Friday, 12 August 2011

Civil unrest and its responses

It has not been a great week.
A week ago today DH returned home from work to confess he had been crying. It hadn't been his reluctant, undergraduate students who are in the midst of what has become the longest student strike in Chilean history, nor his belligerent colleagues who seem intent on internal wrangling for power rather than standing together in a difficult time, to reduce him to tears. No, it had been the teargas released by the so-called forces of order, otherwise known as the CarabiƱeros, onto the streets and underground of Santiago which had got him in the end. This had been in response to a wholly peaceful march on the part of university and secondary school students protesting against the lack of a free and fair education system here. Yet the government, in their short-sightedness, had not granted permission to the protesters to march, thus stepped in using whichever means of heavy-handed crowd-control they had at their disposal. This being Chile, water cannons and teargas are part of the natural landscape, the use of which hardly raises an eyebrow on either side of the political spectrum. Bizarre to those of us who come from different shores, as was the arrest and rather rough manhandling of almost 900 peaceful protesters out of a total of 5000, many of whom were secondary schoolchildren.
Dear oh dear, we thought, such things would be unimaginable back in the civilised world whence we came. Thank goodness we have that escape route, who knows when we might need it... though of course we were quick to reassure family and friends that things were not as bad as they seemed.
Still slightly disturbed by what we perceived as the infringements on basic human rights, we carried on our business, going into a cold, grey and rather bleak wintry weekend for Santiago, after which for the first time since arriving here we were actually pleased when Monday arrived to resume our normal routine and activities as opposed to being cooped up indoors with little to do.
The events of the past few days in London and other major cities in Britain have provoked much comment, column inches, television coverage and widespread shock. I for one was dumbstruck, appalled, terrified and depressed to hear, read about and watch scenes which I never thought I would see in 2011. But I, like so many others, was wrong... Obviously parallels have been drawn with the unrest in Santiago though there are stark and glaring contrasts too. Here young people have been protesting about their lack of something we Westerners not only have but also take for granted: a free and equal education system. Or at least we had one once... Also, here in Chile as I mentioned the use of force to control and dispel crowds is something most people have grown up with and certainly don't question. The Chileans must think our levels of freedom in the UK are foolish privilege given what the world has recently witnessed. And last but not least, the dichotomy between the haves and the have nots, though more apparently visible and polarised in Chile, is all too present back in the developed world too, yet better hidden.
Amid the gloom however (and it has been grim) there have been a couple of uplifting moments to restore one's faith in humankind. One of these has been the coming together of residents in London's ripped apart communities armed with brooms to clean up and rebuild their high streets. Another came last Thursday evening, after the disastrous march which resulted in around a fifth of its demonstrators behind bars. Slowly at first, then more quickly and more loudly, it sounded as if bells were ringing out in the streets below. It was the "cacerolazo" or pot-bangers, people of every age group and, in theory, political persuasion, banging on upturned saucepans and frying pans with spoons and ladles to show and sound their solidarity with the students. A very Latinamerican moment.

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