The Walls of Chile Speak of a Suppressed Rage

The Walls of Chile Speak of a Suppressed Rage

The Walls of Chile Speak of a Suppressed Rage

“It’s not about the 30 pesos. It’s about 30 years.”


Santiago, ChileThey’re scrubbing the walls of Santiago. On October 25, a day after Chile’s largest protest ever, a citizen brigade coordinated by the municipal government started to paint over the graffiti and graphics. The effort is in vain, of course; every day more street art goes up.

The most ubiquitous slogan is a single word: evade. In Spanish, the verb—written in its command form—connotes a sense of dodging, of getting around something. But what began as a call to jump subway turnstiles to protest a 30-peso ($0.04) fare hike—quickly morphed into something else: a massive, nonviolent movement against neoliberalism itself. “It’s not about the 30 pesos,” reads one wall stencil, echoing a line from a video montage produced by the musician Ana Tijoux. “It’s about 30 years.”

The protests began on October 18, when hundreds of high school students overwhelmed and outmaneuvered small groups of carabineros (Chile’s police and anti-riot corps) who had been deployed to subway stations throughout the capital. By nightfall, unknown groups firebombed stations, public buses, supermarkets, and the headquarters of the Italian-owned multinational energy corporation ENEL. Similar outbreaks of violence also hit provincial capitals. (Who these encapuchados, or hooded ones, were and to what extent their attacks were coordinated or aided by external forces has become a focus of investigation.)

Less than 24 hours later, President Sebastián Piñera declared a national state of emergency. In a televised address to the nation, he called upon the military not only to safeguard the subway and other strategic infrastructure but also to pursue the “vandals” and “delinquents” (or, in the first lady’s revealing private remark, “aliens”). “We are at war against a powerful, implacable enemy that has no respect for anything or anybody,” Piñera declared, undoubtedly believing the country’s order-minded citizenry would rally to his defense.

For many Chileans, the rhetoric of war and the imposition of martial law recalls the excesses and cruelty of the 17-year regime of General Augusto Pinochet (1973–1990). This was the first time the military had been called upon for internal security purposes since the dictatorship. (Following an 8.8 magnitude earthquake in 2010, the military was similarly invoked to maintain order, but in a far more circumscribed manner.) Metaphorical equivalences between the two regimes have been drawn on the walls across the city: “Piñera=Pinochet,” “2019=1973,” and “Dictadura Piñicheti.” In a striking image plastered along Avenida Providencia, a historical photograph of Pinochet surrounded by his generals mirrors in an uncanny fashion a recent shot of Piñera similarly flanked by his own military advisers.

While such rhetoric has polemical value, it also suggests a challenge to the regime not to repeat the past. Despite direct appeals stenciled on walls across the city, such as “Soldier, don’t commit the same error as 1973 (defend your people),” the military response has been fierce and disproportionate. The army has fired rubber bullets and tear-gas canisters into crowds, injuring and partially blinding scores of individuals. Sergio Micco, the director of Chile’s Instituto Nacional de Derechos Humanos (National Institute of Human Rights), has signaled a “situation of enormous gravity,” citing 142 complaints of torture, including beatings, degradation, and sexual violence.

In the last week, new messages have appeared on public spaces, such as a bright-red spray-painted stencil declaring, “Torture is happening in Chile [in] 2019” and a series of blood-splattered prints stating, “210 wounded by weapons/18 Deaths.” (That number is now up to more than 1,500 injured and 23 dead.) Photographic images of protesters recently shot by the military cover an exterior wall near Metro Salvador, accompanied by the somber words: “We promised never again. We were wrong, we trusted too much.”

During the first five years of the Pinochet regime, the military executed or “disappeared” 3,000 so-called subversives and imprisoned and tortured more than 30,000. At its height, the Pinochet government ran 1,132 centers for detention and torture. Because of a general amnesty the regime granted itself in 1978, justice has been slow. Two truth commission reports have documented egregious human rights violations, and memorial sites cover the metropolitan area. Yet struggles over historical recuperation and recognition continue. For many Chileans, the neoliberal heritage of the Pinochet era has affected not only economic processes but also the project of restorative justice itself.

For example, Irán 3037, a notorious house of torture and sexual abuse known as “the Sexy Blindfold” (Venda Sexy), is the site of a current struggle. Even though the government declared the house a national monument in May 2016, a real estate agency bought the property in May. Under the motto, “Memory isn’t for sale,” a survivors’ collective, Mujeres Sobrevivientes Siempre Resistentes (Women Survivors Still Resisting), is contesting the sale. According to Patricia Artés Ibáñez, the director of a current theatrical production, Irán #3037: Violencia político sexual en dictadura, the situation points to what she calls “the neoliberalization of memory.” By this, she means that impersonal market forces are shaping the preservation of historical memory and space. Tellingly, another prominent graffiti symbol denounces the conflation of nation and market by transforming the “C” of Chile into a dollar sign.

The walls speak of suppressed rage, but also of aspirations for alternative futures. “Look!!” a protest banner at the massive October 25 march along Avenue Alameda proclaimed. “We opened the great avenues [alamedas] in your honor.” It was a clear allusion to Salvador Allende’s final radio address in which he promised that “sooner rather than later, the great avenues will open again where free men will walk to build a better society.”

