Chilean political and social history is fraught with extremes in political regimes. Chile suffered the violent overthrow of the democratically elected Marxist, Salvador Allende in 1973; the junta ushered in a nearly three decades long dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet.
To consider the mind frame of the military junta and the struggles that Chilean people have felt in their struggle to prosper, one could look at the Chilean Coat of Arms (1834). The Coat of Arms reads “Por La Razon o La Fuerza” or “By Reason or Force”. My professor, Dr. Allende, asked what does it mean? I understand that there is no room for compromise in that phrase. It is the imminent threat of violence. It is also sewing machista culture onto the Coat of Arms, immortalizing it.
While in Santiago, we visited the very burial places of Chilean political leaders and elite. I asked myself “What effect do these powerful people, embodying “By reason or force” have on everyday people? La Cementerio General de Santiago (General Cemetery of Santiago) could be an analogy for Chilean inequality of wealth. It is home to more than 1.5 million burials. The entrance is full of grandiose monuments to Chile’s elite families, mausoleums in rows like ancient granite mansions, so that the presumed wealth and power of the deceased will live on. This is the part of the cemetery that makes Chile proud of its heritage and machista heroes. Only a short walk away the proud shrines to upper class families clear to reveal the middle class amenities for loved ones who have passed. The space looks more a cemetery version of the projects in America, or maybe Soviet style apartments—crowded, nondescript and somewhat run down. Each tomb has a name engraved and a small space for flowers or ribbons. Walking deeper into Cementerio General de Santiago reveals the pauper’s plots and children’s graves. Gone are gleaming granite stones proclaiming the legitimacy of this person’s life. In its place are black crosses, often nameless.
To break it down into hard numbers, Chile is home to 4 billionaires and around 4,000 millionaires. The Gross National Income (GNI) for 2011 was $13,329. The GNI is only a whisper of the whole financial story of Chile’s citizens. According to Andrew Zahler Torres, barely 20% of Chileans meet the income standards for a developed country. 60% of Chileans live with incomes worse than Angola, which has a GNI of $3,960. There are approximately 2.7% of Chileans living on less than $2 per day or around 348,000 people living in extreme poverty. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Chile’s wealth inequality is the greatest within the OECD. I firmly believe that poverty is a form of violence, it is a drawn out process of deprivation and humiliation, much like the promise of violence from the Coat of Arms or the military dictatorship.
The numbers paint a picture of insurmountable obstacles for those who are not a part of the 4,000 ruling families in Chile. What those numbers cannot show is the grace and dignity the Chilean people hold themselves with. While sitting in the meeting room (sometimes doubling as a hostel dining room) of various organization leaders, I was floored by their understanding of the size of their obstacles and their unrelenting courage to reach for justice. The international media coverage of last year’s student movement led by Camilla Vallejo is an example of the will of Chile’s citizens. The student movement might be seen as an internalization of the inscription on the Chilean Coat of Arms “By Reason or Force”, masses of students demanding reform and equity within the educational system. While the government has imposed its will on its citizenry repeadtedly, the people have responded with articulate fervor. Maybe this aged threat is still a relevant part of the conversation.