Tales of a Privileged Rose in South America’s Political Thornbush
I’m travelling with a woman and her adult daughter from the airport, two people whom I had the good fortune of sitting next to on the plane from Puerto Natales. They have assisted me into the city of Santiago in the cheapest, most local way possible, which I am obviously stoked about, as Chile has been the most expensive part of my trip.
I’m feeling quite disheartened about being here, as decades of government tension have exploded into weekly demonstrations in the big cities. When I say demonstrations, they are not of the peaceful type that you might get in front of the council in Brisbane on January 26. The police in Chile liberally use tear gas and water cannons on protestors, and this time, Chile is really angry.
The first protests in October last year saw over a million Chileans march the streets of Santiago, the biggest since the days of the last dictator, Pinochet, in 1990. Word-of-mouth traveller advice at this time: don’t travel on a Friday. I’m unsure of what I am walking into, but my wonderful new friends have informed me that the station I’m heading towards has been trashed in recent months by the demonstrations, and is out of service at the moment. I begrudgingly get off the subway at the station before, making a mental note to get out of this city as soon as I can.
I come to a place unrecognisable from three years ago, the time I was here last. There are no cars on the six-lane street, and people linger on corners with no apparent business to do. Every inch of government building is covered in graffiti, some with phrases that demand that the current president, Piñera, be assassinated.
I nervously make my way up the road and notice that every street and traffic light is broken. Volunteer traffic controllers direct traffic, collecting mere donations for their efforts. People are tending to a fire in the middle of the road. Every inch of bus shelter has been shattered and all the shops are shuttered, and don’t look like they are opening anytime soon. All government building and park sculptures are completely defaced with paint and graffiti.
This was just the beginning of my insight into the country’s current political situation. What started as a protest about the rise in public transport prices has turned into a full-scale anti-government nightmare for Chile, to which the president does not seem to have a solution.
The cost of living in Chile has steadily increased over the years, and privatisation of resources has seen many Chileans fall into debt. The increase in public transport prices was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and since the protests began in October, 29 people have died and more than 2500 have been injured. Piñera declared a state of emergency and reshuffled his cabinet in response to the conflict, however not much else has been done. Before the pandemic, he had called a national referendum in April to review the constitution. I’m no politics nerd, but basically the capitalist disparity between the rich and poor in Chile makes it the most unequal country in South America.
I had been weaving around countries affected by demonstrations throughout my travels, most notably in Ecuador and Bolivia. I luckily left Ecuador a couple of days before the whole transport system shut down due to protests after the government cut subsidies to fuel, subsequently grounding all taxis and buses. Many people I had just met were stuck there for weeks.
The protests in Bolivia began as an attempt to overthrow the then-president, Evo Morales, who tried to cheat in the presidential election. This man is another one of the bad guys, and was replaced by someone only marginally better. The protests were quite violent and closed the borders to non-Bolivian nationals.
I had planned to meet some friends there in November, however the situation was still quite precarious and we found ourselves checking the border status every day, scratching our privileged heads and wondering where to next if not Bolivia or Chile, where the protests had commenced at the same time. We finally could cross the border after the evil dictator had been exiled and the country restored to peace (for now), and we found that the only people on our bus were Australian. There were at least seven of us. I’m quite certain that this accurately represents the “she’ll be right” attitude of our country and our generation, as we have never had to endure any hardship. This also includes our parents, and did I mention that my father went to university for free back in the days of Gough Whitlam? The wars and political situations of South American countries are relatively insignificant to us, because the unrest is so frequent that the media often fails to report it at all.
When looking at the ABC website, I found no articles about the protests in Ecuador, and there was only one article on Bolivia. Chile was the exception, where the protests had garnered enough violence and fatalities to total four articles, all written in October, when they first broke out. There were a handful more on other Australian news platforms. No need for fascism when your wrongdoings as a president hardly make international news!
But it is not just Australian media that does this. In 2019, global media mainly focused on the Australian bushfires, worldwide protests and the nuclear relations between Iran and the US. When humanitarian crises are deadly enough to be reported, they reinforce stereotypes, such as hunger in Africa, and henceforth there is no profit in reminding Western audiences how abundant they are compared to a drought-stricken Madagascan. And then there are TV shows like Narcos, whereby the main antagonist indirectly underlines stereotypes of South American drug barons and corrupt politicians, posthumously glamourising them.
In between trying to travel around all these inconvenient political occurrences and figure out which unstable country to travel to next, my dad was sending me on-sale flights to Australia as a not-so-subtle suggestion to come home. I realised my privilege more than ever in this moment.
Fast-forward to when I was in Santiago, I went to dinner with friends in Bellavista, the hip, student part of Santiago. We were discussing which karaoke song we were going to sing that night when we saw two men running down the street in gas masks, and unbeknownst to us, an invisible cloud of tear gas was ominously following them. Minutes later everyone was rushed inside, the darkness of the bar in stark contrast to the soft afternoon light that we were enjoying while eating. After crying and chewing on limes offered to us by staff, we resumed talking about karaoke like nothing had happened.
Curiosity got the better of me and some friends and I made plans to go to the demonstration, assured by hostel staff that it was safe enough. I wasn’t sure if I was being brave or stupid, but my fascination with the political climate and the president’s inability to negotiate was piquing my interest, increased also by a visit that day to the city’s Memory Museum. I had started feeling extremely conflicted, as I felt some people I had met were treating the demonstration like a tourist attraction. I came to the justified reason that I was going to observe and I am glad that I did.
Come Friday afternoon, there were hundreds of people in the centre, all with goggles, gas masks, bandanas, anything to quell the effects of the tear gas. People were singing in marching bands, and a man was giving a lecture on the main statue called Escuela de Constitucion (Constitution School). Three firetrucks made their way through the mayhem, as the protestors had started a huge fire in the middle of the road. Some people were digging up the rocks in a footpath to collect and throw at the police. I spent a few hours safely observing from Escuela de Constitucion; in this time, a man came up to me and asked me what I thought of the demonstration. Expressing my sadness, he laughed and told me how futile the demonstrations were, as they had been trashing this area of Santiago for months and not much had changed.
Reflecting back on when I left for this trip, I didn’t really care for politics. I sat through a few conversations about Canadian and American politics, and quickly realized I had to learn. Every country I travelled to was experiencing political hardship to some degree, and every traveller I spoke to had a lot to say about the politics in their own country (except New Zealand, I think everybody wants a Jacinta Arden).
I also quickly found out that Australian politics are a laughing stock internationally. Everyone seemed to know who Tony Abbott was and that that ScoMo had gone to Hawaii on vacay. The most valuable thing that I have gleaned in the last six months is to be informed to stay empowered, and I have a newfound appreciation for the news. I am forever grateful for these perspectives I have gained, in an era where the government capitalises on ignorance. Australian people are lucky in that being generally ignorant of politics hasn’t got us into too much trouble. I have many friends who complain about voting, which is compulsory in Australia.
If only they knew how fortunate they really were…