This is a difficult time to be in Chile, but I am glad that I am here. You get a very different picture of the current social crisis in Chile from the one you might have from the news in the United States – if you get any news at all.
The three-day meeting of engineering educators at la Universidad de Los Lagos in Puerto Montt brought together engineers from Colombia, Honduras, Brazil, as well as southern Chile. We had many good conversations about the current political climate in Chile. I was not the only one to be surprised by the events. One of my friends from Concepción (Chile) expressed it this way, “On Friday, our lives were normal. By Monday, our lives had completely changed.”
Most Chilenos with whom I spoke (or texted) understand and support the demands of the protesters and believe that these manifestiones were going to happen eventually. There is no social system to support people when they retire, lose their jobs, or suffer health problems. Taxes and fees continually rise, but not wages. The gap between the haves and have-nots grows wider every day. University professors, themselves, are finding it harder and harder to support their families. They might work for 40 years and have no pension when they retire.
As a consequence of the protests and strikes, many schools and universities are closed. In Puerto Montt, for example, the protests occur mostly in the evening, but that means that students and teachers cannot get home on public transportation. In addition, many university students and faculty want to take part in peaceful demonstrations. At the university, students created a display of colored string to which they attached their reasons for protesting for change. No one knows how long this situation will last, nor what it will take to resolve the problems.
Unfortunately, there is a small percentage of the population who see violence and destruction of property as an appropriate way to express their anger. They are angry with national and local government officials, local police, and national military groups. Churches are being attacked in part because of people’s anger over the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church in Chile. In Puerto Montt, a crowd of angry protesters broke into a Catholic church downtown, dragged the pews into the street, and burned them.
Lest you think I am in any danger, I am not. I have not seen nor heard any of these disturbances. As I look out my hotel window, or ride through downtown to the university, people are moving about as they usually do. For once I am happy for the global indifference of the United States: I don’t want people at home to worry that it is unsafe for me to be here. There is a pervasive sadness here in Chile that I share, but it has not affected our very successful meetings, nor our chance to visit this beautiful region of the country.