Creative Activism in Chile Amidst Coronavirus Pandemic6 min read

Creative Activism in Chile

“Coronavirus chills protests from Chile to Hong Kong to Iraq, forcing activists to innovate” describes how distancing measures and lockdowns during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic are affecting political protests and the form that they take. One event in particular that this article discusses are how ongoing political demonstrations in Chile have taken new forms in response to physical restrictions. Protests initially started in October of last fall over the increasing cost of public transportation but have since evolved to include a variety of issues related to inequality. Violence and unrest surrounding these protests have spurred President Sebastian Pinera to state that there will be a referendum regarding whether to replace Chile’s “dictatorship-era constitution” and what form those rewrites may take (Faiola, Wessel, & Mahtani 2020). National sentiments make it likely that people will vote for a new constitution, but debates continue over what this document will look like. Concerns about what will be addressed if a new constitution is approved have resulted in continued protest. Though the referendum initially was to occur in April (Krygier 2020), it has just recently been pushed to October due to a growing concern over the spread of coronavirus in the past weeks (Faiola, Wessel, & Mahtani 2020). People on all sides have urged others to distance, which has decreased abilities to continue movements in person. Though this time of crisis could provide leaders a chance to quiet their opposition and gain greater executive powers, Chilean’s creative responses such as banging pots from balconies (a traditional form of Latin American protest called cacerolazos) and materials such as “manual for protesting from home” published to Instagram are giving people a way to retain their voice and hold their governments accountable at this time. 

The intersection between government power and its protestors at this time is important not only in Chile but globally. The pandemic could potentially have a major impact on civil and political rights, especially in those countries already with authoritarian tendencies. Crisis policies, especially those particular to this pandemic, can be hard to distinguish from actions taken to shore up political power. The negative impacts on civil organizing are already becoming apparent. In Venezuela, new policies and the halting of street rallies has critically weakened the movement to get rid of authoritarian President Nicolas Maduro (Faiola, Wessel, & Mahtani 2020). Maduro’s opponent Juan Guaido decided himself to stop organizing public rallies to combat spread of coronavirus, so the effects are not entirely due to government policies. Despite political disagreement, there is a pragmatic appeal to abide by law and order policies ensuring public safety. The effects are clear: silencing the voice of opposition. In some situations, force has been used to stop protests that continue to occur. Indian women advocating against anti-Muslim citizenship laws were removed by authorities when they decided to carry through a sit-in in New Delhi (Faiola, Wessel, & Mahtani 2020). The women had already determined the protest would only comprise of five people in order to minimize health risks, but this was still deemed unacceptable. In a more extreme example, people protesting nationwide curfews in the streets of Iraq were shot at by police (Faiola, Wessel, & Mahtani 2020). Violence aside, this is all a very confusing situation for all of us. Quick responses and restrictions are absolutely necessary for global health at this time, but we cannot downplay the risk that such silencing poses in countries where the playing field is not equal or where human rights violations are already occurring. 

There are also many cases, including in Chile, where activism has adapted to distanced environments. Though attempts at in-person protests have looked different as a result of the pandemic, they have been met with much resistance. It is notable that some methods of activism have departed entirely from public spaces in order to remain more sustainable at this time. These include an expansion of cyberactivism, a rise in the use of traditional methods (cacerolazos), and actively changing use of resources to generate relevant aid. Brazil has even seen an increase in protest as a response to President Bolsonaro’s trivializing comments regarding the severity of this virus. Like the Chilean cacerolazos, these Brazilian panelaços involve generating attention grabbing noise from balconies (Faiola, Wessel, & Mahtani 2020). Anti-government activists in China have utilized technology to spread information regarding covid-19 and have helped to distribute much needed supplies (Faiola, Wessel, & Mahtani 2020). As mentioned above, organizations in Chile have increased their communication via social media and started educating people on ways to protest without being in a public space. These methods are powerful tools to combatting the decline of civil and political rights at a time when citizens are especially vulnerable to abuses by authoritarian regimes. 

The outcome of political protests and the move for constitutional rewrite in Chile were already uncertain- whereas some were hopeful this would mark a period of increased equality and growth, others predicted that both sides will continue to be dissatisfied and that instability will bring about more authoritarian tendencies (Krygier 2020). The President’s decision to hold the referendum gives the impression that he is open to hearing people’s voices, and the increased level of citizen input into this proposed constitution would mark a significant change from other constitutional reforms in Chile. Those sentiments regarding the outcome of protests which started last fall are even more pertinent now as we are faced with a global pandemic. Protests face more challenges and authoritarian tendencies are potentially strengthened. As the situation progresses, it will be interesting to study the effects on Chile’s potential constitutional rewrite and how methods of protest such as cyber-activism change in response to coronavirus. Will creative organizing efforts have a real effect on what governments like Chile look like in a post-coronavirus world? What factors will especially important for the survival of new and ongoing movements? Assuming Chile’s referendum occurs in October as currently planned, will we see different results than we might otherwise have if it was not interrupted by this pandemic? 

Works Cited

Faiola, Anthony, et al. “Coronavirus Chills Protests from Chile to Hong Kong to Iraq, Forcing     Activists to Innovate.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 4 Apr. 2020,       iraq-lebanon-india-venezuela/2020/04/03/c7f5e012-6d50-11ea-a156-    0048b62cdb51_story.html.

Krygier, Rachelle. “Chile Is Preparing to Rewrite Its Constitution. Why Are People Still   Protesting?” The Washington Post, WP Company, 1 Feb. 2020,   constitution-why-are-people-still-protesting/2020/02/01/eb7ee6b2-43cc-11ea-99c7-    1dfd4241a2fe_story.html.

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