In Santiago’s Dignity Plaza, a heavily-policed wall guarding an empty space has come to represent another challenge to neoliberalism in Chile.

On Monday 15 March, neighbours of the newly christened Dignity Plaza (formerly Plaza Italia) in the centre of Santiago, found a three-metre tall metal wall surrounding the place where the statue of General Manuel Baquedano (1823-1897) is located. The only problem is that the statue was not even there. It was removed for repair – as the official narrative indicates. Why, then, build a strong wall weighing twelve tons? What are the Chilean authorities attempting to ‘protect’?

Dignity Plaza has been the battlefield between protestors and the police since the start of Chile’s mass revolt in October 2019. Gatherings and manifestations have not ceased, even during Covid times – except during total lockdown in winter 2020. These activities go unreported, especially in the international arena. News of a wall being erected in the plaza may seem random if one does not know that Chileans are still fighting in the streets. Galería Cima, a gallery whose headquarters  overlooks the plaza, and whose management have strategically installed a camera, have been recording what takes place since the revolt began. Going through their footage, it is possible to watch the wall being erected. It took place undisturbed, during curfew, to the annoyance of neighbours who reported loud noise at late hours. There was police presence at all times during this procedure.

Prior to the wall’s installation, the statue was removed following the International Women’s Day demonstrations (8 March; known as 8M), when it was completely covered in red paint. The four-ton structure took six hours to be removed. The Santiago police department then deployed around 800 special forces to guard the area. This excessive display of state force clearly had one objective in mind: a clash with protestors. This police-led strategy is repeated every Friday evening, which is when citizens gather at the plaza to remind Sebastián Piñera’s government that their demands have not yet been met.

The results of the October 2020 constitutional referendum, in which 78 per cent of Chileans voted to draft an entirely new constitution, may have led some to believe that protests were over. Nevertheless, the demand to overhaul the neoliberal model has not been forgotten. It takes more than a pandemic or a high wall to appease those who seek a dramatic change to Chile’s unequal structures. Support for President Piñera remains obscenely low – a survey from a sympathetic think-tank put his approval ratings at 24 per cent. Still, it’s a vague improvement: the president had a 4.6 per cent rating at the end of 2019.

In order to understand the meaning – or lack thereof – behind a wall protecting an empty space in the heart of Santiago, it is important to consider two points. The first is the figure of General Baquedano and, second, the location of Dignity Plaza within the city of Santiago and its social and symbolic meaning.

General Manuel Baquedano passed into the annals of Chilean history as Commander-in-Chief during the War of the Pacific against Peru and Bolivia (1879-1883) and the Occupation of Araucanía (1861-1883) – the latter consisting of military campaigns into Mapuche indigenous territory to annex the Araucanía region into Chilean domain, which also significantly reduced indigenous lands. Baquedano’s statue was installed in 1928, during the dictatorship of Carlos Ibáñez del Campo (1927-1931) who had also inaugurated the national police force, Carabineros de Chile, in April 1927. The Carabineros joined the Chilean coup of 1973, together with the rest of the armed forces. The Chilean police force maintains allegiance to the Pinochet regime and the elites who backed it. Since Sebastián Piñera’s government (and also his first office 2010-2014) incorporated a number of pinochetistas (Pinochet supporters) as ministers and in other high-profile roles, such as Cristián Larroulette and Andrés Chadwick, the link to the recent past is evident.

An attack on Baquedano’s statue can be interpreted as an offence to the police founder. As José M. Santa Cruz indicated in El Mostrador, a monument such as Baquedano’s ‘imprints military violence over the city and marks this territory, because each statue or monumental landmark fixes the colonial, military and patriarchal presence as the constitutional nucleus that has ruled this country since the 1830s.’ The statue has become a receptacle for public wrath. The monolithic narratives surrounding Baquedano are being emptied of their meaning. The statue is appropriated by those who seek to be heard: be it women, workers or minorities. When the flag of the Wallmapu – the ancestral Mapuche territory – waves over the statue, Baquedano’s quest to invade the Araucanía region is symbolically halted and rejected in the present. A core demand of protestors is to establish Chile as a pluri-nation, that is, acknowledging our First Nations and that most of us are of mixed heritage, with indigenous ancestry that deserves recognition and pride.

Plaza Italia, now referred to as Plaza Dignidad, divides the city between high- and low-income districts. Understood as an urban divide for decades, this became even more acute after Pinochet’s displacements. During the regime, low-income families were displaced from now-affluent areas such as Providencia or Las Condes to the outskirts of the city. This process started in 1976 and, by 1987, over 30,000 families had been ‘moved’ to the urban periphery (districts such as Maipú, La Granja or San Bernardo), exacerbating the social divide in Santiago.

This process further consolidated Plaza Italia as the clear physical division between rich and poor, with the former living to the east and the less well-off to the west and south. The plaza is also the site for national triumphs, given its central location, such as the national football team’s Copa América victories in 2015 and 2016, or the October 2010 rescue of the 23 miners who had spent weeks trapped underground. By late 2019, the square had been rechristened as Plaza Dignity, as Chileans demanded dignity through an end to neoliberal rule.

By reimagining both the statue and the plaza, protestors have enacted an ideological break with a long-standing conservative and monolithic view of Chile. Be it in a history that displaced the Mapuche in Araucanía in the 19th century, or poor Santiago families during the Pinochet regime, reframing both the statue and the plaza’s historical meaning is a gesture so powerful that it led the government to erect walls around an empty space. The meaning they seek to preserve has been permanently expunged. Regardless of the outcome of the constitutional process, the events of October 2019 have changed Chile for good. The old patriarchal, military and colonial orders have been challenged, and what remains is a few square feet in Plaza Dignity, surrounded by a three-metre metal wall and guarded by 1,000 police officers. Many Chileans sense that, for the socio-economic divide lasting over 200 years, currently headed by Sebastián Piñera, the end is nigh.