The night is still.
I lay in bed –
– my mind at rest.
The only sound I hear –
– the echo of my breath.
Distant drums break the night’s silence. It’s a rhythm that halts and haunts. I’ve heard these distant drums before. They come regularly with nightfall.
Just before the sun starts its descent and completely vanishes in the horizon of the silent desert, the syncopated slow bang begins, traveling like a creeping fog. I don’t know the reason for the drumming. I do remain curious and someday will have an answer. But as I lay here in bed studying the cracked ceiling, there’s that low rhythmic sound again of a single bass drum.
Boom, boom, boom.
Boom, boom, boom.
Boom, boom, boom.
Tonight, the drumming carries a special message – or so I imagine that it does – a message that revolt is in the air. A promise that it will come with the new day.
Boom, boom, boom.
My breathing locks in. I inhale with each BOOM, BOOM, BOOM of the drum, and exhale with every BOOM, BOOM. Then I wonder: what this city some like to refer to as “Calamity” instead of its true name Calama, will look like come Monday when its people take to the streets to stage a mass demonstration against the federal government in Santiago.
The leaders of Calama and residents say with the protest they hope to send a strong message to the federal government – that the people of Calama have clear demands and will no longer be ignored.
Long before I got here, there’s been protest in the air in Chile. Students have been on the streets for months, clashing with riot police in their quest for public education reform. In a nutshell, they want free college education for all.
Some of the demonstrations have been peaceful. Others have been extremely violent. Police have been seriously attacked and students severely beaten. Protesters have overturned and burned vehicles. Public and private property has been set ablaze and windows smashed. Trying to extinguish fires, firefighters have also been attacked. Molotov cocktails, rocks and all sorts of projectiles have been hurled at police vehicles with serious consequences and police have responded with tear gas and water canons.
School sessions at universities have virtually ground to a halt as the massive protests have spread across the country. The students are well-organized and prepared to disrupt. The government has rejected the students’ calls for free education for all Chileans, and so the students have increasingly grown more angry and violent. Chileans tell me they don’t like the violence that has interrupted day-to-day life and seemingly become part of the nation’s fabric.
Labor unions have also staged acts of civil disobedience for their own gains. And now, an entire city – Calama – plans a shutdown and challenge the government in Santiago, over money.
With the sunrise on Monday, another gauntlet of police will be on the streets of a Chilean city. This time the demonstrators will not be a bunch of idealistic youths, but city officials and residents of all stripes in Calama. This, you might say, will be a revolt organized by the establishment. And what do they want? A bigger piece of the pie.
Calama and the surrounding region is where the nation’s copper mines are located. With Chile’s standing as the largest copper producer in the world – the largest open-pit copper mine in the world is in Chile – the region draws billions of dollars in copper export revenue. But according to residents of Calama, most of the money goes directly to the federal government, which then decides how it should be spent.
According to the people of Calama, barely a drop is spent to improve Calama. The good people of Calama want a greater chunk of that revenue generated from the copper mines to stay in Calama. Calama needs it, they say, to improve the overall appearance of the city.
There is no argument Calama desperately needs improvements in its infrastructure and appearance. It’s one of the dirtiest, smelliest, ugliest cities I’ve ever seen. And I won’t get any argument from the people who were born and reared here. They’re the ones who say that Calama is the worst city in Chile and they blame the government for taking and not giving, at least not sufficiently.
There is plenty of money in the pockets of people in Calama thanks to the mining industry in the region. But many of the people who work in Calama escape to their homes in Santiago, Antofagasta and Iquique, or other towns miles away. That’s where they really spend their money. Most, if not all, the copper mine executives work Monday through Thursday in Calama and live in housing provided by the mines, then fly or drive home on Thursday, homes far away from Calama. They wouldn’t think of relocating their families to Calama. For them, Calama is just a place that allows them a well-paying job. So they take their paychecks to other cities they call home.
Similarly, the government takes most of the revenue out of the Calama area to be spent nationwide. Calama residents say that’s unfair, that their city bears the brunt of the mining operations, is severely impacted by the mines and the people they draw, and for that reason Calama should be allowed more of the money generated by the mines.
And so the stage is set for civil action Monday, in a bid to retain some greater portion of the billions of dollars generated by the copper mines.
After months and years of talking to Santiago and getting nowhere, Calama has decided to take it to the streets. It will be the second time they stage a citywide protest – the last one was in June – but city officials promise this time action will be “more forceful” so that “everyone in Chile hears us” and so that “we get a more concrete response from the government.”
Most businesses will not open on Monday. Marches through city streets and rallies will be held. And the aggrieved students fighting for a free education will sure to join in. And the “more forceful” approach to be taken?
As I lay here in bed, the drums banging slowly, accompanied by the echo of my breath, I think “this is Chile,” and that “more forceful” approach could really mean something – or nothing.