For months I’ve planned to be in Santiago next week, with a brief side trip to Concepción. I was to speak at the annual joint conference of the Centre for Sustainable Urban Development and the Centre for the Study of Conflict and Social Cohesion. I had visited the country in 2004, and looked forward to returning to one of the most stable and peaceful countries in Latin America.
So it goes. Stability can always mask horrors that eventually have to come to light. Chile’s extreme inequality had reached a point where a small increase in Santiago Metro fares sparked a broad social revolt. The initial outburst was violent, including looting of stores, burning of buildings, and terrible damage to the magnificent Santiago Metro. The conservative government briefly tried out a confrontational response (“Chile is at war“) but backtracked the next day, apologizing, sacking much of the cabinet, and promising reforms. Today the protests continue as they should, mostly peaceful but with the inevitable scatterings of violence, and the country is debating profound reforms that Serious People deemed impossible even two weeks ago.
But the conference venue is right in the centre of Santiago, where protests are continuing, and the organizers have decided to cancel the conference, because, they write, “at this moment we do not have the conditions to complete the conference as it was planned.” Instead, “we believe that the efforts of academics should lie in understanding and engaging in dialogue on the problems that confront our country, as well as cooperating to open paths to a more just country.”
I’m coming anyway. I’ll meet with some transport officials, and speak to a class at the university. In Concepción I’ll face the challenge of giving a talk in Spanish, a language I knew almost nothing of six months ago. I look forward to experiencing something even better than stability: a country transforming itself, as few countries dare imagine.