In October of 2019, thousands of Chilean people took to the streets to protest the government. Anger long beneath the surface was triggered by a metro fare hike of 30 pesos ($0.04) in the capital city of Santiago.
30 pesos may not seem much of a fare hike, but Chile’s neo-liberal policies made it into one. The Chilean ‘free-market’ economy is considered a success story in Latin America. Chile ranked highest in the region according to the 2018 United Nations Human Development Index. But this statistic runs parallel to a 2017 UN report finding that 1% of Chile’s population owns 33% of the country’s wealth.
This makes even a marginal fare hike of 30 pesos a plausible breaking point.
Students in Santiago used #EvasionMasiva (#MassEvasion) on social media to call for widespread metro fare evasion. Students jumping over metro station turnstiles were joined by older people when President Piñera (centre-right politician and billionaire businessman) dismissed the turnstile-jumping students as criminals. Soon videos of people inside subway stations were circulated. They were chanting ‘The people united will never be defeated’, a well-known Chilean chant for social change. This chant was especially important for the Chilean people in the 60s and 70s. It was composed into an election theme song for Salvador Allende, Chile’s democratically elected socialist president. Allende was ousted in a military coup led by Augusto Pinochet with the aid of the US government in 1973. During Pinochet’s far-right dictatorship 3,000 were declared dead or missing, and tens of thousands were raped and tortured.
In 2019, Piñera was in power for a second non-consecutive term. Piñera’s response to the protests was reminiscent of the Pinochet regime. Without offering any political solution, he declared a state emergency, sent the military out onto the streets, and imposed curfews in cities. The Chilean people were familiar with the riot police during demonstrations, but this time the military was on the streets beating people up and shooting at them. This reopened historical wounds of the Pinochet regime. While protestors were assaulted, Piñera was spotted and photographed in a posh pizzeria. These photographs circulated widely on social media.
A week after the protests began, almost 3,000 people were detained, a lot of them were minors. Over 200 people lost one or both eyes because of pellet gun shooting, and at least 20 people were killed according to official records. Days after the state emergency was declared, Piñera offered a political solution: to freeze the fare hike and shuffle his cabinet to include centrist ministers.
But the protests were about so much more than the metro fare hike.
Leaderless Rebellion Enabled by Social Media
While the movement in Chile grew, unlike previous protests, there were no clear leaders. The Opposition supported the movement but did not lead it.
The rallying power held by social media enables new social movements to grow leaderless. These movements are characterised by end-to-end encrypted messaging platforms like Telegram, videos, photos, hashtags, memes and slang. Groups on public platforms like Twitter and Facebook allow protestors to voice grievances, crowdsource ideas, and organise themselves.
- Meme Culture and ‘Chilenismos’
Memes and slang on social media help sustain protest culture during times of unrest. ‘Chilenismos’ is the ever-evolving Chilean slang vocabulary that thrives online. After Piñera was spotted at the posh pizzeria during unrest in other parts of Santiago, social media feeds were flooded with tweets calling him ‘El Pizza’. These tweets were accompanied with the trending hashtags of #RenunciaPiñera (#PiñeraResign) and #ChileDespertó (#ChileWokeUp). ‘Chilezuela’ (a mashup of Chile and Venezuela) was first used by the Chilean right-wing to express their ‘fear’ of Chile becoming a ‘poor country under socialism’ like Venezuela. This is especially pointed because Chile has received almost 2,88,000 refugees from Venezuela. Now protestors started to use #Chilezuela ironically, to point out the fragility of Chile’s capitalist economic model.
During this time, an audio of First Lady Cecilia Morel was leaked. She was heard blaming the unrest on an ‘invasión alienígena’ (alien invasion). Immediately protestors started making memes and dressing up as aliens.
- The Revolution Won’t Be Televised
On 23 October, as a TV news reporter attempted to interview protestors in Santiago, one of them looked at the camera and said “Turn off your televisions, the media lie! Get your information from social media!”
When it is the government being protested against, social media often becomes the most trustworthy source of information. Most mainstream news channels and newspapers are directly or indirectly affiliated with the government, and as a result, do not show the on-ground reality. This gap in media coverage is filled by widely circulated video evidence recorded by people at protest sites. During the Chilean protests, videos of police officers vandalising property, setting fires, and encouraging looting were widely circulated on social media. While most mainstream news coverage focussed on portraying an ‘all is well’ image, videos shared on social media helped raise awareness on the international front.
