Widgets Magazine

Protesting 101

SIG Fellow experiences student protests in Chile

Courtesy of Thomas Hendee

Some experiences are expected on a Stanford in Government International Fellowship–practicing the local language, eating new kinds of food, befriending locals and being introduced to a new sector of work. But in Santiago, Chile, I found myself thrown into Protesting 101: An Introduction to Revolution.

Santiago on your average day is one of the most orderly cities in South America. Drivers follow the road signs, pedestrians have the right of way and crime rates are the lowest in the region. The late June day I arrived in my downtown apartment was not to be an average day. The once orderly downtown area was chaos in amid the ongoing student protests that had consumed Chile’s public education system for over a month. Tear gas, water-spraying military tanks and thousands of military police descended on areas with congregating groups.

A month before my arrival, high school and university students started to take over their schools and went on strike. The students had last rallied together demanding comprehensive education reform in 2006, but the scale of protests in this “Chilean winter” had never before been seen. The movement’s key demands were quality public education, profit-free private schools and a revised system for students to receive education loans.

Walking through the streets of downtown Santiago, I saw and heard the people’s thoughts. At one protest, a man on stilts dressed as Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean general and dictator, carried puppet strings connected to another man dressed as the current president, Sebastian Piñera. I saw hundreds of students fake a mass suicide, representing the nihilism they claimed to encounter in their educational aspirations. I saw an elderly couple holding hands and a sign that read, “Students, know that your grandparents support you.” The songs of the protesters offered me a glimpse of their views:

“Educate the children and you will not need to punish the adults.

I have two children, which one do I educate?

If you want to study in Chile, go buy yourself a lottery ticket.

Courtesy of Thomas Hendee

Piñera why don’t you talk so we know you exist!”

At night I participated in the cacerolazos, a way to protest the government’s policy by banging pots and pans. I stood on my balcony banging on a pot, hearing thousands of others doing the same. The first week I was in Chile I heard a similar rallying cry when the Chilean National soccer team won a game in the Copa América, but the cacerolazos brought the noise to another level.

Everything around me proved that the movement came from all parts of society, but the media consistently focused on the vandalism and delinquents who took the streets along with protesters. Watching the news at night, I would not hear about the hundreds of thousands of people I saw singing and cheering for a better future, but rather about the police confrontations with a small group of violent citizens who had no connection to the student leaders.

The movement hit a rough patch on Aug. 5, when the government declined to let the students protest on Santiago’s main avenue. Confrontations between the police and the encapuchados, groups of hooded protesters, ensued. I witnessed park benches ripped out of their place and moved to blockade the streets, rocks thrown at police officers and graffiti. The police detained 800 people, and more than 40 were injured. The media highlighted the destruction and blamed the students for damaging the state of the country.

Nevertheless, the student protesters came together and stood up for their demands. Negotiations with the government on education reforms are set to begin soon, although the atmosphere in Chile is still tense.