Chile’s civil protests have taken place since October 14th, 2019. The uprising has erupted as a result of the rise in public transportation fees (Santiago Metro’s subway fare), an increased cost of living, privatization, and economic inequality. Protests began in Santiago as a fare evasion campaign—the act of utilizing public transport without paying. This led to the national police force, Carabineros de Chile, taking over the city’s main metro stations and opening confrontations with civilians. The situation later escalated on October 18th, when protestors began vandalizing city infrastructure, including setting ablaze numerous stations of the Santiago Metro network. This resulted in 81 stations damaged and 17 being burned down. President Sebastián Piñera then deployed Chilean Army forces to prevent the further destruction of public property and ensure order. Protests then spread to various cities in the country, along with looting and destruction of private property, including small shops and businesses. On the 25th of October of 2019, protesters began demanding the resignation of President Piñera. As a response, Piñera replaced eight ministries of his cabinet, and the National Congress agreed to call a national referendum for the creation of a new constitution. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the referendum was postponed from April to October 25th of 2020.
Chile’s socio-political crisis has resulted in violations of multiple human rights. There have been various reports of police brutality, including torture and sexual assault. The cruel actions from security forces, both police and the military, are condemnable. There is no sugar-coating the situation. However, the protesters are not entirely blameless either. I am particularly interested in analyzing the actions of those involved in this campaign; it’s important to view both sides of the story, after all.
So, what is the difference between a violent and nonviolent movement? Although the terminology might be subjective and thus hard to define, it all boils down to the use of force. Chile’s situation has escalated enough to be categorized as a violent demonstration. What might have started peacefully has become tainted by the use of brute force and destruction.
On October 18th, 2019, the headquarter buildings of the electricity company Enel Generación Chile, were damaged in a fire.
On October 19th, 2019, violent demonstrations resulted in the looting of many little shops and the burning of public buses. There were clashes and confrontations between protesters and security forces.
On October 21st, 2019, Santiago’s riots caused significant damages, amounting to $300 million to the metro system. That same day, authorities reported five people dead after looters burned a factory near the capital. Additional reports stated that three people also died in a supermarket fire in the capital. There were reports of at least 40 looted businesses and supermarkets.
This week on October 19th, 2020, police headquarters were firebombed, and shops continued to be looted. According to the police, 18 officers were injured on Sunday. In addition, protesters brutally attacked and destroyed several churches in Santiago, burning them to the ground.
The issue is evident. I am a firm believer in freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. Everyone has the right to protest for a movement or message they believe in peacefully. However, the keyword here is: peacefully. There is a vast difference between peacefully protesting and violent demonstrations. Once a group of demonstrators damages private property or hurts others in the process, they cross a delicate but well-defined line. That is not a fight for your rights anymore. The movement becomes destructive.
Take, for example, the burning of churches in Chile that took place on Sunday. There are explicit videos of masked protesters videotaping and cheering as the La Asunción Church was demolished and incinerated. Likewise, protesters burned down the San Francisco Borja Church—an architectural treasure that dates back to the mid-19th century—a historical and cultural asset.
Burning a church, a symbolic building that is sacred and holy for many people, is incredibly abusive regardless of whether you believe in the religion or not. It is, at its core, an act of intolerance, violence, and hatred. The irony and hypocrisy lie in the fact that these protests advocate for tolerance while they themselves are intolerant of others. It is not sensible to fight or ask for equality when you are the first to violate those same requests.
So, are violent campaigns effective at resolving socio-political issues in a country? Is it, unfortunately, the only way to fight for your rights?
The answer is: no. On the contrary, it is overall significantly less effective.
According to a rigorous study conducted by political scientist Erica Chenoweth, peaceful resistance is more effective than violent campaigns at overthrowing a government. Chenoweth collected data on nonviolent and violent campaigns since the 1900s for the “overthrow of a government or a territorial liberation.”
“Researchers used to say that no government could survive if just 5 percent of the population rose up against it, our data shows the number may be lower than that. No single campaign in that period failed after they’d achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5 percent of the population. But get this: every single campaign that exceeded that 3.5 percent point was a nonviolent one. The nonviolent campaigns were on average four times larger than the average violent campaigns.”
In a similar sentiment, Max Fisher, a foreign affairs writer of the Washington Post with a master’s in security studies from Johns Hopkins University, stated that “an uprising becomes about 50 percent more likely to fail if it turns to violence”. His own research concludes that if protestors use weapons or other means of violence, it legitimizes and justifies the state’s use of violence in retaliation. Fisher adds that “the more violent the uprising, the more likely that it will internally unify the regime.”
Furthermore, a violent movement creates division within the people, especially with those in support of the government. Simultaneously, a nonviolent uprising is more likely to reduce public support for the government overall.
Another essential factor to consider is that the way people resist and campaign truly determines how the situation develops in the long run. Erica Chenoweth’s data suggest that countries with peaceful movements were “more likely to emerge with democratic institutions” and less likely of relapsing into civil war.
Fisher impeccably summarizes the essence of these two methods. A nonviolent movement is usually “inherently democratic, a sort of expression of mass public opinion outside of the ballot box.” However, a violent movement, “no matter what its driving ideals, is all about legitimizing power through force. it’s not hard to see how its victorious participants would end up keeping power primarily through violence, as well.”
In conclusion, Chile’s protests are a prime example of what not to do when protesting. As we have observed, igniting hate and violence will only perpetuate the situation and cause more damage to the protestors and the community itself. Peacefully protesting might just be the answer that so many countries desperately require.
Chile protests turn violent on anniversary. (2020, October 19). Retrieved October 24, 2020, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-54594707
Chile protests: Cost of living protests take deadly toll. (2019, October 21). Retrieved October 24, 2020, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-50119649
Dube, R. (2020, October 19). Chilean Protesters Burn Churches, Loot Stores Ahead of Constitutional Referendum. Retrieved October 24, 2020, from https://www.wsj.com/articles/chilean-protesters-burn-churches-loot-stores-ahead-of-constitutional-referendum-11603084315
Fisher, M. (2019, April 29). Peaceful protest is much more effective than violence for toppling dictators. Retrieved October 24, 2020, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2013/11/05/peaceful-protest-is-much-more-effective-than-violence-in-toppling-dictators/
Santiago Metro: 80 stations damaged or destroyed during protests. (n.d.). Retrieved October 24, 2020, from https://www.bnamericas.com/en/news/santiago-metro-80-stations-damaged-or-destroyed-during-protests