Last October a social explosion took place in Chile. Millions of people took to the streets to demand social equality and an end to extreme neoliberal policies. While much of the anglophone media reported on the often carnivalesque uprising, behind the scenes human rights violations were being committed on a level not witnessed since the Pinochet regime.
This violence included rape, torture and even murder at the hands of Chile’s special forces. Six international bodies, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the UN, reported on and condemned these abuses, making recommendations to reform the police as well as punish the perpetrators.
Still, the threat of detention or being maimed while protesting did not seem to deter a new generation determined to exercise their civil rights and push for the removal of the Pinochet Constitution in which neoliberal policies are so deeply embedded.
But then the Covid-19 pandemic engulfed the country after a series of blunders and misjudged ‘dynamic lockdowns’, that in effect accelerated the spread of the virus to Santiago’s overcrowded poor suburbs.
The Chilean state did not implement access to healthcare or financial support. Instead it introduced a series of draconian measures, refused to free minors still languishing in prison for simply attending the protests and declared a state of catastrophe, effectively placing the nation under curfew and military rule.
Thanks to curfews and a heavy-handed military presence, pobladores have begun to organize against the social isolation and hunger that has taken over the country, where hunger has grown as a result of significant delays in providing grants, and welfare bailouts have yet to be seen.
Community kitchens have begun to pop up everywhere: a phenomena that harks back to the darkest days of the Pinochet regime, where they served multiple purposes in the struggle for dignity and democracy.
One of these community soup kitchens, or ollas communes, sits in the emblematic Villa Francia, a Santiago suburb famed for its combative resistance to the dictatorship. In the 1980s the pobladores would gather around the Olla Comun and talk politics while sharing a meal, galvanizing the movement against the dictator General Pinochet. Because of its symbolism, it was constantly raided by the special forces and its members surveilled by the secret police.
Comedor Luisa Toledo, a soup kitchen named after a mother whose sons, Eduardo and Rafael, were both killed by police agents in 1985, is now serving food to victims of hunger during the ongoing pandemic.
Felipe, who is 32 years old, is a volunteer at the kitchen and the Elefante Blanco, a people’s bakery that relies on donations and volunteers to bake bread for over 300 families in the area. The bakery and its supporters have recently found themselves targets of relentless police intimidation Felipe tells New internationalist:
‘We are being constantly watched by plain clothes detectives. One of our volunteers was detained the other day just for not carrying ID. It's constant – drones hovering above the bakery taking pictures, volunteers being followed. This weekend they came in with tanks and water cannons and arrested four young men. They beat one of them so bad that he needed eight stitches.
‘We are permanently being watched. Sometimes the police turn up outside our houses and use any excuse to arrest us, lack of ID or just being out during the lockdown. Anger is increasing here.’
The bakery was attacked on 3 July. Unknowns broke in and ransacked the building, taking 13 sacks of flour, leaving behind masses of spoiled food. Just days previously Felipe’s partner, who is seven months pregnant with their first child, was run over by a police vehicle during a police raid in which a minor was detained. Felipe says she is shaken but luckily unhurt.
In true authoritarian style, President Pinera has sought to outlaw grassroots community kitchens by ‘legalizing’ them in yet another tactical move to repress the people. Communist Party and Frente Amplio members of the senate sided with the government in pushing for a new bill that seeks to ‘register’ community spaces, but in turn may facilitate further surveillance of community activists.
Felipe vehemently rejects the bill. ‘We think it’s a joke; it’s a method of denying us the spaces we have created though our work in the area. They want to identify us further,’ he says.
‘The state wants to regulate realms they don’t understand or live in. They make decisions about the poor without knowing what it means to be poor. How dare they regulate our spaces, our projects, our work. Without a modicum of understanding they want to regulate work that is a by-product of their incompetence. We will never allow them to dictate rules to us. This is about solidarity, self-reliance. This about the poor helping the poor. And they are threatened by it. That’s why they want to control our work and bring in yet more methods of surveillance.’
As tensions in the suburbs escalate and coronavirus deaths in Chile swell, people are willing to risk the heavy penalties of breaking the lockdown curfew and take to the streets to protest. Barricades were set on fire and skirmishes broke out on the first weekend of July. Calls for protests are growing louder and large demonstrations are expected to take place across the capital later this month. Heavy-handed, violent policing was even reported in May at a demonstration after major food shortages hit one of Santiago's poorest districts, El Bosque.
Hector Rios Jara, a Chilean sociologist and PhD candidate at University College London who is currently in Santiago, told New Internationalist that the hunger and disquiet Chileans are experiencing is, ‘the direct result of government mismanagement of the pandemic and the social crisis.’
He said: ‘The administration of Pinera has privileged the interests of big companies over employees and families, refusing to increase social spending to help people, deliver public services and protect jobs.’
Jara is nervous about what's to come, adding that ‘the army on the streets so a social explosion can happen at any moment, with a military intervention to follow.
‘There's also a possibility that the government may try to block the referendum, although that's unlikely but the situation is highly volatile.’
Mistrust in political institutions, however, isn't a recent development in Chilean politics, says Jara.
‘With a rapid reduction of family incomes and rising demand for public services at the worst moment of the pandemic. These demands are in continuity with the protests of last year. They represent an open conflict with no clear exit.’
Carole Concha Bell is a Cambridge-based journalist, founding member of the Chile Solidarity Network and press coordinator for Mapuche International Link.