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Protests in Chile. President of the Bishops’ Conference: “The deep malaise of families and individuals has not been considered”

Mons. Santiago Silva Retamales, President of the Chilean Bishops' Conference, addressed his people and the ruling class calling for the development of a shared social policy agenda while the dialogue between President Sebastián Piñera and all political parties is under way

Strong condemnation of the violence that in the recent protests resulted in the death of 15 people, coupled by the belief that the “deep malaise” had not been taken into consideration. Now it is necessary to “take stock of the true face” of the country, and everyone should be “invited to engage in dialogue on the Chile we want.” The President of the Chilean Bishops’ Conference (CECH), Monsignor Santiago Silva Retamales, Bishop of Castrense, called upon his people and the ruling class to analyse in depth the latest developments and to promote reconciliation, while President Sebastián Piñera and all the political parties took a seat around the dialogue table, with a view to formulating a shared social policy agenda. The present situation was preceded by a set of terrible incidents: the capital Santiago and other cities were devastated, subway stations were destroyed, shops were set on fire, churches were also attacked, including the cathedral of Valparaíso, amidst curfews, roadblocks and tanks on the streets. Things have started to normalise, but the tension remains high. Dockworkers are in a state of unrest and a general strike is planned for today. In this context, the President of the Chilean Bishops’ Conference offered his words and appeals.  

Your Excellency, seen from Europe, the latest incidents were a sudden thunderclap that shook the skies. It is so or were there warning signals?

Warnings on the risk of growing inequality have long been issued by various organisations. Among them, the Chilean Bishops’ Conference. In our pastoral letter titled “Chile, a home for all”, published in 2017, we pointed out: “Social disparities, unemployment, especially youth unemployment, job insecurity caused by the non-enforcement of labour laws, low wages and very low retirement pay produce a great deal of frustration and anger that escalate into acts of violence. On the opposite end there are groups that, due to their social position and wealth, exercise their power by defending their interests, sometimes illegitimately, violating ethical standards and breaching the law in order to obtain higher revenues and, as a consequence, perpetuating inequalities.” As a result of our pastoral activity we have been accompanying the lives of people in difficult circumstances, but our efforts were not enough to bridge the gap of inequality and avoid the suffering of so many people.  

As bishops, you have already condemned the violence. In your opinion, is it confined to minority groups? Or is the social unrest so widespread?

We strongly condemn all forms of violence. It undermines our coexistence and worsens our civic friendship and social peace, which are fundamental to establishing agreements for the common good with the participation of the population’s majority. The social malaise may be understood as a result of the many precarious situations that people are forced to face.  

We must identify the origin of the violence in order to prevent it, contain it and bring about civic, human and, if possible, constitutional solutions in order to confront and resolve our differences.  

These painful events require that, as a society, we cultivate a culture of encounter, capable of empathically listening to and sharing the daily suffering and discomfort in Chilean society in the areas of employment, health, safety, education, housing insecurity, pensions, conditions of poverty and the humanitarian challenges of immigration, as we expressed in the Declaration of the Standing Committee of 19 October last.  

If the protest were conducted peacefully, would there be any reason for it?

Many people have expressed their discontent in a peaceful manner. We believe that everyone can make a meaningful contribution and that authorities, especially politicians, in their different areas of responsibility, should listen to the voice of their people.  

It’s hard not to think that organized groups have orchestrated the outburst of violence. Does someone have an interest in destabilising Chile?

As a Church, it is not our job to examine this aspect. Some people think that this is actually the case. But, as pastors, the focus of our action is the concern for those who are suffering, ensuring spiritual accompaniment and trying to meet their most urgent needs, making sure that they know that they can count on us.  

In the coming weeks, the world’ s attention will be focused on Chile, which will host the Climate Change Conference – Cop25. Is there any hope that the situation will be resolved before this event?

Yes, we hope that by then we will have established a social dialogue that is truly centred on the people, on their coexistence and way of living in what is everyone’s home or country, for a civic friendship based on the common good. This means that the political, social and economic players can leave aside their particular interests and work on common projects, which most of us identify with.

Curfew and tanks on the streets… European newspapers wrote that it had never happened since Pinochet’s rule. Is it a simplification?

Since the establishment of a democratic system it occurred only in connection with emergency situations, such as the earthquake and the tsunami of 2010, or the Santa Olga fires in 2016. The difference this time is that it is not due to an unpredictable catastrophe, as in the past, but to the failure to recognize a profound malaise among people and families, affected by unjust inequalities and daily practices which they consider abusive, affecting the most vulnerable groups in particular. 

The well-known, increasing conditions of prosperity in Chile are enjoyed only by a privileged few, but the poor can’ t be kept waiting.  

What is your appeal to the Chilean people, especially to politicians and the armed forces?

It is time to honestly address our achievements and successes, our conflicts and failures. Government authorities and political parties, in particular, as well as civil society and its organizations, universities and intellectuals, the same organizations must conduct a dialogue on the country we want, embark on the construction of a society that everyone can consider their own. We should all work together for the protection of our most precious common good. 

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