Pinochet's constitution remains intact and Chile remains am impoverished, third-world country.
This year marked thirty years since the coup and so there was a bigger build up than usual to September the 11th, with various concerts and activities organised for the 11th and the week leading up to it. As the day of the 11th approached student protests broke out in almost all of the Chilean universities, forcing the authorities to shut down the universities for the week.
In the days before the 11th the government declared that there would be 36,000 police on duty on the 11th, 15,000 for Santiago alone. Chilean police are infamous in Latin America for their brutality, their liberal use of live ammunition and their harshly repressive tactics. They receive a military training and are actually officially part of the army, although they are answerable to the minister for defence and the minister for the interior.
On the day of the 11th all around the city centre at every street corner, were groups of heavily armed police. At around 6 pm over 15,000 people gathered in a huge demonstration in the city centre. As happens every year, buses to the suburbs which usually run until around 12, all stopped on the 11th at around 7:30pm. This is due to the fact that in all but the wealthy neighbourhoods of this city of over 5 million, there are street protests which start at around 8pm. In these neighbourhood protests people barricade the streets by building huge bonfires and then proceed to battle with the cops. Every year (except 1997) in these protests people are killed by the police. Last year, 3 protesters were killed in Santiago.
In our neighbourhood the shops closed early and by 8 pm all the streets were deserted with no cars at all on the usually busy suburban intersections.
Santiago's streets are long and straight and so when you stood at a crossroads you could see many different bonfires on the streets stretching out in every direction. The police had gathered at a nearby intersection and while they awaited instruction they used slingshots to fire at anyone they saw passing.
At some point around 9:30 or so, the electricity was cut. This was the sign that something was going to happen. People throw chains at the electricity wires to short-circuit them. Often you could see a flash of light in some distant area of Santiago, followed by sudden darkness in that area and you knew the protests were about to begin there too. People do this to make it harder for the police to spot them on the street. What happened next could basically be described as an uneven battle of the local youth with stones and insults on one side against the police on the other who responded with tear gas and live ammunition.
In other areas of Santiago however protesters were better armed. As one local woman explained "In my neighbourhood, there was no cross fire with the cops this year, but in many other places, people shoot the police, and the police shoot back. This is specially true over the last years. In the first years of democracy, people just threw stones, but after some years receiving bullets back, people started shooting back at the cops."
This year, unusually, no one was killed in the protests in Santiago. Although there was no official number for all those injured, it was reported that there were 24 wounded cops and more than 500 people arrested. In the city of Concepcion 9 prisoners burnt to death in the local jail, when during a protest for the 11th a fire broke out and they were locked in.
On the following Sunday the traditional march to the cemetery in Santiago took place. While the neighbourhood protests tend to involve all the local disaffected youth, the march to the cemetery is made up primarily of militants and all the left political groups and trade unions are represented. For around 3 hours or so some 10,000 people follow the police-lined roads to the main cemetery which holds the graves of many of those who were murdered by Pinochet. As we neared the cemetery amid the sound of revolutionary chants and songs, you began to hear the sound of smashing glass as some of the protesters threw stones at targeted businesses such as banks and multinational fast-food outlets, which were ineffectually protected by rows of riot police . At this stage all the street vendors were selling lemons for relief from the tear gas which was inevitably soon to follow. When we reached the gates of the cemetery people as people listened to speeches, Molotov cocktails were thrown and through the smoke you could just make out the ominous shape of several large armoured police vehicles, waiting a little distance away. Suddenly a guanaco (a large water canon truck) came flying round the corner spraying water. This was immediately followed by rows of riot police who ran towards us batons raised, grabbing people by the hair, hitting and arresting them as they either fled or fought back as best they could in an atmosphere thick with tear gas, fear and anger.
After maybe a half an hour or so things calmed down and people began to drift away. Many people gathered around the tomb of Victor Jara, the popular Chilean folk singer and guitar player, who was one of the thousands of people rounded up when the coup occurred and brought to the national stadium, where they smashed his hands, tortured and finally executed him. Before leaving, people covered his grave with red flowers and messages written on slips of paper.
Anarchism and the fight against Imperialism
This edition is No78 published in November 2003