In mid-October, mass protests erupted in Chile’s capital Santiago after the local authorities decided to increase the fare for its metro service.
On October 14, when about 200 public high school students, mainly women, swarmed a metro station in defiance of the fee increases and the state responded with violence, the situation finally reached boiling point. Within only two weeks, millions of people took to streets across the country.
The state responded with violence. President Sebastian Pinera announced a state of emergency and deployed the army, which unleashed a brutal campaign of repression on the protesters.
Chile used to be seen as an oasis of democratic stability in Latin America. But the harsh response to the protests and recent violence against indigenous people demonstrated that it has turned into a backsliding democracy, which is in a constant “state of exception” where laws and civil rights no longer apply, and imaginary security threats are used to justify state terror.
Behind Pinera’s violent repression there lies a culture of militarism that spans the whole region. At the core of this militarism is the failure of the Latin American states to provide a dignified life for their people and the need to retain control by suppressing dissent.
Violence against indigenous people
Known by her friends as “La Negra”, Yudy Macarena Valdes Munoz was a Mapuche feminist and environmental activist who led protests against the construction of a hydroelectric dam on Mapuche territory in Trianguil, Chile.
She died in August 2016, at 32 years of age, while caring for her toddler in their family home. Her 11-year-old son was the one who found her dead body hanging from a noose around her neck.
Her family, who say Valdes would not have killed herself and suspect she was assassinated by Chile’s security forces, appealed against the verdict and forced the authorities to conduct a second autopsy. Their doubts about the cause of Valdes’ death were amplified when hacked government documents detailed police intelligence operations explicitly designed to target environmental activists and gendered-violence advocacy groups.
The second autopsy concluded that the cause of Valdes’ death was suffocation caused by strangulation. It showed that she was already dead by the time she was hung from a beam. This was also confirmed by independent pathologists. Groups of lesbian, feminist and indigenous women organised protests demanding accountability, but the official investigation did not go anywhere and remains open to this day.
Valdes was not the only Mapuche activist to die under suspicious circumstances in Chile in recent years.
In November 2018, Camilo Catrillanca, a 24-year-old Mapuche farmer and community leader, who had led successful campaigns to reclaim indigenous land and make schools more culturally inclusive, was shot and killed by police as he drove a tractor towards his workplace in the restive southern region of Araucania.
Catrillanca’s death invoked fury among Chile’s indigenous communities and sparked massive street protests. In response, security forces tried to hide evidence, with the help of top government officials, to frame the killing as the unfortunate result of a “shoot-out” between a car thief and police officers.
Official and independent investigations into Catrillanca’s death, however, soon revealed that there was no car thief or sign of a shoot-out. It was also quickly established that Catrillanca was not armed during the incident.
While we may never know the exact circumstances surrounding Valdes and Catrillanca’s untimely deaths, we can safely say that the two were victims of the Chilean government’s continuing campaign to marginalise the Mapuche, a people indigenous to Chile, and plunder their land using state-sanctioned violence.
To intimidate, silence and control the Mapuche, Pinera’s government created in 2018 “the Jungle Commando”, a heavily armed tactical unit of the national police force.
Since its creation, the Jungle Commando has repeatedly invaded the rights of the Mapuche. They have fabricated evidence to cover up unlawful arrests and deployed disproportionate firepower to repress peaceful protesters.
To legitimise these operations, the government relied heavily on Chile’s Anti-Terror Law, which has its origins in the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. It allows for long periods of detention without charge, communication surveillance, and the use of secret evidence and anonymous witnesses in court, which void the right to cross-examination.
With the help of the Jungle Commando and the Anti-Terror Law, Pinera has furthered efforts to displace Mapuche communities and pass the ownership of their land to Chilean and transnational logging and agribusiness corporations.
Repression against protesters
The president has not limited repression to Chile’s indigenous communities either. Since the beginning of nationwide protests in response to a rise in the Santiago Metro’s subway fare and the increased cost of living, the Chilean government has been using state-sanctioned violence across the country to intimidate civilians, silence dissidents and retain impunity.
