Camila Rice-Aguilar: The COVID-19 Virtual Revolution: A New Era for Youth Activists in Chile

Camila Rice-Aguilar is a junior at Brown University studying International Relations, with a focus on Latin America and the Caribbean. Growing up as a Nicaraguan-American, she has developed a particular interest in migration, international human rights, and social resistance movements. She is currently exploring these areas of study in Santiago, Chile.

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By Camila Rice-Aguilar

It is the morning of March 8, and I am standing in a sea of women. The sun reflects off multicolored garments. Flags wave among hundreds of raised fists. Metal and plastic glimmer off the silhouettes of instruments as if the sea is full of sparks. The energy is palpable; I feel it in my feet and in my throat—the resounding wave of music and voices together. My host sister Amanda is grinning as she tugs her capucha over her head. She hands me a green bandana scrawled with the words “Aborto Libre, Seguro, y Gratuito!” motioning for me to cover my face. In this moment we both feel mighty, weightless and unburdened.

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International Women’s Day in Chile was an extraordinary event to witness. Throughout the country, numerous demonstrations and activities took place in order to highlight issues of gender inequality, the right to free and safe abortions, violence against women and the struggles of intersecting groups. The march in Santiago was one of the largest women’s rights demonstrations across the globe. Chilean officials insisted that only 150,000 women marched that day. In fact, there were almost two million of us in the streets of Santiago Center. I could never have imagined myself in that sea of women when I first decided to take my studies to Chile.

 

The 2019 social rebellion

The demonstrations on International Women’s Day reflect an important aspect of Chile’s massive social rebellion that ignited last year. On October 18, 2019, Chilean high school students initiated one of the largest social revolts in the country’s history. In response to another government decree to increase transit fare, students took to the subway stations, organizing mass fare evasion by jumping turnstiles and, in some cases, destroying them. In retaliation, the government sent the military into the streets of Santiago for the first time since the end of the Pinochet regime in 1990. Brutal attempts by police to contain the revolt with force escalated into further violence; subway and petrol stations were burned, supermarkets looted, and hundreds injured. Announcing a state of emergency and nation-wide military curfew, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera declared, “We are at war against a powerful enemy that is willing to use violence with no limits.

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The excessive use of violence by the police and military have proven the state’s blatant disregard for human rights, many charge. Amnesty International reported that the Chilean security forces maintain a clear agenda to discourage protestors through any means necessary, even using torture and sexual violence to suppress public dissent. In January 2020, the National Institute of Human Rights (INDH) reported 36 deaths, more than 40,000 imprisoned, thousands injured and 427 with ocular mutilations (loss of one or both eyes at the hands of police artillery).

Beyond simply being a reaction to increases in transit fares, the 2019 revolt demonstrated an eruption years in the making within Chilean society in response to rampant economic and social inequality. Rallying with the slogan, “Chile despertó” (“Chile woke up”) protestors are demanding comprehensive reform and a key mandate: the redrafting of the 1980 constitution written by former President Augusto Pinochet. This new democratic constitution would address and protect essential rights such as affordable access to quality education, health care, water and social security, while providing for the reformation of national police and military institutions to prevent further human rights violations. The Piñera government reluctantly agreed to hold a plebiscite on April 26, 2020.

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How COVID has affected the rebellion

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed everything. Shortly after the Women’s March, my host family and I went into quarantine. As the rest of the Santiago metropolitan area gradually shut down, we adjusted our daily routines. We no longer drove to the metro station in the mornings or joined afternoon cacerolazos in one of the neighborhood parks. We remained inside our fenced yard apart from the occasional stressful trip to the nearest supermarket. If we left the house it was with white medical masks, no longer to protect our identities, but to protect the health of our family and our community.

My host sister, Amanda, is seventeen years old and is finishing her last year of high school at Manuel de Salas, an educational institution renowned for its progressive staff and student body. For the past two years, she has participated in dozens of demonstrations, assemblies, workshops, strikes, walk-outs, take-overs and sit-ins covering issues of women’s rights, indigenous rights, education, the environment, the promotion of a new constitution and more. Amanda is one of the thousands of young Chileans determined to change the social and economic landscape of the country. Raised on values of social justice and service to others, these students exhibit a deep sense of responsibility to the fight for social change, as many of their parents did under Pinochet. Students’ active participation and insight into the current social rebellion emphasizes what Amanda’s mother regularly states, that “students are the seeds of mobilization.”

With classes now online and the metropolitan region under quarantine law, the daily social activism of Amanda and her peers has transformed drastically. Before confinement, communities were physically working together to diffuse information and resources. Self-convened commissions and organizations emerged in the neighborhoods of Santiago. Neighbors held assemblies in public areas to talk about social problems and developments, informing each other on different ways to participate in the social movement, and how to help demonstrators who were victims of police abuse. Those with specialized skills shared their knowledge openly with their communities through in-person workshops and rallies. These community-based efforts highlight a foundational element of the current social project: in a society with an apathetic government—regulated by inequality, individualism, and for-profit principles—communication and community support networks are fundamental.

