What I'm about to say is only a slight exaggeration: The current social upheaval happening in Chile, which saw a million people taking to the streets (in Santiago, a city of 5 million) and forced the president to sack most of his cabinet ... started with a meme.
In August, the Chilean government announced a 30-peso (about 4 cents) increase in peak hour subway fare. When it was pointed out that the cost of public transportation has gotten too damn high compared to the median salary, the minister of the economy kindly invited people to take this as an opportunity to get up earlier -- that way you save money and get an excellent excuse to spend less time with your stupid family. It's win/win!
When the fare hike took effect in October, a group of students decided to protest this bullshit through mass fare evasions -- the logic being that if enough teens ran past the turnstiles, the cops couldn't arrest all of them. Sound familiar? If you doubt my theory that this was at least partly inspired by the "If we run like Naruto, we can move faster than their bullets" part of the Area 51 meme, here's a video of fare evasions set to Naruto music:
Despite a former metro official's insistence that "This didn't catch on, guys," within a week, the fare evasions had grown into massive protests, which ballooned into historic proportions when the government tried to suppress them with some good old-fashioned human-rights-violating violence. All because some goofballs across the world wanted to clap alien cheeks! Well OK, not really. The protests weren't actually inspired by a meme, just like they were never actually about the 30 pesos. The truth is way darker. See, for decades, Chile has been praised for its strong economy, which has its roots in one of those pesky CIA-backed dictatorships America loves so much.
During the '80s, while Augusto Pinochet was in power, Chile began privatizing the hell out of state companies and went balls-in on free market policies, leading to what has been described as an "economic miracle." Sure, Pinochet's dictatorship burned teenagers alive and left them for dead in ditches, "disappeared" pregnant women, killed children as young as eight (and tortured one of their mothers), raped men and women with "trained dogs and live rats," and so on. But the economy improved somewhat, so it was all worth it, clearly.
Of course, the "miracle" was more like a shitty card trick performed by a drunken clown on a city bus at 3 a.m. Yes, the rich in Chile got richer (including Pinochet himself, who secretly stashed away millions in a hundred U.S. banks), but the poor stayed poor. The dictatorship widened the spectrum of human misery in every sense -- physical for the thousands killed or tortured, psychological for the millions who lived in terror, and social for the lower classes who were literally pushed to the edges of the country's capital. Good thing they have an affordable metro system they can use to get aro- oh.
And yes, Pinochet was eventually kicked out by Gael Garcia Bernal's Mad Men talents or something, but the "Let's put economic indicators over people's dignity" trend was continued by the "democratic" governments that followed. The dictatorship had moved the country so far to the right that when supposedly left-wing parties tried to reach a compromise and aim for the "center," the result was still profoundly inhuman. Here's a succinct description of this phenomenon by one of the world's greatest philosophers:
Another reason Chile's presidents never truly addressed the country's record-breaking inequality was the implicit promise by the political right that if anyone tried to pull any "commie" shit, they might go all Pinochet on our asses again. And this year they finally did it.
In response to the massive protests, President Sebastian Pinera (a tycoon with a well-documented history of corruption who got elected with some help from fake news) enforced a curfew for the first time in decades, and sent in the military to repress demonstrations. The score so far: 23 deaths, 1,600 civilian injuries, 7,000 arrests, dozens of blown-up eyeballs, and accusations of rape and torture. The armed forces slipped back into berserker mode like it was a comfy old blanket they were supposed to throw away, but never did.
The sight of soldiers kicking people's teeth in on the streets is stirring memories of the '80s in the Chilean psyche, and not in a fun Stranger Things sense. But there's one big difference from those days: Everyone has a camera in their pocket now. (WARNING: The news report below contains shocking images and indecipherable accents.)
Some protesters have also been violent, but that's what you get when you create an entire class of people with nothing to aspire to, nothing to lose, and therefore nothing to fear. Did you see that video of a protester tearing a water cannon off a moving police truck like he's possessed by the Hulk? The internet thinks it's awesome, but I find it sad. That right there is someone whose life sucks so much that he doesn't give a shit if he gets squashed by a heavily armored vehicle or thrown in jail forever. (OK, it's a little bit awesome.)
On November 7, Pinera promised to dial up state surveillance, beef up intelligence agencies, "modernize" police forces (presumably with adamantium water cannons), and crack down harder on protesters. It was a message tailored for Chile's terrified elites, who are Olympically avoiding any kind of soul-searching by blaming everything on an international communist conspiracy. Did the commies pay off those hundreds of students who spontaneously decided to protest the subway fare? Did they create the Area 51 meme? Did ... did Che Guevara invent memes in the first place to orchestrate everything?! Seems like a way simpler explanation than "We lived large at the expense of poor people for decades, and now they're a bit upset."
Anyway, if Pinera's polarization strategy works and he's able to weather these protests without actually addressing the root issues, the problem will continue to fester until more protests inevitably explode again. And at this rate, the next ones will probably involve guillotines.
Maxwell Yezpitelok lives in Chile. Uh-oh.
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