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Eye Patches Are A Badge Of Honor As Injured Chileans Keep Protesting

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:

Until recently, Chile was considered an oasis of calm in South America. That changed last fall when mass protests erupted and thousands were injured or arrested. Violence flared again this past week with protesters attacking police stations, with the latest leaving at least four dead. NPR's Philip Reeves went to Chile's capital and found young people who've paid a high price for being on the front line yet remain committed to their cause.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Spanish).

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Protesters are on the march in Santiago.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Spanish).

REEVES: One man stands out. He has a black patch over his right eye. His name is Diego Leppez. His eye was destroyed by a police tear gas canister during a demonstration in November. Despite that life-changing injury, Leppez is back on the streets, this time protesting police violence.

DIEGO LEPPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "I'm carrying on with this," says Leppez, "even though I'm afraid." Leppez says he lost his eye when a cop fired a canister directly into his face...

LEPPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: ...From close range. Leppez is 27 and has two small kids. Before his injury, he was earning $800 a month working for a paint company. Surviving on that in Santiago is difficult, says Leppez, who speaks some English. So is adjusting to life without one eye.

LEPPEZ: Some days, I feel really good. And just a few seconds - I fall in the ground, and I cry.

REEVES: You get depressed.

LEPPEZ: Yes.

REEVES: His 4-year-old daughter couldn't look at him at first. She found his eye injury too upsetting.

LEPPEZ: She told me, Dad, I love you, but I can't see you. So I have to go.

REEVES: Leppez hasn't told his family he's still going to protests. He believes it's vital to keep up pressure on the government. Chile's protests are smaller these days.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Yet street battles like this continue. These protesters say they're driven by anger over social inequality. They often blame the economic model imposed decades ago by the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Heavy reliance on the private sector to provide social services for profit means most Chileans get a raw deal, they say.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Spanish).

REEVES: When the protests began, Chile's conservative president Sebastian Pinera was caught off guard. Rioters attacked stores, hotels, churches and Santiago's metro.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT SEBASTIAN PINERA: (Speaking Spanish).

LEPPEZ: Pinera announced a state of emergency. Sporadic violence continues today. Chile's economy has lost billions of dollars because of the protests. Yet most of the vast crowds who've taken part were peaceful. Pineda admits they have legitimate grievances. He's announced concessions, including a higher minimum wage and health reforms.

NATALIA ARAVENA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Twenty-five-year-old Natalia Aravena is a psychiatric nurse. She lost her eye to a tear gas canister soon after the uprising began. Aravena lives with her family in a prosperous Santiago neighborhood.

ARAVENA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: But she's angry on behalf of her fellow Chileans...

ARAVENA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: ...Who have no access to decent health care and education or are struggling to survive on tiny pensions. Aravena says she can almost accept losing her eye if Chile's protests achieve something.

ARAVENA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: She didn't see the cop who fired at her. And she accepts he probably won't be brought to justice. Her mother, Mirtha, does not. She lived through the 17-year Pinochet dictatorship, which murdered thousands of Chileans.

MIRTHA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "People are still trying to find out what happened to some of those who were disappeared," she says. Mirtha believes, this time, victims of state violence must get justice because...

MIRTHA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "...If there's no justice, who can we trust?"

According to Chile's Institute of Human Rights (ph), more than 400 people have suffered eye trauma injuries since the protests began. They include Gustavo Gatica, a 22-year-old psychology student. Unlike almost all the others, he's now totally blind.

ENRIQUE GATICA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: He was hit in the face by pellets from a police shotgun, says his older brother Enrique.

GATICA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: So far, surgery hasn't restored any of his sight. His brother Enrique acts as his spokesman while Gustavo adjusts to the challenges ahead.

GATICA: (Through interpreter) He's very independent. He likes cooking. He likes taking photos. There are a lot of things he can't do on his own anymore.

REEVES: That won't stop Gustavo from continuing to protest, says Enrique.

GATICA: (Through interpreter) We've talked about this in the family. If we're paralyzed by terror and fear, the government's repressive acts will have paid off.

REEVES: Chile's police - or Carabineros - say they're conducting hundreds of internal investigations related to the protests. They also say they're often attacked by rioters and that several thousand Carabineros have been injured. In mid-November, the government told the police to suspend use of the type of shotgun that blinded Gustavo Gatica. But even after that, protesters still lost eyes. Diego Lastra, a medical student, has given first aid to many of the injured.

DIEGO LASTRA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: He says he treated many for pellet injuries after the shotguns were supposedly withdrawn. Lastra, who's 27, has participated in many recent demonstrations himself.

LASTRA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: He always understood the risks, he says. On New Year's Day, Lastra was hit in the face by a police tear gas canister. It blew out his left eye. He, too, plans to go back to protest on Chile's streets, where wearing an eye patch has become a badge of honor. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Santiago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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