Sit in with…Glasgow Supports Chile

Published

Credit: Anita Verina

Siam Hatzaw and Rafe Uddin
Features Editors

Content Warning: Contains discussion of police and state violence, military dictatorship, and human rights violations, including sexual violence.

On 1 December, Glasgow Supports Chile, together with Friends of the Earth Scotland and Scottish Trades Union Congress, hosted a screening of Nae Pasaran, a documentary revealing an unexpected link between Glasgow and Chile. The film depicts the actions of Scottish factory workers who prevented the shipment of Rolls Royce Hawker engines to the Pinochet dictatorship in the 1970s, indirectly saving the lives of seven high-profile Chilean prisoners. Those same engines had been used by Pinochet to bomb the Presidential Palace during the military coup of 11 September 1973, a watershed moment in Chile’s history. Today, Chile stands in the midst of mass protests against deepening inequalities inflicted by Sebastián Piñera’s government and the state system left in place by the fascist dictatorship, calling for a new constitution. Here in Glasgow, a community have gathered to organize a response from abroad, hosting events to raise awareness of the escalating crisis. We sat down with two members, Alejandro Fernandez and Anai Aude Valdivia, to discuss how Glasgow is standing in solidarity with Chile.

Alejandro first arrived in Glasgow when he was a year old, having been exiled by Pinochet’s regime. The International Organisation of Migration (then the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration) made deals with the secret police to exile Chileans instead of killing them, Alejandro recalls: “When we left we had a thing that said sin retorno – no return”. His earliest memories are of Dumbarton Road, living in an attic in Partick with his parents and brother thanks to a small grant offered by the University of Glasgow. He praises Glasgow as a welcoming city, particularly the trade unions who were “strong in their solidarity for us, it was amazing they even knew that we existed. I felt really proud to be here and to be welcomed by my people. It’s completely different from the experience other people get now. That experience was really beautiful, but of course, my life was always in solidarity.”

Anai’s connection differs, having only arrived in Glasgow two months ago. At the age of seven, her family moved to France, which she describes as “a whole different world in terms of privileges such as access to education and public healthcare. I always kept that in mind. In situations like this you realise your personal attachment – it’s very moving to imagine myself growing up there. What would my life be like if I never left Chile?” Anai explains that her family were always conscious of the state in Chile – to further understand what this means, and why Alejandro’s family were exiled, we turn our attention back to a pivotal moment marking Chile’s history: the military coup of 1973.

At the time, Chile was governed by Salvador Allende of the democratically elected Unidad Popular. Allende pursued socialist change in the form of nationalisation which ultimately came into conflict with the US company AT&T; Alejandro argues that they “started to lobby for overthrow, so the CIA became involved, organising strikes of the truck drivers and other industries”. The resulting nationwide shortages led to heightened civil tension, which came to a head on 11 September when the chief of the army, Augusto Pinochet, ordered the military to bomb the Presidential Palace. This was followed by a 17-year dictatorship, which saw unprecedented levels of cruelty and violence. Traces of the junta remain enshrined in the constitution, which was authored in the 1980s. Anai highlights a key area of today’s protests: the demand for a new constitution, one unplagued by the injustices of the dictatorship which haunt the memory of older generations of Chileans. “The people with more power gain more from this system and aren’t going to fight against it because they’re benefiting. That’s also why I think these protests started with young people,” she explains, as the younger generations didn’t live through the dictatorship era, they are less burdened by fear.

Today’s protests were sparked by a 30 peso hike on the Metro fares. Although the cost seems insignificant, Alejandro explains that “13.78% of people’s monthly income was going to transport”. The Metro fares were the last straw, reflecting the crippling economic disparity the country has faced over the last three decades. This was summarised in a chant which rang out when one million Chileans took to the streets of Santiago on 25 October, crying “It’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years”. The government responded with excessive force against its people. Alejandro describes police officers beating up “these kids and everyone went into the squares all across Chile and that same day a state of emergency was declared and the curfew came back, which is another remnant of the dictatorship”. Anai agrees that this was symbolic of the disturbing ability for the state to backtrack 30 years almost overnight: “Things have changed but the repression remains. They have proof that the police are tracking activists, a lot of them are being taken from their homes at night – it’s reminiscent of the allanamientos [break-ins/raids] which were mostly at night or early in the morning, but now there isn’t a distinct pattern or legality.”

