The banging of pots and pans, car horns honk, ambulance and fire engine sirens wail, people screaming “pacos culiados!!!” (Chilean Spanish for “fucking cops”), seemed to have become the new normal for the fifth night in a row in Santiago, Chile. I live a block away from a police riot vehicle headquarters in downtown and have had front row tickets to the protest that is mostly peaceful on my corner. Peaceful until the armored cars that shoot tear gas show up. Peaceful until the police with their rubber bullets show up.
The question from family and friends afar is, “Do you feel safe?”
Do I feel safe?
I moved to Chile almost four years ago and have, for the most part, felt totally safe. Like any big city, there is a concern of theft that looms, but never fear of bodily harm.
However, since the start of the recent riots, there has been a rapid and severe change to the energy in the streets.
Earlier this month there was a rise in metro fare that made it cost more than 20% of a person living on minimum wage to get to and from their job, but that’s a small ingredient in the casserole of discontent.
A Chilean friend of mine said, “It’s been a long time coming.”
I was shocked how quickly it escalated. On Friday, Oct. 18, the city was in flames. Protestors brought the largest metro system in South America to a screeching halt during Friday‘s evening rush hour as metro stations were sabotaged by furious mobs. Mass destruction, deadly fires and looting ensued across the greater metropolitan area. Lider supermarkets (a chain owned by Walmart among others) and pharmacies were raided. People were wreaking havoc.
Do I feel safe?
Over the weekend, peaceful protests sprung up throughout the length of Chile while violence and the bandits taking advantage of the situation caused substantial losses.
On Tuesday, Oct. 22, the ashes smoldered still.
In the morning, after taking my dog for a walk on the sidewalks laden with broken glass, I got ready to head out the door to teach English classes in the center of Santiago. I put on running shoes in case a quick getaway became necessary. I grabbed a hat to cover my blond hair and a scarf for tear gas. I wanted to be able to blend in with protesters in case someone filled with rage against capitalism and corporate greed that the USA iconically embodies suddenly decided to lash out upon the “gringa” in their midst. I seriously doubted this would happen, though…at least not before the military enforced curfew at 8:00pm. Staying out past that hour is not something I would try my luck with.
The masses are mad at the Chilean government and their policies that perpetuate inequality, the politicians, police, and military for scandals of corruption, and abuse. The high prices and low coverage of healthcare, the privatized retirement pensions widely regarded as crooks and thieves, expensive private education that is available only to the elite class, when free public education is crap—you get my drift. It’s all-out outrage over stark injustice. It was sparked by a metro fare hike that has now been rescinded, but it isn’t enough. The camel’s back has broken.
Santiago is a city trying to get back on its feet after the most catastrophic man-made destruction in decades.
People walked past with dry cleaning and groceries and held hands with their kids as helicopters flew overhead.
Birds chirped as ashen half-decimated trash piles lined the street corners with a shit-ton of new graffiti saying “Piñera Denuncia” (telling the President to resign), or “Evade!!! Sueldo a Bomberos” (pay the firemen that work as volunteers).
I walked past the Enel building (Chile’s largest electricity provider) with its fire escape that was as charred as a steak on a barbecue, but the building still stands, and no one was hurt. In that fire. Death tolls rise. On Whatsap, rumors circulate that the police and military are not reporting all of the deaths inflicted by their hands.
On the main road through the heart of Santiago, McDonalds’ silver roller shutters were open halfway, ready to slam shut if the tides turned and people go from wanting burgers and Mcflurries to burning the fast food chain to the ground.
Do I feel safe?
I left work early to try to go to a supermarket across town, in a more affluent neighborhood to stock up on food and wine, as the little mini markets in my hood have very limited supplies. Fighting against the traffic-jammed streets, only to find every chain supermarket closed after 3:00pm.
I returned home knowing I had enough food to make it through the night and hopped on a bike and rode up to Plaza Italia—a main meeting point for celebrating soccer wins or for major manifestations. It was the biggest protest gathering yet, the movement is gathering strength and ain’t gonna die down any time soon. And with the city in a state of emergency, students were out of school and ready to share their voice. It was a party atmosphere. It felt like a festival of sorts, with tatted-up hipster youth drinking beer and smoking weed in the park. They were playing traditional Chilean music and break-dancing, chanting and banging on pots and pans (a peaceful form a protest called a “cacerolazo” originating from a time when people expressed their discontent by hitting casserole dishes during the dictatorship of Pinochet). As the raucous feeling shifted from celebratory to destructive—as some kids circled round with their shirts wrapped around their faces showing only their enraged eyes, trying to smash in a closed Starbucks gate—it was time to go.
Plaza Italia was gassed and cleared minutes after I left.
Do I feel safe?
At 9:30pm on a Tuesday, an hour and a half past the military enforced curfew, a preliminary armored van shot off tear gas on the corner of Santa Isabel and Carmen. The initial 200 or so strong had tapered off to around 75 diehard defiers, daring the police or military to make them go inside as they built fire blockades in the streets with mattresses and old furniture.
The day before, outside my window I watched as it turned more violent than it had been before. I saw one protester get shot 3 times by rubber bullets and finally limp inside his high-rise apartment adjacent to mine. The cops came out on the streets with guns, only to be chased back to the safety of their tank-like van as my neighbors threw glass out of their windows, and yelled swear words out into the darkness. The armored cars took the brunt of bottles, paint cans, and rocks launched at them as they drove past.
I sat and watched, in my 12th floor apartment, out of harms way—the tear gas dissipated to the point of only being a nuisance, and I had to take my dog for a pee in the parking lot inside the gate of my apartment instead of the park around the corner where the riot cars usually sleep. I waited to see the outcome of tonight’s curfew breakers, seeing what it took to get them to retreat from the street.
Do I feel safe?
Safe enough, I suppose—with fires on my doorstep and pepper spray at night as the new normal and all. I’ve always said that I felt safer in Santiago than in the USA (I’ve lived in NYC and LA), with the whole gun thing we’ve got going on. But a military enforced curfew, limited availability of food choices, and long lines at liquor stores are getting a bit concerning.
But significantly more than these minor personal inconveniences, people are tragically dying during this ongoing conflict.
A student of mine said that, “the military is soft, not like with Pinochet.” If that’s the set precedent, than these days are certainly not the darkest that Chile has ever seen.
I’m not ready to pack a bag and head for the Argentine border quite yet. I’ve not felt personally in danger. However, I’ve also not put myself in overtly dangerous situations, or maybe it’s just that I’ve been lucky enough not to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
I’m waiting to see the outcome of a country in disarray that has had systematic oppression as a rule of thumb since its inception.
I’m waiting to see what change the government can offer its citizens to make them feel like they’ve been heard.
I’m waiting to see if Chile can pull itself up by the bootstraps and get out of this self-inflicted mess and unrest.