More than 140 people have suffered severe eye injuries since protests in Chile began on October 18th. At least 26 people have completely lost vision in one eye, according to the Salvador Hospital ophthalmology unit in Santiago, the nation’s capital, and many others are still being treated.
“Last Monday, we got 10 people with these wounds in one hour, and after that they just kept coming,” said Mauricio Lopez, a unit doctor. “It was unbelievable. Nothing like that has ever happened in the history of eye medicine in Chile.”
Demonstrations prompted by a 30-peso (4-cent) increase in subway fares quickly transformed into massive protests demanding changes in education, health care, pensions and even the country’s constitution — which was written into law during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in 1980 and calls for a highly privatized economy where even water is considered a commodity to be privately traded.
Outbreaks of violence, arson and looting prompted Chile’s current center-right president, Sebastián Piñera, to declare a state of emergency, sending military into the streets and installing curfews in cities across the nation for the first time since the end of the dictatorship in the 1970s and ‘80s.
Since then, at least 19 people have died, according to the Ministry of Interior and Public Security, and more than 1,000 have been wounded. The protests, which have been largely peaceful, have drawn as many as a million people for a single demonstration. Attempting to contain protesters, police and soldiers have wielded excessive violence against demonstrators.
On October 20th one protester, Jose Soto, was chanting anti-government slogans on Santiago’s main avenue when officers charged. “I saw some policemen loading their weapons,” Soto said Tuesday. “Suddenly I felt a strong blow to my nose. I couldn’t see anything with my right eye, and when I touched it, my hand was full of blood.”
A 9-millimeter rubber bullet had blown through his right eyeball before hitting his nose. “Doctors told me I could have lost both eyes if my head had been in a different position,” said Soto, who was among about a dozen people waiting to be seen at the Salvador Hospital for police-inflicted injuries.
Rubber balls like the ones surgeons have been removing from patients’ faces and eyes aren’t meant to be shot directly at people, but “skip-fired” 6 to 10 feet in front of a target, said Charles Heal, a retired Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department commander who teaches riot-control techniques around the world. The bullets are intended to hurt without penetrating the skin.
“If you put someone’s eye out, that far exceeds what we consider reasonable force,” Heal said.
Chile’s National Institute of Human Rights — which has observers in hospitals, police stations and at demonstrations across the Andean nation — has recorded 1,233 people in hospitals who have been wounded, 37 with gunshot wounds. The group is filing 138 legal cases, with accusations of five homicides by soldiers or police, 92 cases of torture and 18 cases of sexual violence.
“This is an unprecedented situation,” said Yerko Ljubetic, a board member of the human rights institute. “We have filed more for torture in 10 days of protests than in all of 2018. And we know there’s a lack of reporting in cases of torture, especially if there’s sexual violence involved.”
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are also examining the actions of security forces.
In an attempt to tackle the issues at the heart of Chile’s unrest, over the past week President Piñera has promised marginally higher taxes on the wealthy, a boost to Chile’s minimum wage, a 20-percent increase in the lowest pensions, and more reasonable costs for medicines. All of this has restored some semblance of normalcy, but opponents criticize Piñera’s proposition as a cosmetic change that does little to solve the underlying problems of economic and political inequality.
Sources: Bloomberg 10/30/19; Vox 10/29/19