It was the image that would define a movement: protesters clinging to the graffiti-strewn statue of a Chilean general in the heart of Santiago, proudly waving Chilean and Mapuche flags as a cloud of burgundy smoke rose around them. They watched as far as the eye can see the more than 1 million demonstrators who filled the capital's main artery as a painting by Eugène Delacroix came to life.
The scene in question took place in Plaza Italia (since then renamed Plaza Dignidad or Dignity Plaza by protesters) in October 2019, at the height of the later estallido-social or social explosion. A rise in subway fares sparked a revolt in which teenagers hopped turnstiles and boycotted public transport, and then to much more: a nationwide outbreak among Chileans of all walks of life denouncing issues such as school privatization, income inequality, and political corruption. Protesters chanted, "It's not 30 pesos – it's 30 years" to underscore that the rise in subway prices was simply the straw that broke the camel's back amid the injustices the country has been going through the end of the reign of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1990.
The estallido social, the largest and most effective protest in the modern history of the country, caused the Chilean President Sebastián Piñera to initiate a state of emergency, a curfew and a fleet of military personnel – and a referendum on a new constitution on the streets of the capital. This weekend, Chileans will vote on whether and how to drop the constitution of the Pinochet era that has ruled them since then.
But nothing has fully explained the nuance of last year's social upheaval more than a unique Chilean word: facho.
"#PlazaDignidad es del pueblo, no del facho", as a Facebook page implored in local slang: "Plaza Dignidad is for the people, not for fascists."
Although the term "facho" is literally translated as "fascist", it evokes a kaleidoscopic disposition of "anger against the system". It implies a variety of imagery – just as Americans use "redneck" or "aristotrash" to land a criticism of far-right social beliefs or establishment politics that give some power over others. In essence, the term is intended to be reminiscent of the 1973 coup, which led to the death of socialist President Salvador Allende and gave way to the controversial rule of Pinochet and his military junta. It also commemorates the country's 1988 referendum, which resulted in a two-year transition to democracy. In relation to these events, the term underscores a flurry of smoldering political ills, the legacy of human rights abuses by the dictatorship, and the resistance to accepting that things must be as they are because things have always been that way.
During a Twitter feud last year, prominent Senator José Miguel Insulza, who served as Secretary of State in the 1990s and headed the Organization of American States for a decade, wrote to a former presidential candidate that he was not just a professional but also a liar . The Chilean radio journalist Matías del Río, who was criticized for his lukewarm interview with Piñera in March, confessed in an interview on the well-known YouTube show Domingos Dominicales that he has since been harassed by critics as "Facho". And since inequality and class struggle have persisted in the country, the Chileans have seen the emergence of the term “facho pobre” (poor fascist), a reference to middle and working class people who support Chilean law.
Francisco Javier Díaz, co-author of the Dictionary of Chilean Politics, recalls that the word “facho” was banned even on television during the dictatorship. That, in itself, has helped make it so powerful among those who opposed Pinochet – and among those who are indicting protests today.
"Words are also political instruments," said Díaz. Recently, facho and related terms have made a comeback to shed light on the language used by the government and Pinochet sympathizers to deny Chile's legacy of political and social injustice. "(They) don't call the 1973 coup. They call it a pronunciamiento," or a military uprising, he said.
Three decades after the return of democracy to Chile, the scars of the Pinochet regime remain palpable. Almost 40,000 people suffered human rights abuses during the dictatorship and 3,000 died or disappeared. Another 200,000 Chileans escaped the horrors in their homeland by going into exile. But those who benefited from the regime's orthodox economic policies and the controversial rule of law of the military inherited a loving nostalgia for those years. When Pinochet died in 2006, more than 60,000 Chileans paid tribute to his funeral. And by 2015, one in five Chileans still supported the military regime.
If the darker aspects of the Pinochet years struggle to penetrate historical memory, it is in part by design. Much of the world was simply unaware of the extent of the regime's human rights violations until the end of the Pinochet dictatorship, claims Loreto Urqueta, legal advisor at Amnesty International Chile. (Although Pinochet was later arrested in London and endured a 16 month lawsuit in the House of Lords, he ultimately evaded a number of charges and died without being convicted of any crime.)
"After the dictatorship, Chile still sold this image of a successful, prosperous country internally and externally," said Urqueta.
But an intense political bitterness was brewing beneath the surface. Chileans at both ends of the political spectrum still struggle to reconcile with their homeland's facho past. Around 75 percent say the country does not need to reach reconciliation yet, and 85 percent believe the military has signed pacts of silence to protect those involved in human rights violations. That was very clear during the estallido social last autumn.
An Amnesty International report released earlier this month called on the Chilean attorney general's office to launch a criminal investigation into police commanders for their role in human rights abuses during protests last year. It was pointed out that militarized officers injured 1,938 people with tear gas bombs and metal balls wrapped in rubber. The Inter-American Human Rights Commission cited sexual violence, torture and degrading treatment of arrested demonstrators and condemned the excessive use of force as a violation of international protocol.
“This is a consequence of the dictatorship. The police have stayed the same and their approach to demonstrations has remained the same, ”said Urqueta, who contributed to the amnesty report.
As in two-thirds of the roughly 50 countries that have undergone democratic transition since World War II, Chile's current constitution was a parting gift from the outgoing authoritarian government. The lack of social protection has continued to push minorities to the periphery, bringing inequality to a level similar to that of dictatorship. This weekend's vote will determine whether a new constitution will be drafted and whether it will be done through a constitutional convention of elected officials or a combination of civilians and politicians.
At a moment when the world is watching a surge in populism and authoritarianism, however it ultimately breaks, the referendum in Chile is just the latest and loudest call for civic democracy that could enable Chile to get rid of its facho past for good .