On Thursday evening, October 31, Halloween, the Zaandam, escorted by tugs, inched its way into the crowded harbor of San Antonio, Chile’s largest port, located about 70 miles from Santiago and 50 miles from Valparaiso. We were supposed to stop in another port a few hundred miles to the north, but that was considered too dangerous due to the violence sweeping the country. As soon as we docked in San Antonia, we learned that every excursion the next day had been cancelled for security reasons, and passengers were encouraged to remain on the ship at all times.
So what is happening in Chile? For more than two weeks, massive demonstrations have been occurring all over the country but especially in the two largest cities, both close to us, Santiago with a population of almost five million and Valparaiso with over 800,000. Over 2,800 people have been arrested and 2,500 injured. As of today, 19 protestors have been killed. The country is in a state of emergency with the army called out to restore order. Martial law is in effect.
Welcome to Chile!
Over the years Chile has had its up and downs. We old folks from the US probably remember Allende, the Socialist leader who in the 1970s was overthrown by a military junta, possibly with help from our CIA, ushering in the 20-year dictatorship of Pinochet when thousands of Chileans were imprisoned, tortured or simply vanished in what then was one of the world’s most repressive regimes. But those days are long past; and for the past 20 years, leaders have been elected democratically, and the country has been relatively stable producing one of the strongest economies in South America.
So what went wrong? It is the same old, same old story that we are now witnessing all over the planet and in the U.S.– globalism’s winners and losers. While Chili’s economy was growing due in part to world trade, income disparities were increasing. The rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer, and the size of the middle class was shrinking. What initially sparked the unrest was a transit fare hike in Santiago, which ignited demonstrations. It did not help that the president of the country, Sebastian Pinera, a billionaire, was photographed eating at a fancy restaurant when the first demonstrators were being shot. The demonstrations quickly spread to other areas of the country, and the issues broadened from transit fares to economic justice. No one knows where this is headed or how it will end.
All I can say is that they have a lot of nerve to start a revolution just when we arrive and are ready to see the sights.
But does a violent revolution deter one Embry Martin Howell, who only three weeks ago was herself in Mali where just yesterday another 40 or 50 innocent civilizations were murdered by revolutionaries? Hey, compared to Mali, Chili is a cakewalk. In less than an hour she had been on the internet and arranged for a private guide to take us around. My only question was whether she knew if he was armed.
So as it turned out, we got our own private tour to the area around San Antonio after all. A few of the other frustrated–and brave –passengers apparently found local guides also since as we left the heavily guarded port, we noticed a bunch of drivers holding cards with their client’s name on them.
So the next morning at eight a smiling Gabriel, a man probably in his early 40s and a pretty good English speaker, met us. Hiring your own guard—pardon, “guide”—is a bit expensive, but it does provide some opportunities that you can’t get on a group excursion with 25 or 30 other passengers. Probably most important is that it gives you a chance to meet local people and to find out a lot about them and their lives. This was for me the best part of our around–the-world-trip in 2015 during our one-month tour of China when we visited 11 cities with a different, local, private guide each time, often spending two or three days with them. That gives you a lot of time to talk, listen and learn.
Gabriel spoke good English because he had lived in New York City for several years when his wife, a lawyer, was part of the Chilean delegation to the U.N. She tragically died from breast cancer a few years ago, and now Gabriel has remarried, has a two-year-old daughter, and lives with his family in an apartment in Santiago. Being a tour guide is not the best job you can have in Chile, but you would have to call him solidly middle class. He is college educated, smart, and entrepreneurial. However, he is not a happy camper. He sides with the protestors and believes that life in Chili has been rigged to benefit the rich and hurt the middle class. He points to the same problems that we have in the U.S. and believes you need a strong leader to bring about justice and fairness. And who might that leader be in the U.S.? You got it: Donald Trump.
Now Gabriel is not stupid. He is not prejudiced. His values are solid. He is a loving husband and proud father. He has experienced personal suffering. He is, quite simply, a nice guy and was a delight to be with. Yet he sees Trump as the solution to the economic disparities and divisions affecting the world, not part of the problem. Bottom line: we (bleeding heart liberals and progressives) don’t get it. I don’t get it. Until we do get it, however, we are not going to be able to heal the divisions that divide us.
The time with Gabriel was special. On a splendid day with sunny skies, temperatures in the low 70s, and low humidity, he drove us through the beautiful, peaceful countryside with hills dotted with olive and eucalyptus tress, then along vast vineyards, and finally to Valparaiso, the port city about 50 miles to the north, described as the San Francisco of South America. Since a lot of the protests and demonstrations have occurred here, when we got to the downtown area, we were relieved to see very little evidence of it, perhaps because it was still early on a Saturday morning. The old Colonial city is compared to San Francisco because of the steep hills covered with houses that seem to be stacked on top of each other.
Other similarities are its dynamic port, its prestigious colleges and universities, and its hip culture of artists and intellectuals.
What Valparaiso has that San Francisco does not have are its famous murals. Gabriel informed us that Valparaiso has more murals than any city in the world except Sao Paulo and by far the most on a per capita basis. That would appear to be true, but what is even more impressive is its street graffiti that surpasses anything I have ever seen. To say every building in the city is covered with graffiti is an overstatement by not by much. And a lot of it is actually quite good. As one who basically thinks graffiti is hideous and is best described as urban kudzu, I was surprised to find myself actually enthralled by a lot of it. Seeing this graffiti was by itself worth the visit.
And then there were the dogs. Stray dogs, fat stray dogs. Not on every corner but surely on a lot of them. These animals run wild, lounge in the middle of sidewalks as they please, chase cars for fun, and poop when and where they want. The signs directing owners to clean up after their pets fall on deaf ears. Who feeds these animals anyway, and why are they all either black or yellow? And why do they mainly run around or sprawl on sidewalks in pairs?
After lunch with Gabriel, we drove back through wine country stopping for a tour and wine tasting at one of the smaller vineyards, specializing in traditional wine making techniques. The area to us looked a lot like California and I suppose that was no surprise since our guide at the winery observed that the equivalent location of the Chilean wine country we were visiting in Chile in the Northern Hemisphere would be Sonoma County in California.
All in all a great day and a safe one despite the dire predictions and precautions regarding mob or police violence. It also marked the mid point of the cruise when about two-thirds of the passengers departed and were replaced by new ones who flew to Santiago to join the cruise.
The new fear has to do with the weather. A major storm is predicted to affect us and to bring with it gale force winds and waves of 30 feet and higher with even taller swells. This dire forecast has forced the captain to cancel going to the next port (and all planned excursions there) in an effort to dodge the bullet of this monster, but at this stage it is not clear how that will happen, where we are going instead, or what it will mean. Stay tuned.