Five years ago I met and interviewed Camila Vallejo, who at the time was one of the most prominent student leaders in the world. Tales of how she was inspiring a new generation of activists and amassing huge crowds at regular street rallies in Chile were filtering into European media outlets.
At the time, hundreds of thousands of people – not just students, but people from all walks of Chilean society – were taking to the streets every week to call for reforms to education, and to move forward a deeper debate about the country’s constitution and development model.
All of this made the UK’s 2010 student demonstrations look a little feeble in comparison. I was captivated to hear from Camila how the Chilean public at large was completely switched on to this debate, a stark contrast to the pervasive apathy in my home country, where it was more fashionable to say “I don’t do politics”, and groan at people who do.
Fastforward to August 2017, and I find myself returning to these questions while on a walking tour of Chile’s capital city, Santiago. Our guide, Oscar, who is in his late twenties, gives us his account of Chile’s turbulent recent history, centred around the military coup of 1973 and subsequent dictatorship that lasted until 1990.
In 1970, Chile made history with the world’s first democratically elected socialist president, Salvador Allende. Three years later, on 11 September – a date steeped in notoriety for altogether different reasons in Chile than elsewhere – Allende would lose his life as his government was overthrown by military ruler-to-be, General Augusto Pinochet.
In the years that followed, Pinochet’s dictatorship would impose a neoliberal economic system while brutally crushing any opposition to it. Rebels would be exiled or disappear, never to be seen again. Torture and murder became commonplace. But the country’s general living standards improved in many ways, and public discourse became polarised.
Telling us this history, Oscar admits that he is unable to give an unbiased account, as he grew up in the shadow of the dictatorship, with his parents and grandparents rising against it. “If you want balance, I would encourage you to read books, and visit our human rights museum”, he says.
So the next day we went to the Museum of Memory and Human Rights. One of the best museums I’ve ever visited, it answered all of my questions about why Chileans are so politically engaged.
Walking through the exhibitions I shuddered to read and hear about some of the most grotesque human rights violations imaginable. Bodies of dissidents washing up on the shore after being dumped at sea. Electrocutions. Mock executions. Forced Russian roulette. The crushing of any public political organising. A dictatorship propped up and driven forward by a coercive press and a series of rigged elections.
I began to see many parallels between the human response in Chile and that in Eastern Europe towards the end of the Soviet regime. People began organising in secret, at great risk. Underground rebel art forms began to emerge and proliferate. International condemnation grew. The culminating victory for freedom and the people was almost synchronised in 1990, as both regimes came to an end. Soviet Russia and neoliberal Chile: two entirely contrary ideas, with eerily similar circumstances.
A few days later in the coastal city of Valparaíso, I saw the clearest example of how beautiful art can arise from the most difficult of circumstances. During Pinochet’s rule, huge murals began to appear on the streets conveying forbidden political messages. Groups of street artists began to work undercover, at risk of being shot if they were caught. Today, Valparaíso is an ocean of political street art, with its bleak, grey history lurking behind this multicolour visage.
Our walking tour guide in Valparaíso gave more insight into the days of military rule and the current political climate in Chile. It remains a huge source of anger to many that Pinochet, with the help of his family friend and ally Margaret Thatcher, was never brought to justice, and died peacefully in the UK surrounded by family.
A German man on our tour remarked that political events in Europe today are increasingly mirroring those of the past that resulted in suffering and destruction. He echoed my worries entirely. Why do we never learn the lessons of the past? As the memories of Europe’s 20th Century woes begin to fade, it appears that the same mistakes are being made again. In Chile, where the memory is still so fresh, there is a much greater motivation to avoid it – you won’t find many people who “don’t do politics”. Perhaps as things deteriorate in Europe people will mobilise, but will it be too late?
Back in Santiago, speaking with Oscar, I discover that he knew Camila during his days of student activism, and he tells me that she is now an elected member of congress, and part of the current socialist government of Chile, led by Michelle Bachelet, the country’s first woman president. But the constitution hasn’t changed since the days of Pinochet, and the country remains divided.
I came away from Chile realising more than ever that political apathy is a result of privilege. If you’re not the political type, it’s probably because you’ve never had to fight for anything.
It would be easy for someone my age in the UK to say that politics doesn’t matter. On the surface, as I move from day to day, and especially as a straight white man, it is very difficult to see how the administration of the day affects my life, as I have never had to live in drastic or oppressive circumstances. If I had grown up in Chile, I would have lived under a tyrannical dictatorship until the age of seven, and in the aftermath of it ever since. It’s likely that struggle for a voice would be all my family had ever known. Politics would simply be in my blood.
Whichever side of the debate, left or right, Chileans know what is at stake. History lessons like these are a powerful reminder that there is no shame in speaking up and fighting for what you believe in.