On a sunny afternoon in Valparaiso, a man sits in a enclosed outdoor cafe, filing in his Suduko puzzle. Around him, students hurl chunks of brick and pavement with tee shirts tied to their faces. Riot police spray mace and unleash water canons. He barely looks up.
I don't blame you for knowing nothing about Chile. As I don't expect people from half a world away to know much about the United States. But if you did, you might know that on September 10th, 1973 the Chilean Navy left the seaport city of Valparaiso under the cover of night. It returned at 5am, September 11th, with it's canons pointed at the city. What transpired was a US sponsored military coup, deposing the world's first democratically elected Socialist president, Salvador Allende. The military seized the city, and would shortly take over the capital, Santiago, an hour east. It began the brutal and repressive 16 year dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Under his control thousands of Chileans, largely students and young activists, would "disappear". An estimated 29,000 would be imprisoned and/or tortured.
Valparaiso served as a seat for social unrest during this time, starting some of the most popular student protests that would spread across the country. Activism, and a strong mistrust of the government, has been stitched into the sleeve of this city. Today's students carry the pain of their father's generation like a banner over their heads, their mother's suppression released through the open valve of their wind pipes. Manifestation is a right of passage here, confrontation a lifestyle. So when they yell, "A Porteño doesn't scare when you look at him....Students take to the streets!”, you feel the depth of their conviction.
Back on the streets, a dance has begun between protestors and police. It's a dance they've done before. Advance, retreat, duck and cover, advance, retreat. You can sense the orchestration. Photographers scramble around with gas masks pulled over their faces. A woman follows the crowd selling snacks from a Tupperware dish. A group of school girls in skirts and leggings hurry around a corner, as water canons laced with mace spray the streets empty. The protest wasn't always this violent. When I joined an hour ago it was more festive, still loud and confrontational, but there were bands, costumes, and a few smiles. Demonstrators sang and danced for education reform. Those folks have all gone home now, what's left has devolved into vigilantism. It's my cue to go home as well.
On the walk back, I notice shops along the protest route have begun to reopen, the day to day bustle washes back over the city like an incoming tide. Looking out across Valparaiso, after a steep climb to the Cerro Alegre neighborhood, I observe again the four battleships docked at the port. Chile has been the most stable and economically sound country in South America over the last 25 years, but on a day like today, you realize that they are still barley a generation removed from great tragedy, trauma....and all it's aftereffects.