By Benardita Garcia Jimenez* (El Estornudo)
HAVANA TIMES – At one train station before Santa Lucia, where the stage has been set for Gabriel Boric to celebrate, the subway car shakes on its rails, due to the ecstatic swaying of the masses it’s carrying. It’s 8:15 p.m. on the Sunday of the runoff election in Chile. In the time it takes to travel eight kilometers, we’ve gone from a few scattered souls staring at each other in wonder, to a booming chorus that chants while we descend like a flow of lava from the train.
As we go up the stairs to emerge onto the street, without knowing what’s waiting for us out there, from every corner the song echoes, the one that resonated in 2011, when we were marching with Gabriel and that today is more alive than ever. “And it’s going to fall, and it’s going to fall… Pinochet’s education – IT’S GOING TO FAAALLLLLL!” The colorful banners wave over the shaved and dyed heads in the style of Colombian singer J Balvin, and over the tattooed shoulders and arms of a millennial Chile that’s come out to greet their President, a millennial as well.
It’s past noon when I pass through the doors to the polling place I’ve been assigned to, where this afternoon I’ll be present as a “poll watcher” to safeguard the votes for Gabriel Boric. An odd sensation has lodged in my throat, a scratchy discomfort that, at first, I can’t figure out where it comes from. I only understand it when I look around and realize where I am: on my feet in this cement yard where normally the schoolkids play.
The area around me – the intersection of North Manquehue Street and Los Condes Avenue, main artery of a high elevation Santiago neighborhood is far from unfamiliar to me. In the commercial sector on the corner, my mother used to buy me fancy dresses when I was a little girl, and half a block down are the grilled meat places where my family, like so many others in the higher-up neighborhoods at the end of the nineties, celebrated special occasions. There, between the sweet odor of the blood puddings and the agility of the workers, with their roasting forks, we’d meet up with others. We felt at home.
Not a lot has changed in the neighborhood since that time, except for one or another high-rise building, and the view of the Andes Range that no longer manages to become completely snow-covered in winter, a symptom of climate change. But, above all, the Las Condes municipality continues to be a bastion of the Chilean Right and of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Of those who still find ways of thinking and speaking as if the dead and the disappeared from that era had never existed.
Last year, during the plebiscite for the new Constitution, Los Condes was among the five districts of the 356 in the country, where the “rejection” vote won. It’s secure territory for Jose Antonio Kast, the utra-right candidate. In fact, by the end of the day, he would win 73.5% of the votes cast in this locale. For the same reason, it’s here where “watchdogs” were most needed to safeguard the scarce votes that Boric obtained in the district.
We, the volunteer poll watchers, know that well. At any rate, we’re those at the service of Gabriel’s campaign registered at this location. We’ve spent days soaking in our sense of disadvantage. Maybe it’s for this that when we gather at the door and they ask for our credentials we speak slowly, as if not wanting to annoy anyone.
They’re not the only ones accompanying me here today. My mother, at 74, has registered as a poll watcher for Kast. She’s been here since the first hours of the morning, set up in her room on the second floor of the locale. She has faith, probably more than I do. Her anointed candidate won the first round with 28 per cent as opposed to Boric’s 25.7%
There’s fear on both sides of the street: fear of change, fear of backsliding, fear of the demonstrations, fear of fear, fear of the old Chile, fear of a Chile that has nothing to do with what came before. I don’t know what differentiates one fear from the other, or even if one has a greater reason to be or more value. I only know that when you feel your own, it’s difficult to think about that of others.
A political abyss has always stretched between my mother and I. My family is rightist and several defend the Pinochet dictatorship, for diverse reasons. When asked about Allende, the response tends to revolve around two concepts: “scarcity” and “lines”. From the time I was a very little girl, I understood how much fear you can have of a half-empty cupboard.
During the dictatorship, my parents were both functionaries in government entities, and thanks to those jobs were able to buy their own home in the Los Condes district. It was in that very house that I was born in 1988, a few months before the plebiscite defeated the dictator and put a center-left alliance at the head of the country. This alliance was to govern democratically for the next two decades.
In the interim, families like mine had no other choice but to follow, but always evoking with disgusted grimaces the inalienable ghost of communism. It wasn’t until 2010 that a smiling Sebastian Piñera managed to bring them some level of relief. He became the first right-wing Chilean president since the return of democracy. By that time, I was close to graduating in Journalism and to moving away from home. My family already knew me as “the communist”, a label that wasn’t even true.
