Things That Matter

In Chile, Hundreds of People Have Lost Their Eyes After Protesting Against Economic Inequality

On Sunday, crowds formed outside of the Chilean clinic where 21-year-old student Gustavo Gatica was staying. Standing together, the protesters waved Chilean flags and chanted: “El puebla está contigo”. The people are with you. The crowd gathered to support Gatica after he had permanently lost both of his eyes after being shot at close-range by rubber bullets. Unfortunately for Chileans, cases like these have become more and more common in recent weeks. Since mid-October, stories have abounded of Chilean protesters suffering permanent eye-sight loss at the hands of excessive police force.

According to the Chilean Red Cross, more than 2,500 people have been injured since October 18th when the protests started. Of that number, 400 of those injuries were caused by rubber bullets. According to the Salvador Hospital ophthalmology unit in Santiago, more than 140 people have suffered eye injuries since the begin of the protests. Some experts claim that the number is closer to 180 people. Officials say that of these numbers, 60% suffered a severe decrease in vision, while almost 30% were completely blind in one eye. In Chile, both doctors and health officials are calling the wave of injuries an “epidemic.” 

According to officials, the amount of eye-injuries that have been sustained by Chileans during these protests is unprecedented in the entire world.

“If you look at the statistics and compare them with complaints from France, Kashmir, Palestine, for example, they have much lower numbers,” said ophthalmologist Dr. Enrique Morales to The New York Times. “In just eight or nine days, we’ve surpassed numbers from any other medical reports of this kind of eye injury happening as a result of pellet gunshots. It’s a human rights catastrophe”. 

In Chile, the protests began on October 6th when subway fares increased, prompting an influx of turnstile-jumping as a form of protest. As police used force to crack down on the fare-dodgers, the public responded with more protests. From that point forward, everything snowballed. The fare increase became a symbol for everything Chileans were unhappy with, what The New York Times describes as “the rising cost of utilities, stagnant wages and paltry pensions” that made it difficult for lower and middle-class Chileans to flourish. “We don’t have good public health, the salaries are low,” 29-year-old publicist Jacinta Urivi told Al Jazeera. “There are so many things that act against the people, that they (the politicians) fill their pockets with”. 

As the maiming continues, the rest of the world has started to take notice of the government’s violence. 

On social media, people have started bringing attention to what some are calling “mutilations” through explicit pictures and videos. And according to The New York Times, international human rights organizations have begun to investigate the abuse. But the publicity is little solace to the protesters who will have to live the rest of their lives without their eyes. Pablo Verdigo, blinded in his left eye by a rubber bullet, told the New York Times that the loss of his eye “breaks his heart”. “Because you want to protest, for your kids,” he said through tears. “Not for this to happen.”

But Verdigo has no regrets about protesting against the government. Days later, he was back on the streets, marching against economic inequality.  “If we change something, this eye will be a triumph, not a loss.,” Verdigo told The Times. “That’s what I want. That losing my eye will be worth it”.

Throughout Twitter, the violence and mutilations have not gone unnoticed. 

People are using their social media platforms to bring awareness to the unprecedented violent blindings happening in Chile.

People are shocked that the armed forces are targeting such an integral part of the human experience: eyesight.

It seems like a systemic attempt to oppress the people by instilling fear in them.

Some people are bringing to light how the police brutality against Chileans is universal:

It seems that everyone is in danger.

This person believes that the Chilean government’s response to the protesters is undemocratic:

People should not be permanently maimed for exercising their fundamental right to peaceably assemble.

This man is documenting the myriad of injuries that Chilean protesters are sustaining at the hands of the police:

His Twitter feed proves the extent of the unprecedented police brutality. 

On Sunday, President Sebastián Piñera finally reacted to the violence by announcing he supported a new constitution.

While before,  Piñera claimed that Chile was “at war” with the protestors, calling them a “powerful enemy who is willing to use violence without limits”. But now, Piñera has announced that he is willing to draft the new constitution that protesters have been asking for, a response that has been met with almost universal skepticism. “Anyone who thinks that the current Congress can write down a new constitution may be fooling themselves,” says Senator Jose Miguel Insulza of Chile’s Socialist Party. “It may not have enough legitimacy”. 

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