Pride and Polemics in Valparaíso

May 21, 2012 • Reporting Trips • Views: 592

by Eli Markham:

Today—May 21st—marks the anniversary of the 1879 Battle of Iquique, a naval encounter during the Pacific War. The Esmeralda, a wooden Chilean ship that was under the command of 31-year-old Arturo Prat, took on a Peruvian ironclad battleship. The Chileans showed great bravery during the battle, with Captain Prat himself leading an unsuccessful boarding party onto the enemy ship. In the end, though, the iron ship prevailed and the Esmeralda sunk—along with nearly all of its crew. At the Chilean Naval History Museum, an entire room is dedicated to retelling the story of this battle, complete with portraits of Captain Prat from age 14 onwards.
Although to foreigners this encounter between two ships may seem a fairly minor battle, to Chileans it is an emblem of the heroism of their armed forces. Each year the President gives a major speech (equivalent to the U.S.’s State of the Union) on May 21st at the National Congress in Valparaíso, detailing his past successes and laying out his agenda for the next year. His speech is followed by a major military parade in to the central square, Plaza Sotomayor. Ranks and ranks of white-capped sailors stand at attention for hours as carabineros and SWAT team members patrol the perimeter, all while military and religious leaders give speeches.

Sailors and security forces stand guard in Plaza Sotomayor. (Bruner/TYG)

While the organized spectacle in Plaza Sotomayor may give off the impression of a perfectly ordered and peaceful society, that could not be farther from the truth. As we have been consistently reminded during our stay in Chile, this past year has seen a number of student protests against the right-wing government of President Sebastian Piñera. Today brought even more. While he spoke, student protesters chanted leftist slogans and waved signs. Most of them were students from the Valparaíso’s universities, but a number had taken the morning bus from Santiago, just an hour and a half away. Later in the day, the protests became violent, as many Chilean protests tend to do. Foreigners caught participating in the protests are deported, so we were sure to keep our distance from the violence.

What is the point of the student protests? There’s no easy answer; one of our Globalist reporters, Sally Helm, will be putting together an article on the topic for our fall issue of the magazine. But here’s my take: the protests are, in part, a push for certain policies, such as a decrease in the interest rate of student loans. In part, the students feel that there is no chance for anyone outside of the elite to succeed; Chile has even more income inequality than America, and there is little social mobility. In part, they seek a sense of belonging to a larger movement. And in part, I think, the orderly society present in Plaza Sotomayor no longer appeals to most Chileans. There were twice as many participants in the military ceremony as there were civilian spectators. Perhaps the Battle of Iquique and Arturo Prat’s heroics do not strike a chord with our generation of Chilenos.

(Photos Bruner/TYG)

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