One prominent symbol from the past catapulted to the forefront by this mobilization of memory is Victor Jara, the protest singer who was brutally tortured and assassinated following the 1973 coup d’état. During the week of curfew that ended on October 27, residents across Santiago would put speakers in their apartment windows and sing out his 1971 signature song, “El derecho de vivir en paz” (The Right to Live in Peace) as an act of passive protest against the order to clear the city streets. On October 25, a group calling itself “A Thousand Guitars for Victor Jara” coordinated a mass collective performance of the song in front of the National Library. The original lyrics are somewhat anachronistic, given the references to Ho Chi Minh, Indochina, and napalm, but the main refrain—the “right to live in peace”—resonates widely. Images of and quotes from Jara spread across protest signage and wall graffiti. By the following day, an intergenerational collective of musicians had recorded a new version of his song, replacing the pro-Vietcong references with lines such as, “Con respeto y libertad, un nuevo pacto social” (With respect and liberty, a new social pact).

In addition to Jara’s socialism, one also encounters anarchist-punk tendencies in the protest imagery. “El derecho de vivir en punk,” reads a spray-painted recycling bin in the Plaza Juan XIII on Nueva Providencia, in a playful appropriation of Jara’s famous refrain. Taggings of evade mark (or mar, depending on one’s aesthetic preferences) virtually every available surface throughout central parts of the city, including public monuments and historic buildings. This anarchist-punk strand of evade is further evoked in graffiti and colorful wall stencils, such as those declaring “¡Todo gratis!” (Everything free!) and “¡No a la ley!” (No to the law!). Alongside punk’s exuberance is of course a darker, more violent side reflected in the nightly bonfires and barricades constructed from pillaged materials. But it would be a mistake to dismiss this ethos as residing only on the fringes. The intoxicating spirit of evade is spreading.

The rupture of authority has also produced a space for feminist groups to assert themselves. One wall message proclaims, “The revolution is feminist!,” employing the circled anarchist A in “Feminista.” Accusations of sexual violence by the military and police against detained protesters have reinvigorated feminist organizations, such as the collective Feministas 8M. Another group, Memorias de Rebeldías Feministas (Memories of Feminist Rebellions), issued a manifesto calling for the immediate withdrawal of military forces and for larger social changes, including the recognition of the precarious labor of women in Chilean society. Much of the feminist iconography in the streets draws on an avant-garde sensibility, appropriating and redirecting major protest symbols. For example, in a reference to the last lines of André Breton’s surrealist novel Nadja (“Beauty will be convulsive or will not be”), a line written on a storefront gate reads, El futuro será feminista o no será (The future will be feminist or will not be). The figure of a bare-breasted woman rebel tying on a bandana overlays an assemblage of protest hashtags, such as #ABORTO and #LIBERENELWALLPAMU (#Abortion and #LiberationfortheWallpamu, a reference to Mapuche indigenous territories). A message scrawled in orange along the wall of the Arzobispo Bridge appropriates the evade slogan to implicate the patriarchy in the struggles of the hour: “Macho man, lose your privileges” (Machito, evade tus privilegios).

Chile is no longer the petri dish for neoliberalism, as it was following Pinochet’s 1973 coup. But many of the principles established under Pinochet and enshrined in the country’s 1980 constitution continue to govern. Most public utilities are privatized or semi-privatized, including water, roads, energy, and health care. Market forces also guide the nation’s pension system as well as many aspects of higher education. Modest economic and social reforms implemented under the two terms of Socialist President Michelle Bachelet (2006–10, 2014–18) ameliorated conditions for the most vulnerable. But privatization is entrenched and difficult to dislodge. Protests reveal how the tremendous gap in wealth grates against the sensibilities of the majority. Dignidad and justicia are the watchwords of a populace that demands greater equity and a stronger social contract.

A day after the October 25 demonstration, in which over 1.2 million people took to the streets of Santiago, Piñera stated that he “had heard the strong and clear message of Chileans.” He announced the replacement of numerous cabinet members, including his much-maligned minister of the interior, Andrés Chadwick, a figure whose direct lineage to Pinochet made him an target of protesters. (A photo of a young, committed Chadwick standing behind Pinochet can be found plastered on walls.) Chadwick now stands accused of human rights crimes linked to current military excesses. Meanwhile, the president has promised to work toward a new “social pact.” He has been notably silent, however, with respect to a new constitutional convention, a long-standing demand by the left and a prominent aspect of the protests.

With a mere 14 percent approval rating, Piñera is scrambling to recuperate not only his shredded domestic credibility but also the financial and political reputation of Chile in the eyes of the world. After pledging that the planned Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit would go forward as planned, Piñera announced its cancellation on October 30. “A president needs to put his people above everything else,” he stated. The UN climate change summit, COP25, scheduled for December, was similarly shelved.

Fires still burn and the protests continue in Santiago, though less fiercely than in October. Many, if not most, Chileans clearly wish for a return to some semblance of normalcy. Shops and restaurants have been closing at 4 pm. The shuttering of businesses has meant not only lost revenue but also lost wages. A crowd-funding website has been launched to highlight the impact of the protests on everyday Chileans. The destruction of key sections of the subway has also made commutes, especially for those in the working class who frequently need to traverse the city, difficult and time-consuming. The pressing questions facing Chile are: How long will workers wait patiently for political solutions to take hold? Will newly empowered youth accept anything short of radical change? Will the continued breakdown in order give sustenance to far-right political platforms, thus far absent?

Chile despertó (Chile woke up) is the motto of optimism that shares space with the anger, determination, and longing that is written on the walls of Santiago. Graffiti and protest graphics are, by their nature, ephemeral. But even when the walls are wiped clean, the messages of this generation are likely to reverberate far into the future.