impossible to tell who'd started it.

The students were eventually able to negotiate with the Chilean government, and the demonstrations ended. But there are once again ongoing protests there: Chilean students are demanding a not-for-profit system of higher education that's free for everyone. And from all the reports I've read, the issues may be different, but the protests look very much the same.

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