This last week and a half has been fairly chaotic with my classes finally culminating in a paro (a student strike) in all of the universities. As a result, I haven’t had class this whole week, and it’s likely that the strike will at least last for several weeks more. These strikes are something quintessentially Chilean and apparently occur quite often in the universities. At first, I was confused that the student body could go on strike with no repercussions. However, I’m starting to realize that it’s just another part of Chilean culture and is not necessarily good or bad – it just is.
The way strikes function in Chile starts with the students. It’s a grassroots operation in a way. Usually there’s some event, some sort of impetus for the strike that creates discontent among the student body. The students then hold a vote where they either vote in favor of the strike or against it, which determines whether the strike will happen or not. Strikes can last anywhere from a couple days to several months, so it’s not uncommon for a strike to last a measly three months, for example. Whenever there is a strike, especially a longer one, there are no classes during that time, and the semester usually ends several months late.
In the case of this strike specifically, the impetus is the sexual harassment and assault of female students by their professors,. Given that my university is currently on strike, the students obviously voted for the strike. There have been many incidents in Chilean universities in which women have been harassed by their older male professor, and many believe that there is not a sufficient protocol in place to protect the victims. In these cases, the male professors oftentimes don’t face any significant consequences and usually keep their jobs. With the rise of movements like #MeToo and others empowering victims of harassment and assault, it’s hardly surprising that Chilean students are fighting this norm of silencing the victims. They are bringing this issue to the forefront.
One of the most common forms of protest in Chile is the marcha, or “march,” much like as in the United States. In the three or so months that I have been in Chile, I’ve witnessed at least three significant marches from the near vicinity, with a couple smaller ones speckled in there, too. They always start from a central meeting point, usually from one of the many plazas in Valparaíso, and everyone marches until they reach the barricades set up by the police which marks the end of the march. In many ways, the marches are the same as the ones in the States, with people carrying banners and signs and shouting various chants.
However, even though these barricades signify the end of the march, they don’t necessarily mean the end of the protest–in fact, in many ways, they’re just the beginning. When the protesters reach the barricades, the police are always waiting on the other side to make sure that the march doesn’t escalate into violence. When it inevitably does escalate anyways and the protesters begin to throw bottles and rocks at the police, the police break out the guanacos. Guanacos are these huge military trucks that spray water filled with tear gas, and they’re often used to break up the protests when the police decide they’ve had enough.
A little interesting fact is that there are usually women on the sidewalk at the marches selling lemon slices. Why lemon slices? Because when tear gas gets in the eyes and the face, trying to wash the gas out with water makes it even worse. The water reactivates the gas, bringing back that burning sensation. However, lemon (and other acids like vinegar) somehow neutralize the chemicals in the tear gas and thus helping to alleviating the pain. So, if you’re ever attacked by tear gas or accidentally find yourself in the near vicinity (like myself), grab some lemons, and you’re good!
Although I am enjoying my unexpected vacation, I do hope that the protocol gets passed soon so that classes can resume, and I can continue the student grind. In the meantime, I guess I’ll just be catching up on my various readings and enjoying one of the most authentic Chilean experiences – the student strike.
**Education Abroad and Overseas Campuses encourages students to actively engage in their host communities in a variety of ways; however, we caution students about the potential danger of participating in demonstrations or other events where large crowds gather and create the potential for violence to escalate. We advise that before deciding to go near or participate in a demonstration, students research and make themselves aware of potential safety or legal risks, as well as any pertinent laws about engaging in a demonstration as a visitor.