Democracy and Machismo


Plaza de Armas

I’ve never been caught by tear gas before imagine being shoved, face down, in a tub of wasabi.

I had also never understood that the effects of tear gas begin, and are worst, in the nose not the eyes.

We’d just left the train at Plaza de Armas, under the central square in the very efficient Santiago metro system. It wasn’t until our noses were streaming as much as the local noses that we realised what was going on. Most people around us simply changed direction some back to the metro and others to another exit without seeming to be concerned at all. I guess that when you’ve lived through a dictatorship, you don’t let a little tear gas spoil your day.

For days we watched the media reports of Chilean students protesting against a raft of proposals put forward by the Education Minister, Martic Zilic, and the three-month-old Chilean Government led by Michelle Bachelet. The students are young, some of university age, many only high school age. The police, dressed in khaki and sporting helmets and shields, were shown dragging students by hair or backpack into waiting reinforced vehicles. There was footage of tanks using water canons to disperse students. Protestors were shown dragging furniture from buildings, throwing rocks at the armed authorities, and running.

Today, rather strartlingly, we saw for ourselves: teams of police or soldiers armed with large plastic shields and batons on many corners. They seemed to be waiting for some signal. Suddenly, some boys began running. They darted here and there, down this street and that. The authorities, en masse, moved out in pursuit of them. It appeared to be a pincer movement steering some of the protesters towards more police.

Looking down the road, we could see a fountain of water stream from a tank, too far away to say what it was aimed at. A cloud of white gas erupted from the mall across the road. The air grew more poisonous and we decided our hotel room was a better place to be.

Drama students from the University of Chile
during the National Student Strike

Among the controversial proposals put forward by the Government is full-day schooling. Among the proposals put by the student representatives are free university entrance exams, and free bus transport to and from schools and university. Schools, which have seen enormous increases in enrolments due to recent and immediate successes of Government policy, are physically reeling from increases in attendance and need major improvements.

There are not enough toilets or classrooms, say students, and most of the buildings need serious maintenance. And, they say, they will not accept full-day school attendance. Currently the seniors attend in the morning, the juniors in the afternoon. ‘There are no facilities to cook,’ the students say. ‘There are no tables to eat on. And in a school of, say, 800, there may be two microwaves.’

The protesters have received support from parents, teachers and, it seems, the population in general. Admiration for the nation-wide organisation and solidarity of the students is widespread. There have been suggestions in the weekly English language newspaper, News Review, that private-school students will join the protests, in solidarity with their government-school peers. People drop coins into the collection tins wielded by young people on street corners across the city.

There is evidence of the protests throughout Santiago. Buildings, mostly schools and universities, are draped with signs made from sheets. Placards (that look suspiciously like they’re made from desks) lean on fences.

‘This is not democracy!’ students have said to us in English as we pass by. Most of the students are too young to remember the dictatorships of Chile’s past, but the notion of democracy appears deeply embedded in their expectations.

Older folk we have spoken with are quick to remember the heavy hand of the military during Pinochet’s regime. Many, too, are quick to criticise Bachelet. Others cite the hypocrisy of her male colleagues who, they recognise, have undermined her. ‘Chile is a nation of machismos,’ said our Spanish teacher, Alberto, in a rare moment of national criticism.

Not all the protest action, however, has been met with force. A few days ago we were in the seaside town of Viña Del Mar. People were busy watching Roger Federer play the local Chilean, Nicolas Massu, in the French Open. Whistles and chanting began to waft inside and soon we spotted two police clearing the road for a student protest. The protesters were a colourful group, laughing and dancing, beating drums and waving placards. The marchers were chanting and I know this from the rhythm of the chant rather than Alberto’s teaching prowess ‘The people, united, will never be defeated.’

The internet cafe in downtown Santiago that I write from is close to the action and one of the few businesses open in the area. In order to enter the cavernous Italian restaurant we found open for dinner, we had to duck under a security grille they had pulled down over the door. Bars and shutters cover the windows. At least it’s open, we thought even the McDonald’s locked its doors around noon.

It is quiet now, around 10:00pm. Most of the students and police have gone home. The aftermath is still evident, though. My eyes prickle each time the door opens. My nose still runs from the remaining traces of tear gas. The people around me blow their noses often, blinking their eyes.

I sit and write and wonder about the situation – and who is making it worse.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.