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ND students witness conflict, protests in Chile

Eric Retter | Tuesday, September 13, 2005

SANTIAGO – Notre Dame students abroad in the Chile Program have studied conflict and police protests in Latin America. Now they’ve witnessed a violent demonstration firsthand.

Thousands of Chileans gathered Sunday in Santiago in remembrance of the Sept. 11, 1973 military coup that placed General Augusto Pinochet at the head of a military junta that controlled the country until 1989.

The day began relatively peacefully with Socialist demonstrators gathering at La Moneda, the presidential palace where much of the fighting during Pinochet’s coup took place, and marching to El Cementario General, where Salvador Allende, Chile’s democratically elected Marxist president, is buried.

But soon violence broke out. When the procession reached the east gate of the cemetery, protesters began to riot, forming barricades and throwing sticks, rocks and even Molotov Cocktails at police, who responded with water cannons and tear gas in an attempt to quell the disturbances.

“My main reaction was shock, and everything happened too quickly to really think about it. My heart was pounding pretty insanely,” said Brian Carlisle, a Notre Dame junior who was in the cemetery when rioting began.

Large-scale Sept. 11 commemoration protests began in earnest in the early 1980s, after the military regime had begun to soften its hard-line, anti-dissention policies.

“Throughout the ’80s, these were very violent and very massive protests against the dictatorship,” said Esteban Montes, professor of history and political science at Universidad Andres Bello and Pontificia Universidad Catolica in Santiago.

However, with the reintroduction of a democratically elected president in 1990, the size and nature of the demonstrations began to change.

“Much fewer people started going out to protest Sept. 11, as there was no need to fight and demonstrate against a government that no longer existed,” Montes said. “The exception was a small group of people connected with Allende who used the date to remember Allende’s death, as well as groups of extremist youth who probably weren’t even born in 1973 who wanted to demonstrate their frustration and anger.”

It was this type of youth who were the actors in Sunday’s protests, as Socialist leaders used the day to peacefully march and lay flowers on Allende’s grave. For these young adults, the protests served less of a historical purpose than as a chance to voice current frustrations, including unemployment – which is more than 30 percent for all people under 25 and more than 50 percent for lower class youth – as well as anti-American sentiment.

“Most people are frustrated with the omnipotence of Bush’s government and the direction of his international policy, above all in Iraq but around the world as well,” Montes said.

However, the anti-Americanism in the protests was aimed almost exclusively at the government, and Chile is a very open place for Americans to visit and live.

“The feeling of the grand majority of Chileans is of a good disposition towards the U.S.,” Montes said. “I feel the grand majority of Chileans, old and young, rich and poor alike, have a good image of U.S. values and culture. I feel the vast, vast majority of Chileans can distinguish between Bush’s government and the American people.

“I don’t think this is a marker of any kind of threat for students from the United States in Chile.”

While Sept. 11 still serves as an open wound for much of the country’s population, it is without a doubt the most divisive day in Chilean history.

“For many Chileans, it is a very sad day, a black day in Chile’s history,” Montes said. “But at the same time, for a minority of 30 to 40 percent, it is the day of Chile’s liberation from Marxism.”

Sunday’s disturbances are virtually the sole black mark on a city that is otherwise very safe and free of violence the rest of the year, even by American standards.

“I feel that Chile continues to be a safe place for Chileans and foreigners alike,” Montes said.

Ultimately, Sunday’s events opened the eyes of Notre Dame students to violent reality that exists outside of the United States.

“Coming from our background, we forget that there is extreme stuff going on, and what I saw today wasn’t even that extreme, but it left a big impression,” Carlisle said. “That’s the reality of most of the world, that it hasn’t had that foundation of stability [that the U.S. has] as a background to recent history.”

For Carlisle as well as much of the Santiago’s U.S. student community, Sunday’s glimpse into the political and social situation of Chile in a real-life situation was a welcome and valuable learning experience.

“The study abroad experiences should broaden your way of looking at the world … it’s sort of the cliché ‘putting yourself in someone else’s shoes’ idea,” he said. “At this point, I don’t have a way of incorporating it into my broader experiences, but I hope to with time.”

Editor’s Note: The remarks from Esteban Montes have been translated from Spanish into English by the reporter.