Saturday, 6 August 2011

Black Thursday

A couple of days ago I said I would save my comments for the release of the CEP poll. Here they are. And here is the poll. In sum, the Piñera government continues its freefall and is now the least popular government since the CEP began polling. Its support is below what is thought to be the right's base of about 35%, and is almost half of what Pinochet got in 1988. The Concertación doesn't do much better, and the basic message is, 'throw the bums out!'

But the poll was released on the same day as university and high school students organized another protest. These protests have become a weekly occurrence in Santiago and across the country, as I have highlighted in previous posts. But This one was different, as the government did not 'authorize' the march, converting the entire discussion into a battle of wills between the student movement and the authorities. Rather than a demonstration over education, it became about the right to demonstrate. The Constitution, by the way, guarantees the right to peaceful, unarmed, demonstrations without prior permission (Chapter III, Art. 19).

Having unconstitutionally not granted permission, the government called out the troops -- not the army, but the policy, which in Chile is a branch of the Armed Forces -- and stations men in riot gear throughout the downtown area. By lunch on Thursday, the air already smelled of tear gas, and as I left a restaurant with colleagues, we saw a group of kids -- high school aged, not university students -- running away from five or six armed vehicles and water cannon.

Things only went downhill from there. By Thursday night, there were barricades across the city, and some 800 people arrested. The government managed to reignite what was a faltering student movement into a broader discussion on the state of politics in Chile, what kind of government this really is, and whether the country is becoming ungovernable. Nice.

Driving to work on Friday, things were calm, but the feeling downtown was a bit like the Monday after the 2010 earthquake. Workers were clearing the streets, removing large stones which the demonstrators had left, broken glass, barricades. The banks had been particularly targeted for abuse, and a La Polar department store had been burned.

Meanwhile, and quite predictably, the students refused the government's offer, and continue with the strike. I will have more to say on that in a column to be published this week.

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