“It’s difficult to imagine that the streets near the university where I used to study and work are now full of soldiers”, says Carolina Flores Barros.
“Everything’s so different there now.” Flores Barros, who is doing a master’s in International Public Law, recalls how, just a month ago, a Dutch colleague remarked on the “peace and stability” of her country. “The protests started the next day.”
On 14 October, secondary school students in Santiago, the capital, decided to stop paying for the metro after the government announced fares would be raised by thirty cents. Soon, a number of stations were occupied, which eventually led to 17 metro stations being burned and 81 destroyed.
The police responded with force. For the first time since the fall of former dictator Pinochet, a state of emergency was called and even the army was seen on the streets. At least 22 people have been killed during the protests, and more than two thousand have been injured. The United Nations are investigating breaches of human rights, including torture.
“The protests are about more than thirty cents”, Melisa Galvez, a master’s student reading Governance of Migration and Diversity, explains.
“They’re about thirty years of inequality and injustice. Corruption is rife, pensions are poor and unemployment is rising. People don’t trust the politicians. The government needs to assume its responsibility.”
“I’m losing a lot of sleep”, says Philosophy student Gabriel Gallego Herrera, who came to The Hague in January to do a master’s degree course. “I see people being shot on the news and then I have trouble sleeping. I just can’t drop off.”
When the protests first started, he found it hard to concentrate. “I didn’t read anything for my course for a week, which had never happened before – I’m a perfectionist.”
Gabriel considered going to see the university’s student psychologist but was put off by the long waiting list. “The first opportunity was in December but I’m heading back to Chile the month after.”
The time difference – it’s four hours earlier in the Netherlands – amplifies their worries, admits Carolina. “When I go to bed, I always think the worst is yet to come. When I wake up, the first thing I do is watch the news from the day before.”
Melisa, too, starts the day by checking WhatsApp and Instagram, and continues to do so all day. “It’s very hard to do any studying. After five minutes, a message about the protests pops up on Instagram or Facebook. It takes me an hour to get back to work, but it’ll be only another five minutes before I’m distracted again.” Her sister goes to as many demonstrations as possible. “I spend a lot of time worrying whether she’s alright. Many protests are eventually quelled.”
Even so, Melisa is very proud of her sister. “If I were in Chile now, I’d be with her.” She sighs. “It feels as if I’m not really here. My thoughts and my heart are in Chile the whole time”, she says. “I feel useless. I would be able to do much more over there.” As this feeling of powerlessness dominates their lives, Carolina and Melisa translate messages about the uprising from Spanish to English on Instagram and Gabriel gives talks about the protests.
Last Sunday, he spoke to The Hague’s artists collective ANNASTATE. He has also written an open letter about the position of human rights in his country, which has been signed by more than 150 students and university lecturers in Chile and the Netherlands. He wants to present the letter to the Chilean government.
All three students have held presentations about the situation in their country for their fellow students. “I was surprised and happy with the response”, says Carolina. “My fellow students are very concerned and frequently ask me how things are going now.” Gabriel is delighted with his new friends in the Netherlands. “They bring me food, they’ve signed my statement of support. They’ve helped me a lot.” Melisa, too, is glad of support. For instance, she went to a demonstration against the Chilean government on 24 October in Amsterdam. “People said: let me know if you need anything, and you can stay at my place. They understood how important it is for me.”
The largest protest in Chile saw a million people gather in its capital Santiago, although the country only has a population of 17 million. The first demands have been met: the metro fares will not go up and the minimum wage will. Several of the ministers responsible have resigned. Gabriel continues: “Now President Piñera should step down.”
Despite the promises, things have not calmed down. The protesters’ ultimate aim is a new constitution, one that does not date back to former dictator Pinochet’s time. Last week, the authorities announced a referendum on whether or not there should be a new constitution.
“I hope that Chileans abroad can vote too”, says Carolina. Gabriel is not counting on it. “Four years ago, President Piñera couldn’t organise a national census, so how’s he supposed to arrange this?” Gabriel will be returning to Chile at the end of January. If he needs to, he too will take to the streets. “It’s my civic duty.”
By Yvet Maassen
Leiden University has advised Leiden students in Chile to return to the Netherlands. It’s not an order, because no warnings not to travel to Chile, or to Hong Kong, have been issued yet. University spokesman Caroline van Overbeeke reports that one student intends to leave Chile, the rest want to stay for the time being.
Earlier this week, there were still fourteen students in Hong Kong, five of whom have now returned to the Netherlands. Van Overbeeke: “Nine are still there but we’re in touch with all of them.”