Protestas y Carretes – Protests and Parties
Two of the most interesting cultural experiences for me have always been how other nationalities party and how they protest. As it turns out, Chileans are very good at both. Within the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to see both facets of Chile’s national character. I have tried to say yes to every new experience I can while in Chile, and here is where that led me.
The idea behind the Jolgorio (literally “revelry” or “merrymaking”) is one of the most comically pragmatic I have heard. A massive party is organized on the UdeC campus with so many participants that the campus security guards are powerless to stop it.
I’ve heard conflicting ideas on whether regular Chilean police (carabineros) are allowed to enter campus without permission, but I believe the Chancellor’s office has to give them some sort of permission first. With no police presence and a relatively small contingent of security guards, students drink, dance, and smoke with impunity all across the campus forum.
When I briefly checked the Facebook invitation, something like 8,000 people had RSVPed.
After emerging from a movie on campus around 8 or 9 p.m., a group of friends and I walked into the swarm of thousands of people covering the forum. Below the bell tower, a group of drummers pounded out a driving beat, while various boom boxes and cell phone speakers added to the general cacophony. The humid night air hung thick with the smell of booze, cigarettes, and weed.
The best way I can describe the Jolgorio is a strange mix of an American football game, where you can physically feel the sound of the pounding drums, and a massive frat party – all held in the open with an aura of relative invincibility based on the sheer number of participants, “safety in numbers.” Before the event, the university sent out an email asking that no one attend and promising to prosecute the organizers based on their IP address, but it didn’t appear to dissuade anyone.
Marcha por la Educación
Education reform has burned with varying intensity in Chile since at least 2006. That year, the Revolución Pingüina (“Penguin Revolution,” so-called because of the traditional uniforms worn by high school students) took off, with secondary students calling for a number of changes in Chile’s educational system.
The discontent reached an apogee in 2011 with the Chilean Winter, when university students leveled a number of demands at government officials. The demands focused primarily on a new framework for free, quality public education for all Chileans. Many commentators feel that, in addition to the education-specific demands, these protests reflect deep discontent with Chile’s soaring inequality. While neighboring Argentina has nothing if not a long history of economic crises, public education there is free.
While protests, especially over police brutality, have been spreading across much of the U.S. this year, I have never been able to witness or participate in one. The closest I’ve come in Montana is probably a pro-LGBT rights event in Bozeman that is more accurately characterized as a celebratory march than a protest.
Two engineering students (not a discipline known for being particularly fond of upsetting the social order) brought me along with them to the protests. Many university students, mostly from the UdeC, and high school students gathered at the forum before setting out on a march. We immediately headed to Plaza Perú – where so many protests and parties begin in Conce – and then out into the city. Along the way, more students joined, with hordes of onlookers – many of them well-wishers – standing along the sidewalk.
With drums, instruments, dancing, dozens of signs, and a few shopping-cart-sized floats, the mood was upbeat. In addition to the signs and music, there were numerous chants, my favorite of which was:
“Vamos, compañeros, hay que ponerle un poco más de empeño / Salimos a la calle nuevamente / La educación chilena no se vende, ¡se defiende!”
“Let’s go, comrades, we need a little more determination / Let’s go out to the streets again / Chilean education isn’t for sale, we defend it!””*
We joined up with students from other universities in the city at one of the main roundabouts in the city, one that is typically whizzing with traffic but today was swamped with students. At least for me, an accurate count of the participants was impossible, but it was certainly multiple thousands. From there, we turned back toward campus. On O’Higgins, one of the city’s main streets, the protestors dumped a papier-mâché pig that had been constructed on top of a shopping cart and lit it on fire. Soon, an effigy of Michelle Bachelet, Chile’s current president, was piled on, along with another effigy I didn’t recognize. One student must have thought he was pretty cool as he lit a cigarette in his mouth from the flames, but he nearly lost his hair when the wind quickly shifted.
As I was taking a few photos, one of the students I was with came over and tapped me on the shoulder. “We have to go now,” he said. “They’re going to spray water on that, and the water has tear gas in it.” As the truck approached, almost everyone quickly left the area.
I’m going to take a quick intermission to describe a few different crowd-control methods in Chile (can you see where this is going?).
- Guanaco: Water cannon. Guanacos are a llama-like animal native to the South American altiplano and Patagonia. They spit.
- Zorrillo: Tear gas truck. Zorrillo means skunk in Spanish.
- Micro: Personnel carrier. Micros are in-town busses in Chile.
The demonstration ended at Plaza Perú, where students began to occupy the plaza, not allowing cars to pass through the roundabout. A few students threw rocks at police officers, and there was a generally tense standoff between students and police, which we watched from the far side of the plaza.
All the while, the police were moving personnel and vehicles around the plaza. The students refused to move, so the police began spraying them with the guanacos. After a few times back and forth, the students moved off the street, traffic resumed, and tension de-escalated. A few protesters were arrested, primarily for throwing rocks at police officers.
We still needed to pick up our backpacks at the far end of the campus, so we walked down the main street on the west side of campus. Here, though, we had to pause at a street corner because a guanaco was driving in circles spraying protestors who were pelting it with rocks. Wearing bandanas over their mouths and noses, the protesters would approach the truck, launch their rocks, and run as it turned to spray them.
This went back and forth for a while until a zorrillo showed up. It dropped a tear gas canister out the back of the truck and drove around in circles, dispersing the protestors. After the canister was empty, they returned to throw more rocks, so the zorrillo prepared another canister. They didn’t quite get this one out the back door before it started going off. Small rivulets of smoke curled out the windows and cracks of the truck until it screeched to a halt. All the doors opened and a wall of noxious gas came bellowing out to laughter and jeers.
Some Chileans feel that the more violent aspect of the protest is necessary; otherwise no one would pay attention. Still others are frustrated that in local media coverage, 10 seconds are given to the march, but 10 minutes are devoted to the rock throwing. Education reform has broad support in Chile, but there are many differing opinions on how to attain it.
After we finally left, the ground was littered with rough stones – they looked like small chunks of concrete, and I legitimately have no idea where the protestors got so many of them.
Typically, I try to keep my blog upbeat, but I’m going to oblige myself with a quick complaint because I think it’s reflective of larger issues in Chile. This year was the Fulbright Commission in Chile’s 60th anniversary – a big accomplishment.
The U.S. ambassador to Chile planned a gala in celebration, and with Chile’s robust network of long-haul buses, I had been hoping to attend and perhaps spend a long weekend in Santiago. Concepción is Chile’s second largest city, and the bus ride to Santiago is only six hours. Eventually, I received an invitation for a Wednesday night in Santiago in three weeks.
For those working or studying Monday through Friday (a.k.a., most of us), Wednesday is possibly the most inconvenient day of the week. While I certainly don’t envy the task of trying to pick a date that works for 300 of the big shots of the Chilean educational system, I can’t imagine that this was the only day that worked for everyone.
From my perspective – as someone who could easily take a day or two off to attend – choosing a Wednesday is a clear indication that those from Chile’s regions outside of Santiago weren’t particularly considered.
Santiago is perhaps the epitome of Latin America’s well-documented problem with overly centralized capital cities – nearly 40 percent of the population lives here, the country’s only international airport is here, and practically any sort of countrywide document or government procedure has to first come from Santiago. Highly centralized Latin American systems have been criticized for being inefficient, lacking transparency, and excluding not only minorities and other social groups, but also average citizens living in other areas of the country.
There are some decentralization efforts underway, but the Chileans still have a saying that Santiago es Chile.
*My English translation isn’t exact – I tried to communicate the intent in normal-sounding language. Obviously, the chant sounds better in Spanish.