‘El estallido social’ – 18 months of Chile’s social insurrection in words and pictures

The people of Chile have been rising up in protest at their country’s inequality and right-wing leadership for 18 months. Phoenix Media Co-op is proud to feature a selection of images by photographer Daniel Espinoza Guzman as we look at the causes and consequences of this ‘social insurrection’.

On 18 October 2019, Chile’s transport ministry announced a 30-peso fare hike on the capital’s underground. The minister of economy Juan Andrés Fontaine crassly remarked that “people affected could wake up earlier and pay a lower rate”, showing complete disregard for families struggling to survive in a country ranked one of the most unequal by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Most Chileans survive on £350 per month but have to spend an average of £50 on transport. The comments by the minister triggered a populace tired of the high cost of living and extreme social inequality. That night students staged a mass fare evasion. The following day, the streets of Chile’s cities spontaneously filled with protesters demanding change. The rallying cry at the mass demonstrations that kicked off in 2019 and have continued to the present day, became: “It’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years”, referring to the shambolic transition to democracy after the Pinochet regime ended in 1990. All of the government administrations that followed the dictatorship did nothing to challenge the severe neo-liberal economic model imposed by General Pinochet. Instead, inequality is on the rise as ordinary Chileans struggle to pay for public goods such as healthcare and education.

Grassroots organisations representing a wide range of demands took to the streets of Santiago and other major cities across Chile. Plaza Baquedano in the centre of Santiago became the site of convergence for protesters who re-named it ‘Plaza Dignidad’ to reflect their claims for dignified pensions, wages and working conditions. The site has political significance as it stands on the border between downtown Santiago (working class) and uptown Santiago (the privileged classes).

Feminist organisations joined the demonstrations demanding gender equality and parity, along with students, environmentalists, campaigners for fair pensions, and indigenous rights activists. At their peak, protests saw 1 million people taking to the streets of Santiago.

The streets exploded with artistic expressions of solidarity. Walls became canvasses for political muralists and street artists, and dancers occupied the streets with messages of hope and change.

Just a couple of days into the protests on 19 October 2019, right-wing president Sebastian Pinera, alarmed at the scale of the protests, declared a state of emergency. He unleashed the army onto the streets and claimed in a televised address to the nation: “We are at war against a powerful enemy, who is willing to use violence without any limits”. The army began violently detaining, beating and even torturing protesters.

By the close of 2019, and just two months from the start of the protests, several international human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, the United Nations and Human Rights Watch, condemned the government crackdown against  protesters. The actions of the police and army were the worst state-sanctioned violence seen on the streets of Chile since the Pinochet dictatorship. An urgent investigation and reform of the police force was recommended by human rights observers.

During the violence around 400 people lost one or both eyes at the hands of Carabineros de Chile (militarised police). Thousands were brutally assaulted and almost 30 people killed. Despite intimidation, people continued to congregate in town centres across the country under the slogan “Chile Desperto” (Chile woke up). Rapes, arbitrary detentions, sexual assault and even killings were committed by the Carabineros. Over 8,500 allegations of police violence were made.

Not content with mass detentions and the indiscriminate use of ‘non lethal’ weapons to disperse mainly peaceful gatherings, Pinera passed several laws to criminalise social protests further. The 1984 anti-terror law drawn up by the Pinochet regime to quash political opposition during the dictatorship, has been used against scores of people since the start of the insurrection. To date there are over 2,000 political prisoners still languishing in Chile’s prisons. They have been denied political prisoner status and some are currently on hunger strike.

With nothing left to lose, Chile’s protesters have continued taking to the streets. “Chile Desperto” (Chile woke up) has become the motto for the ongoing push for change. Each Friday (until the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic) crowds gathered at Plaza Dignidad to demand equality.

Under political pressure to reach an agreement, Pinera held a referendum on 25 October 2020 on whether to re-write the Pinochet Constitution. The result was an overwhelming yes in favour of a new constitution to be written by elected candidates chosen by the people (target date 2022). Around 78% resoundingly voted for constitutional change.  The mass mobilisation of Chilean protesters led to a historic political breakthrough not achieved in over 30 years of Chile’s largely fruitless plod toward democracy.

All images by Daniel Espinoza Guzman (@daeg90), used with permission.