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May Day, Chile

1 May

Thousands of workers, students, families, immigrant rights, artists, indigenous and families march in Santiago as the ‘Día del Trabajador’ ends in violent confrontations.

 

The varying factions of social discontent in Chile converged in the streets of the capital on Tuesday, May 1st, in a march convened by the country’s Central Workers Union (CUT).

Starting from Estación Central at 11:00 a.m. and culminating at the intersection with Avenida Brasil, the march was characterized by a relaxed family atmosphere and comparatively light police presence.

The column passed down Santiago’s central artillery, La Alameda Bernardo O´Higgins, broken into social movements, human rights groups and workers organizations.

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Early on the march was festive, with indigenous dancers from Chile’s northern Altiplano region bringing colour and music to the red flags of the socialists and communists, black standards of the anarchists, and workers’ chants.

Though the number of marchers was not insignificant, it did not achieve the turnout of some of last year’s student and environmental protests.

Carabineros cited a figure of 8,000 while the CUT claimed that, from the march’s beginning until its chaotic final scenes, up to 100,000 participated.

This kind of discrepancy is standard at Chilean protests, though for once, I would hazard that police figures, while undoubtedly an underestimation, were closer to the mark.

An explanation for the lower turnout could have something to do with widespread ambivalence to Chile’s political institutions, including those of the left and the “people.”

I ran into one Chilean workmate who was marched with her family, but assured me she had no intention of listening to the “mafiosos” of the CUT soap-boxing at the culmination of the event.

That culmination included a speech by CUT president Arturo Martínez, who called for improvements to labour laws, public health, an end to profiteering in education, a state run pension system, and an increased minimum wage.

“We need a real minimum wage,” Martínez told the crowd, “we want to say to the Government and the Parliament that the minimum wage this year should be CLP250,000 (US$518) [per month], and we’ll go from there.”

A band followed up the speech, but even as the upbeat rhythm of cumbia filled the street, just metres away a different pack formed as masked encapuchados clashed with riot police, set fire to a bank and private university and were bombarded with tear gas and water cannons.

“That’s just the way these things go at big events in Chile,” one demonstrator told me.

After talking a few snaps of the violence I walked away, having already seen these scenes plenty of times before, and sure that they would be amply covered by local press.

Just blocks away from the smoke and panicked crowds, my friend Rodrigo and I were struck by how peaceful things were. Kids were kicking a football around, parents played with there children in parks. The area of Santiago is full of traditional houses, bars and street murals.

Then I walked into one of the only stores open and saw the live footage of “rioting” in the streets, images that are sure to fill the front pages of tomorrow’s papers.

I guess it’s just the way things work.

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Massive Marches on Second Day of National Strike

25 Aug

Enthusiastic crowds give the second day of el paro the feel of a street party, although the day was marred by familiar scenes of vandalism and confrontation between Carabineros and violent minorities. 

Upwards of 600,000 people took to the streets across the nation with 300,000 of them in Santiago, according to CUT figures, Chile’s central workers union. In contrast Government spokesman Rodrigo Ubilla put the numbers at 175,000 nationally and 50,000 in the capital.

Obviously both parties have a vested interest in exaggerating the figures one way or the other and with few other sources from which to gauge the amount of people at the marches its hard to give them a definitive number.  But for those who were there, one adjective comes easily to mind – massive. There is no doubt in my mind that 100,000 people- at a bare minimum – marched on la Alameda, the capitals main artillery.

The marches marked the final day of a two day strike – called for by CUT – in solidarity with the student movement and to protest for industrial relations and constitutional reform and the creation of a “new economic model.”

In the capital 4 main marches took place at 10 in the morning from different points of the city’s downtown, with all of them converging on la Alameda. They were given last minute approval by governor Cecilia Perez, although they were not allowed to march down Alameda itself, as originally planned. Organizers consented to this proviso.

Smaller marches took place at various points on the cities outskirts.

Diverse and Enthusiastic Crowd

The crowd was distinguished from previous marches by its diversity. Union groups swelled student numbers and mixed with protesters of a variety of causes including public transport and health reform, indigenous recognition and animal rights. People of all ages were present.

Like many previous marches the event had a festive vibe. People dressed up and groups preformed choreographed dances and musical and theatrical performances.

As the marches wound there way through the streets of downtown some waved flags, held up banners and threw confetti from the balconies of their apartments. Maids cheered on the marchers by beating on pots and pans of the apartments they were cleaning with wooden spoons, a symbolic form of protest – called a cacerolazo – that has its roots in the period of the dictatorship.

Those who were at work watched on from their offices – many cheering or taking photos – while store owners and security guards looked on warily.

PHOTOS OF THE MARCH

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Things Heat Up

Though the march had the atmosphere of a street party, it was carefree and without incidents of violence. However when the four marches merged at la Alameda, the intensity was ratcheted up. Several police helicopters flew low over the crowd, drawing jeers and chants from the crowd.

Scenes of Violence

After a few hours – as the crowd was dispersing – small groups of encapuchados started to light fires and tear down street signs. Instantly the crowd tried to prevent any damage, by forming mobs around the perpetrators. Some tried to dissuade them, while others chanted abuse.

When this failed to dissuade them, the crowd began throwing lemons and bottles. Violence ensued when the encapuchados started attacking people who tried to stop them. At this stage there were no Carabineros at the scene to prevent violence, nor news crews to report the confrontation.

After 15:00, with the majority of the crowd gone, Carabineros moved into la Alameda to remove the violent minority that remained. They used the familiar techniques of tear gas, water cannons, dogs and batons.

Cacerolazo Ends el Paro

The two day strike was drawn to a conclusion with cacerolazos in plazas and street corners all of the city. In Plaza Ñuñoa –  an affluent inner city  barrio – hundreds gathered at 8 p.m. and took over the street. The sounds of them beating pots and pans mixed with drums and car horns reverberated throughout the streets of the barrio.

Plaza Ñuñoa Caceroloa: Photograph Courtesy of Oscar Pesce.

The atmosphere was relaxed and police presence minimal. Ages were even more varied then at the marches and costumes and puppets gave the plaza – known for its many pubs – the feel of a party.

However even in Ñuñoa – a 20 minute drive from where the protestors gathered on la Moneda – I could faintly taste the acrid sting of teargas in the air. “All of Santiago is probably a little spicy tonight,” said Sitio Quiltro photographer Oscar Pesce.

Country Paralyzed as Unions Join Movement

24 Aug

Unions launch two days of national strikes to demand better working conditions and show solidarity with students.

Another cacerolazo last night marked the beginning of a two day paro which could shut down Chile’s public transport system,  ports and airports, energy, health and public services.

Central Workers Union (CUT) President, Arturo Martínez said in a press conference yesterday that it would be a strike that “will express the demands of all sectors of society for the respect of social and civil rights and will reiterate the need for a new economic model, a new constitutional policy and a new labor code in this country.”

The CUT also said the strikes were to support improving public health care, environmental regulation, tax reform and free public education.

Unions are urging people to stay at home and to avoid using transport, sending children to school and other tasks.

However, according to a report by The Clinic, the government has sent out a letter to all senior ministers and heads of public departments urging them to note all absences, to make regular checks of offices and interrogate people who are absent for more then 10 minutes.

President Piñera has publicly criticized the strikes, saying the intention is to “cause harm to Chile.”

In contrast Concertación – the centre left coalition which governed Chile from the end of the dictatorship in 1990 until the last election in 2010 – has publicly supported the unions.

The stikes are set to continue until tomorrow night, when another cacerolazo will signal their end – for now.