Why Thousands Are Protesting in the Streets of Chile
Mónica Ramón Ríos and Carlos Labbé on the Intersection of Politics and Aesthetics
Right now, there is a human rights crisis in Chile. Following massive protests against an increase in public transportation fares, president Sebastián Piñera ordered the military to take over the streets after declaring a State of Emergency last Friday, October 18. A curfew was imposed on Saturday.
Far from backing down, thousands of Chileans poured into the streets to demand an end to the militarization of the democratic order and to the criminalization of protesters, thousands of whom were arrested; at least twenty of whom have been killed.
On Friday, October 25, after a dramatic decrease in his popularity and fearing international censure for human rights abuses, Piñera lifted the curfew and asked the heads of every office in his administration to step down. This was a weak attempt to stop the crisis, which now includes demands for his dismissal and for an “asamblea constituyente.” As the demonstrations continue, despite state violence in the streets, another massive protest has been called for Tuesday, October 29.
During the past week, while a massive amount of people have joined the peaceful protests and assemblies across the country, Piñera’s administration has cynically mislabeled this social discontent as “war,” and has called the “enemy”—a group of high school student leaders—“dangerous,” citing situations that are dubiously provoked by masked people (friendly with the police), the criminals from this “headless” movement. At the same time, the authors and intellectuals from the right––those who keep ties with the current government by family or by money––are now repeating in Letras Libres, Clarín, or The New York Times, a familiar script to those who have protested neoliberal governments: it is declared erroneously that this is an unprecedented movement, with no requests, no leaders, and that it only belongs to a generation unfamiliar with real politics. During this week of protests, though, we have articulated many certainties: what is at stake are the terms of representation, in politics and in aesthetics. This is a struggle for words as much as it is a struggle in the streets.
The news of human rights violations might come as a surprise to those who believe Chile is a prosperous oasis of wealth in an always-troubled Latin America. But traveling here you can’t miss the houses built of cardboard along the urban highways, from the airport to the fancy hotels in Sanhattan, or as you take a private car to one of Neruda’s homes, or to the Museo de la Memoria, with Alfredo Jaar’s monument to the disappeared and its finely curated little shop, or if you recreate Bruce Chatwin’s fantasies at an exclusive lodge in Patagonia. The houses about to collapse in Valparaíso are not “picturesque,” and the mansions described by Pedro Lemebel, Roberto Bolaño, and Nona Fernández are not the literary salons and torture centers that defeated us all. The readers of those recent Chilean novels of personal melodrama (passing as Chile’s finest export) happening in the foreground of social unrest will certainly be more open to hearing out the mediocre writers who have suddenly become international experts on Chile’s crisis. If you interpret the current crisis through most of the translations published in corporate outlets, you will not understand where this multiclass movement is coming from. But there is another literature, rarely celebrated abroad, that represents the social explosion of the past week as a long-standing movement, and far from headless, directionless, or “orchestrated by Maduro,” as it has been described.This is not a movement without ideas; it is not a headless demonstration, but rather a historical moment searching for new leaders.
As some of our colleagues who are participating in the protests have sent via video or voice message, the people in the streets of Valparaíso, Antofagasta, Santiago, and Temuco are well armed with ideas that have been breeding for decades in the underground of our educational and cultural institutions; ideas in conversation with both a literary history, and a group of writers that, as Edouard Glissant once declared, reclaims the right to be opaque in opposition to the aesthetic transparency forced on us by colonialism and neoliberalism. Opaqueness, in this case, is a way of describing what is not yet here, a way to name a community that has coalesced in the act of waiting, whose spark of awakening we are now witnessing.
Many years ago we heard filmmaker Patricio Guzmán talk about one of the scenes of his three-part documentary, The Battle of Chile (1975-79), about the end of the Chilean Democratic Socialist government. At a union meeting, a worker describes his current moment and defines the possibilities for future actions from the collectivity in the factory. Guzmán regretted that one of the effects of the violent repressions provoked by state-sponsored violence under Pinochet was the loss of that worker, that well-defined political individual.
On Friday October 25, one sign reads: “We are the granddaughters of those workers you did not kill.” Those survivors are now teaching us that the language our intellectual ancestors fought for is not dead, but endures in the literature we create for an audience that is now everywhere.
This struggle for the future of Chile is also a struggle for the past, because we treasure a well-documented literary history about social struggle that it is constantly denied, that belies the antiquated literary annals representing Chile as an oasis of capitalism. Let’s then trace the links between Rosario Orrego’s anti-European novel Teresa (1870) with Manuel Rojas’s four-novel cycle of the struggle of anarchists and Carlos Sepúlveda Leyton’s three-volume memoir of the awakening of an elementary school teacher into political struggle. Let’s remember Marta Brunet’s feminist reinterpretation of oligarchic documentary literature and Carlos Droguett’s dense rendition of the assassinated poor. Let’s connect the present with Alberto Gómez Morel’s description of the lumpenproletariat in El río and Matilde Ladrón de Guevara’s many-faced prisoners. Let’s not forget that while Bolaño’s ethical defeat continues to spread, Diamela Eltit’s novels about collective demonstrations are still read as Latin American cryptography.
There are many of us who have been writing in dialogue with Chile’s underground—is it not clear by now that we are two of those writers unafraid to name the happy few Andean authors disconnected from the streets, the women, and the workers? We denounce Arturo Fontaine, Rafael Gumucio, Carlos Peña, and all the rest of our colleagues who penned analysis in newspapers around the world snubbing the popular demonstrations last week in Chile. Both of us, Mónica Ramón Ríos and Carlos Labbé, participate as fiction writers, editors, professors, and translators in different groups to learn, listen, share, and discuss.
This is not a movement without ideas; it is not a headless demonstration, but rather a historical moment searching for new leaders. It is not built on anger, but on an urgent need for change. And that change entails the following: we demand that the multi-millionaire president Sebastián Piñera, embodiment of the culture of the oligarchy, be impeached (we call it “acusación constitucional”). We demand that he be judged for his inept decisions that lead to the deaths, rapes, tortures, and repression of his fellow Chileans. We call for an “asamblea constitucional” to discuss what we want, to give everybody living in Chile a political voice, to empower future leaders. We shall not return to the same rotten institutions inherited from Pinochet’s ideologues. We want to rebuild a community that stems from our commonalities, in opposition to the one we have, based on the hollow ideals of order and peace created by this violent, fake democracy.