There have been a lot of huge demonstrations in Santiago recently. Most of them are focused on education—the government wants to begin charging for public secondary school and universities. Public education, higher education in particular, is often very cheap in much of Latin America. As a result, there are at least a few generations of very well educated folks. One piece of graffiti I saw on the street said, in rough translation, “If we had the copper, we wouldn’t have to pay.” I had to ask what this meant. Minerals in Chile are big business—part of the reason President Salvador Allende was toppled by the U.S. decades ago was because he nationalized the mines. And don’t forget the trapped Chilean miners from a few months ago. Anyway, the copper mines have been at least partially privatized after the Coldelco Law was passed in 1992, so the profits from them don’t go to the government. Much of those profits don’t even stay in Chile—they go to multinationals, as in many other parts of the world. Hence the wording of the graffiti, which ties together the privatization of the mines with the lack of a budget for education.
The demonstrators are incredibly creative here. They don’t just shout, make speeches and wave banners. One group organized thousands of people to dress as zombies and learn the choreography to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. The zombie image links to the education system, since they view it as dying and rotten. Here's a zombie/thriller demonstration link:
Local TV reported that there were three thousand students dancing. In the news clip below one can see a few of the ubiquitous Santiago dogs, lolling about as the zombies dance around them. The city seems to be filled with feral dogs. In India and elsewhere such dogs are usually small and fairly emaciated, but here they’re large Mastiff and German Shepherd blends. It’s a frightening sight if one is used to aggressive and crazy street dogs—crazy with hunger or abuse. However, these seem gentle—most simply lie around, peacefully. One tailed us for a bit. I saw a man in a black cape, a gaucho hat and ponytail reach down and pet one—something I’d never risk doing with a street dog, but maybe these have learned to be docile, and the locals treat them accordingly.
The other things the demonstrators do are what is called a ‘besaton’— a kissing marathon. Here’s a photo set. And they do a jogging thing, where they run circles around the palace.
Sally and I went out in the evening to a local fish restaurant. There is fairly abundant seafood in the Pacific coast of Chile, and the seafood menu is like a wine list. The fish are listed according to whether they are deepwater, shallow water, river fish or caught around a group of nearby islands.
The next morning we decided to go find out what a local breakfast is. Seems we picked the wrong time—Saturday morning. We made it all the way into the old city center and nothing was open, except a funky diner on Plaza des Armas. So that’s where we went. The waiter asked us which we wanted—brewed coffee or Nescafé. As we headed back to the hotel, and I to my tech check, a few places were beginning to put out chairs on the sidewalks for a brunch or lunch crowd.
The event was held in a spanking new cultural center called Centro Gabriela Mistral or GAM for short.
It has a story behind it—a political story, naturally. On this site was once a cafeteria that also served as a small cultural meeting place. When Allende took office, he made that cultural element official, and it was outfitted to be more accommodating as a cultural center for all classes of people. After he was overthrown by General Pinochet and the Americans, it was remade as a headquarters for Pinochet. Then, after a return to democracy, it burned down. Now, it has been returned to its previous incarnation, but much improved. A well known architect, Christian Fernandez, designed this new incarnation that houses multiple theaters, cinemas, rehearsal rooms, art exhibits (a show of photos of Neruda and his circle was up) and, of course, a cafeteria. The ministry of defense towers above and behind the cultural center—a not so subtle reminder.
The event was early, as it occurred on a Saturday. I got some laughs (good), and I have begun to incorporate more images of local initiatives that have transformed various Latin American cities. The incredible library that former mayor Sergio Fajardo had built in a poor barrio of Medellín, the super graphics that Hass & Hahn, the Dutch artists, did in some favelas in Rio (both of these were featured in the New Museum’s Festival of Ideas for the New City earlier this year). I plan to add more as I visit other cities along the tour—the rapid bus system in Quito, the libraries in Bogota (the inspiration for Fajardo’s initiatives) and other projects that generally improve the quality of life in various districts.
Patricio Fernández, a writer who is one of the founders of the magazine The Clinic spoke last, and both Bernardo and I found him very eloquent. The Clinic is a satirical magazine that began publication when Pinochet was captured—at a clinic in London, hence the title. It’s a cross between The Onion and Private Eye maybe—more on The Clinic later.
After the event, we took the metro (very clean and quiet) to a bike shop run by Claudio Olivares, one of the panel participants, to pick up loaners and find a place to have lunch. In the metro we saw a diorama of the first encounter between the Spanish and the indigenous Chileans.
Their last minutes of innocence:
A few minutes after picking up the bikes, we were off. I couldn't help thinking—are there bike lanes? How hard is it to ride here? I didn’t remember any lanes networking though the town proper from previous visits, though there are some that border the park alongside the river. There is a BRT (bus rapid transit system) here, which Loreto Araya, the organizer here, complained about—though it seems to be busy and there are lots of busses. We stopped for lunch in the Recoleta neighborhood—an area of low buildings that used to be a red light district, but is now filled with cool restaurants and sidewalk cafes. My lunch was a giant seafood stew, and Sally’s, a massive chicken strew. Delicious, but could have done with just one order and shared. A highway threatened this neighborhood not too long ago, but there was resistance from the residents and others. In the end, the big highway that runs through town is now buried and runs in tunnels alongside the river. Grassy lawns cover much of the top of it—FDR drive, take note.
After lunch, Sally and I took off on our own, roaming aimlessly though other parts of this neighborhood and past lots of Bavarian looking houses, but with tin roofs.
