• May 07, 2024
  • 6 minutes

Evading, not paying, another way to fight

Juan Pablo Vásquez Bustamante

In October 2019, Chile experienced the largest series of protests and social mobilizations since the civilian-military dictatorship of Pinochet. It was a social outbreak that led to weeks of popular uprising strongly questioning the political regime and the economic model. Faced with this deep crisis, and after nearly a month of intense presence of the people in the streets, the majority of different political sectors with parliamentary representation agreed to call for a consultative plebiscite regarding a constituent process to draft a new constitution. This new charter would be developed with citizen participation, as a result of a process driven by the people, replacing the constitution inherited from the dictatorship. However, this agreement was also critically interpreted as an institutional response to calm the intensity of the protests, maintain political order, and thereby support the government.

This article focuses on two fundamental milestones of this process. Firstly, the nonviolent boycott by high school students, consisting of organized and mass fare evasion on the metro for several days in response to a fare increase imposed by the government. This served as a trigger that deeply questioned Chilean society and fueled the social outbreak and popular uprising. Secondly, the march on October 25, known as the Largest March in Chile, gathered over a million people in downtown Santiago, constituting a nonviolent response to the curfew, the declared state of emergency, and the former President Sebastián Piñera’s declaration of war.

While the social outbreak and popular uprising raised structural questions involving society as a whole, its initial milestone seemed to transit as a sectoral conflict stemming from a specific economic demand. For over a week, hundreds of high school students from different schools in Santiago carried out a boycott, mass evading metro fares by jumping turnstiles at subway stations in response to a government-imposed 30-peso fare increase.

In response to this context, authorities attempted to downplay the situation publicly. Later, with the increase in fare evasion, former President Piñera deployed police forces to suppress the students. On Friday, October 18, certain metro stations were surrounded by heavily armed special police forces to contain a nonviolent action—the fare evasion—carried out by youths aged between 14 and 18.

In this context, the government ordered the closure of certain metro stations, causing chaos in the city—significant crowds gathered around the stations. Meanwhile, the police continued to repress the students who persisted in jumping turnstiles at still-operational stations. On the afternoon of October 18, 2019, a police bullet struck the leg of a student in school uniform. The image quickly went viral. The public responded by taking to the streets. The government ordered the closure of the entire metro network. Within hours, some stations suffered fires inside. Authorities blamed the protesters; however, as of the publication of this text, the perpetrators are still unknown.

Within hours, the demand to reverse the fare increase and end police repression turned into the takeover of streets and squares, looting supermarkets, and pharmacies. Fare evasion on the metro became a social outbreak that spread throughout Chile. The government responded by declaring curfew and a state of emergency, meaning that the military occupied the streets. Through a national broadcast, then-President Sebastián Piñera declared a state of war.

Two key elements are articulated in the complexity of these fare evasions. On one hand, they are nonviolent actions driven by a rather pragmatic logic—not inspired by an ethical commitment to avoid violence but rather by effectiveness and available tools. These actions were carried out by students, but it was not the massive student movement across Chile as seen in 2006 or 2011, rather actions focused on specific points in Santiago carried out by a limited group of students aged 14 to 18, facing off through a boycott involving nonviolent protest and economic non-cooperation against powerful antagonistic actors such as the government and the police.

The second key element was the collective capacity to reinterpret the popular demand after the fare evasion, expressed in the phrase “It’s not thirty pesos, it’s thirty years.” In other words, the demand against the metro fare increase transformed into the first domino piece that pushed the others, allowing for a set of popular demands to be deployed on the streets from October 19 onwards, or even on the evening of the 18th, as a result of the precarization of life after decades of deep neoliberalism in the country.

From October 19, tensions heightened. Several cities in different regions of the country were under a state of emergency and curfew. President Sebastián Piñera’s statement, “We are at war against a powerful enemy,” was taken by protesters as a declaration of war against the Chilean people. In response, citizens continued to stay on the streets for several days. In different parts of the country, confrontations between protesters and police, as well as looting of supermarkets and major pharmacy chains, continued. In this context, as the days went by, multiple calls for marches on October 25 emerged, exactly one week after the events that triggered the social outbreak turned into a popular uprising.

On that October 25, marches and highly massive gatherings took place in various parts of the country. Only in downtown Santiago, in a renamed focal point called Dignity Square, more than a million people attended with slogans related to popular demands whose articulating element was the material precarity resulting from the commodification of various aspects of life under the neoliberal model. Similarly, at a deeper level, there was in the streets a questioning subjectivity of the historical authoritarian, conservative, and centralizing political order in Chile, known as the Portalian regime, and its connection with the segregating social order present in Latin America as a consequence of the colonial order.

It was a massive concentration of people expressing different identities and subjectivities present in Chile, lacking any kind of leadership and manifesting itself inorganically, even in the way of occupying the streets without having a head or march route. That afternoon, the element that unified these different expressions was a background of questioning the political and social order in Chile and, in a more immediate view, a multitudinous response to the repressive policies of Sebastián Piñera’s government, expressed in the giant flag bearing the phrase “We are not at war.”

This set of marches became a forceful element and legitimized the process experienced in the country. While it did not structurally change the situation, it forced the government to step back regarding the state of emergency and the curfew, and pushed it into erratic communication policies.

This entire process of social outbreak and popular uprising presents nonviolent actions and also legitimizes violent responses from specific groups to repression. However, these two milestones presented became true levers that propelled the process and provided it with content, massiveness, social adherence, and an emotional and cultural component to the development of the popular uprising in Chile. It was granted a strength and legitimacy that allowed it to persist for several months questioning the Chilean political and social order and demanding structural transformations.

Juan Pablo Vásquez Bustamante

Chilean. Originally from San Francisco de Mostazal, currently living in Santiago, Chile. History professor, master’s degree in International Studies, and doctorate in American Studies with a specialization in International Studies.

Translated by Damian Vasquez Kuliunas

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