SANTIAGO, CHILE —The early excitement and enthusiasm that infused the marches that day had deteriorated into violence and confusion as police clashed with protesters throughout the city. As I walked home to my apartment, I saw flaming barricades glowing in the streets. Groups of people hurried back to their homes, a napkin or lemon pressed against their noses to subdue the choking effects of the tear gas drifting through the air. The ground was littered with discarded, crescent-shaped yellow peels.
There was a knock at the door. When I opened it, I saw a group of about five young Chileans clad in the gray pants and blue sweater uniform of colegio students. They explained to me that their professor had told them to come stay at our apartment for the night since it was too dangerous to make the trip home in such an unpredictable environment. I let them into the apartment, and a few minutes later my roommate came through the door followed by another small group of students. Many were coughing violently and taking long, labored gasps of air.
We set about distributing water and lemon slices dappled with salt. One of my roommate’s friends helped me prepare a large bowl of mashed up avocado, which we handed out with slices of toast and as much pasta as we could boil. Someone had wheeled our television into the living room to put on the news, which broadcast aerial images of the still smoldering streets of Santiago.
The students, scattered across the couches, chairs and floor, were whispering excitedly to each other. They let out large groans and sharp catcalls at any reference to the government or police response. They frequently broke out into nervous giggles, enthralled by the unlikelihood of their current situation. Occasionally, they tore their eyes away from the television screen to throw a quick, curious glance in my direction. I’m sure they were wondering about what I was doing here and what my involvement was in their own, very personal fight. It’s something that I’ve been trying to figure out for myself since these protests began.
It seems like everyone these days is, to some extent, supporting the push for education reform. Large protests lumber down Alameda, students march back and forth across intersections waving homemade flags and asking for donations and, up until a couple of weeks ago, the sound of the cacerolazos could be heard at least a few times a week. From street-level to the top floors of apartment complexes, their tinny echoes would ring well into the night. The movement has gained broad popular support and widespread attention, even making its way into international headlines.
Any foreigner living or traveling through Chile is well aware of this seething political issue that has torn at the fabric of Chilean civil society for months. But for those of us who are living and working abroad here in Chile, who have built strong personal connections and who support education reform, the desire to show solidarity with the student-led movement raises a complex set of questions.
To what extent can or should a foreigner, living in another country on a temporary basis become involved in a domestic or national political issue? Does that person have a moral obligation to support the cause if they think it is just? Is strong, sustained involvement worth the risk of deportation?
To be honest, although I had kept an eye on the issue as it developed, I had not seriously considered my own position until the nationwide two-day strikes on Aug. 24 and 25. As I was leaving my apartment to go to work on the first day of the protests, my roommate casually suggested that I stay home and go on strike with her. At the time, I chuckled at the idea. But as I rode the uncharacteristically empty metro during morning rush hour, I found myself lingering on her proposal. Why not join the strikes? I believed in the student cause, and of course I wanted to support my friend, and all the other Chileans I had met who argued so passionately for reform.
As the day wore on, the idea became more and more plausible, especially as I witnessed students confronting police trucks firing water cannons and spewing tear gas along Alameda. I briefly felt the thrill of civil disobedience, at least by proximity, as I ducked behind vacated newsstands to avoid getting sprayed by the arcing jets of filthy water spewing from the tops of roving police vehicles. Why not get off the sidelines and invest something more than curiosity in this most important of issues?
On the other hand, the idea of calling my boss and telling her I would be going on strike seemed preposterous. Worse, I was afraid that my impulse to help was really just an excuse to jump on the bandwagon of a fashionable social movement. After all, education reform is a major issue in the United States as well, but I had never so much as signed a petition in support of any initiative to improve the system. How much of my interest was based on the cool, cosmopolitan idea of joining a social movement in a foreign country? These concerns weighed on me to the point of paralysis, and in the end I decided to continue working.
But with the early momentum and enthusiasm that drove the protests beginning to stall, and the real work at the negotiating table just getting set to begin, it is now more important than ever that the students and their allies muster every last scrap of support in order to achieve their objectives. At this point in the process, the participation of foreigners both inside and outside of the country could play an important role in drawing more international attention to the issue, putting increased pressure on the government to craft a legitimate response, and sustaining the level of urgency that has driven this latest push for education reform in Chile.
At the end of that long, strange night back in July, I came into the living room one last time to say goodnight to our unexpected guests. It was well past midnight, but they were still wide-awake, laying across the pillows and blankets we had set on the floor in a small pow-wow-like circle, as they talked animatedly about the day’s events. They paused their group reverie for a moment to blurt out a brief “thank you” before turning back to more important matters. Although I was standing outside their circle I felt, at least for one night, like I was a part of something exciting, essential and absolutely worth fighting for.