Overview: Protesting in Chile

In my first few weeks of classes, one of the universities in Santiago went on “toma,” meaning that students had taken over the school and barricaded the doors, so classes were canceled. The next week, another university went on “paro,” meaning that the faculty and students went on strike. This, I would come to learn, was a common occurrence, because protesting runs in Chileans’ blood.
Many Chileans agree that Chile has developed a culture around protesting. Claudia believes that the main basis for this culture is the level of inequality in the country. She mentioned that movements like “No + AFP,” which fights for a better pension system, and others formed around health, education, and salaries are constantly demonstrating what issues the government should be tackling. Chris commented that it often takes protests for anything of importance to happen in Chile. Both mentioned the 2006 Penguins’ Revolution where largescale student protests for better education occurred across Chile. For Claudia, this event pushed her to learn about social issues, and in 2011 she participated in the Higher Education Movement.
Every Chilean I talked to also agreed on what it means to protest, and what protesting entails: it is when individuals come together for a common purpose, or to achieve some shared desired objective. Protests are effective when participants are truly educated about the issue or issues at hand.
Protesters gathering in the streets of SantiagoIn recent weeks, Chile has been dominating the news cycle due to the largest social uprising in the country since its transition to democracy. The protests were ignited by an increase in metro fares (30 pesos more), but are fueled by far greater issues of social inequality. Here is what IFSA students and Chileans think about the culture of protesting and the recent events in Chile.

IFSA Students: What is their perspective?

IFSA students all reacted differently to the recent protests. Quinn said that to her, “things took a complete 360 turn overnight,” and Alex added that it was “jarring to see things like burning tires and clouds of tear-gas first hand.” Others, like Fran, said that the protests were not surprising because protesting is such a vital part of the national identity here.
Quinn commented that something she noticed about protesting here vs. in the U.S. is that one protest can trickle throughout the entire country. The protests in reaction to the metro prices began in Santiago, but within days there were protests in Punta Arenas, Arica, and Valparaiso. Quinn mentioned that when the protests began, she was in Calama, a town with no metro system, and within 18 hours there were widespread protests on the streets. Fran added that she noticed how there are people of every age group protesting on the streets. In fact, as I walked back to my apartment yesterday, I passed an ongoing protest and saw a toddler, flag in hand, walking in the protest with his parents. Alex added that she feels protesting here is “an essential democratic process” used to make the government act quickly. All students commented that they believe the dictatorship influenced Chile’s development of a culture of protesting.
None of the students regret coming to Chile. In fact, every student said that if they could be given the chance to go back and change their study abroad location from Chile, they wouldn’t. Personally, I believe that we are watching history in the making. We have been able to see the true highs and lows of a country and see how democracy functions outside the U.S.
Protests in Santiago
Chileans: What is their perspective?
As for Chileans, many commented that although protesting is a common occurrence, recent events are unprecedented. Mauricio said that the sheer number of people simultaneously mobilized on the streets is record-breaking. In fact, on October 24, over one million protesters gathered in the center of Santiago at Plaza Italia, bringing the city to a historic halt. The social unrest, however, was not a surprise. Claudia commented that there has been an atmosphere of instability surrounding issues such as education, public transport, pensions, and electricity costs for years. She adds that the announcement that Chile would no longer host the APEC and COP25 conferences was an indication that the government must pay attention to the protestors’ demands. Many Chileans are happy with the protests and excited at the possibility of change. Others, like Mauricio, are wary of the costs. He mentions that any changes must be gradual and allow the Chilean economy to continue growing and avoid incurring debt. He also mentions that many of the large protests, including the one mentioned above, are clusters of distinct groups fighting for different issues, so the demands become jumbled and unclear.
One overwhelming sentiment shared by the Chileans I talked to was that after these protests, Chile will not be the same. No one is sure what the future holds, but there is a lot of hope that these protests will result in more government accountability, improved social agendas, and a broader distribution of economic benefits.
 
Final Thoughts
Protesting has become the norm for me and many other students studying abroad in Santiago. It is something we see almostdaily, and have come to appreciate as a cultural phenomenon. While the recent protests were unexpected and shocking, none of us regret our decision to study abroad here, and talking to Chileans and hearing their perspective on current events has helped me realize just how historical and unprecedented these moments are.
Chilean flag at the protestPersonally, these protests have deepened my appreciation for democracy and freedom of speech, as well as the importance of unity. Chileans, I believe, have incorporated protesting into their culture due to their ability to unify and fight for common causes. When I found myself caught in the middle of a protest in the city center after walking to the movie theater, the bias of “me, myself, and I” suddenly disappeared. I was enveloped in a mass of red, white and blue Chilean flags, the faces of the old and the young, and the enormous mass of people coming together to fight for their rights.
 
Cira Mancuso is an International Politics major at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and studied abroad with IFSA at Pontificia Universidad Católica in Chile in the fall. She is an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-To-Study Program.