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LATIN AMERICA | 14-10-2020 23:37

Chile's wounded look to referendum, a year on from start of protests

A year after the start of Chile's tumultuous social protests and as the country prepares for a landmark referendum, several protesters who suffered eye injuries believe their loss will not be in vain.

Nothing will restore their sight, but a year after the start of Chile's tumultuous social protests and as the country prepares for a landmark referendum, several protesters who suffered eye injuries believe their loss will not be in vain.

An extraordinary 460 people fell victim to serious eye injuries as they faced off against security forces during months of social protests that began on October 18 last year, according to Chile's National Institute of Human Rights.

In most cases, the eye damage came from birdshot or the impact of tear gas canisters fired by the Carabineros paramilitary police.

A year on, some of the victims say it was a price worth paying, now that the country prepares to participate in what was one of the protest movement's key demands – a referendum to change the dictatorship-era Constitution introduced by General Augusto Pinochet they say fostered inequality from the 1970s.

With the one-year anniversary of the start of the protests approaching on Sunday, and with the referendum a week later, some victims see the events as "the beginning of the end" of Pinochet-era inequality, during which economic power was concentrated in the hands of a core of Chile's wealthiest families.

Others however believe holding a constitutional referendum is a sop to protesters and nothing much will change.

'Worth it'

Welder Felipe Riquelme, 41, was in the thick of the protests when he was hit in the eye by a tear gas round that tore through the gas mask he was wearing.

"I looked behind a palm tree, saw a policeman pointing a gun at me and that was the last thing I saw," Riquelme recalled. "I felt a blow on my forehead and fell. I felt a buzzing in my ears, and a huge pain."

Riquelme was one of several victims to speak to AFP at the epicentre of the clashes, Santiago's central Plaza Italia.

The impact burst his eyeball and fractured his skull, and a year later he still sees the policeman who shot him in his nightmares.

With a patch over his sightless eye, he says he feels "grief, anger and frustration" over not knowing who shot him. However, it won't stop him "going back on the street," he said.

"In fact, I am now overcoming my demons, fears and nightmares, because I can't let impunity win over democracy," he said.

Beginning of the end?

Riquelme is aware that a new constitution, if the "Yes" vote wins, will not give him back the sight in his injured eye, and although unsatisfied at what he sees as a piecemeal measure, the referendum is a sign of hope for the future, he says.

However, Hernan Horta, 52, dismisses the October 25 plebiscite as "a mockery, planned by a political class that is fearful of losing power."

The political agreement that allowed the referendum to take place is nothing more than an offering of "crumbs" when protesters could have "the whole cake," he said.

Horta received a pellet that left him almost totally blind in one eye and with a "shattered" skull. 

It happened during a confrontation with police on Plaza Italia.

"I was taking photos and they began hitting a kid. When I crossed over, I started shouting at them and suddenly: 'boom'. The only thing I felt was that my head was hurting," he said.

Documenting abuses

Freelance photojournalist Nicole Kramm experienced the protests through the lens of her cameras as she worked to document the demonstrations. 

On December 31 she was walking with others towards Plaza Italia when she was hit in her left eye.

"I had no capacity to react, I couldn't run or do anything. I fell to the ground immediately and the pain was so bad that I thought my head was going to explode," Kramm, 30, told AFP when she returned to the spot for the first time since the incident.

"Part of my work is done out of a political conviction and what's happening has to be revealed and denounced," she said.

Following accusations of human rights violations by various international organisations, the Chilean police announced after a month of protests that it was suspending the use of birdshot on demonstrators. 

Police continued to use the tactic against the most violent protesters.

Two of the most serious eye-injury cases were left totally blind. Gustavo Gatica, a student, was hit in the eyes by projectiles fired by security forces. Faviola Campillai, a young woman on her way to work, was  hit in the face by a tear gas canister.

Months of coronavirus lockdown in Santiago quietened the protests, but demonstrations have flared again around Plaza Italia after authorities lifted confinement measures ahead of the referendum.

by Alberto Peña, AFP

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