Invisibility, Art and the Rage of the Unheard in Chile
Artists & Human Rights Defenders Reflect Upon Last Year’s Failure in Constitutional Renewal
Consulte este articulo en español aquí.
Chile has long been considered one of the oldest democracies in Latin America and among the most stable economies of the region, so it came as a shock—both to the world and to its leaders—when a massive social mobilization against the conservative status quo erupted in October 2019. Less than two years later, Chile shocks again, but this time it is the socially progressive forces that must reckon with the aftermath of a failed constitutional project that was posited as the future guarantor of an inclusive, just and free society.
What is happening in Chile? A question often answered throughout Chile’s history with: No pasó nada [Nothing has happened]. This phrase constitutes the title of award-winning Chilean author Antonio Skármeta’s novel about exile—written after the 1973 military coup that resulted in a two-decade-long interruption of Chile’s democracy. A close look at Chilean society, its history, and its cultural production depicts a counter response to negation: Se oía venir [You could hear it coming], as is titled a compilation of analyses on the music that “foretold” the 2019 social outburst. Highlighting the enduring role of the arts in Chilean politics during an interview with ARC, the historian Manuel Suzarte denominated the militant music of artists such as Inti-illimani and Quilapayún as “the soundtrack of resistance” during Augusto Pinochet’s authoritarian regime.
Chile’s reputation for stability and prosperity has often served to deflect criticism and muffle the opposition voices that denounce the country’s purported image of “democratic oasis.” These dissenting voices often manifest themselves through artistic expression, denouncing the legacy of dictatorship, the violence perpetrated by police, and the discrimination against immigrant and indigenous populations. These are the voices that “foretold” the broad social unrest of 2019. These are the voices that the country’s elites refused to acknowledge.
Within the first few months of the massive social mobilizations of 2019, the seeds of the 2022 Chilean constitutional referendum were planted: replacing the 1980 document drafted at the end of Pinochet’s regime was viewed as a solution to the issues feeding public anger. Sparked by a rise in the price of public transportation in Santiago, the protests spread quickly to other cities and expanded to include a wide range of pent up demands from a society plagued by deep socioeconomic inequality. From improving access to education, to denouncing the privatization of water, protesters’ demands confronted Chile’s hands-off approach to social security. In response, on November 15, 2019 (known as N15), a coalition of social and political actors issued a declaration calling for the creation of a new constitution that would answer the demands made on the streets.
For Waikil, an indigenous Mapuche rapper, art in its numerous forms not only served to transmit the collective rage of a society taken to the brink, but it also encouraged protestors who often faced violent repression from both the military and the militarized police (Carabineros). Academic institutions, such as the University of Chile, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), such as Amnesty International, issued reports denouncing human rights violations perpetrated by Chile’s armed forces during the protests. In addition to the physical violence inflicted against protesters, state forces have also attempted to erase the memory of the mobilization by censoring artists—for instance by destroying mural art. Despite these efforts to silence, three years later activists continue to seek answers and justice for those who were injured and killed as well as for those who remain missing.
The militarized response to the 2019 protests reopens the historical wounds of the violence perpetrated during Chile’s notorious military dictatorship. General Augusto Pinochet dictatorship began in 1973 after leading a military coup and ousting the socialist-leaning, democratically-elected Salvador Allende. It is estimated that during the 17 years of Pinochet’s dictatorship, at least 40,000 individuals were tortured and kidnapped, and of those, at least 3,000 were killed, including many artists and intellectuals. One infamous act that symbolizes the brutality of the regime was the torture and murder of the folk musician Víctor Jara at the former “Chile Stadium” in Santiago, where his executioners sought to forever silence his song.
A national plebiscite, along with the changing tides of geopolitics, brought the military dictatorship to an end in 1990. As a collective traumatic event, its fractures continue to run deeply through Chilean society. While victims continue to be haunted by the traumas of torture and loss, others credit Pinochet’s government for bringing economic prosperity to the country. In addition to the social tensions created by differing historical narratives, the legacy of the dictatorship continues to be present in Chile’s democratic institutions. It is for this reason that the country’s current constitution, also dubbed “Pinochet’s constitution,” sparks challenges and debate.
Among the signatories of the N15 declaration to replace “Pinochet’s constitution,” is Chile’s current, and youngest, president, Gabriel Boric. Elected on December 19, 2021, Boric not only represented new hopes after years of civil discontent, but his past as a student leader in social mobilizations and his progressive agenda gave him legitimacy.
As a promising flagship project, Boric’s government propelled a participatory, citizen-led process to draft a new constitution free of the current’s “authoritarian enclaves” that have made it nearly impossible to address protestors’ demands for improved social security. In an interview with ARC, Danny Rayman, director of the NGO Acción Constitucional, noted that the drafting process was “highly innovative, as it encapsulated economic, social, cultural and environmental rights, in addition to civil and political rights […] taking into account new conceptions of technology and natural resources.”
To the shock of many Chileans and the world, in October 2022, Boric’s new constitution was rejected by nearly 62% of the population through a mandatory popular referendum. Months after the victory of the Rechazo [Reject] side, the proponents of the Apruebo [Approve] campaign are still trying to comprehend why their efforts to promote the new constitution failed. The Apruebo campaign rallied hundreds of thousands through campaigning, public engagement and artistic performances. Many artists and artistic institutions, such Galeria CIMA in collaboration with Acción Constitucional, performed, created and advocated in favor of the new constitution. Yet in the wake of the results, the historian Manuel Suzarte has put forth the question: is it time to renew the cultural repertory of social activism in Chile? The rapper Waikil hinted at a similar issue, highlighting that the same artistic strategies from Boric’s campaign had been recycled in the constitutional referendum—the same voices, the same faces.
