By Eilidh McEwan
Chile’s earthquakes were not the only shattering revelation the country and its people had in store for this Scottish traveller to the long and thin country.
Until the earthquake on Friday the 4th of November, my experience of Santiago, the Chilean capital, was fairly typical of the gringo experience; I downed terremoto cocktails in Bellavista, hiked amidst the stunning snow-flecked mountainous vistas of Cajon del Maipo and danced, if falteringly, through the intricate steps of La Cueca in the city’s dancehalls till the early hours. On Friday afternoon, as I was working on my computer, I looked up at a tremendous bang and the bizarre sensation of my chair shaking below me as my flatmates´ house plant, named terremoto, tumbled off the bookshelf. Rushing to the window and looking out over my balcony on the 17th floor, I saw everyone walking about, continuing with their daily business in the street below, as skyscrapers wavered and shook around them. The earthquake only measured 6.1 on the Richter scale, a level that caused devastation in Italy recently, but is only called a mere temblor by Chilenos – tremor in English. However, the experience of the earthquake was followed by a second shattering of perspective as I walked to La Moneda; my previous views of Latin America and the nature of democracy here realigned; my frames of reference suddenly shifted.
The aim of many tourists in South America might be to get off the gringo circuit, and to experience new cultures, but my eyes were opened in a way not quite expected at Friday’s vast protests against the Chileno pension system (AFP), a relict of the Pinochet regime. The AFP system, which removed the requirement for governments and employers to contribute to citizen pensions was first introduced by Jose Pinera in 1981 to replace the publicly funded Caja de Provisiones. My experience of the protests at La Moneda, Santiago reaffirmed the neccessity of fighting for the right to assemble, for free speech and for basic democratic tenets: chiefly that people should have the right to assemble peacefully without fear of police violence. Within historical contexts, I’m aware that democratic rights have improved drastically since 1988, but at the same time, suppression of the democratic right to assemble through both overt and covert means is on the rise worldwide.
I’d heard there was going to be a workers´ strike on Friday to protest the notoriously low pension provision of the AFP system. Therefore the sight of protestors along Bernardo O Higgins, the main thoroughfare next to the seat of Parliament in La Moneda palace, was not entirely unexpected. However, I was surprised to see soldiers standing in formation at the other side of the thoroughfare, and to see two massive green army tanks, squatting like massive, impenetrable, shielded turtles in the street.
Before I descended the stairs to the metro I took a few pictures of the tanks and soldiers, pointing my camera through clouds of smoke from the litter burning on the road. As I descended the stairs, I saw the metro gates were shut. Strange, I thought. A man next to me, who was shaking his head, introduced himself to me as a tourist from Columbia. “Muy linda”, he told me, a greeting I’ve grown used to as a woman in maschismo South America. As I walked back up the stairs, eyes lost gazing at my mobile phone screen, I saw the crowd of protestors across the street hadn’t moved. Contrary to what media outlets reported here in Chile, the protestors outside the presidential palace were assembled peacefully. However, the tanks started moving forward spraying water and people began to run. Tear gas floated across the street and I felt the burning agony, as my eyes shut and the nerves began to sting. I stumbled away from the protest site, an anger beginning to alight in me at the use of tear gas, at such blatant suppression of peoples’ rights, when the crowds were assembled peacefully and protesting for better pensions.
I walked away down a side street and turned into a corner bar, where a woman gave me lemon to help with the stinging. I spoke to a blind man who was there too, with his guide, his eyes discoloured blue, rubbing frantically at his eyes. His pole, red and white, clattered to the floor. “It’s been a long time, this AFP,” he told me. “A fight for decades against privatisation.” As the birthplace of neoliberalism, where theories of the Chicago School were implemented, the experience of Chileans protesting against economic inequality and for basic workers’ rights has a long history. Likewise, the experience of military violence, from the brutality of the regime of dictator Pinochet to more recent protests by Chile’s citizens should focus the eyes of the foreigner, should signpost one of the most central discoveries of the traveller in a new land: the stories and histories of its people.
Though most travellers might voyage through Latin America to witness its stunning landscapes, taste its deliciously prepared foods and beverages and learn the incredible arts of their dances, and while I felt the terrifying experience of my first earthquake in the morning, what I witnessed by the close of the afternoon was an experience I feel obligated to share. In the middle of exploring stunning tropical jungles, of joyous dancing and sunbathing on Chile’s stunning beaches, enjoying drinks such as the national pisco sour or climbing in the jaw-dropping Andes, we should also take a small moment as foreign travellers to remember the ongoing struggle of its citizens for a fairer world. In witnessing the struggle for democratic rights here in Santiago, through eyelids forced shut by my first stinging experience of tear gas, I reflect that perhaps its time we travellers acknowledge the importance of a new dance of more mindful travel, of learning more deeply about the histories of struggles of the cultures through which we pass and of respecting the ongoing struggle for democratic rights against a world that is witnessing ever-increasing militarisation: a vivacious struggle that remains very raw and real here in the Americas.