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We play golf while Santiago burns

Ingham Daily Press editor Jonny Pearce was in Chile during last year’s social unrest

Here is his story from on the ground in South America

AS we tee off on the first hole at the Santa Martina Golf Resort, which looks down on Santiago from its vantage point in the Andes Mountains, the violence that has brought the country’s capital to a standstill in recent weeks feels a million miles away.

‘I come here whenever I can,’ says Carlos Amestica. ‘There is no golf course near my home in Santiago. I joined this club so I can play whenever I want’.

It is an option available only to the privileged few; those who can afford its $6,000 annual fees.

In a country with a minimum wage of less than $600 per month for a 45-hour working week, the fee astronomical.

Unlike many members, who would live in La Dehesa, the community that sits just below the club, but well above the heart of Santiago, Carlos lives south of the city’s centre, in a community called San Miguel.

‘I grew up there,’ he says. ‘I have my office there. My mother and my family live there. It’s perfect for me’.

There is an east-west divide in the city that is striking, from the hustle and bustle of the street markets and mural-donned, decaying walls in Franklin in the south-west, where most people are dark-haired with heritage that combines Latin and native Chilean, to the more exclusive east; home to many with fair skin and blue eyes, and where the buildings reflect a more European-styled city.

The further east you go, the more exclusive it gets, culminating at La Dehesa, which is another world from the shanty towns in Renca that run alongside the river as you drive away from the airport.

A self-made man, Carlos was educated at a public school, that is to say, a school that does not charge fees, not to be confused with Britain’s public schools, which are the traditional grooming grounds for children of the aristocracy, including freshly elected Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and that charge substantial fees.

A combination of natural intelligence and an incredible work ethic have led to Carlos succeeding first at school and later at university, where he studied business.

Along with his mother, he started a business, G2000, that has thrived since its inception at the turn of the millennium.

‘G stands for g-force,’ he says with a cheeky smile, after driving down the fairway.

I do not fare so well.

Though the fairway looks inviting from our lofty tee-off, slicing right leaves you tangled in the Andes’ arid, thorny bush, while hooking left sends your ball tumbling down the hillside and into an abyss.

‘Hit another one’, he says.

I do, and manage to at least scuff this shot straight.

It takes a lucky bounce and I am on the fairway, though some way short of the man who has invited me to this picturesque course.

As we look down after teeing off from our elevated starting point, I wonder how tough it would be to chop out of that thorny bush.

Carlos has risen through Chile’s public education system.

It is a system which is commonly acknowledged to have deteriorated since he was at school in the 1980s.

Anger about Chile’s neglect of both its public education and health systems fuelled the fires at the recent uprisings.

There has been an undercurrent of discontent in the country, which reached boiling point in Santiago a few weeks ago.

Protests against a rise in the cost of the metro exploded into violent clashes between protesters and police, and led to embattled president Sebastian Piñera imposing a night-time curfew and bringing the army onto the streets, after wide-spread looting, destruction and the burning of buildings and metro stations.

It was the first time the military has been on the streets in Chile since the end of former dictator Augusto Pinochet’s rule in 1989.

The UN has accused the Chilean police of human rights violations, including torture and sexual violence.

Investigators say they have four verified cases of unlawful deaths involving state agents, 26 people have been killed and hundreds more injured.

Of the 28,000 people detained since mid-October, 1,600 people remain in pre-trial detention.

‘The problem was that some of the police used too much violence,’ says Carlos. ‘More than 250 people have lost eyes after being shot in the face by rubber bullets’.

The UN investigation is being lead by Piñera’s rival, former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, who took a post of High Commissioner for Human Rights after her second term as president ended in 2018.

President Piñera, a billionaire who is himself serving in his second stint as national leader, has so far resisted calls for him to resign.

‘Unlucky mate,’ says Carlos, shaking my hand at the end of the eighth hole.

Having planned to play nine, we’ve had to wrap it up early, as Carlos has a midday meeting.

I have been well-beaten by this charming man.

I did not have the skills to negotiate such an unforgiving course, and lost more balls than I care to admit.

We make our way past a Spanish colonial-style building that offers a window into its spa resort and restaurants. I catch a fleeting glimpse of the turquoise pools and champagne jacuzzis, with a back-drop of sprawling mountains, and wonder what it would be like to cool-off and unwind.

But we whizz on and begin our descent.

For the first time I see the city below; I had not contemplated it on our ascent. It was left in our trail. I had become mesmorised by the natural wonders of the Andes and the plush Le Dehesa.

A thick smog hangs over the city.

‘Look at that air,’ says Carlos, shaking his head. ‘We live in that’.

It is not only smog that hangs over the city.

The violence has led to schools being closed early, businesses shutting up shop before closing time – something which would have been unthinkable in Chile two months ago – and people rushing to get home before dark for fear that they may be caught up in the violence.

Having arrived the previous afternoon, I caught a shared transfer from the airport to Carlos’ house in San Miguel. I was struck by the amount of graffiti on every wall space.

As well as sharing the price of my ride with four people, all Chilean (and all glued to their phones; some things are the same the world-over), I share a vision of the city I would otherwise have missed.

