The national strike declared on August 29 against neoliberal policies by the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), Chile’s main labor union, left more than 300 detained and hundreds injured throughout the country. And yet, only one of the protestors received a public apology from a chief of police: Socialist senator, Alejandro Navarro.
“In a democracy and during my government, workers will always be allowed to peacefully express their demands and protect their rights. However, there are limits and I want everyone to have a good understanding of that,” said President Michelle Bachelet the morning of August 29 in reference to the anti-neoliberal demonstrations planned for that day by the CUT.
The President was making the observation that rights should be defended in a democracy, as long as this happens non-violently. However, during the recent protests, it was the security forces that over-stepped the bounds of law, even preventing people from marching on the sidewalks.
Mayor of Santiago, Adriana Delpiano, took charge of outlining further limits demands for rights. She offered the CUT only one road for a march in Santiago, and refused to allow the march to approach the Alameda, the city’s main artery—never mind its arrival to the government palace.
The union leaders, noticeably offended, did not accept the prohibitions and called on workers to congregate at four different points in the city. The four points corresponded to the cardinal points and were basically equidistant from La Moneda government palace: Plaza Italia, Estación Mapocho, Estación Central y Metro Franklin. The choices were an evident gesture at civil disobedience with one strategic objective: arrive to La Moneda.
When the Mayor was consulted on the situation, she reiterated that there was no authorization for marching from those points and emphatically added: “We won’t permit people to arrive to the Alameda! Police will be standing by to guarantee the free movement of transit and for city activities to remain as normal as possible.”
With these chips on the table, the only question remaining was to what degree the police would guarantee the transit on the Alameda, the normalcy of activities, the integrity of private property and the climate of order and peace.
At around 10 a.m., began the yells, the drum rolls, and the moving multitude from the Plaza Italia. They were workers, students, normal and simple people. The exception was a group of Socialist members of congress that had decided to back the protests against the neoliberal model, despite the fact that their own party had helped install and defend the same model since its rise to power in 2000.
The presence of those members of congress and that of the main leader of the CUT, Arturo Martínez (also Socialist), led some to believe that police treatment would be cordial. “Democracy does not need disorder and violence,” the President had said. “Spaces exist in a democracy for peaceful expression, so let’s take care of what we have.”
During the first moments of the Plaza Italia demonstration, the hundreds of protestors and the police seemed disposed to heed the President’s request. The people had peacefully occupied the plaza and the police on foot and on horseback had limited themselves to blocking access to the Alameda.
Nonetheless, at the moment Socialist senator Alejandro Navarro negotiated with an officer—in an attempt to gain permission for the march—another officer from the police’s Special Forces came up to the senator from behind and brutally smashed him in the back of the head with a metal baton. Later, many wondered whether the policeman had hit the senator knowing who he was or if it was an isolated, spur of the moment type thing. Others have suggested the attack was an act of provocation by the intelligence services.
In any case, after the attack came the usual: police dispersed the crowd with horses, beatings, water cannons, teargas, and dozens of arrests. The protestors did not respond violently: no barricades, no destruction of property, no Molotov cocktails—or at least not in Plaza Italia. The only response of the workers was the insistent attempt to march on the Alameda toward the government palace.
Navarro, with his head bleeding and the collar of his shirt stained red, showed a strong dose of courage trying to steer the advance of workers and managed to walk a few meters on the Alameda at the head of a small group.
Maybe he was dizzy or confused, or perhaps the strike on the head had activated the spot in his brain where he keeps the words of Salvador Allende: “Know this: sooner or later the great alamedas (boulevards) will open for all free peoples to construct a better society.”
But in a few meters, the way was blocked by journalists, jockeying for position, conscious they were probably getting the scoop of the day.
“You’re bleeding, what happened senator?”
“They hit me from behind. People from the CUT say it was a policeman. But the gravest problem is that they never authorized the march. The people are here, and it was they who won democracy by marching against dictatorship… My government cannot be afraid of the workers!” replied the senator, unable to organize his thoughts.
“And what’s your opinion of the situation?”
“I think the government needs to evaluate how it’s going to deal with these situations, because they don’t happen because the Socialist or Communist parties want them to; the situation is boiling over and—”
“But where did they hit you?” asks an incredulous reporter in high heels and a tight suit.