The curfew affected 16 regions of Chile, effective between 10pm and 7am during which it was illegal for any civilian to be out on the streets – Alejandro adds “and if you’re homeless, too bad”. Anai points to lawyers who have argued that even under the 1980s constitution, it is not legal to hold someone who breaches curfew. Yet all signs point to the government’s increasing disregard towards the law – Chile’s National Human Rights Institute (INDH) is currently compiling a report on several human rights violations including “442 criminal complaints on behalf of victims […] regarding injuries, cruel treatment, torture, rape, killings, and attempted killings allegedly committed by security forces”. Alejandro tells us of reports of a student who was speaking out against the police on social media – until they found him, took him from his home, arrested him, and beat him. There are reports of many other similar cases. Anai reflects: “It’s terrible to see how easy it is to go from being a free person in a democratic country to not being safe even in your own home, just for having something to say … it’s terrifying.”

Reporting remains a key factor in the protests; we wonder what their thoughts are on the value of journalists on the ground, as the rest of the world becomes numb to the chain of crises across the world. Alejandro describes this as “a double-edged sword, because it’s very easy to spend your whole day looking at all these gruesome images of terrible things that are happening. If you start looking at all the struggles and you see how much suffering there is in the world, you start to get really depressed and it can make you inactive as a result.” He believes the problem with following the news is that it’s “a lot of time spent gathering information and very little time spreading it. We’re trying to actually do something and get out the information we have.”

This is why Chilean solidarity activists have been working tirelessly to organise events around Glasgow to raise awareness. Both Alejandro and Anai had come to the interview from a candlelight vigil held at George Square, which they described as a healing process after which they felt better “having done something, rather than absorbing information and being in despair. Today I think was very personal. We knew the idea was for people to see us, but I think we all needed to gather together and just talk, and not feel that lonely regarding all of these images and videos and information.” The bombardment of news can be draining, especially for those watching their country fall into chaos from afar, and feeling helpless. For Anai, “it’s very tiring to just wake up seeing all this information, going to sleep with that as well, and having the feeling that you have to share – because you can’t just press a button and say ‘share, share’ without actually reading the articles. We need to find a way to produce something positive.”

The Glasgow group was formed as a way “to express [to protesters] that they are being heard from abroad,” with media coverage predominantly focused on the vandalism and not the peaceful demonstrations. The director of Nae Pasaran has attended some of the events, as did older members of trade unions who recalled the campaigns back in the 70s and 80s. Anai explains that there is no homogenous perspective on how best to demonstrate solidarity. Each activist approaches the situation with different experiences, ideas, and views – which is why the group aims to be “as general as possible. The more gathered we are, the better we’ll be able to spread awareness”.

This call for open dialogue lies at the heart of the movement. Alejandro tells us about the gathering of cabildos around the world; cabildos are grassroots assemblies similar to town hall meetings, designed as open spaces for debate to create a discourse. For Anai, this is exactly the point: “It’s important to gather to talk about the new constitution and all of that, but personally, I’ve been abroad for so long, I’ve always felt that it wasn’t my place to give my opinion on what’s happening in Chile.” She dislikes the backlash against expats commenting on the situation although she believes that the conversation is still required, which is why these cabildos are so important, bringing the Chilean community together in various locations across the world.

Alejandro insists that “the important thing to remember is all the work that’s been done to get to this point – if Chile is able to rebel, if the young kids are able to rebel, you’ve got to have respect for what came before”. He refers to the struggles older generations endured in the wake of Pinochet’s dictatorship, as the impression can sometimes arise that the new groups are the first to ever be revolutionary. However, “the more dialogue there is between generations, the more the experience of earlier movements can aid new processes. I think that if we have that connection, it would be successful”. Anai agrees, telling us that her mother didn’t want to involve herself at first because “it’s too much”; she’d been living like this her whole life, “but once I told her that people were disappearing, being kidnapped, it changed her perspective. She emphasises that it isn’t always possible for everyone to involve themselves in activism due to personal circumstances. But for those of us who can, opening up communication, learning of those in the past who have fought to get us here, and standing in solidarity for the future – these are the steps we can take when hope seems lost.

For more information or to get involved, visit @ChileGlasgow