Government forces are torturing, unlawfully detaining and beating civilians on a regular basis. Peaceful protests are being violently dispersed and military raids are conducted on private residences and schools based on flimsy evidence. Since the beginning of demonstrations in mid-October, thousands of civilians were wounded, and over a dozen were killed by security forces.
In addition to these overt forms of repression, the government has resorted to a number of other strategies for controlling dissent, including censorship, disinformation, evidence withholding, staged looting, staged property damage, and even trying to frame protesters for a military-conducted arson at a bank.
In line with the national security doctrines that devastated Latin American nations in the second half of the 20th century, the Pinera administration declared war against an internal “enemy” who the government claims poses a threat to “order”, “nation” and “stability”. This internal “enemy” comprises everyone who is opposing the government’s policies and actions, including but not limited to indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities, dissidents, lawyers, students, human rights advocates, independent journalists, feminists and the poor.
The economic roots of militarism
The return of the “national security doctrine” and the state violence that comes with it is, unfortunately, not specific to Chile.
Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno’s declaration of a state of emergency in the face of indigenous-led protests in early October, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s moves against protests that last year, or Haitian President Jovenel Moise’s firm refusal to resign and his intention to repress the “criminal” and “trafficker” protesters in the streets are all signs that Latin America is once again a region of mostly national security states led by authoritarians.
In Latin America, as elsewhere, militarism is undoubtedly a cultural problem, stemming from the region’s long history of institutionalised patriarchal authority and the normalisation of violence as the fundamental source of state power, which in turn is perceived as the best way to safeguard so-called public order.
But at its core, it is an economic problem. Across the region, security forces are deployed to keep populations in check, because authoritarian leaders want to protect an oligarchic system where profit and wealth are extracted, by force if necessary, from natural resources and people’s labour, and accumulated in the hands of a few – often including themselves and their families – at the top strata of society.
It is no coincidence that Latin American states deploy their violent enforcers most unabashedly against the communities they have systematically disadvantaged most: The places that lack infrastructure like running water or sewage, where public services such as schooling and healthcare are of dismal quality, where toxic waste is dumped freely by corporations and the state.
Nor is it coincidental that resistance to state violence and oppression is emerging from, and being led by, these same sectors. They have lost everything, including their fear, and the threat posed by trigger-happy security forces is no longer a useful deterrent. As US civil rights activist Cesar Chavez once said, “you cannot oppress the people who are not afraid any more”.
This radical trajectory of growing inequality cannot last, and solutions that merely paper over these fundamental problems for the short term will only exacerbate them in the long term. Even alternative methods of pacifying popular demands are failing, such as the proliferation of reality television programmes, ever-greater gadgets to consume, and sporting events to keep people distracted, or accelerated rates of debt to keep people economically vulnerable and compliant.
Latin American protests are evidence that neither cultural pacification nor militarised repression can sustain the system, which has evidently reached a boiling point. Similarly, the centre-left parties’ response to the return of authoritarianism has been lukewarm at best and complicit at worst. The strategy of ignoring fascism has normalised it, and negotiating with it has allowed it to grow its power. Amidst this crisis of representation, any hope of reviving democracy must be as radical as the dangers we face.
Fearless activists across the region, from Haiti to Ecuador and Chile, have made 2019 a year of revolutionary fervour. The same can be said of similar acts of protest across the world, from Hong Kong to Lebanon.
This wave of unrest offers important lessons about how different forms of violence condition a person’s life from cradle to grave, as well as about how different people can come together to challenge and upend it. Its first and most crucial lesson is that the time is long overdue for ordinary people to commit themselves to physically disrupting the status quo, paralysing the economic structure for as long as it takes, and boldly demanding nothing short of a new beginning. As the Lebanese protesters’ main slogan urges: “All of them means all of them.” The entire system must be transformed.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.