Plebiscito Ahora!

“Turn the TV down!” called out Katy from the bedroom upstairs.

Leonel and I had just come home from teaching and we were watching the news while we ate dinner. It was the first night in the middle of a two-day national strike and there was a lot happening. The unions had thrown their support behind the students, calling on workers to down tools and raise their fists in support of accessible education and broader social change. The results were messy and in many cases, violent.

From mid-morning, downtown Santiago had been transformed into a mini warzone chaos as thousands of protestors took to the streets. As usual, the carabineros had responded to the chanting marchers with water canons and a seemingly endless supply of tear gas canisters. With stinging eyes and wet clothes, the students and workers hit back, firstly with rocks and then with molotov cocktails. Shops were looted, cars were burnt and bus services ground to a halt. In neighbourhoods all around the city, people set up flaming barricades of burning tyres, closing off streets and disrupting traffic. There was a lot of frustration. According to the news report, over 200 people had been arrested in Santiago alone and at least two police officers had been shot.

Reaching for the remote, Leonel lowered the volume. “Listen!” Katy called out again.

We strained our ears and through the open window we could heard horns blowing and the now familiar sound of people banging on pots and pans.

“It’s a march,” said Leonel. “Let’s go and see what’s happening.”

I raced upstairs to throw on a jacket and scarf because it was cold outside. Slipping my camera into a pocket I sped back downstairs and calling goodbye to Katy, Leonel and I ran out of the house. Approaching the main road, we saw the back of a procession in heading west down the middle of the street. Although the sky was dark, it was easy to see the protesters in the streetlights. There were about 70 people in all and as they marched they waved flags and banners and blew on the horns. A big bass drum was keeping the beat. It was a mixed group. There were children in masks, students with bandanas covering their faces and middle aged men and women in baseball caps and scarves. A pair of cars crawled along behind the crowd, tooting their horns and flashing their headlights in support. Even the neighbourhood dogs had joined in but for once their insane barking was drowned out by the din.

Most of the marchers were smiling but I wasn’t sure how they would take to a camera wielding gringo.

“Do you think they’d mind if I took some photos?” I called out to Leonel as we ran to catch up with the march.

“No. It’s fine,” he yelled back.

Pulling the máquina fotografica out of my pocket I began taking happy snaps for the holiday album. Unfortunately there was not much light and a lot of movement so most of them were pretty blurry.

When we caught up with the procession, we almost bumped into an older man who was bending over, trying to pick up a banner that had fallen to the ground. In his right hand he was holding a big red flag with an iconic image of Che Guevara in the middle of a white star. With his left hand, he was fumbling at the edge of the banner. Leonel rushed to his aid and picked up the other side of the banner, holding it up so I could read it. It’s message was simple: Plebiscito ¡¡Ahora!! or ‘Plebiscite Now!’

Even though Chile returned to democracy more than two decades ago, the constitution introduced by General Pinochet and his dictatorial government is still in place. Under Pinochet’s constitution, a three quarter majority is needed to change existing laws, making it almost impossible to undo the past. Plebiscite now!

Leonel posed with the banner while I took some photos. Then he gestured for me to come and take the corner he was holding. Taking the banner I walked down the street with the flag man, following the other marchers as Leonel took more photos. The drum kept beating and the horns kept blowing. And of course the dogs kept barking.

After about 300 metres the procession stopped. The marchers stood in the middle of the intersection talking to each other. Apparently they had been going for over an hour so now it was time to stop. I kept taking photos. Another banner caught my attention. “With organization and rebellion, we can throw out Pinchet’s constitution,” it said. A group of marchers posed behind the banner and I took their photo.

Leonel spotted a former colleagues from his job at the council and we went over to chat with her. One of the chief organisers behind the procession, she told us that the same group was going to march again the following night. “It will be the same, only with more people,” she added.

Looking down a side street, I saw a flaming barricade in the middle of the road only two blocks away. The fire had almost burnt out and there weren’t many people gathered round. I wanted to go and check it out but my Chilean colleagues weren’t too interested. Or perhaps they were just being prudent. We walked one block closer but by that time they had managed to convince me that there was no point getting closer.

After chatting for another five minutes we said goodbye to Leonel’s ex-workmate and started heading back home. It had barely been 20 minutes since we left to see the march but it felt like a lot longer. As we walked home, the smell of burnt tyres filled the air.

“That was nothing,” said Leonel, pointing back over his shoulder. “In other places they are really going crazy.”

After the march.