Eyes Open

The citizen body has always been the target of state violence, but, in keeping with these visual times, the police targeted the optic organ itself, rendering their violence spectacular. The target was no longer the body but the eye of the citizen. They aimed to leave eyes open and awake forever, perpetually shot upward, blank.

Que se sepa que en Chile nos estarán robando los ojos mas no la VOZ! 

Puente del Arzobispo, Santiago courtesy of the author

This essay, written late last year, reflects on the first two months of mass protests in Chile, which began on October 18: protests that erupted, at least on the surface, over a thirty peso increase in the subway fare. The government responded by restoring the military dictatorship’s curfew and sending ten thousand troops into Santiago. After extended pressure from protesters, a national plebiscite on whether to overturn the constitution—passed under the old military dictatorship—was set for April 26.

As Lina Meruane describes the dizzying “speed of the news” throughout the late fall, she confronts questions of timing and telling. How to sum up something, she asks, that changes with every uploaded video, every leaked recording? At which moment can you pause long enough to turn around and explain what is happening? Through translating, I came to understand the complexity of these questions and wondered how best to convey the ongoing reality of the protests—which, along with the police’s openly brutal repression, have become a part of daily life in Chile.

And the story continues to change: on March 8, for International Women’s Day, two million women, in a country of eighteen million, marched in Santiago alone. This past week, coronavirus forced the protests into a new chapter, with tensions running high as containment measures dovetailed all too neatly with the current government’s agenda—the plebiscite has been postponed until October, and a national curfew, in lieu of a national quarantine, has been imposed once again.
—Gwendolyn Harper

1. People kept asking me what was going on in Chile, why such large crowds were protesting. There were so many ways to answer that question—thirty pesos and thirty years of discontent, forty-seven continuous years of dicta-dura and dicta-blanda, followed by a democracy founded on the same dictatorial principles. Outside of Chile—in New York City, where I now live—friends and colleagues kept asking and my answer kept changing. It wasn’t only how the repression of the past had come back to life, but how we were bracing ourselves for years’ worth of civilian distrust and government deception should the demands of the street go unaddressed, should the protests fail to uproot the abusive system grafted onto us by the late dictatorship. 

2. From a distance, it was hard to see what the Chilean people had been waiting for, what they had endured, the ways they had managed in silence while being crushed into the ground. It was hard to see at what time they got up for work each day, or how they labored while there, the number of extra hours they took on; how they paid their taxes while watching others who earn more evade paying theirs. It was hard to see the debt they’d assumed in order to send their children to school, or the interest they now paid at unfathomable rates; how people in Chile had done everything they could to keep up with their payments, how they’d kept living to keep paying until one day they realized that they were trapped, that they would retire with the meagerest of pensions, grow old in miserable poverty, and end up committing suicide because there wouldn’t be enough money, not even to eat. None of this—of having nothing, not a thing, to lose—could be seen from the outside.

3. It is the system that must change—the so-called Chilean way is what must fall, along with its presidents and police forces and troops of racketeering businessmen, along with the privileges that the dictatorship’s constitution still protects. For the outside world, the upheaval in Chile has proved difficult to parse, our presidents having only ever sold the outside world statistics depicting the country’s extraordinary success; our presidents careful never to reveal our extraordinary inequality.  

 4. Lying by omission, we were told while growing up, is still lying; if they caught us in a lie, they said, we would be punished. 

 5. Lying is another form of censoring information, of blacking it out.

 6. During my years as a schoolgirl, which were also the years of the dictatorship, the major newspaper, El Mercurio, was accused of lying—and it was true that it lied. El Mercurio distorted and suppressed information, making up facts that supported the coup government’s propaganda. But this time, since there are phones and cameras everywhere, since there are more voices and more information, we can see what El Mercurio and other major news outlets would have otherwise concealed, all of them run by businessmen entrenched in a system that guarantees them their privileges.

7. People paint pictures of Mercury, the newspaper’s mascot, on the city walls. They paint him with a long lying nose—Mercurio, the mythical messenger of the Gods.

8. I wanted to provide answers for those who inquired about Chile, but that first day of protests was confusing: the suspiciously simultaneous fires, the lootings supposedly carried out by delinquents under orders from the Chilean, Cuban, or Venezuelan left. The TV broadcasts edited out all images of violence perpetrated by armed forces, whether the military or the police—their bodies shielded by panels and bulletproof vests, their faces protected by helmets to subdue the thousands of citizens who were showing up of their own volition in the streets, demanding the return of what was theirs. I was not surprised by such censorship. I was once a journalist, I once worked for the Chilean media industry: I was familiar with the edits, the barrage of half-truths, the outright lies and the fake news hard to counteract with reality. So I turned to alternative media instead, supplemented by the foreign press. I found myself following individuals—some of them friends, others total strangers to me—as they made their way with a camera through the city. And I tried along with them to understand what was really going on in our streets.  