Winding through the busy central streets, graffiti slogans such as ‘Piñera out’, ‘Police rapists’ and ‘Bring down the state’ are now as common as the sound of car horns.

Stopping wherever he wants, my driver assists each passenger with their luggage as they hop out, happily enough, and make their way home.

Churches have not escaped the graffiti-wrath, with ‘Paedophile priests’, ‘Come here to get raped’ and ‘Legalise abortion’ (abortion is illegal in Chile) sprayed on every church wall.

‘Jesus – son of the Devil,’ is another slogan.

Frantic banks and businesses have done their best to cover windows, while other smaller shops, in a bid to avoid being targeted, have signs reading, ‘We are a family business – we support the cause’.

As well as this mass-scale venting at the state and the church, buildings and metros have been burned and shops looted.

‘Ninety-per-cent of the protesters are peaceful,’ Carlos tells me.

‘The other ten-per-cent only want anarchy. They have destroyed the city’.

More than one million people gathered peacefully in the largest protest on 25 October (2019), singing Victor Jara songs, which hark back to the iconic socialist folk singer’s murder in the aftermath of Pinochet’s military coup in 1973 (Jara had his fingers cut-off to prevent him playing guitar before he was assassinated), as well as dancing and celebrating the perceived birth of the beginning of something new.

Ex-pat Alex Brennan (38) moved to Chile from Newcastle in England in 2010 to teach at an elite English speaking school.

While many overseas have been surprised by the unrest – Chile was widely recognised as having the most stable economy in South America – Alex was not.

‘It had to happen,’ he says. ‘You can poke a tiger with a stick and it might ignore you for a while, but eventually it will snap.

‘The cost of living does not match the wages. There is a flaunting of wealth that makes Santiago seem like a European or American city.

‘On the surface it works really well. But everybody lives on credit. It just can’t be sustained.

‘There is nothing too deep to the cause of the protests. It’s just that people don’t get paid enough, yet Chile itself flaunts money as though everything is normal’.

Alex goes on to suggest that the extreme-capitalist system that was set-up in Chile by the Chicago Boys, economy graduates from the University of Chicago, after the ’73 coup, has fostered a culture of greed.

‘I’ve got a mate who rents a house to international students. When he first started he charged a reasonable amount and had four rooms. Then he realised he was filling it up every time he advertised, so he thought, I’ll raise the price.

‘Almost every two months he was raising the price. I thought, when is he going to stop? And he never did. He just kept raising it. Then he turned four rooms into six. Then six rooms into eight. Then eight rooms into ten.

‘And he’s still increasing the money. It’s the same at pharmacists. At supermarkets. They think, people are still paying, let’s keep raising prices.

‘Instead of recognising customer loyalty, or making long-term plans, it’s just like, let’s make as much money in as quick a time as possible.’

Helvecio Ratton (70), a Brazilian film director who was a socialist activist in his youth, fled his country’s military regime to study economics in Chile in 1970, when extreme socialist leader Salvador Allende was in power, only to have to go into hiding and escape after the USA funded Pinochet’s coup three years later.

He says: ‘The main cause of the protests is social inequity. Chile has developed its economy by privileging one sector and neglecting the rest.

‘The constitution was formed under Pinochet. Pensions are the same, or are getting worse. It’s led to elderly people committing suicide.

‘The demonstrations we are seeing now are not about rises in the cost of the metro. The truth is, this is something that has been building over many years’.

A Chilean commission recording human rights abuses affirms that General Pinochet was responsible for the deaths of 3,065 Chileans, and in excess of 40,000 people were tortured under his regime.

On life today, Andres Gonzalez (42), a Chilean teacher, says: ‘The pensions are not enough to survive on. People are dying on public hospital waiting lists. There is a huge gulf between private and public education.

‘Piñera said before the protests that Chile was an oasis of peace and tranquility. Then he said we were at war with the protesters.

‘After the metro price-rise our transport minister said, whoever wants to save should get up early. We have people in their late seventies rising for work at the crack of dawn and getting home late, and they still don’t make enough to survive.

‘Millionaire fraudsters get fines while the poor get jailed for their crimes. Buying an apartment has become impossible for most of society.

‘We’ve had 30 years of extreme capitalism that has brought material benefits for some. But now we are seeing the system’s weaknesses’.

Driving me to the airport before I depart Santiago, my Uber driver Victor reflects on the current situation.

‘How can people survive on a pension of $100,000 Chilean pesos ($200) when their rent is $180,000 Chilean pesos ($360)?

‘I could not survive just on Uber. I work eight hours a day. I have apartments that I rent out. That’s how I survive.

‘People who live off Uber need to work 15 hours a day’.

As we are now into the new year, many Chileans have begun taking their holidays, 15 allocated days a year (one extra day is awarded after 13 years’ loyalty to a company).

‘If it starts again in March, we have a problem that will go on for a long time,’ Victor says sheepishly.

On board my flight, the engines start and we fly up and out of the smog, out of the unrest, away from the violence and protests and over the snow-capped Andes.

The Chileans say that the rise in metro fares was the drop of water that over-spilled the glass.

It is clear from my short visit that the people have had enough. They do not want violence, but they do want justice.

What can you do to make that thick rough a little smoother, President Piñera?

Written in December 2019.

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