In perpetuating the same voices and the same faces, the campaign failed to reach and mobilize segments of Chilean society, or even ensure access to copies of the new constitutions across rural areas, particularly among historically-marginalized indigenous communities. Chile is a highly centralized and unequal society, which means that access to information is often uneven. Danny Rayman explained that while the process for a new constitution “was born from a multitude of voices, those same ones present on the walls, streets and social mobilizations,” this process also represented an effort to “redirect [the popular demands] via an institutional route” through a declaration or agreement that “did not necessarily capture all demands.” According to Rayman, “there are voices that essentially were never in agreement with this process, due to how it emerged from the [N15] institutional declaration.”
Among the voices that reject institutionality, the music of Pukutriñuke, an underground indigenous Mapuche band, denounces the violence of the Chilean state against indigenous peoples and revindicates claims for Mapuche autonomy and land. The contemporary Mapuche communities are the descendents of indigenous groups that lived in Southern Chile and Argentina, but that were forcibly removed from their land during and after European colonization. For Zapata, a member of the band, the new constitution does not concern them. “For us, the new constitution has no meaning, not a step forward, not a step backward,” Zapata told ARC. “From time immemorial, the Mapuche are fighting to recuperate the territory that has been pillaged and invaded.” Zapata’s stance brings to light historical grievances of colonialism and the marginalization of indigenous communities that linger within Chilean society, including the longstanding conflict over ownership of land in the southern regions of Biobio and the Araucania (considered part of the Wallmapu ancestral territory of the Mapuche).
For Zapata and the rest of Pukutriñuke, this violence hits close to home, in the outskirts of Santiago, where they were raised away from their culture, language and land. Shocked and moved by the murder of a Mapuche teenager fleeing from the police in 2002, they created a band that would transmit the language, values, territorial demands and traditional instrumentation of the Mapuche communities. Pukutriñuke stands in solidarity with the demands for education, healthcare, and housing voiced during the 2019 social mobilizations, yet Zapata also states: “If you ask me if I consider myself to be Chilean, I do not. I consider myself to be Mapuche.” As a result, for Pukutriñuke and for certain indigenous communities, reform or recognition by the Chilean state is not viewed as a solution.
Despite his support for the new constitution and for the election of Gabriel Boric, Danny Rayman recognizes that, even now, “the problems in the region of the Araucanía remain as serious as before.” Boric has perpetuated the militarization of the region which was initiated under his predecessor. This stance has been criticized because, in the past, the police and military have already been implicated in the framing and murder of Mapuche individuals as part of the government’s security and anti-terrorism campaigns.
For his part, Waikil told ARC that he does view a new Chilean constitution as a legitimate venue in which to fight institutional violence and advance indigenous rights, such as the right to language, to identity, to land and to live in a plurinational state. Despite their differences, Waikil and Pukutriñuke face similar challenges as indigenous artists in Chile. The spaces for indigenous expression are limited, particularly politicized artistic expression. The demands voiced in their music makes finding performance venues difficult, particularly as traditional Chilean mass media is concentrated in the hands of powerful media groups. Zapata remarked that Pukutriñuke makes the choice to remain underground as a mechanism to safeguard the authenticity of their message, which is not welcomed in traditional media nor in institutional spaces. Waikil also described experiencing the pressure to self-censor at certain venues in which he was treated as the “token” Mapuche performer. “For many people…indigenous communities are merely picturesque, where they go as tourists for a souvenir,” Waikil explained. “When we demand our rights, people become uncomfortable.”
A close look beyond Chile’s veneer of democratic oasis reveals deep cracks of generational violence that have produced enduring inequalities and antagonisms. These social fractures intersect with the right to free expression in complex ways, generating subtle and insidious limits to artistic expression. “Regarding expression…” explained Zapata. “While it is true that imprisonment due to artistic expression doesn’t happen here, what does happen is the control of information by privately-owned mass media.” Both Danny Rayman and Manuel Suzarte also referred to the extreme concentration of the ownership of Chilean media as an issue particularly in the spread of information leading up to the referendum on the new Constitution. According to Reporters without Borders, only two groups, El Mercurio and COPESA (which owns La Tercera), dominate the print media in the country.
What happens in a democracy like Chile provokes tough and nuanced questions regarding freedom of expression—questions that even the societies with the strongest democratic institutions should grapple with. In Chile, indigenous artists like Waikil and Pukutriñuke navigate a social labyrinth of limits that are both unspoken and difficult to define. As long as these limits remain undefined, a clear map of the borders of freedom of expression in Chile will continue to elude understanding—obscuring the visibility of those who fall beyond these boundaries. Through their testimonies of the challenges in transmitting their music, Waikil and Pukutriñuke reveal that these limits often translate into a lack of representation for marginalized groups. And ultimately, what is the difference between being silenced and not being permitted to transmit?
This article was based on a series of interviews conducted by the author, who would like to thank the activists, academics, and artists who contributed to this piece.