These momentous words – spoken this Saturday morning, October 26, 2019, by Chilean president Sebastián Piñera – come in response to the more than a million peaceful citizens who yesterday, October 25, swarmed the streets of the capital, Santiago, and other cities throughout the country in protest against rising inequalities and punishing economic policies. I have just had the pleasure of listening to the crucial part of his speech in Spanish. Here my rough translation:
“The march that we all saw yesterday, a multitudinous, joyous, and peaceful march, opens great paths and hope for the future. We have all heard the message. We have all changed.”
He goes on to speak of giving “true, urgent, and responsible answers to these social demands from all Chileans”; he also promises, “that if circumstances permit, it is my intention to lift all states of emergency within 24 hours of next Sunday”; and then, perhaps most significantly, he has asked all government ministers to step down so that he can put together a new cabinet best able to put into effect policies to best address those “social demands” of the people.
There are a couple of caveats there. But before I get to them, and to some pertinent background, I want to make clear my reason for this writing: because I am incredibly inspired by this latest action of more than a million Chileans – an action now praised by that the same president who, days earlier, had declared that the police and military forces he had unleashed on protesters were “at war with a powerful and implacable enemy” (Wikipedia, “2019 Chilean Protests”). Now, having discovered that his government, through its social and economic policies, was actually at war with the Chilean people, he has had a change of heart. It moves me deeply to see what an ultimately peaceful uprising of citizens can accomplish.
Particularly inspiring to me is the glorious picture of the masses surrounding and ascending a statue, holding up flags – mostly, Chile’s national flag – against the brilliant colors of dawn, at the bottom of my primary source-article at commondreams.org (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2019/10/26/over-1-million-chileans-take-streets-demand-political-reforms-change-countrys ).
And naturally I hope that similar millions (millions and millions, consistently and persistently) can produce similar results in my much larger and more populous country. The climate strikes on September 20 and 27 brought out six or seven million people around the world; can we get as many in Europe alone, and more than that in the U.S.? I was a small part of the climate strike, traveling to Evansville, Indiana from my small town in mostly rural Perry County; my ability to travel is at present restricted, so I can’t join the masses in much larger cities: perhaps my writing, at least, will have greater impact, if only for a few.
So I am also inspired by the mass movement that Bernie Sanders has started, and that has been taken up in their own manners by such as the much-maligned and proportionally effective Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib; and I hope that a mass movement of bodies in the streets and at the ballot box will fill the House and Senate, not to mention the White House (and the many state and local races from which change percolates up!), with progressive Democrats and/or Democratic Socialists: show me some progressive Republicans these days and I will root for them, too. But what makes the movement successful – aside from the radical commitment to nonviolence – is the eloquence and the clarity of the rhetorical argument: and I don’t think there are many greater or more eloquent communicators, at the moment, than Bernie, Alexandria, Ilhan, and, of course, Greta Thunberg.
But to get back to the caveats in the Chilean president’s statement: first, the “if circumstances permit,” which must refer, I imagine, to the unfortunate destruction of property and violent confrontation with the police and military. I have read that some civilian death came of people dying in buildings that protesters had set on fire, and I find that appalling. Again I emphasize that the only revolution I support is nonviolent revolution such as occurred in the streets of Chilean cities yesterday. And I regret the unleashing of violence and death from either side. I wish it were not so.
But a couple of points about that. One, violence against people is, according to my set of values, a greater wrong than violence against property; though it would seem, according to many courtroom sentences, that life must be considered much cheaper than property: in particular if the property is owned by the wealthy and powerful, such as when climate protesters destroy the machinery involved in building the pipelines that threaten the safety of their water and our air. Even if they only turn off the valves, or like the recently convicted Plowshares 7 who “‘prayed, poured blood, spray-painted messages against nuclear weapons, hammered on parts of a shrine to nuclear missiles, hung banners, and waited to be arrested” – and who were not allowed, in court, to speak of the moral and ethical reasons for their action; such as, for example, that even limited nuclear warfare, as our own government is quite stupidly considering, could easily lead to the destruction of all humanity (“Because Federal Government Is Allowed to ‘Weaponize the Law,’ Plowshares 7 Found Guilty for Anti-Nuclear Protest,” by Eoin Higgins, Common Dreams) .
Two, in respect to the senseless destruction of even the rioters’ own neighborhoods – of their community’s limited wealth – in riots, I think of James Baldwin’s essay “Notes of a Native Son” about, in part, the 1948 Harlem riots, where he also considers the waste of all that destruction, that “It would have been better to leave the plate glass as it had been and the goods lying in the stores”: “It would have been better,” Baldwin writes, “but it would also have been intolerable, for Harlem had needed something to smash. To smash something is the ghetto’s chronic need” (see my blog essay of Sept. 21, 2014 for a much fuller treatment of Baldwin’s essay).
Likewise in any community boiling with barely suppressed resentment over the vast income disparities that exist in places like Chile, Brazil, and even the United States: when it boils over, destruction is probably inevitable. Thus the necessity of a strong rhetorical argument, as I mention a few paragraphs above, coupled with strong community outreach and organization to channel and redirect that rage in directions – nonviolent directions, one would hope – that might actually yield a more positive result.
“If conditions permit,” then, is a possible escape clause that Piñera’s government might use to go back on his promise: any slight occurrence, even one provoked by police or military forces, or by saboteurs posing as protesters.
Then there is also the caveat of time. It isn’t clear to me if the “next Sunday” means tomorrow or the Sunday after tomorrow, but most likely the latter. That seems to me like an unnecessarily long time, one that adds to the possibility of some excuse not to go through with the promise. And there is always the question of who will the new cabinet consist of, and then what measures (or half or quarter measures) they will take to address those socioeconomic issues.
I remember how disillusioned I was when, at the beginning of 2009, Barack Obama assembled an economic team that consisted of the very criminals who had created the financial disaster: on the precarious assumption that, since they broke it, they were the ones to fix it. Even so, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and kept hoping for the best. Now I hear how he continues to boast to the oligarchs about how his policies sure delivered them the goods.
So the Chilean resistance will have to stay alert. Do everything possible to keep from a resurgence of violence, but also to call the government – with more millions back on the streets – on any bogus retreat from its commitment to change.
As do all of us. One of the sad lessons of history is that the same rhetorical arguments in favor of progressive democratic governance have to be reiterated, re-taught, and reinforced with each new generation. Because, without any doubt, the forces who oppose the people’s interest will be out in power to repeal any gains that we might have made.
That is the ultimate “forever war,” I suppose. The one that cannot possibly be escaped.