Columban Father Michael Hoban writes from Chile

chile-riots
Picture from the Columbans In Santiago

We are living a very complex situation in Chile and it is not easy to know what is really happening.  There are all kinds of reports, rumours, and conspiracy theories floating around and going viral on social media, I will try to share the information which can be substantiated. .

The Columban centre house is located near the Parque Bustamente and the Plaza Baquedano where the protests began and then spread throughout the country. Huge numbers of young people have participated in peaceful protests. Some adults also accompany them. During the protests, the young people dance and sing, shout slogans against the police and the government and in general have a good time. (I have gone out on three occasions to mingle with them and try to dialogue without much success). As the majority of the young people leave, there is always a more hardcore group which confronts the police. The police reacts firing tear-gas and rubber bullets. Inevitably, some young people are arrested. Among the general population, there are “cacerolazos” (banging of pots and pans) and honking of horns.

So far, according to reports 18 people have died as a result of the emergency: 11 died in fires while they were looting; two in a motor accident during a protest and five as a result of the use of force by police or the Army. The soldiers who were involved in the deaths of these five people have been detained and will face possible prosecution. The INDH (National Institute for Human Rights) is monitoring the situation and visiting detention centres. Today, they have reported situations of torture which involved holding prisoners for excessively long periods. When the Army detains a person, they must hand the person over to the police when the curfew ends.

THE EVENTS

On October 6, 2019 the government announced an increase of between 10 and 30 pesos of the fares for the Metro (subway system). The Metro is a state owned system with CORFO (governmental organization- Corporación de Fomento) owning 62.75% and the Ministry of Public Finances owning 37.25%. The Metro is the life blood of the city of Santiago. Almost three million people use the Metro system during work days. The fares vary according to the volume of traffic. During peak hours, the tariffs rise and then are lowered when there is less traffic. In general, it is clean and efficient and it was the pride and joy of the city of Santiago. It was run efficiently but had to sustain the bus system which produces huge losses. It is estimated that the bus system costs the state three thousand million pesos to subsidize the bus system. There is a 25% evasion percentage by bus riders.

On October 7, 2019 high school students from the prestigious public school Instituto Nacional began a movement of resistance invading en-mass several subway stations near the school. They evaded paying the transit fare jumping over the turnstiles and entering by whatever means possible. It is important to indicate that the students pay a reduced fare which the government had not increased.

During the year, there have been long periods when the school was “tomada” (taken over by the students). The “tomas” caused huge damage to the school and there were violent episodes of conflict with the Carabineros (police). A small group of masked anarchical students engaged in struggles with the police throwing Molotov cocktails. Recently, they burnt the principle’s office. Gradually, the evasion of spread throughout the Metro system. The violence also increased with the destruction of the turnstiles and entrances to the Metro

On October 18, the decision was taken by the authorities of the Metro to close lines 1,2 and 6.

On October 19, the destruction of the Metro began. There are 136 metro stations belonging to six lines spread out through the city. Over the next few days, 77 metro stations would be damaged. 41 suffered significant damage and 20 were burnt. The Carabineros were not capable of preventing the damage and controlling the city. The destruction of the subway system brought about the collapse of the city. The Cathedral of Valparaíso, was vandalized, social Media did not report it. In Puente Alto where I worked for many years, there have been threats made to destroy Church property.

On October 19, a few minutes after midnight, President Piñera declared a state of emergency and named General Javier Iturraga of the Army to take responsibility for the security of the city. The state of emergency places the army in charge of security and restricts movement of people . General Iturriaga declared curfew on Sunday, October 20. A state of emergency can last for 15 days and be renewed for another 15 days.

There has been widespread looting throughout the city. It has been hard to keep up with all of it. The supermarkets near our parishes have been looted and then burned. That is happening throughout the country. The police and the Army have not been able to stop it.

Public buildings, courts, civil registries also have been burned and looted. It is not always the poor who loot. People show up in cars to carry off televisions, stoves, liquor etc. Yesterday, a bus was stolen and used to crash into a department store and allow looters to enter and steal. In many of the neighbourhoods there are local defence committees protecting property. In a number of instances, the police or the Army have allowed the people to enter supermarkets and loot with the commitment that they will not burn the supermarket!

On Sunday October 20th, President Piñera annulled the fare increase in the Metro.

Today, Wednesday October 23,there was a march of labour unions and tomorrow there is a general strike in the country. In the Congress, the meeting of the House of Deputies had to be suspended because of the altercations between the members of the House.

What has caused this eruption of violence?

The causes are multiple. The fare hike and the massive evasion in the Metro were the sparks that set off the fire. However, there are deeper underlying causes which have been simmering for a long time. The number of people living below the poverty line was reduced significantly but the inequality between those who are better off and the rest of the population grew. Chile is a country where there is huge inequality. The ordinary people live on the periphery of the city of Santiago and often travel four hours a day to get to work and return home. The poor and the working class have more access to material goods but not to decent health care. Education for the poor may have improved slightly but it continues to be substandard. People often wait a year for an operation or to see a specialist. Benefits for the retired and elderly are inadequate. Chronic illnesses can leave families destitute. Pensions do not cover the cost of living. Over the past few years, the demand for a change in the health and pension systems has grown. The cost of living continues to rise while wages remain stable. The promised improvement for the middle class never materialized. The expansion of drug trafficking and delinquency in the “poblaciones” has increased the sense of insecurity and the justice system has proven ineffectual in the prosecution of delinquents.

Among the poor, the working class and much of the middle class there is a deep sense of being abused by the system. There have been multiple corruption scandals involving price fixing by drug companies and food chains. Army and police generals were caught misusing funds for their own advantage and maintaining luxurious life styles.

The Apostolic Administrator of the Archdiocese of Santiago, the Episcopal Conference, the Conference of Religious and the Association for Inter-religious Dialogue have called for the cessation of violence and for a just and peaceful resolution to the conflict. The abuse scandals in the Church have weakened the prophetic voice of the Church and the general population pays little attention to what the hierarchy says. There is little awareness among the people of the huge amount of service which the Church provides to the poor and to the middle class.

Is there a solution for the crisis?

At present, it is hard to know if there is a way out of the present crisis. What is taking place is not a “golpe del estado”. There is still a free press and the rights of citizens are not suspended during a state of emergency. The National Institute for Human Rights is doing its job. But we are a long way from resolving the conflict. There have been a series of high level meetings in the government and with the leaders of a number of political parties including those of the opposition. Last night, President Piñera announced a series of initiatives to resolve some of the demands: increase the basic solidarity pension by 20%; raise the minimum monthly wage to $350.000 pesos (about US$480 dollars); raise the tax from 35% to 40% for those who earn more than eight million pesos; provide insurance for the cost of medicines and reduce the salaries of parliamentarians. These proposals must be approved by the House of deputies and the Senate. In many ways, the present government which is a minority government has been significantly weakened. There are calls for President Piñera to resign while others defend the importance of institutional stability in the country.

Personally, I feel a deep sense of sorrow for what has taken place in the country and I hope that the conflict can be resolved peacefully and the situation of the ordinary citizens of Chile improved. I recently read a quote from St. Augustine: “Hope has two beautiful daughters, anger at the way things are and courage to change them.”

Michael Hoban October 23, 2019