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Since we entered quarantine, Amanda has expressed her deep anxiety about the future of her country. In her eyes, the Covid-19 virus has only exacerbated levels of inequality and marked injustice within national institutions. The heavily critiqued healthcare system is overburdened and failing, unemployment is rising, rates of domestic violence are surging, and low-income Chileans are forced to continue exposing themselves to the virus in order to keep their families alive. Amanda fears for the livelihood of her people, who do not have appropriate benefits or services to survive the crisis. Moreover, the Piñera government has utilized the pandemic as an excuse to postpone the plebiscite until October, placing hopes for a new constitution on hold.

 

Maintaining the rebellion despite the virus

Despite the hardship heightened by the pandemic, the social rebellion in Chile endures. Solidarity within the movement is strong, and the united front of diverse actors promoting all sorts of causes maintains the momentum for the uprising to prosper, whether under state repression or a pandemic. Instead of a physical front, activism has moved indoors and almost completely online.

In this new era of social rebellion, technology and social networking are playing a more vital role than ever before. Social media has proved to be a powerful tool for organizing and mobilizing protestors, especially through Instagram and Twitter platforms. Amanda maintains constant communication within her own activist network on Instagram in order to remain up to date on news and distribute information on current mobilization efforts. Through these online mediums, people continue to conduct virtual workshops and training programs as well as promote family businesses and neighborhood services. Ollas comunes (soup kitchens) have also resurged in response to rising famine in the metropolitan region due to Covid, which are also broadcasted on social media.

In this time of crisis, community solidarity has multiplied and reinforced the importance of collective action—“el pueblo ayuda al pueblo” (“the people help the people”). Students understand that a physical presence in the streets endangers their elders and broader community. While marches and rallies are not feasible at this time, greater opportunities exist to support small ventures, keep local businesses afloat and promote virtual community workshops. For example, in the hours following the appointment of former mayor and journalist Macarena Santelices as Minister of Women and Gender Equality on May 5, the hashtag #NoTenemosMinistra (“We Don’t Have a Minister”) inundated social media. Protestors not only criticized her connection to her granduncle, Pinochet—a recognized perpetrator of human rights abuses—but also questioned the nomination of a conservative politician with no prior knowledge or experience in the field of women’s rights. Similar responses from feminist campaigns and workshops have emerged to engage on the topic of women’s rights during the pandemic. In addition to virtual workshops, high school students have run video and text campaigns to boycott an early return to in-person classes, fearing for the health of their families. University students have also organized a few “paros reflexivos” in which the student body goes on strike, replacing online classes with workshop discussions over pertinent social issues, frequently supported or accommodated by professors.

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Moving forward

With an uncertain future and no foreseeable end to the Covid-19 crisis, maintaining the social movement in Chile is more important than ever. Amanda and her peers plan to continue utilizing this time in confinement to propagate virtual resistance campaigns and regain their mental and physical strength in preparation for the still unknown consequences of the pandemic. Strengthening the network of solidarity and providing intercommunal support both emotionally and financially will provide Chile with a stronger base to emerge from the pandemic prepared to enforce an agenda for structural reform.

In the meantime, Chileans need the government to improve their social services and expand welfare support. With growing unemployment, the government must provide sufficient economic aid to alleviate the financial crisis, such as providing recurring payments to low-income families and backing large employers to prevent further lay-offs. Furthermore, the Piñera government must commit to holding a plebiscite as soon as possible.

Once out of quarantine, I believe students will continue to play a fundamental role in organizing and leading the social uprising. Amanda has shown me how vital her generation is in mobilizing the population and giving them incentives to act. With their technological expertise and generational familiarity with social media, students are an invaluable asset for virtual activism and grassroots organizing. Once confinement laws are lifted, I expect people will take to the streets with new energy and a fresh agenda that takes into account the government’s actions, or lack thereof, during this crisis. The necessity for reform can no longer be ignored, especially with the amplification of inequality as a result of Covid.

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It is difficult to believe how empty the streets are now as I think back on the International Women’s Day March with Amanda. I never expected how dependent the movement would become on technology, but it has proven essential in keeping activist networks connected. Moving forward, I imagine social media will be utilized for broadcasting information and organizing in-person action, combining virtual activism with physical mobilization. Amanda will continue as an active participant in the social uprising, running neighborhood projects and educational workshops with her peers. At only 17, she has committed an inconceivable amount of physical and mental energy towards organizing and demanding social reform in Chile. In the face of a global disaster, she is not agonizing over her own wellness, but for the welfare of her people. With this she has shown me the strength of collective action, communal support, and determination. In my own activism outside of Chile, I aim to reinforce these principles of selflessness and dedication, while also extending operations online to consolidate advocacy efforts and fortify solidarity networks. I am hopeful for the future of Chile’s social uprising with organizers such as Amanda leading the charge. A global pandemic has not deterred her or the movement she is a part of, and I am confident that quarantine will not mark the end of the fight for a decent quality of life for all Chileans.