Political Protests In Chile Alter The Site's Landscape

Feb 11, 2020
Originally published on February 11, 2020 7:59 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

For months now, Chileans have protested social inequality. These demonstrations are meant to change the country's politics. But as NPR's Philip Reeves reports, they've also changed one of the capital's great squares.

(CROSSTALK)

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: There's a battle that happens here once a week around sunset. It's beginning right now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: Youths wearing goggles and masks are milling around the streets. Some hurl rocks at the police. The police respond with tear gas...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: ...And water cannon. Skirmishes like this happen here pretty much every Friday.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)

REEVES: We're in Plaza Italia in the middle of Santiago. This is the city's traditional gathering point for rallies or to celebrate soccer triumphs. It's now become the main arena for the confrontation between Chileans and the state.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN HONKING)

REEVES: Passing motorists toot their horns in support of the protests. Francisca Cheuquelaf is watching from the sidewalk. She's here to protest peacefully. Cheuquelaf's a single mom struggling to raise two small kids on a tiny salary.

FRANCISCA CHEUQUELAF: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: She comes to the plaza because she says, "this is our place, where we can all raise our voice against injustice." Plaza Italia is large and oval-shaped. There's a bronze statue in the middle of a 19th-century Chilean general on a horse. It's now covered from head to hoof with brilliantly colored graffiti. Walls all over this part of town are ablaze with murals and protest slogans. There are paintings of eyes weeping blood, a reference to hundreds of eye injuries inflicted by police weapons.

PIOTR KOZAK: These messages are saying resist, resistance, we have to resist.

REEVES: Piotr Kozak is a social activist and journalist who's lived in Chile for decades. He takes part in peaceful protests here. Kozak says many people have renamed the plaza Plaza de la Dignidad - or Dignity Plaza - because...

KOZAK: We want to be treated with dignity. We want our parents to have a pension that they can live on. We want to be able to go to a hospital and get properly treated and not have to wait hours and hours and hours.

REEVES: Some Chileans disagree with that name - dignity - because of the widespread damage these protests have caused. They prefer Plaza of Shame.

KOZAK: There is violence, but not only violence; there's been a lot of civic activity. People are talking politics that have never spoken about politics in their lives. There's a lot of artistic activity taking place in protest.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LOS BUNKERS: (Singing in Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Spanish).

REEVES: That includes this, a show by Los Bunkers, one of Chile's most celebrated rock bands.

KOZAK: I would say there was outwards of 50,000 people around the square, or more, singing along with the songs.

REEVES: You don't need to be here to see what's happening. On a building overlooking the plaza, there's a camera feeding live footage to a YouTube channel. Veronica Munoz Bunster, a pensioner, lives close by and tunes in before venturing out of her apartment.

VERONICA MUNOZ BUNSTER: In nights, not in the morning. In the morning, it's peaceful.

REEVES: It must be hard for you living in this area.

BUNSTER: Oh, yes. It's life and death going on in the streets in night. People that have nothing to do with politics rob the store. So there's everything going on.

REEVES: Despite this lawlessness, Bunster believes the protests in the plaza are not just changing her neighborhood; they're changing her country, too.

BUNSTER: I think that this is more profound, more deep than we think.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Santiago.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOBII'S "GUMMIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.