Monday, October 21, 2019

Chaos in Chile?

In 1978, when I first traveled to Chile—then under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte—there was an 11 p.m. curfew in the capital city of Santiago. That put a dent in the city’s commerce and nightlife—though young people adapted with parties that lasted until dawn—and, of course, its political life. Not so widespread in the provinces, the curfews gradually gave way and, since the return to democracy in 1990, Santiago’s been a 24-hour city.
Chile's capital as seen from the hills of Parque Metropolitano
Or at least until last Friday, when all hell broke loose in apparent response to a relatively modest increase in Metro subway fares. Starting as a social-media encouragement of fare evasion, it escalated into a wider disorder that involved arson, looting and then declaration of a state of emergency by President Sebastián PiñeraAccording to Guardian correspondent John Bartlett (a personal acquaintance of mine), “[T]he headquarters of Italian energy company Enel were engulfed in orange flames as the sounds of helicopters and wailing sirens filled the night sky.”
President Piñera's initial statement on the events in Santiago.
In truth, the discontent is far more than just transport fares, as many if not most Chileans have struggled with dictatorship’s legacy of hyper-privatization on issues like health-care and old-age pensions, even as the country has become—on paper at least—the continent’s most prosperous on a per capita basis. Income distribution, though, is wildly skewed in favor of the very wealthiest—many of them in Piñera’s cabinet.
This stenciled mural in the borough of Quinta Normal suggests the inequalities of contemporary Chile.
Certainly there was need to restore order, but the tone-deaf Piñera made it worse by stating, publicly, that “We are at war...” and sending troops and tanks into the streets. That evoked unwelcome memories of the Pinochet years, even though Piñera himself supported the plebiscite vote that ended the dictatorship in 1990. Speaking more diplomatically, the general in charge of security in Santiago seemed to contradict him in saying that “I’m not at war with anyone.”

Santiaguino friends with whom I’ve been in contact have offered useful perspective on this. Marializ Maldonado, who lives in the working-class borough of Renca, wrote me on Saturday that “We were in the Plaza de Renca, with lots of protestors everywhere. Incredible and unexpected. After a group tried to loot a supermarket, [the authorities] dispersed us with tear gas.” She then went home.

Martín Maldonado (no relation to Marializ), who lives in the middle- to upper-middle class borough of Ñuñoa and teaches at the Universidad de Santiago, forwarded me a brief video of a peaceful cacerolazo (pot-banging protest) there. He suggested that there are two separate issues: One is “a movement that rejects economic policies and claims in favor of health, utilities, salaries and transport.” There’s an incisive analysis of these issues by political scientist Patricio Navia in Americas Quarterly.
Curfews have expanded beyond Santiago.
On the other hand, says Martín, “there’s a covert movement that loots supermarkets, shops, public buildings, buses and the Metro, and then burns them.” The university is closed until at least Wednesday, and the curfew now extends from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. According to the Metro de Santiago website, the city’s subway system has suffered some US$200 million in damages.

Friends outside Santiago tell similar stories. Christián Guntert, a German who teaches at the Universidad Católica in Valparaíso, was returning from a field trip with ecotourism students when he found the roads blocked with burning tires and had to walk into town. There he saw burning shops in the commercial downtown, with firemen and policemen attempting to restore order. Todd Temkin, an American who’s lived nearly 30 years in Valpo and Viña del Mar, said “they burned a couple of supermarkets, a car dealership, and the Cathedral. Lots of looting. Also quite a bit of looting in downtown Viña.” He was, he told me, “heartbroken.”

The Impact on Tourism?
Curfews are expanding to other cities, but I did find one exception to the chaos. Andreas La Rosé, a German who operates the Casa Azul guesthouse in tourist-friendly Puerto Varas, said “Everything is calm, just all supermarkets are closed.” Prosperous Varas may have been spared the destruction, at least to this point, but he worries about how this might affect the upcoming tourist season.

Chilean operators, of course, are hoping against hope that everything remains calm, but there’s certainly concern. While attractions like Torres del Paine are likely to remain so, getting to them through the capital and larger regional cities like Punta Arenas could be problematic. This is a matter that’s likely to come up tomorrow (Tuesday the 22nd), as I attend AdventureConnect San Francisco, an event where many operators from the Magallanes region will be present. I already know several of them, and I’m hoping they’ll be candid about the upcoming season.
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