Posted by: David Offutt | November 4, 2019

Chilean Protests Bring Ecuadorian Memories

Ecuadorian military police use a water cannon to prevent a crowd from gathering during two weeks of protests April 2-14, 1978, in Alameda Park in Quito. (Photo: David Offutt)

About three weeks into October 2019, subway rates in Santiago, Chile, the nation’s capital and largest city, were increased. The results were public protests, rioting, burning buildings, and eleven deaths. Unless you know of the extreme income-inequality that exists in Chile, this may seem like a rather excessive reaction to a raise of subway fares. However, it brought back personal memories of the April 2-14, 1978, bus riots that took place in Quito, Ecuador, when I taught in that city.

The bus rates in the city were scheduled to increase from the equivalent of our 5 cents to 7 cents on Sunday, April 1. I thought this was public knowledge, but it wasn’t. Months earlier, I had been tipped off of the increase by the director general of my school, the Colegio Americano de Quito. The treasurer of our school was on the city’s board of directors and had told the director general of the plan – and it was a secret plan. Two cents for the huge number of people who had trouble finding one cent was a big deal. College students would lead the protests.

Many buses still operated during the bus riots, but none of them had any windows. This one is in the “Old City” of Quito. (Photo: David Offutt)

When I got home, I marked the date on my calendar. I figured we would try to hold classes on the Monday following the increase and give it up the rest of the week. I planned to drive to the beach at Atacames for the remainder of the week. That’s exactly what happened.

A bus was a bus, and just because it was a school bus didn’t protect it from the protesters’ rocks. School started in mayhem with the buses of students being harassed with windows broken. Tear gas was thrown over the school’s surrounding walls and into the compound. Teachers fled their classrooms into the faculty lounge, many in tears. I was the only teacher who wasn’t surprised. We shut down before noon.

Tuesday morning, I phoned Nancy Sotomayor, the principal of the high school English language division of the school. “Nancy, it looks like we’re done for the rest of the week, huh?’ “David, things look bad, but I don’t know.” “So, Nancy, there’s no point coming in till next Monday, right?” “Well, okay.” That was pretty brazen of me, but I knew I was right.  I went to the beach.

David Offutt on the beach at Atacames, Ecuador (1978). Outside Quito, the bus riots had no impact. Here I am early one morning in front of several restaurants that face the Pacific Ocean. Atacames was a six-hour drive from Quito, My last class ended at noon on Fridays, so I usually went there one weekend a month. This was a special opportunity. (Photo: David Offutt)

I got back home on Saturday evening, and, on Sunday, Judy Moore and I drove into downtown Quito in my Datsun pickup. Judy was also a teacher at the school, was from England, and had experienced a violent revolt in Greece. We parked near Alameda Park, which separates the Old City from the New City. Military police were everywhere. Water cannons and tear gas were used to disperse protesters. People were scattering. Judy got antsy when we heard gunfire. The police were using blanks and aiming high. Nevertheless, I suggested we return to the car.

It had been relatively easy to get there, but by the time we were leaving, protesters had put up barricades blocking the streets with burning tires, burning boards, dirt – whatever worked. We’d get so far, get stopped, back up, and try another street. I had flashbacks of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara trying to escape the burning Atlanta.

A police plow removes dirt dumped by protesters from a street around Alameda Park, which separated the “Old City” from the “New City” – April 1978. (Photo: David Offutt)

We were back in school by Monday of the second week. The school buses had no windows but were no longer being thrown at. Sporadic protests continued but were more subdued, mainly in the Old City where the government offices were. The military junta that ran the country as a dictatorship liked the status and glamour of being in power, but it really didn’t like using its power against the people. In fact, it was looking forward to turning over power to an elected president soon after the Quito schools’ summer vacation. Somewhat embarrassed by its inability to suppress the riots, the junta decided to announce that the military would shoot to kill if any protests occurred after the end of the second week. That ended the rioting.

A boarded-up bus in the “Old City”: The young man hanging from the right side of the bus was one of my history students. As he rode by me, he hollered, “I got hit by a rock about a block back.” (Photo: David Offutt)

The income-inequality in Ecuador in the latter 1970s was conspicuous, so the bus riots were certainly understandable and predictable. Today, Chile and the United States have among the greatest gaps in income-equality in the developed world. We the people of the USA seem to be pretty docile about it and accept it as the norm. If it means increasing taxes on the uber-rich, we’ve learned not to expect affordable public transit, modernized infrastructure, universal health care, a healthier environment, or affordable college education from our government. As long as we are number 1 as a military power, we appear content to be second or third-rate in most everything else, so there are very few public protests.

Chileans, on the other hand, without their knowing about it, had permanent income-inequality written into their 1980 constitution by plutocrats from the USA during the rise of the Pinochet dictatorship in the 1970s, and now they’re just about fed up with rule by their upper one percent. But that’s another story for another day.

[A version of this essay was printed in the El Dorado News-Times on November 3, 2019.]


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