Meanwhile, in Santiago, when people aren’t busy buying vitamin C, cleaning products and buying face masks from street vendors (two for 1,000 pesos!) or sourcing hand sanitizer bottles, they are burning shit down and demanding changes, including a new constitution and the resignation of President Sebastián Piñera.
If you hear people coughing, run the other way—not because of a potential coronavirus outbreak but because the police is spraying protesters with tear gas. And tear gas is a bitch, trust me. I find myself crying uncontrollably a few times a day, even if I stay away from the action.
Protests haven’t stopped since October 2019 but they had slowed down during the Southern Hemisphere summer holidays. “March is coming!” had warned high school students. Sure enough, protests resumed again on March 6 with massive demonstrations. Not much has changed since December except for the rising numbers of casualties and deaths (an estimated 36 as of March 2020) and the fact there isn’t much left to burn in Santiago.
High school students are taking the lead—it only takes five minutes to take off the smart school uniforms and put on the required goggles (an alarming number of protesters lost an eye because of police violence) and face masks (see tear gas). Then come the burning barricades, usually in the middle of La Alameda, Santiago’s main avenue. A typical face-off with the riot police involves cobblestones ripped up from the street versus rubber bullets, Molotov cocktails versus tear gas.
Eventually, bomberos will spray the burning barricades—if a riot-police vehicle doesn’t come first with water cannons—but we’re all getting used to just get around them casually. I counted eleven of them on La Alameda and around on Friday night.
The air smells of tear gas, gasoline and whatever was burned—trash, appliances, street furniture.
Shops and subway stations close during protests and many look closed for good or burned down.
La Moneda, the seat of the President of the Republic of Chile, is fenced off and heavily guarded—probably a wise move considering there’s always a group of protesters throwing stones at it, banging on the fences and shouting slogans. I hope Piñera has a good supply of earplugs.
If they don’t participate, most people stop and watch the protests, occasionally taking pictures with their cellphones. The middle finger is given to anyone wearing uniforms and people shout “pacos, pacos!” when they see “yutas” (police cars) or just cops.
And this is life in Santiago right now.
Plenty of Chileans are angry and frustrated, it’s not “just” high school kids taking to the streets. They’re not going to stop. They’re not going to wake up one morning and go “oh, never mind, Piñera ain’t that bad” but apparently, the government is deaf to the concerns and demands.
And in the midst of all this turmoil, an incongruous moment made me laugh yesterday.
Picture it. Dozens of protesters are banging on the fence around La Moneda chanting “fuera Piñera” and “el pueblo unido, jamás será vencido.” And metres away, behind the fence, are hordes of police in full riot control gear who have probably been standing there for hours… all of them involuntarily beating time to the revolutionary slogans.
Because we’re all humans, after all.