In 2020, I was the only one in my family to vote “Approve” [for the drafting of a new constitution]. That day when we won the plebiscite – 78% to 21.7% – I celebrated in the Plaza Italia amid a sea of strangers, even though the pandemic was at its height, and felt myself accompanied as never before. Surrounded by people that – they always told me – “weren’t like me”, I stopped being the outsider. And even more important: no one could tell me anymore that we were just a handful.
But the last week before the presidential runoff, 14 months after the former celebration, I once again felt that vertigo of isolation. The fear of living in a country ready to capitalize on everything, even on the dead.
“Hey, you know this Boric is a clown,” my mother had told me on the phone the Sunday before.
We hadn’t been speaking much to each other, precisely to avoid interchanges like that. I took a deep breath, repeating to myself something I already knew: my mother has her ways of hooking me in.
“Ay, Mom.. What’s the use of talking about this?”
“But, if he’s elected, [the communists] are going to do whatever they want with him.”
“Ok, at least he’s not the son of a Nazi.”
“Bah! And Boric’s great great grandfather, didn’t he sell women as prostitutes there in Magallanes?”
I confess – I had no idea what she was talking to me about. Among so much fake news of the last few days, it could well be a falsehood, but I felt her comment rock my soul. I’m from the generation that went out in 2011 to march with Gabriel Boric and the other student leaders for free education, and as a recently graduated journalist, I got to interview him and to follow him many times. We watched him grow, cut his hair, put on a shirt, negotiate, influence, prioritize, make mistakes and all those things that politicians do. Despite it all, we continued feeling that he was one of our own.
“It’s better that we talk another day.”
My mother and I hung up a few seconds later, knowing that it was already very late for civilized conversations.
During the week that led up to the elections, I asked acquaintances from both bands what they were afraid of. Those voting for Kast responded:
“Fear of losing the freedom to choose, for example, what kind of education do I want to give my children.”
“Fear of economic uncertainty, of not being able to allow ourselves our “little pleasures”.
Fear of losing all of my retirement pension.”
“Fear that the economy collapses, that prices rise and that, since I’m an independent, I lose my job.”
When at last I find the voting room my mother’s assigned to, I see her walk out with her purse clutched in two hands, taking short, tired steps. “What happened to you?” I ask her, but she’s not listening to me. “Look, Juanita, this is my daughter Bernardita,” she manages to say proudly to the head of the Kast poll watching team, a woman in a two-piece suit who offers me a distracted smile and later disappears to install herself in her room.
We walk down the corridor to a row of chairs. “I brought you an empanada. Eat it fast, because I have to go to my assigned room,” I tell her, while we sit down. She answers that she also wants to get back soon because she suspects that the officials at her table are Boric supporters. She peels the wrapper off the empanada and eats it quickly, while the crumbs fall on the glasses that hang from her neck, and the mask that’s on a level with her chin. We laugh and we even take a picture, each one with her credential.
“Did you know that people are complaining that they can’t get out and vote because there aren’t any buses?” I ask her.
“Apparently the communists burned one up.”
“It’s because the government didn’t want have them out on the streets so that people couldn’t vote,” I answer, even though I don’t know why, if deep down not even I believed in the story about a plot.
Before taking leave of each other, I give her a kiss and tell her to call me when she’s done. Later, I go down the stairs and head to my room. Upon arrival, I find an impressive poster on the door with the number of the voting station I’ve been assigned to: “73” – the year of the coup. “How symbolic,” I think. And I still hadn’t found out that the last name of the president of the voting station has the last name “Pinochet”.
The volunteer standing on the screen went over one by one the items that we poll watchers heeded to bring on election day: ballpoint pen, notebook, portfolio, hand sanitizer, mask. Meanwhile, the other 498 souls participating with me in the Zoom conference organized by Boric’s campaign headquarters fidgeted nervously. In under an hour, the television would be transmitting the final presidential debate.
All of those present felt the pressure. It was a historic presidential election, the first since the 2019 mobilizations and the creation of a Constitutional Assembly that, at this date, is still working on a new Constitution for Chile. In addition, for the first time since the end of the dictatorship, none of the traditional parties, left or right, that had come down from the decade of democratic transition had managed to make it to the final round. Whatever way you looked at it, it was an unprecedented scenario.
The volunteer continued reading the instructions from the Power Point projected on the screen. At that moment, something happened. Some little red and black dots appeared on the slide. At first, they were tiny, nearly imperceptible, like a twitch in The Matrix, an error. But soon the little dots began to slide down, taking the shape of half-twisted lines, that joined together to form the apparent image of….
IS THAT A SWATSTIKA?? Someone wrote, horrified, in the chat.