Then we wandered into another mostly residential neighborhood—Conchalí—that features other architectural styles that I can’t identify. How would one describe this style? Hobbit deco cottage?
No, not loony maps, or maps of how our brains function, but maps we construct in our heads as we become familiar with a place.
The Bavarian homes above might seem slightly incongruous looking here, and slightly puzzling, unless you know the immigration history. The Law of Selective Immigration of 1845 encouraged middle class Germans (and some Austrians and Swiss) to settle and colonize the ‘undeveloped’ southern parts of the country. They blended in after all those years, and many of the leading artists, musicians, business people and tennis players were of German descent. The British settled a little earlier, around Valparaíso, and one of the big avenues here is called O’Higgins. They got involved in saltpeter (used for gunpowder) and the Atacama mines.
Some of the Austrians who settled in Chile were fleeing Prussian persecution. Later, waves of German Jews were fleeing the Nazis, and only a year ago Paul Shaefer (not the Letterman guy) passed away. A former Nazi accused multiple times of child abuse, Shaefer founded a religious utopian community (Colonia Dignidad) with the blessing of Jorge Alessandri who was then president of Chile (1961). Shafer had abused two children at another religious ‘charity’ organization he founded in Germany. He disappeared from Colonia Diginidad after twenty-six kids accused him of abuse. He died in prison.
On a wall were plastered a grid of collages, like the ones that might be seen in a young person’s bedroom. But there they were, proudly displayed, someone’s private loves and obsessions, made totally public.
It was nice to have a chance to ride on the side streets and through the neighborhoods, as my past experiences of this city were almost exclusively of office buildings and generic, almost North American, looking edifices. The only structures I saw then that retained some character were downtown. I’m seeing more this time—even though it’s another quick visit. As was the case in Sao Paulo, I’m unconsciously forming a mental map of this place that is very different than what existed in my head previously—an expanded and more complete version than it was previously. The bikes help with that. Walking or cycling gives one a sense of the physical, visual and other relationships between the neighborhoods—how the river runs through the city and where the landmarks are. It’s amazing how fast that mapping process happens—how quickly one develops a sense of where neighborhoods and landmarks are, and how they connect to one another. After just two days I could almost get around Santiago without a physical map and just rely on the one that has appeared in my head.
Sally flew back to NY on Sunday morning and that night there was a dinner for the event participants and others at The Clinic. Not the magazine offices, (though that may be here too), but at a lounge, bar, and now a restaurant that has spun off from the magazine and is like nothing I’ve ever seen anywhere else in the world. It’s a really interesting mix of an obviously hip or fashionable club (no one dressed like what we might imagine as overly fashion oriented, though they did seem to all be wearing black), combined with the intellectual and political satire that the magazine is known for.
The walls are painted black, with blow ups of wittily captioned old B&W photos on the walls (a giant one of Allende), as well as humorous statements and collections of quotes from politicians and others painted in white type—a Joseph Kosuth installation turned into a bar, but funnier. Where else would one find this mixture?
Outside there was a blackboard with a 'quote of the day' scrawled across it.
When I left around 11pm, to walk back to the hotel, there was a line outside waiting to get in to the lounge on the ground floor. If it isn’t clear yet, it should be—politics is very much alive here. The trauma of the years of dictatorship, combined with the now relatively successful economy and high levels of education make for a potent mix. It’s manifested in the humor and politics of The Clinic and the Thriller dance as a creative form of protest. There’s an optimism and hope here that won’t be squashed—it keeps resurfacing over and over.
Speaking of creative protests, Chile isn’t alone there—the protesters in Belarus, one of the last truly repressive Eastern bloc dictatorships, have resorted to standing still (!), spontaneous clapping, strolling or arranging for their cell phone alarms to go off simultaneously. The government there has adopted new measures to enable them to throw folks in jail for protesting in this way.
I ate breakfast in the hotel and then went off for a quick ride around before my flight to Lima. Sally’s friend, Daniel, emailed her a list of spots in Santiago that he checked out when he came down for Lollapalooza here earlier this year. Maybe The Clinic hadn’t opened yet—as it was significantly absent from the list.
There’s a great farmers market alongside the river and the park adjacent to it. Look at the size of those stalks of celery!!
I rode on, through a relatively upscale neighborhood, with houses that could have been lifted from any North American suburb.
On to another zone of high-rise offices, with more of them on the way, and the Andes in the distance—a rare view, given the usual amount of pollution here.
The mountains are close to Santiago. There was a tremor the morning we arrived, somewhere near Valparaiso, on the coast. It registered around .6, so no one here paid any attention. Part of the protests concerns a proposal for a hydroelectric damn in a pristine area. Chileans are proud of their amazing countryside—the Andes, the Atacama Desert, the beaches. So, a giant damn with high-tension wires strung across the pristine landscape is a hot and very symbolic issue. It fucks with people’s image of what their country is, what it represents—even if they only see those pristine areas rarely and sporadically. In the U.S. it might be likened to building a damn in the Grand Canyon that caused the canyon to disappear, or building a lucrative casino around Old Faithful.
I biked back to the center of town, to Bellas Artes—the Beaux-arts style museum here (the contemporary museum is behind it). Free entrance. Some rooms of contemporary Latin artists and others filled with colonial portraits. Hardly anyone here (so I can take pictures!). A silent temple for contemplation. Here are some of those immigrants mentioned earlier: