Protests in Patagonia: The ignored conflict
Abusing children, beating up women, burning down houses; horrific, awful and shocking are words that come to mind when we here about such acts. Who would remain indifferent towards such atrocities? But imagine a village was steamrolled without anyone noticing. Imagine a government sent an army to abuse a population and no newspaper, radio or TV station covered it because Demi Moore’s and Ashton Kutcher’s break-up was considered more relevant for the evening news than something happening in a faraway region like the Chilean antarctic. Imagine— this is exactly what happened! So now what?
“Now we speak up and tell the world!”
“We” are the journalists of the Chilean radio station Radio Santa María in the Patagonian town of Aysén, and the loudest voice of all belongs to Claudia Torres. She is more than the voice; she is the soul of Radio Santa María. If she takes a day off from work, phone wires at the station run hot with listeners asking about her: “What happened, where is our Claudia?”
The people of Aysén adore and admire Claudia Torres; they call her their hero. When you meet her in person though, Claudia Torres is not your typical hero at all. Wife, and mother of two children, she is only 5’3”, and until the recent protests, she was just known as a dedicated journalist and active citizen. About a month ago however, people in all of Chile started referring to Claudia Torres as The Heroine of Aysén.
When the first protests started in Aysén in February, demands of the locals were as clear as they were basic; banners read “Aysén is also a part of Chile”, “Game over for bad schools and hospitals in Patagonia”, “Less cops and more solutions”. Claudia Torres covered it all: she talked to locals about their demands for improving living conditions in Aysén and she interviewed government representatives from the capital Santiago who were hesitant to give in.
When the Chilean government then sent the first tank-load of special police forces to Aysén and most journalists fled the region, Claudia Torres was out on the street with her microphone and recording machine. When police were storming local people’s houses, firing guns and burning down buildings, everybody could hear it live on her “open mic” show.
Claudia’s mic is always open for call-ins, and the phone never stops ringing. For 14 hours a day, Claudia Torres is on air, informing listeners about current events in Aysén. But more than anything, she listens. Claudia listens to callers talk about their babies being shot by policemen; she listens to women crying because they don’t know the whereabouts of husbands after demonstrations. But she also listens to people yelling at her and insulting her. She has even received various death threats.
“I am really scared that something could happen to my children or my husband. However, I am not scared about what might happen to me. I just haveto inform and tell the stories that otherwise would remain unheard. The world has to know what is happening in Aysén. This is my moral duty and nobody can stop me!”
The government on the other hand has taken a yo-yo approach to dealing with the events in Patagonia. When locals first started their protests, representatives came to the region to negotiate with leaders of the social movement. They went back to Santiago, without results, without an agreement treaty in their hands, saying the demands were unrealistic. “Stop the protests, then we can see about further negotiations” was the official statement for weeks. But the Patagonians did not stop. The government of president Sebastián Piñera then declared Patagonia to be in a “State of Emergency”,allowing National Emergency Laws to be applied. This meant that several special police forces were sent to the south. Like the politicians, they came back without results but with blood on their hands.
A week ago, Chile’s Interior Minister, Rodrigo Hinzpeter, finally gave in and agreed to re-start negotiations. The first treaty was signed by both sides. At last, a success story for the region? Claudia Torres frowns skeptically. “I don’t trust the politicians in Chile,“ she says. “Here, citizens cannot expect politicians to take action; we have to take matters into our own hands!”
And with that, off she goes, the Heroine of Aysén, with microphone and recording machine— to report live at the next protest.