- Social Media as a Memory Archive
In times of unrest, public feeds on Facebook and Instagram are often filled with messages of ‘peace’, ‘unity’, and ‘hope’. Content shared privately to international peers, however, is almost always videos of state-sanctioned violence and destruction. This indicates a need to preserve memory. Distrust in the government and the short shelf-life of viral content on social media creates this need to preserve. During the Chile protests, Nell Haynes and Baird Campbell -two American academics- received videos of destruction and violence privately from their academic peers in Chile. These media were accompanied by messages along the lines of ‘save this, because it’s being erased’. Archiving shared memories of protests is a measure taken by the Chilean people to avoid a recurrence of what happened in the Pinochet regime: documentary erasure of the violence against the Chilean people, by the government.
Social media, while essential to protestors, is equally potent in the spread of misinformation and propaganda. At the peak of protests in Chile, photos of police officers putting down their weapons to hug protestors, and other reconciliatory acts emerged on social media. Immediately activists launched an online campaign encouraging the public to not let such photo-ops fool them. They dismissed the photos as an obvious image re-building exercise by the Chilean government to show the international community that everything was ‘okay’.
‘Ni perdón, ni olvido’ (neither forgive, nor forget) remains an important chant in Chilean history from the Pinochet regime. But memory is fickle and easily corrupted. Social media offers an alternative, one that is less vulnerable to obliteration and corruption, and through which the people construct their narrative.
No single cause unites the protestors in Chile. But the most resounding demand amongst them is to rewrite their Pinochet-era constitution.
“One protester might be banging their pots because of pensions, another because of student debt, and yet another because they just can’t take it anymore. We each have real complaints. If you target the message correctly, you can gather all those complaints into one cause or movement,” said Robert Funk, a political scientist at the University of Chile, in a Financial Times feature.
These intersections of class, identity and socio-economic position were demonstrated in a 2-day nationwide feminist strike action, starting on the Sunday of International Women’s Day (IWD) this year. The IWD strike action built on the social unrest of October that went on for four months. It was especially relevant as Chile prepared to vote on a historic referendum of changing their Pinochet-era constitution in April.
IWD protestors performed ‘A Rapist in your Path’ outside the Presidential Palace. The song was written and performed first by Chilean activist group ‘Las Tesis’, and has since gone viral all over the world. Every time the song performance closed, protestors pointed at the Presidential Palace and shouted ‘Piñera Murderer’.
The lyrics and choreography of the song point out the patterns of sexual violence perpetrated by the Carabineros Police Force (Chilean National Police Force). These patterns have persisted in the October protests with the National Human Rights Institution (an autonomous state institution) taking action in 112 sexual violence cases, of which most perpetrators are Carabineros Police Officers. During the IWD protests, the police fired tear gas and sprayed water hoses at the protestors, who were prepared with gas masks, and even slingshots.
In January, when an assembly of women and non-binary people met to co-ordinate the actions and demands of the IWD protests, the top priorities were an end to political persecution and state repression.
Four days before the Sunday of IWD, both levels of Chile’s bicameral Congress passed a bill that established the protocol of equal representation for men and women in a possible Constitutional Assembly. The Bill would be applicable if Chile voted to change the Pinochet-era Constitution in the April referendum. Pushed from April to October due to COVID-19, 78% of Chileans who voted in the referendum, did so in favour of changing the Pinochet-era Constitution. From April of next year, a 155 member Constitutional Assembly -with an equal number of men and women- will draft the new Chilean Constitution by 2022. The Chilean people will then vote once again, this time to either approve or reject the draft.
- Alex Ward, 2020, Chileans want a more equal society. They’re about to rewrite their constitution to have it.
- Benedict Mander, 2019, Leaderless rebellion: how social media enables global protests
- Chris McGowan, 2020, ‘Our role is central’: more than 1m Chilean women to march in huge protest
- Fundación SOL, 2019, http://www.fundacionsol.cl/estudios/losverdaderos-salarios-de-chile-2018/
- Jaime Grijalba, 2019, The War Over Images in Chile
- Margaret Tucker, 2019, Chile protests’ revolutionary social media slang: a guide.
- Mark Johanson, 2019, How a 4-cent metro fare price hike sparked massive unrest in Chile
- Nell Haynes and Baird Campbell, 2019, Before They Erase It: Memory and the social media archive | Platypus
- Rocio Cara Labrador, 2019, Where Do Venezuelan Migrants Go?
- Sandra Cuffe, 2020, Feminist groups hold mass Women’s Day marches across Chile
- Sarah Jones, 2019, What the Hell Is Going on in Chile? A Protester Explains.