It’s a swatstika! Kast’s people are invading the chat! Deactivate the blackboard option!” others added, while panic spread. We’d been infiltrated by far-right militants.
“LONG LIVE PRESIDENT KAST!”
“LONG LIVE PRESIDENT KAST!”
“LONG LIVE PRESIDENT KAST!”
The week before the elections, I asked acquaintances from both bands what they were afraid of. Those who were voting for Boric answered the following:
“Fear of returning to the times when there wasn’t a society that was mobilized and aware of political issues. Fear of not facing up to the climate crisis and that they’ll continue putting the economic agenda ahead of the rights of nature.”
“Fear of not being able to develop myself in the things I like, that culture will be promoted even less.”
“Fear that the homophobes and haters will become emboldened.”
“Fear of living in a Chile that threatens the original inhabitants, the artists, those on the left or those who think differently.”
The Saturday night before election day, I lay down to sleep with fear in my mind. I hadn’t wanted to admit it, much less verbalize it, but in the end the next day awaiting me put me in a corner. “I’m afraid that Kast will win,” I muttered into the sheets, just before falling asleep.
At that same moment, my mother was also feeling fearful. I still didn’t know that; although she left me a message in WhatsApp, I wouldn’t see it until the next day. And even though she wouldn’t admit to me exactly what her motive for the fear was, it wouldn’t be hard to guess.
“Berni, tomorrow bring me the extra pepper spray you have, please.”
The afternoon drags by slowly, in the 91 degree heat of the capital. Little by little, they enter and leave rapidly, the voters at my station. Older women with salon hair-do’s like Queen Isabel; gentlemen in Hawaiian shirts, recently emerged from their swimming pools; a pair of mothers with their two or three-year-old children in tow, and one or another teenager, with their earbuds stuck in their ears, who look like they only recently reached voting age.
By the time we begin the vote count, Pinochet has already warned me to maintain low expectations, that Kast is going to sweep this voting station. In effect: sitting with my notebook, drawing a stick for each vote, the count comes out at 179 for the candidate on the right and only 62 for mine. With impeccable stoicism, I sign the final statement of the count and take my leave. The poll watcher from the other band never arrived, so at least I didn’t have to fight with anyone for our votes.
In the schoolyard, I wait for my mother on a little bench in the sun. I take out my cellphone and open the official count. I take off the mask that’s been stuck over my nose for the last 10 hours. The polling places have only been closed for 50 minutes and there’s already a revealing figure: with 30 percent of the nation’s ballots scrutinized, Boric is leading with 50 percent of the votes. I have to blink a few times to convince myself that it’s real. I look around, to see if there’s anyone who can confirm it for me, but I’m all alone.
When my mother appears, 15 minutes later, I realize that she still doesn’t know. She appears tired but happy, ready to go home to await the happy results. I don’t know how to tell her. I know she’s worked hard for something she believes in.
“Mama, the first results have come out… We’re winning,” I inform her at last in a low voice, trying not to sound too triumphant.
“How do you know?” she responds slowly, as if swallowing a large dry pill.
“It’s on the internet.” I don’t know what else to say.
We go out to the street, looking for the Uber that I’ve ordered for her on her cellphone. In the doorway, we meet another of the Kast poll watchers. “All that work for nothing!”
The ride is late and my mother gets desperate. I tell her to be calm. “Leave me alone, leave me alone! It’s better you go away!” she yells at me while I grab her arm so she won’t fall or get run over.
“Call me when you arrive,” I tell her before closing her door on the passenger side and walking to the Metro, knowing full well she won’t call.
Outside, at the exit to the Santa Lucia Metro station, the sun is slowly setting in the background. The ocean of people have begun to inundate the Alameda. I walk among the people, looking at the little girls on their fathers’ shoulders, and the grandmothers with their flowered blouses, holding tight to their smiles. I walk among the people chorusing the music of Chilean female rapper Ana Tijoux that’ playing in the background, and smelling the odor of marijuana in the air. I walk among the people, while warm tears fall from my eyes, my mascara leaving black stains on the edges of my mask. I walk among the people and I’m not alone any more.
The fear is still there, vibrating deep down, because no one knows where this project may take us. Those of the other band believe that we’re fools, that we don’t know we’re betting with our lives, or that we want to watch Chile burn. “How can a new country be built?” we ask ourselves every day, afraid of not finding an answer. But on this night, we sing, we play, we embrace. Tomorrow we’ll see what can be done to free us, once more, of fear.
This essay originally appeared in the web magazine Anfibia. “