“On my head… I got a little dizzy, but I decided to stay to see how things turn out.”
“Let’s go, Navarro, let’s go!” yell some workers interrupting the interview. He keeps marching on decidedly as he had done in his best years, when he was in his thirties, as President of the Student Federation of Concepción University.
A small group of protestors follow him determined to break through the police’s human chain. But more journalists arrive and the march slows down.
“What do you think about these protests taking place?”
“I think it was an error not to authorize the march, because with Sergio Aguiló and Marco Antonio Ominami (Socialist deputies) we’ve always said that with the first violent response to a protest we’d resign. The important thing is for this to end well,” Navarro concluded.
“How could this possibly end well with all the people they’ve detained!” yells a woman from the crowd.
“Don’t worry miss, we’ll go see those detained,” yells back the senator.
As more reporters arrive, the questions multiply. “What’s your message to the government? How could they beat up a senator? What would they do then to common citizens?”
“The Concertación (governing coalition) has two souls,” Navarro replies. “And I’m with the soul that’s with the workers. The government has to understand that people have a right to protest. The people that are here fought to conquer democracy and they can’t be pre-judged as violent. It’s true that some groups commit violent acts, but I think there’s a capacity for them to be sidelined—“
The same indignant woman once again interrupts him: “The police are the violent ones, hunger is what makes violence, exploitation is what makes violence.”
“She’s exactly right,” adds Navarro.
“Was it a provocation, then?” asks a reporter.
“The police hit me from behind. They hit Lautaro Carmona (Communist leader) in the stomach, so it’s apparent there’s mismanagement. The police are always the ham in the sandwich: there put in really difficult positions, but there’s no justification for being hit from behind.
“What do you think about human rights lawyer Hugo Gutiérrez being detained?” questions a young reporter with the look of being from an alternative media group.
“It’s like the dicatorship,” says the senator still marching.
“Gutiérrez arrested, Navarro beaten!” yells the young reporter.
With mounted police blocking the path of the leaders, the interview is is once more suspended, while everyone within 20 feet of Navarro is sprayed with the water canon—which are really tanks with high-pressure water hoses on top). The young journalist latched on to the senator and they barely manage to pass through the line of horses.
“Is it the first time you’ve been beaten during democracy?”
Navarro manages a shaky reply: “Yeah, definitely, the first time.”
“Does this mark a before and after for you?”
“I think it does, the situation makes one think about things. I hope good comes out of it and that the government understands it needs a direct line of communication with the people.”
The senator keeps moving forward, but in a few meters the water canons stop, turn, aim, and fire the hoses. Navarro, the CUT leaders, and the young reporter are all completely soaked.
Between clenched teeth, the journalist asks, “Alejandro we’re totally soaked. What do you think of the repression?”
“I think the police are totally out of control. This has gotten completely out of control,” he says as he attempts to dry his face with a handkerchief.
“But this isn’t the first time this has happened. What needs to be done to prevent this?
Silence. The senator has had enough: a beating, water, teargas, and prodding questions were too stiff a cocktail for him.
Navarro’s advisors see the water canon coming once again and finally understand that, today, no one is safe in the streets of Santiago, not even a senator.
“Let’s go Alejandro! Through here there’s a hospital, so they can have a look at you.”
The senator refuses. He says he’s worried about the small march that he’s come to lead, fearing for its safety if he left. Still, water canons and toxic gases continue to pound the march, which continues its walk calmly on the sidewalk behind the senator.
“The impostors in government said we could freely express ourselves in peace. What’s the deal?” yells a worker. But his screams mesh with even more shrill cries. A child has fallen to the ground, with his face full of blood. No one knows what happened.
“Someone’s hurt, someone’s hurt!” say Navarro’s advisers, as if the child had fallen from the sky.
“Navarro, this time let’s really go to the hospital. Let’s take this kid and while we’re there a doctor can look at you. Look at your shirt. It hasn’t stopped bleeding.
Finally, the senator acts like a senator and leaves with his advisors as bodyguards. He finally understood what his aides tried to explain to him all daylong: In Santiago de Chile, there is no congressional immunity.
Jaime Díaz Lavanchy is a journalist and documentary filmmaker in Chile. His next film chronicles the 2006 student uprising known as the "Penguin Revolution."