Demonstrations initially provoked by Santiago Metro fare hikes have become an outlet for frustrations over low wages and high inequality
A sprawling bowl situated on the outskirts of Santiago and decked in the flaming red of the nation’s flag, the Estadio Nacional has been a picturesque symbol of Chilean football in all its passionate glory.
But the old stadium also contains within its bowels the scene of one of the most shameful chapters in Chile’s history.
Those memories have been ignited over the past week as a country famed across South America for its supposedly model economy and political stability has gone up in flames.
Within the Estadio Nacional, during the murderous dictatorship of General Agustin Pinochet, the military operated a clandestine detention and torture centre believed to have housed up to 40,000 victims at the height of the regime’s repression.
The mere rumour that current President Sebastian Pinera was utilising the stadium to house those arrested during widespread protests caused outrage, bringing back to life ghosts of Chile’s past that many, particularly those in power, would like to remain buried.
The facts of the matter are grim enough. What began as a sporadic protest against a hike in Santiago transport prices quickly mushroomed into a general popular uprising against what many see as sub-standard salaries, living conditions and rampant inequality in the country.
The government’s response has been confused, combining limited concessions with brutal crackdowns, including an 8pm curfew enforced by the military.
As of Friday, at least 18 protesters have been reported dead, as well as more than 5,000 arrested and 2,000 injured. Claims of sexual violence and illegal detentions on the authorities’ part have only further inflamed tensions, while dozens of buildings and metro stations have been vandalised or set on fire, and looting has occurred across Chile.
None of that has discouraged demonstrators. An estimated one million people took to the streets of Santiago alone on Friday, demanding change and, among the more radical, there were even calls for the resignation of beleaguered Pinera.
One message runs particularly deep, on banners and sandwich boards: “They have taken so much from us that they even took away our fear.”
Those protesting for the last seven days have taken huge risks in their quest to make their voices heard against a government they accuse of being deaf to their plight.
But they have picked up some unexpected allies: some of Chile’s top footballers, who have not hesitated to speak out about a situation many of them know only too well.
Claudio Bravo, twice a Copa America-winning captain with the Roja and national icon, was among the first to speak out.
“Our water, electricity, gas, education, healthcare, pensions, medicines, our paths, forests, the Atacama salt plain, the glaciers, our transport have been sold into private hands,” he fired on Twitter as the protests began last Saturday. “Anything else? Isn’t it too much?”
“We do not want a Chile for the few. We want a Chile for everybody. Enough.”
Barcelona midfielder Arturo Vidal echoed Bravo’s claims, stating that “politicians must listen to the People when we make ourselves heard. The people are suffering and we say ENOUGH!” while Alexis Sanchez also sent his own message of support, while calling for the violence to cease on both sides.
Perhaps fittingly for a soccer professional known for his pugnacious temperament and willingness to go toe-to-toe with anyone on the field, Gary Medel, like Vidal, brought up in poverty among the suburbs of Santiago, had the strongest message.
“A war needs two sides and here we are one people who want equality,” the Bologna man stated in response to Pinera’s much-criticised comment that Chile was “at war”.
“We do not want more violence. We need the authorities to say they are going to change to resolve social problems. They talk about crimes and not solutions for the real problems.”
It has been rare to see elite footballers refer so directly to political and social matters. One often assumes that, cosseted with multi-million dollar contracts and living apart from those who idolise them, either in private neighbourhoods or thousands of miles away from Chile, they exist in a bubble.
But Chile’s national team heroes are no strangers to the plight of those facing down rifles and tear gas on the streets night after night in defiance of the curfew
Vidal and Medel would have spent the few coins they had to spare as young hopefuls on buses and trains in order to get to training, as do thousands across Santiago and the country as a whole.
But while for that pair the promise of a better future lay ahead, that has been not the case for many of their compatriots, for whom the daily commute fulfils the basic need to put food on the table for their families and little else.
Any hike in transport costs in a nation which already has the most expensive fares on the entire South American continent and where the minimum wage has been set at a miserly $410 a month (average pension incomes are even lower, at $286) cannot help but be felt directly in the pockets of the population.
In the meantime, football itself has come to a halt in Chile, with authorities unable to guarantee safety for fans.
One further complication should protests continue to escalate looms on November 23, with River Plate and Flamengo due to descend on the Estadio Nacional in Santiago for the first-ever Copa Libertadores final to be played across a single match on neutral territory.
CONMEBOL insisted on Thursday that there was no contingency plan in place for a change of venue. “Santiago has been the site for the Libertadores final, that has been decided, president Alejandro Dominguez reiterated. “They will recover from what they are going through.”
The show must go on, of course. Tickets for November’s extravaganza have been on sale for weeks, with both River and Flamengo fans set to be outnumbered comfortably by corporate sections and neutrals – just 12,500 for each side, to be sold from October 30, in the 48,000-capacity stadium.
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With the Champions League ever looming as the glossy model to follow, every precaution will be taken to remove any chance of disturbances from overshadowing this upcoming exhibition of South American football.
But those in the streets of Chile will not forget the batons and bullets, or the broken promises that forced them out to participate in the biggest demonstrations the country has seen in a generation.
Nor should those fortunate enough to prosper forget what has been at stake; which has been why the example of Bravo, Vidal, Medel and other Roja idols in standing against inequality and repression deserves to be applauded.