The Chile Protests: a view from Punta Arenas

Ramona Wadi talks to Rafael Cheuquelaf Bradasic, a photo-journalist who has been documenting the protests in the Magallanes region of Chile against the erosion of the memory of the violence of the Pinochet regime.

As the Chilean people ramp up the mobilisation to end the dictatorship-era constitution and the Chilean state’s neoliberal politics, the right-wing’s penchant for damaging sites of memory rears its ugly head once again. In Santiago, the Violeta Parra Museum was twice targeted in arson attacks, eliciting wide media coverage due to the folk singer’s popularity and her role as a pioneer of the Chilean New Song Movement.

In Punta Arenas, two sites of memory have also been vandalised: the Casa de Los Derechos Humanos and a memorial dedicated to the Executed Political Prisoners and the Disappeared. This violence prompted a visit by the President of the National Human Rights Commission in Chile, Alejandro Navarro. According to Navarro, “at least 20 acts of extreme right-wing violence” have been recorded throughout Chile and specifically targeting sites of memory enacted as commemoration to the victims of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship.

Punta Arenas is largely obscured due to the media focus on Santiago, Chile’s capital city. However, the Magallanes region also has a history of social protest and mobilisation, as Rafael Chequelaf Bradasic, a journalist, audiovisualist, musician and photographer who specialises in the relationship between nature and technology in border territories, abandoned buildings, the social history of Patagonia and native peoples, explains.

“Punta Arenas, where I live, has a long history of social protest since the early 20th century, when immigrants from different parts of the world mobilised to create the most powerful workers organisation in our history: The Magallanes Workers’ Federation, which was brutally crushed in 1927. During the Pinochet dictatorship, the people in Punta Arenas protested against Pinochet in his presence – the protests are known as the Puntarenazo of 1984. Also in 2011, Punta Arenas and the entire Magallanes region mobilised against the first government of Sebastián Piñera, protesting against a rise in gas prices. So we have previous experience that undoubtedly influenced the current protests.”

Chequelaf describes the protests in the Magallanes region as being coordinated and mostly peaceful, incorporating various forms of dissent and social inclusion. Attendance has varied, from large crowds to demonstrations on a lesser scale. “A kind of routine has been established. Protestors gather in the main square of the city once or twice a week. There they meet and sing songs played by a group of volunteer musicians, after which they march around the city centre. Unfortunately, at the end of these peaceful marches, there are usually some isolated acts of vandalism and clashes between some protesters and police (police). In some cases commercial premises were damaged or destroyed, but there have also been recurring violations of the human rights of detained protestors.”

Chequelaf notes that the use of firearms and setting dogs on protestors are forms of violations that have been recorded in Punta Arenas, apart from violent and arbitrary detentions of demonstrators. “All actions have been denounced by the National Institute of Human Rights, an autonomous state agency which seeks to bring the perpetrators to justice.”

Besides the protests, regular meetings by civil society groups were held in Punta Arenas during the first months of the nationwide protests in Chile. “Various topics were discussed,” Cheuquelaf explained, “including the country’s inequality and the need for a new constitution. This marked a different stage in the protests, as people mobilised through assemblies, participated in popular protests and cultural initiatives. The people have awareness of the government’s refusal to commit to the reforms demanded by the people in the streets. In this different stage, the protests will not disappear. They will be reactivated throughout the country. Chileans have observed how quickly the government was passed laws to criminalise all forms of protest, but not to implement the people’s demands.”

Geographically, Cheuquelaf notes, Punta Arenas faces different struggles from the rest of the country and stands in stark contrast to Santiago. “The Magallanes region is different from the rest of the country and has a particular history and character. Punta Arenas is the capital city of the Magallanes region, in the southernmost part of the country and it is also the closest inhabited territory to Antarctica. We have always had a tense relationship with the capital of the country, Santiago, from where unconscious decisions that hurt us are taken. We protested against Sebastián Piñera, since in his first government in2011, when we paralysed the region and forced him to go back on the decision to raise the price of natural gas, which we depend on for our heating and for the operation of everything in general.”

Now, however, Punta Arenas is no longer isolated but part of a national mobilisation protesting against the same neoliberal regime. “One where our rights have long been transformed into merchandise,” Cheuquelaf says. “In the media, the riots in Santiago are usually given the greatest coverage, but the truth is that the mobilisation is largely peaceful, still usually repressed by state forces, and taking place throughout the country.”

Cheuquelaf has documented the protests in Punta Arenas through photography and videos. “Rather than capturing shocking images, which show confrontation or some violent fact, I am interested in portraying the great diversity of people who have decided to go out to demonstrate. They are people of all ages and many have participated for the first time in years.”

Diversity is another factor which Cheuquelaf takes into consideration. “There are young people for whom this is their first experience of being part of a social movement. Adults who are feeling abused daily by the system, elderly people who earn miserable pensions and who depend on their children. Workers, university students, artists, professionals, feminist and LGBT groups, native peoples, all united to pursue the same call: dignity.” 

Cheuquelaf notes that thousands of Chileans have resorted to photography to document the Chilean protests and the historical process that will inevitably change the country. He has also been invited to participate in a collective photographic exhibition in Santiago.

“This exhibition is themed ‘Traces and traces of protests and repression: the social explosion through culture “and is taking place in the Cultural Centre Villa Grimaldi, which in the dictatorship era was used as a detention and torture centre.

“La Plaza” (registro documental, 2019) from Rafael Cheuquelaf on Vimeo.

A documentary short film titled “La Plaza” is also available on Vimeo and will be aired at the festival “Chilean Cinema in Rebellion”, which is touring European cities, and will also be shown at the London Lift-Off Film Festival this year.”


All Photo credits: Rafael Cheuquelaf Bradasic

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