Chile Culture — 10 June 2011

There is a debate underway here whether to build dams in Patagonia to provide electricity.  The government has voted in favor of the plan but the citizens have not stopped their opposition.  In the USA if one was opposed to such a project it could be delayed almost indefinitely by engaging lawyers and more layers of lawyers to navigate the maze of environmental impact studies, law suits, counter suits, municipal codes, county regulations, state regulations and of course federal statutes.  But here in Chile the preferred way is to take to the streets.

Yesterday, as they do seemingly everyday, students filled the streets here in central Santiago in the Plaza de Armas.  The formed a parade chanting, banging drums, handing out leaflets, and carrying banners demanding that the government do more to pay the cost of higher education.

Sometimes–in fact often–these demonstrations turn violent.  One might think there are persons among the otherwise peaceful crowd who long to foment rebellion and street warfare.  That is the opinion of the minister of education.  

A few weeks ago one protester at an environmental rally smashed a policeman in the face with his skateboard breaking the bones around the man’s eye.  The whole affair was captured by security cameras and broadcast on TV,  One would have to ask whether that misspent youth is more intent on environmental protection or just doing harm.  As the unruly mob turns vicious the police fight back firing teargas and firing water cannons.

Days later a teenage girl was hit viciously by a tear gas canister which is of course launched with the force of a rocket propelled grenade.  In the aftermath the girl was bleeding and lying on the street–the government declared a moratorium on using tear gas.  But not because of the girl.  They discussed for several days whether tear gas might be bad for one’s health including the police who fire it.  Deemed to be safe by the medical apparatus tear gas again rains down on the population.

One wonders what might happened if the police simply did not show up.  Protesters here are required to purchase a permit.  So the police know when they will occur and they are widely anticipated by the television and news.  The mob left to its own devices might tear down street signs and rips open store fronts but does the presence of the police make them more hostile?

I do not understand this confrontational stature.  Camilla Vallejo, the leader of the student’s organization here, is a brunette beauty with an ear ring piercing her otherwise middle class nose.  She looks like an ordinary young woman who might be working as an account manager for a bank.  But she looks angry on television, leading a mob in the streets, and having demanded and then secured a meeting with the education minister did she look pleased?  No, she looked angry anew.  (Today the conservative newspaper “El Mercurio” took delight in pointing out that her parents were militant communist party activists and that the child was following in the footsteps of the parents.)  

Certain cultures have the tendency to protest and make noise in hopes of changing government policy.  France for one is famous for blocking its streets with long lines of tractors and angry farmers.  But in the USA there are seldom protests.  However in Berkeley, California–which of course has its own private history of mass shows of demonstration–students took to the streets this year to complain about the rising price of tuition in the University of California system.  (Aside:  The price in California had been raised from about $5,000 per year to $8,000 per year which is bargain considering that it costs far more in other states.  But that $5,000 price is about what it costs to go to the university here in Chile.)

Instead when one wants to change government policy in the USA you lobbying and raise funds to fund said lobbying.  I myself have joined the lobbyists in the state house in Virginia lobbying on behalf of winegrowers there.  The halls were filled with citizens private and paid peddlers working for the AARP (retired persons), NRA (gun owners), and other organizations. The politicians see them one at a time but the system is skewed in favor of those who can give money.  Because the politicans needs to be elected and because elections cost money the well-heeled teachers union, corporations, and others get the ear of the government and the ordinary man is shut out unless he masses in sufficient numbers.

I am not sure if there is political fundraising or lobbying of this sort in Chile.  When I ask my friends why don’t the students just go visit their senators they respond–at least in the case of the electric power industry–that the senators are the stock holders of the power company.  There is much of that sentiment of “them” against “us” with the impression that there is an oligarchy in power that heeds to no (small) man.  Whether that is true remains to be seen or understood at least by me so stay tuned and I will provide you my perspective on that.

Addendum:  Background on the student protests is posted here.  


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