9. I squinted through the myopia that distance imposes, struggled to keep up with the speed of the news, struggled to untangle my own rage and uncertainty, my own fear, admiration, and anguish as I saw the banners unfurled across the avenues. The graffiti bursting with grievances and petitions: public health care, where the sick die waiting to be attended; tiered education available only for those who can pay; abusively low pensions; the unchecked violence exerted by a militarized State. it’s so much crap that i don’t know where to start, someone confessed on a sign. It was all so much—so sudden, so fast—that I was left without words. 

10. No words, just howls: Take the military off the streets! They are shooting at us! Howling as if I were there too, standing among everyone else, barely forty-eight hours later. They declared war on us! I exclaimed, and furiously wrote, whatmutherfukking war! As if we hadn’t been living in a silenced war all along, a low-intensity conflict (always at high voltage for the indigenous Mapuche). But now the president had actually proclaimed war against his own citizens, pronounced every letter of the word. He’d made it real.

 11. “We are at war against a ruthless, powerful enemy who respects nothing and no one, and who is prone to using force.” The military confronted its own people. The people were armed with rocks—the valiant, frenzied few—but mostly with the handy utensils of street protests: pots that clang and clamor when hit with wooden spoons, perhaps a fork.  

12. The president’s declaration only added fuel to the fire of discontent that burned for weeks through the entire country—a discontent which, for years, hid smoldering beneath these pots in silence. 

13. Can thousands of words explain what a sign left on the street sums up in a single phrase: the egg looked good but was rotten inside.  

14. No one ever asked about this, but the phrase reminded me of the eggs we threw back in high school, during the supposed final months of the dictatorship. When they promised us that happiness was coming. When it seemed that things were going to change. We didn’t really understand what we were hoping for, because in that private high school no one needed to worry about it. Only the rector worried about the image of his prestigious institution: he chased after us, demanding we return to our classrooms. He’d punish us if we didn’t. Punish us? Hundreds more fresh eggs exploding on the pavement. 

15. What could his threats matter to us? We were not the ones the system was going to punish.

16. Later, as the tumult of the protests unfolded, I explained abroad that they were firing at our faces. Now it was our eyes that were exploding. They could have fired at our feet, where the rubber bullets wouldn’t cause such vicious, irreversible wounds. But they were pointing their guns at our faces. Two hundred ruptured eyes that might never see again. So many young people now missing an eye. A teenager shot at close range in both.  

17. “I gave my eyes so that people would wake up,” said the teenager blinded by the police. “Please, keep fighting.” He sent his message from the hospital, where he had been operated on in vain.   

18. Since when does demanding justice cost you an eye? Since when does protesting cost you two? Someone must pay for all that lost sight. 

19. The country, used to dazzling the world with its economic growth statistics, was now breaking records for the number of eye injuries sustained during confrontations. The president and the press seemed only to care about the material losses: destroyed subway stations, the broken traffic lights downtown, the looted supermarkets and pharmacies. The canceled international meetings in Santiago, where they had banked on seducing the world once again with an oasis they believed to be theirs. 

20. give us our eyes back, a poster with images of bleeding eyes demands of the president. Weve been robbed of so many things.

21. But didn’t the president retract his declared war? Didn’t he take the military off the streets? I stammered when people asked me these questions, stumbled and clarified that he took away the soldiers but delegated their violence to a militarized police force. I told them that los pacos, or the police, or law enforcement, is an institution lacking respectable leadership: decadent and corrupt, run through with dishonor and drugs. A rotten institution that together the citizens condemn.  

22. Of the countless phrases scrawled across walls and chanted in the streets, those decrying and cursing the police are now what you see and hear the most. If the early slogans denounced thirty pesos and thirty years of slow economic violence, now they decry the twenty-plus deaths, the three-thousand-plus wounded, the three-hundred-plus cases of serious eye injuries.  

23. How could it be war when all the wounded are civilians? 

24. Yes, yes, I said, with growing impatience. The government was forced to call the military back to their barracks, but the brutality was handed over to the police, who now essentially operate with legal impunity.  

