In the USA when an election is over the winner invariably calls the loser and offers their condolence and thanks them for running a good campaign. The losing politicians then go on the air to make their concession speech while the winner follows shortly thereafter. Around the city of Santiago, yesterday, that civility was largely the case except here in the community of Providencia, where tempers are raw and emotions high because the bellicose mayor, Christian Labbé, is a former commander of the secret police, the dreaded DINA, who was also Pinochet’s head of security. When Labbé turns out he is invariably followed by catcalls of “dictator”, “torturer”, and even spat upon by well-dressed women. Even the conservative newspaper “El Mercurio” calls this politician “militant” as if his party affiliation, UDI, were not enough to convey that information.
The sprawling metropolis of Santiago is divided into various communas, each with its own mayor. Providencia is the communa with the most gleeming skyscrapers and international businesses. Up until yesterday it was labelled the most “fascist” electorate in the words of its detractors, its voters having re-elected their mayor four times.
Labbé comes from the ultra right wing political party, UDI. The UDI was founded by Senator Jaime Guzman, a political confidante of Pinochet. Guzman was assassinated in 1991 by left wing militants. This is still a point of contention with Chile’s right wing and Argentina, who refuses to hand over the killers. This year the congress offered up a moment of silence to commemorate the former President Salvador Allende. The assembly fell silent except for one UDI senator who yelled out, calling Allende a coward for taking his own life. The senator was sanctioned for his behavior.
In Chile most political discourse is civil, but tension from all those years of military rule lies just below the surface. Violence can flare up at any time, and it is often scheduled to do so. This year, on September 11, the date on which the junta came to power, hooded youth who had set fires in the streets and wrecked storefronts, killed a policeman. As if that was not cruel enough the youth paraded around the street with the policeman’s riot gear and offered up his helmet as a trophy with surveillance cameras recording the event in its entirety for the whole country to see.
Regarding the campaign itself, in Puente Alto, in the southern reaches of the city, the television news captured the mayhem in microcosm when it filmed vandals from opposing parties tearing down one another’s campaign poster–one of the vandals was sporting a gun. Labbe knew his posters would be a target for the vandals, so he erected them atop a 30 foot steel pylon, high above the reach of the ladders of the most ambitious opposition vandal.
There are those who would seek to mitigate the pain and memory of the long years of rule by dictator. Contemplative men like former President Ricardo Lagos. But the mayor of Providencia, Christian Labbé, is not one of these. Last year he gave a book launching party in the municipal town hall for a memoir which had been written by a retired military commander who had been sentenced to 100 years in prison for human rights abuses. Victims of the regime and demonstrators of all types turned out to hurl epithets at Labbé and those who were in attendance. Violence broke out and the police were called in with their tear gas and water cannons–antiquated means of crowd dispersal whose use was common during the Pinochet years, yet remain very much in use here in Chile, like some kind of sordid and pathetic legacy to the past.
As most people know, for the last couple of years the high school and university students here have taken to the streets in both lawful and unlawful protests to demand improvements in the secondary and university systems. These demonstrations usually turn violent. The high school Lastarria in Providencia has been a scene of many confrontations with the students seizing the school, locking themselves in, and in general shutting down the system. So many school days were lost by students two years ago due to school seizures and protests that many students had to repeat the school year, including one senior who had made a perfect score on the college entrance exams. Here in Providencia 85% of the students who attend the public schools come from outside the community as this wealthy area sends most of its kids to private schools–plus this is a community of middle and upper class older people who have no school age children. Labbé acted unilaterally declaring that the school district would no longer admit students who did not live in the area. This enraged the students yet again the colonel overreached his authority as a judge declared he had not the power to do that.
Students were one of the reasons for Labbé’s demise. Prior to this year everyone in Chile was required to vote or pay a fine. This year voting was made voluntary and a paltry 30% of the people voted except in Providencia where 60% of the people turned out. Some of these voters were students who were able to list the school as their address and then vote in the community’s election.
Having lost the election Labbé told the assembled media, “I am not going to visit the winner and neither am I going to call her for one simple reason: “I have seen hate embodied in this campaign without reason. When hatred prevails, repeating gibberish is not worthy of good leadership.”
The winner, having referred to Labbé earlier in the evening as “dictator”, shot back: “For declarations like this Cristián Labbé lost the election”.
Last night the municipal square was filled with people and cars sounded their horns, both in Providencia and in the neighboring communities of Santiago and Nuñoa, where socialist and other left wing candidates defeated the right wing. In their defeat the right wing pointed out that they still hold a majority of mayor offices across the city of Santiago. The defeated UDI candidate in Santiago, Pablo Zalaquett, stepped aside cordially.