Reclaiming and protecting Chile’s public spaces

 

One striking constant in the nationwide Chilean protests calling for an end to the neoliberal politics plaguing the country since the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship is the unity between Chileans and the indigenous Mapuche population. It was the Mapuche activists who started purging Chilean public spaces of colonial legacies, toppling down monuments and statues glorifying the colonisers and making a statement about the recognition of their communities’ memory, massacres and persecution. 

A demonstrator waves a Chilean flag atop a monument (Getty images/Marcelo Hernandez)

A minority of Chileans deemed the acts of reclaiming public spaces as vandalism and a loss of heritage. For the Mapuche people, as well as Chileans, the tearing down of colonial and military relics is a statement reflecting the determination to take an active part in the memory process of Chile. It is time, in other words, for the narrative of the oppressed to come from oppressed voices.

Across Chile, there are several reminders of the Pinochet dictatorship. In military institutions, monuments and photos of Manuel Contreras, Head of the National Intelligence Directorate during the Pinochet dictatorship, remain in place. Human rights organisations petitioned the Chilean courts for their removal and the military appealed the court’s decision, stating their inclusion is only to preserve the military’s historical records. 

Since the start of the protests in 2019, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera attempted to describe the protests as acts of vandalism, following the initial protests in Santiago over an increase in bus fares — the trigger for a nation wide call to rise up against Pinera and neoliberalism in Chile. 

In the context of the Chilean protests, the word vandalism has been appropriated by the right wing. The term has been used to demean the unified call for an equal and inclusive Chilean society. In Chile, democracy operates on dictatorship narratives, reflecting decades of government ineptitude and unwillingness since the transition to break away from Pinochet’s legacy.

However, recent acts of vandalism, which have resulted in a loss for Chilean collective memory, have escaped right wing scrutiny. In February this year, the Violeta Parra Museum in Santiago was targeted twice in an arson attack and the premises vandalised on the outside. In Punta Arenas, a human rights memory site was also the target of an arson attack. A few days later, the monument commemorating the execution of Chilean political prisoners of Magallanes, in the municipal cemetery, was vandalised with yellow paint, indicating right wing provocation and involvement in the destruction of Chilean memory. 

 

'Indeed, military violence and the attacks on Chilean sites of memory have become the norm, even as the country gears towards the very possibility of rewriting the constitution. At this moment, the preservation of Chilean memory and the geophysical sites is more important than ever.'

 

The targeting of Chilean memory sites is taking place as the campaign for Chile’s constitution takes off. The referendum will take place on the 26th of April. Changing the Pinochet era constitution has been a prime demand across Chile. The referendum campaign, however, is not perceived as an alternative to the protests, which Chileans have vowed to continue until their demands are met. 

Since the protests started, the Chilean government has attempted to isolate the masses’ demands into separate issues. This tactic has enabled Pinera to justify his decision to impose military curfews and violence upon the population. The restoration of ‘order’ in public spaces has been the government’s preferred rhetoric to describe the demonstrations. ‘The country urgently needs a grand national agreement against violence and in defence of democracy,’ Pinera declared. Pinera’s popularity rating has recently plummeted to just 6 per cent; the lowest ever rating since Chile transitioned into democracy. 

The Chilean government has not denounced military violence against the Chilean people, who have been subjected to dictatorship tactics of arbitrary arrests in multitudes and suffered human rights violations including sexual violence and beatings. Over 400 Chileans have suffered ocular damage as a result of the military shooting rubber bullets directly at protestors’ faces. There have also been cases of disappearances and killings of activists covering the protests. 

Indeed, military violence and the attacks on Chilean sites of memory have become the norm, even as the country gears towards the very possibility of rewriting the constitution. At this moment, the preservation of Chilean memory and the geophysical sites is more important than ever. The dictatorship history, along with the history created since the transition to democracy onwards, reinforced the importance of remembrance. Chileans have been betrayed by right wing and centre left governments since the fall of Pinochet, each contributing to the consolidation of a repressive constitution to retain control over people and memory.

A new constitution and an inclusive society will require the revisiting past human rights violations. Dictatorship oblivion has transitioned into the democratic period and as national mobilisation grows, its opposition to Chileans’ reclamation of memory will intensify. Toppling the statues of former colonisers is not vandalism; it is a means of reclaiming public space and the narratives of the oppressed. Torching sites of memory, on the other hand, is an act of violence that seeks to remove Chilean trauma. The government’s penchant for blurring the distinctions between both actions must be called out to reinforce Salvador Allende’s statement, ‘History is ours, and it is made by the people.’

 

 

Ramona WadiRamona Wadi is a freelance journalist, book reviewer and blogger. Her writing covers a range of themes in relation to Palestine, Chile and Latin America.

Main image: A demonstrator waves a Chilean flag atop a monument (Getty images/Marcelo Hernandez)

Topic tags: Ramona Wadi, Chile, Salvador Allende, Pinochet

 

 

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