In Chile, Chaotic Public Demonstrations Are Being Met By Armed Security Forces

Oct 24, 2019
Originally published on October 24, 2019 10:29 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Mass anti-government protests continue today in Chile. They started nearly a week ago, prompting the president to declare a state of emergency and move the army to the streets. NPR's Philip Reeves went to a protest in the capital of Santiago, where the site of patrolling soldiers is reviving memories of Chile's traumatic past.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: The last time Claudia Godoy saw her father, she was 8. That was more than four decades ago.

CLAUDIA GODOY: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: She holds up her cell phone and shows a photo of him. Her father was a doctor and a leftist activist called...

GODOY: Carlos Godoy Lagarrigue.

REEVES: In 1976, he was taken away by Chile's secret police, becoming one of thousands who disappeared or were killed during the 17-year dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

GODOY: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: We thought my father might have been dumped in the sea, says Godoy. That's what the military told us. She still doesn't really know what happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

REEVES: We're at a huge demonstration in downtown Santiago. Godoy is a psychologist. Like everyone here, she's come to protest against Chile's president, Sebastian Pinera.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Spanish).

REEVES: This crowd has many demands - better public health care, reforms to education and pensions, an end to Chile's deep-rooted inequality. Pinera's apologized and offered concessions. That's not been enough. Godoy believes these protests in Chile had to happen, yet they are touching a painful nerve. Army soldiers are on the streets again for the first time since the Pinochet years, which ended in 1990. For five nights, Santiago has been under curfew enforced by military patrols. Godoy says she never thought she'd see that again. She's horrified.

GODOY: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: I thought I'd forgotten the sound of gunshots at night, says Godoy.

LIDIA CASAS: It's a very serious matter when a democracy - you see the police pointing their guns to get people who are protesting very peacefully to go home.

REEVES: Lidia Casas is director of the human rights center at Santiago's Diego Portales University. For her, Pinera's decision to use the security forces in this way inspires...

CASAS: Nervousness, fear.

REEVES: Casas is 55. She has firsthand experience of the abuses of the Pinochet dictatorship.

CASAS: I have memories of family, my husband that was arrested. My sister-in-law, my father-in-law went for prison for many years. We went and left the country. My aunts were imprisoned and tortured, so the idea of seeing this on the street - it causes these flashbacks.

REEVES: Casas says she is now seeing evidence of abuses by the military and police over the last few days.

CASAS: So you do have cases of torture - like, clear-cut torture. You have a lot of mistreatment, physical mistreatment and beatings.

REEVES: This unrest has brought vandalism and violence. At least 18 people have been killed. The military is accused of causing nearly a third of these deaths. More than 170 firearm injury cases have been registered by Chile's Human Rights Institute. The army says it's investigating.

ADRIANNA GONSALVES: I am honestly very, very nervous about the examples of how the military has been treating citizens, at night especially.

REEVES: Adrianna Gonsalves is a Californian who came to Santiago several years ago to teach English. It's too dangerous to go outside after curfew, she says.

GONSALVES: It's not just a fear of being detained. It's also a fear of being physically assaulted, and that's a lot of what I've been seeing from, you know, friends who have been recording videos themselves from protests.

REEVES: Times in Chile are very different from the dictatorship years. Protesters record everything on their cell phones. The country has strong rights groups. It's a democracy. But never forget, says Lidia Casas of the Human Rights Center...

CASAS: We have a history. We have a trauma.

REEVES: When the security forces commit abuses, that stokes public anger, giving more momentum to the protests. Casas thinks it's time to get the army off the streets.

CASAS: Otherwise, I think we are going to have not just a question of social inequality, social injustice, but also the idea of repression.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Santiago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.