Chile, enraged



This blogger’s heart is breaking as the news from Chile keeps getting worse. For the past several days Santiago has been rocked by protests over an increase in public transportation fares, and these protests have given way to rioting and looting. Which in turn has given way to the government imposing a state of emergency, sending the army into the streets and imposing a 7 pm to 6 am curfew.  It seems like a flashback to the dark days of the dictatorship headed by General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990).

Three people were killed when a supermarket in Santiago was set on fire, and some airlines are cancelling flights to the Chilean capital–airport and airline employees can’t get to work.  And the unrest has spread to other Chilean cities.

My friend and colleague Odette Magnet sent me this report from Santiago:

“Friday afternoon, 4 p.m.  I am on the corner of Tobalaba and Providencia avenues, trying to get home in the La Reina municipality of Santiago.  Hundreds of people are on foot, walking calmly and in silence.  It was hot, but people were not complaining.  The buses were not stopping because they were full to capacity. I counted 40 taxis passing by, all filled. Dozens of cars with no passengers, only their drivers, passed by.  I tried to make eye contact. Nothing. No one stopped to offer anyone a lift. I was shocked. The slogan that we’re a solidarity country seems like a joke. Another popular myth.

Santiago awoke on Saturday the 19th with tanks and soldiers in the streets, under a state of emergency.  Along with thousands of my compatriots, I found the scene painful, and in a split second we were back in the dark days of the military dictatorship. As if that weren’t enough, that same day President Sebastián Piñera declared a curfew.

For 17 years Chile was an armored country, with successive states of exception: the state of emergency, the state of siege, of disturbance to the internal peace. Cruel dictatorship. This is the  first time a state of emergency has been imposed since Chile returned to democratic rule, with the brief exception of the 2010 earthquake.  Chile’s digital newspaper El Mostrador bore this headline: “The day after black October 18, the military controls Santiago,  as it did in the 1980s.” But despite this people beat saucepans and honked car horns throughout the capital. The city was under a state of emergency, but it was not asleep. As the hours passed the protests grew and Piñera was forced to suspend the fare increase in the Santiago metro.

Up till then the government had managed to evade the source of the conflict, it only reinforced police action and applied the State Security Law. As we Chileans put it, he threw gasoline on the fire.

For a week now the Chilean capital has been witness to daily demonstrations by students protesting the fare hike.  Saturday’s tally: 308 arrests, 500 soldiers in the streets and reports of 11 people injured.  41 of the nearly 140 Metro stations were damaged, and some were burned. 16 buses were also burned. Police officers injured.  There was looting in some parts of Santiago and a building belonging to the state energy corporation, Enel, was burned.

What happened over the past few days is the unmistakeable scream of a country that can’t take any more. There are millions with pent up rage who feel they have nothing left to lose.  The underlying reason is not the Metro fare hike but the scandalous inequality in our society. Chile is the most unequal country in the region. This malaise was always going to erupt: people feel defenceless in the face of the rising cost of utilities, education, health care and the mismanagement of pension funds.

In the face of despair, extreme actions. Students began fare jumping in the Metro and a group of vandals did the rest, looting stores, banks, burning buses and destroying traffic lights.

Meanwhile, Piñera was writing his official speech and giving assurances that our country, in comparison with the rest of Latin America, “is an oasis.”

Something is very wrong here. Chile’s soul is rotting.”



Father Jose Aldunate, RIP

Father Jose Aldunate at a human rights demonstration in Santiago during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet

He was born into one of Chile’s oldest families but spent most of his life working for his country’s poor and campaigning for human rights during the Pinochet dictatorship. Father Jose Aldunate passed away at the age of 102 on September 28.

This blogger had the opportunity to interview Father Aldunate, known simply as Pepe to many, in the 1980s when he was a parish priest in a poor Santiago neighborhood.  I wanted to pick his brains about living conditions for low income Chileans and what social services, if any, they could access. I expected to hear some kind of political speech, but Aldunate was thoughtful and deliberative. There was a foundation for malnourished children, he said, and some of his parishioners had taken their children there, receiving good care. But unemployment was high, and many of those who did have jobs worked in harsh environments.

He told me of one young man who worked 12-hour shifts, six days a week, operating a factory machine. When he finished for the day, another worker arrived to begin the day’s second shift. The machine was only shut down on Sundays.

Aldunate had spent part of his boyhood in the United Kingdom (“I had an English nanny!”), attending a Jesuit boarding school in northern England where he played rugby and did very well academically. Back in Chile he followed his older brother into the Jesuits, later dividing his time between teaching and ministering to poor communities.  And he didn’t just minister: Aldunate sought jobs as a laborer in order to better understand his parishioners’ worlds. At the time of the 1973 military coup he started working alongside construction workers in the city of Concepcion, in southern Chile. His residence was raided by soldiers, who confiscated issues of the Jesuit magazine.  People were being arrested around him, but he was spared, and he later speculated it was because his prematurely gray hair made him look like a harmless elderly bystander. He spent five years in Concepcion, working half the year teaching and the other half as a construction worker.

Back in Santiago he worked in a neighborhood which became the site of one of the dictatorship’s most egregious abuses: the case of los quemados, the burned ones. In 1986 two teenagers, one a photographer who had grown up in Washington, D.C., were arrested by soldiers during a demonstration and set on fire.  The case drew international attention, with CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace bringing a film crew to the neighborhood.  What would happen, he asked Aldunate, if anyone from the area who witnessed the attack offered to testify?

“It would be dangerous for them,” Aldunate told them.

I obtained a copy of the 60 Minutes segment and invited him to my house to see the program.  He arrived, smiled at my infant daughter sleeping in her bassinet, and watched the video without comment.

I later interviewed him for ABC radio on the anti-torture movement he had helped organize. It was a small group that included many Catholic priests and nuns, who staged brief demonstrations near police stations and any other sites where prisoners were interrogated. At the end of the interview I asked him if he could imagine a time in the future when the movement would no longer be necessary.  He broke into a big smile.

“Oh, I hope so,” he said. “I hope for the day when we can happily dissolve the group because it is not needed.”

That day came the following decade, when Chile returned to democracy. A notorious detention site, Villa Grimaldi, was converted into a peace park and open-air museum and Aldunate participated in the inauguration ceremony.  A group of former prisoners and their families walked through the double metal gate they had entered as detainees, and then the gate was locked securely behind them. The gated entrance was to never be used again, and Aldunate was appointed guardian of the keys.

“These walls which hid death and torture today will have signs of life,” he said.

I last saw Aldunate in 2007, when I visited him in a residence for retired priests in downtown Santiago.  Most of his vision was gone, he walked slowly but was as lucid as ever and was still writing occasionally for the Jesuit magazine. I introduced myself as one of the many foreign journalists who had interviewed him back in the 1980s and mentioned our last interview. He recounted how, with democracy re-established in Chile, members of the group met and decided it was no longer needed. Nine years later he was awarded a national prize for human rights.

One of the board members of the converted Villa Grimaldi made a comment to me that seemed to perfectly sum up this extraordinary man:

“I think Pepe is not of this world.”