In Santiago, Chile, Dignity Plaza was initially established as a traffic circle in 1875 called Plaza La Serena. Its name, and its purpose, changed for the first time in 1928. It became formally known as ‘Plaza Baquedano’ in homage to General Manuel Baquedano (1823-1897). A statue of the former Commander-in-chief of Chile was erected in the middle of the square.
However, on March 12th, 2021, authorities came to uproot the four-ton monument and take it away for ‘repair’. Not only that, a three-metre tall metal wall was put up around the vacated space. This obviously has nothing to do with protecting the statue, just like the vandalism of it has nothing to do with the symbol of Baquedano. On March 5th, one group of protesters tried to burn it down, and, three days later, another tried to tear it down with brute force. There has for a long time been a collective effort to deface this location of its historical context, as alluded to by José M. Santa Cruz in El Mostrador: ‘most people of Santiago have known it as Plaza Italia [instead]’. However, in the wake of the 2019-20 protests, the violence against Baquedano has turned physical and irrepressible.
Perhaps that explains why, in his absence, a twelve-ton wall has been built up around his house. To stop this tide of people from getting in, from delivering a message that President Piñera does not want to receive. Yet, there are still knocks at the door. Although mass revolt has fizzled out, there are often manifestations at Dignity Plaza, despite the coronavirus pandemic. They only ceased during the total lockdown of winter 2020. This social uproar, which emerged in October 2019, has transformed the identity of this arena once again. It is now strictly referred to, by most Chileans, as ‘Plaza Dignidad.’ Perhaps as a reminder of what people are fighting for.
So, what does the statue of Baquedano represent for Chileans? When it was unveiled in 1928, Carlos Ibáñez del Campo was dictator after the rigged election of May 1927. Significantly, Ibáñez had inaugurated a national police force one year prior called Carabineros de Chile. The Carabineros would play a major role in the Chilean coup of 1973, helping to hoist up another military dictatorship, this time in the shape of Augusto Pinochet. The Chilean police force has stood firm and still swears by its allegiance to Pinochet’s regime.
Taking this into account, it is no surprise that people have drawn the link between the statue of Baquedano, the Chilean police force, and Piñera’s new regime. As José M. Santa Cruz pointed out in El Mostrador (translated by Dr Barbara Fernández Melleda in her article from Alborada), Baquedano’s monument’ imprints military violence over the city and marks this territory, because each statue or monumental landmark fixes the colonial, military and patriarchal presence as the constitutional nucleus that has ruled this country since the 1830s.’
General Manuel Banquedano made considerable contributions in the War of the Pacific (1879-1883) against Peru and Bolivia and as part of the Occupation of Araucanía (1861-1883). The latter engagement saw Chile annex a lot of Mapuche and indigenous territory. This forms an essential part of the picture since one of the main demands of protestors is to set Chile up as a pluri-nation. That means proudly accepting and recognizing the First Nations; that most Chileans are of mixed heritage with indigenous ancestry.
In her article, titled ‘Piñera’s Wall of Nothingness’, Dr. Fernández Melleda poignantly captured another symbolic element in the statue of Baquedano: ‘When the flag of the Wallmapu – the ancestral Mapuche territory – waves over the statue, Baquedano’s quest to invade the Araucanía region is symbolically halted and rejected in the present.’ This emphasizes that the memorial is a constant reminder of the country’s controversial colonial history. It is also interesting to compare the wind and the flag’s symbolism to the real inevitability of the Spanish conquistadors overpowering the Indian natives. History makes it look like the Mapuche never stood a chance. Yet, for the last two centuries in Chile, fortunes for both sides of the political equation have seemed to change like the wind on the left and the right. However, what has not been subject to change is the security offered to certain governments by an organised, combatant police force- and military- whose ideological allegiances have barely wavered since its inception in 1928.
It has been clear from the explosion of the 2019-20 Chilean protests, which by large took place on the battleground of Dignity Plaza, that the police are still an important cog in the political machine that is Chile. They are distinguished by their eagerness to use excessive force and broke past records of violent conduct during the mass revolt. But it is what they are now fighting to uphold and protect that is of particular importance. It is difficult to pinpoint just one ideology or characteristic of Piñera’s government that the police currently support and that the Chilean people are protesting against. However, ‘neoliberalism’ seems to be the word on the lips of many.
This is where the connection between Manuel Baquedano, Carlos Ibáñez, Augusto Pinochet and Sebastian Piñera continues. From what has already been discussed, it is clear to see how Baquedano might be deemed an essential proponent of imperial colonialism. In the latter stages of the nineteenth century, however, there was not so much of a coherent global economy to profit from. So, while Baquedano coloured much of Chile with Spanish shades and stumbled across an array of resources on an economic level, he could only lay out the groundwork for the future exploitation of imperial interests. This changed when Ibáñez came to power. Ibáñez borrowed a lot of money from the US and helped to establish US interest in one of Chile’s main exports, nitrate. This was a lowering of trade barriers, the kind that the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda denounced in 1950 with Canto General, which envisions a Latin America free from the greed of foreign imperialism. Pinochet took neoliberalism to a whole new level, deregulating the market and eliminating price controls, much to the detriment of the working class. In the shantytowns of Santiago, unemployment was at around 40 percent for much of his spell in power.
And now it is Piñera who has incited national rage with policies that have ramped up social inequalities and are still reeling from a devastating wave of protests and dissatisfaction. At least his approval ratings have gone up somewhat: a recent survey from a sympathetic think-tank put them at 24 percent. Last October, they were lower than five percent. This improvement, however, is likely a result of the October 2020 constitutional referendum, in which 78 percent of Chileans voted to draft an entirely new constitution. The protests against Piñera are just as persistent as this pandemic as are the links that people keep finding between his form of government and tyrannical, totalitarian regimes from the past.
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