25. An audio file surfaced in which the police commissioner promises his officers “maximum support and maximum backup,” adding that “no one would be discharged on account of police procedure.” “Maximum backup,” he repeats, as if he hasn’t already said it twice before, “if any legal difficulties arise.” Applause and cheers off-stage. 

26. The national police force later confirmed the statement, insisting the commissioner merely spoke of a legal framework and set of processes already in place. 

 27. Is it ever justified, within a legal framework, to attack when not out of self-defense? To shoot bullets at the eyes? To shoot firearms at a body of citizens? To torture? To rape inside police stations? To stick a baton up a vagina? To strip women naked and handle them? To detain and assault minors? Is this butchering what the police commissioner calls “respect for police procedure”?  

28. All these questions are rhetorical as long as the government tries to stop people from protesting by shooting them.  

29. That same week the president declared he would send laws to Congress empowering the police force, prosecutors, and various ministry teams to file their own criminal complaints against the protesters. He announced more aggressive penalties for those who built barricades or hid their faces, for anyone who “promoted public disorder.” Laws, he said, that increased citizen safety. This forced me to explain to those not in Chile that these laws did not mean securing the public good for all citizens but rather the violation of these same citizens’ human rights. These safety laws—some of which are already in effect and others that, despite being rejected by Congress in the past, were now pending—granted the use of even more disproportionate violence against the body of the citizenry, which was enacting its legitimate right to protest.  

30. A study has now discovered that the bullets arent made of rubber, as the government claimed. Instead of rebounding, they penetrate. The doctors who removed bullet after bullet from eye after eye insisted on the study, which revealed that only 20 percent of each bullet was rubber. The remaining 80 percent was an amalgam of heavy metals and toxic compounds: silica, barium sulfate, lead. 

31. More like a rock, notes the study, conducted at a respected Chilean university. More like a rock than a hard-boiled egg.  

32. Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark, suggests a minor character in the Shakespearean tragedy. It’s just the tear gas, the street replies as it runs between tanks, eyes blinded by the sting and face covered with a rag.   

33. Something smelled bad for so many years we ended up getting used to it. But the rot was everywhere, and emanated from the presidential palace, where a supposedly democratic government declined to represent the interests of its citizens, hear their grievances or negotiate with their demands. “It’s just the stink of privilege,” mutters the street, raising its banners and spray paint.  

34. The Greeks warned us: even a king with the best of intentions ceases to perceive what happens around him; dazzled by his own power, he commits both incest and murder. When he finally discerns what he’s done, he puts out his own eyes, rendering his tragic blindness literal. But this is not a Greek tragedy with its accordant kings. The blindness of this president is of another order: it is the blindness of class, willfully adopted to avoid having to renounce one’s prerogatives. A blindness reduced to metaphor, for neither the president, nor his ministers, nor the members of his party will put out their eyes. This tragedy of greed is not Greek but Chilean, featuring a citizen chorus who demands that the president resign and pay for his crimes. 

35. For our president, resignation would be like putting out his own eyes.  

36. So the tragedy writes itself: in a country of blind politicians, only the one-eyed citizen can rule. 

37. There are no longer walls without writing in the streets of our Chile. Walls, once the blank page of our subjugation, quickly became the most direct way to communicate. The collective and entirely anonymous authors wrote everywhere and ceaselessly, so that no one could erase the messages sent out to the world.  

38. The citizen body has always been the target of state violence, but, in keeping with these visual times, the police targeted the optic organ itself, rendering their violence spectacular. The target was no longer the body but the eye of the citizen. They aimed to leave eyes open and awake forever, perpetually shot upward, blank. 

39. “Youre being recorded, fucking pacos!” howls a voice in one of the countless videos that went viral, allowing eyes both near and far to watch the bloody acts of the police. Those forces no longer operate in secret or outside the law. The cameras furnish their evidence.  

40. The most iconic images of all are these ruptured eyes: they generate endless bad press for our president, who’d boasted to the whole world of his country’s sparkling reputation; of his oasis, which turned out to be a mirage; of his mirror, which turned out to be broken. How bad the discontent looks abroad but how much worse the unleashing of armed police forces against an unarmed citizenry. The ruined eyes force everyone to see repressions total lack of proportion, the excess of violence. The news has traveled around the globe. There are headlines in every newspaper—headlines painful for the president to behold.

41. And so I insisted that, contrary to what the government was saying in their campaign of misinformation, there were no foreign commandos. It was not the case that hundreds of citizens had become terrorists. The circumstances did not call for safety laws, laws that the state has long applied, with harshness and force, to the Mapuche. 

