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.
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.