42. Exactly a year has passed since they shot Mapuche farmer and activist Camilo Catrillanca in the head from behind; over several days, Chileans commemorated his death and pulled down the statues of Spanish conquistadors in the plazas. They also commemorated, during those same days, the citizens shot from the front. 

43. And the walls of the world echoed our reproach: on a single Friday evening, from La Serena to Shanghai, from Berlin to Buenos Aires, Rome to Guayaquil, Madrid to Santiago de Chile, artists and activists, all of them Chileans “from abroad,” projected phrases to make the global citizenry see what our people were suffering. 100 missing eyes but we can still see you, read the warning that lit the side of the towering, cosmopolitan UN building here in New York, its thousands of windows lit up like eyes open to the world.  

44. And we Chileans living abroad, who add up to a million people, we organized marches and mobilizations in the hundreds of cities of the world where we live, participated in assemblies and councils, performed acts of solidarity and observance with homemade patches over our eyes. Whether abroad or in Chile, our cheeks were streaked with red tears; outside or inside, our eyes were covered in patches. 

45. Rumors spread that the president was developing an eye twitch. That the president was suffering from nervous tics. The president was locked in his presidential palace, they said, agonizing over what to do: the far right demanded he call the military to restore order but the military had apparently refused.  

46. Don’t be surprised, I said, to anyone in New York who would listen: the government has ordered its overseas ambassadors to meet with and provide guidelines for the foreign press, so that they might consider “the point of view” of the president and his ministers; so that they might put forth “a different perspective” on what’s happening; so that the international media might avert their eyes in order to favor the Chilean government’s position. And some news outlets did look away but there were others that refused to distort what was happening, what continues to happen. 

47. They assumed that the revolt wouldn’t last, couldn’t last. The protestors would get tired and everything would return to normal. The street responded by writing on the only blank walls left: we will not return to normal because normal was the problem.  

48. Time in Chile seems to have stopped. Time is in limbo while the street demands a new constitution, one without the endless technicalities and safeguards and hitches that protect those at the top. The street demands it, breathing the haze of tear gas as if its fumes were oxygen. And what began as a few days has become more than a month: we wont go until the president resigns, we wont go without a constitution that we can write with our own hands. The street cries out, faces covered; the protestors march forward with bicycle helmets to protect their heads; they begin to wear bulletproof glasses to protect their eyes. The street has begun to take on a galactic air.  

49. It’s an alien environment, the street. The protesters discovered they could daze the police with tiny laser pointers bought at the corner store. The green rays crisscross the extraterrestrial night, thwarting the paths of bullets.  

50. If friends inquire further, I tell them how the president’s wife was on another planet when, in a leaked private exchange, she spoke of “rationing the food.” I tell them how she tripped on the word “ration”—a word, for her, from outer space—and remark on her strange lucidity in admitting they would need to “reduce their privileges and share with everyone else.” I repeat her emission’s most celebrated line, that the city’s uprising was “like an alien invasion.”

51. The street, furious and frenzied, waves Chilean and Mapuche flags on avenues hazy with tear gas, holding up cellphones between trucks firing tear gas and tanks blasting something that burned worse than water, so that nothing, no thing, not a single thing goes unregistered. So that everything, every single thing, can be seen on other screens. Cameras like handguns in this uprising. Cameras with their irrefutable evidence of the excessive force used by the police. 

52. A young man under fire suffered a heart attack; the police continued to shoot both at him and at the medics who tried to save his life. Cameras recorded his death for the judgement of future tribunals. 

53. Something must change, implores a woman in a video while covering an eye with her hand, rough and worn. Another woman, also covering an eye, says she is seeing small changes. I know that from all this something good will come, these women declare in hopeful voices. 

54. Something must change, something good must come from all this, I told myself from afar, echoing them, voicing their widespread hope but also overcome with skepticism at the news that, locked indoors and with their backs to the street, the Congress had finally woken up and agreed to end the current regulatory constitution imposed by the dictatorship in 1980. A change the street has demanded not over the past four weeks but over the past four decades. The agreement and its proceedings seem uncertain: full of hitches and tricky legalese that makes one stumble over what was written on the page, what the constitutional lawyers say on the radio, what anxious and disbelieving Chileans debate on social media both inside and outside the country. Chileans who argue late into the night, their eyes red from exhaustion, knowing that this is no time to sleep, that this is just the beginning, that our Chilean eyes, now more than ever, must remain open.

—Translated from the Spanish by Gwendolyn Harper

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