Posted on November 20, 2019 | Posted by Mary Stoneback
Educación Popular en Salud (EPES) stands for Popular Education for Health and was founded in Chile in 1982 by ELCA missionary Karen Anderson. It began as a project of the Chilean Lutheran Church and is funded by ELCA Global Mission. Its purpose is to grow community organization and participation around health in vulnerable sectors of society. EPES’ mission is to improve the health and life of people and communities that live in vulnerable situations through participatory strategies of education, promotion, advocacy and social mobilization, with a focus on gender, rights, respecting diversity and the environment. EPES has worked organizing economically or socially marginalized communities, people living with HIV/AIDS, women who have experienced gender violence, and has nutrition and anti-tobacco projects among other work.
While Ascension Lutheran Church member, Ryana Holt was in Chile she often participated in EPES’ workshops, attended their annual international school, volunteered in their offices and taught English classes with them in Concepción. Karen Anderson was her only ELCA coworker in the country and a great guide to life and politics in Chile and the church. This following letter is an update about the situation Chile is living.
Dear Family and Friends of EPES,
Our hearts were broken on Saturday with the news that Gustavo Gatica, a 21-year- old history student, had lost both of his eyes after being shot directly in the face by police on Friday, during the massive march for change in Santiago. The police’s unlimited brutality and their total sense of impunity have surpassed anything seen since the end of the dictatorship. When hundreds gathered Saturday afternoon to make a circle around the hospital where Gustavo is being treated, police again responded with violence, shooting tear gas into a crowd that included elderly people, families with children, the president of the college Gustavo attends, his professors, members of the Chilean Medical Association, and others. This is just one of hundreds of stories of disproportionate and brutal repression of Chileans’ justified protests against the injustices they suffer.
I ask you to please watch this video from the NYTimes to get a better sense of what is happening in Chile. We know the international press is not adequately covering what is happening here.
More than ever, we appreciate your solidarity, friendship and support. I think in Chile, we will start referring to events as before and after October 18th, 2019. There are many articles explaining how the Chilean “oasis” turned seemingly so suddenly into a massive, countrywide uprising of deep discontent (see several links at the end of this letter). As they started saying here, it’s not 30 pesos, but 30 years—referring to the fact that it wasn’t the initial 30-peso subway fare hike that caused the upheaval, but rather, the decades of abuse and extreme inequality generated by the neoliberal economic model imposed during the military dictatorship, along with a deepening lack of genuine participation in all aspects of social life during the post-dictatorship, incomplete, “democratic” governments.
In these weeks since October 18th, we have experienced very moving and dramatic moments. Quoting a local newsletter, “Hundreds of thousands Chileans have turned to the streets, throughout Chile, with the most massive demonstration of the last decades, to express their discontent, their distrust in the institutions and their hope for a better country. It has been with force and anger, with songs and banging pans. Along with this, violence and looting have multiplied and the government’s response has been repression, including 9 days under a state of emergency, with the return of the military to the streets, declaring war to restore the public order problem . With more than 20 deaths, around 2000 wounded, more than 180 with permanent eye loss, sexual violence against girls, women and people of sexual diversity, hundreds of thousands of detainees, the National Institute of Human Rights is unable to keep up to register and assist the victims of repression. The situation is being investigated by international human rights organizations and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has sent representatives who must issue a report in the coming days.”
We are on day number 26 and there are literally thousands of activities going on throughout Chile every day. There are participatory assemblies, people gathering to talk about what is happening, why and propose solutions. There are marches and bike-a-thons; a group of hundreds of people in Iquique sat down in the middle of the street and had tea to bring attention to their discontent; musical groups are holding free concerts in poor neighborhoods, actors are doing street theater about the issues being raised. Teach-ins about civic education are happening in plazas and parks, neighborhoods are coming together via WhatsApp to organize soup kitchens and picnics; young people are making endless videos and messages that are being posted all day long on social media; and so on. It is truly an amazing, historic time. Even rival soccer team fans have gotten together to demand change.
Chileans are asking for the right to live in peace and they have organized to demand profound, structural change and a new social contract that has to start with participatory assemblies and a new constitution. The handmade signs in every march and demonstration point to all the demands but especially the need to not give up until DIGNITY is a common reality for everyone.
What does this mean for EPES? Although “normal” life seems completely suspended we have continued with much of our work with community health teams, the immigrant community in neighborhoods where we work, the national network we belong to, Salud Para Todos, (Health for All) and the network to end violence against women. We have been helping to organize local assemblies, providing a space for many organizations to meet in Concepción at our center, and organizing sessions to deal with stress felt by the health teams, many of whom are feeling re-traumatized by the militarized atmosphere and systematic violation of human rights. We have had to cancel some activities but others have emerged. Several days last week the main street that leads to the EPES office was cut off with barricades and police and special forces shooting at people and throwing tear gas. We are back to the days of the dictatorship and everyone taking alternative routes.
We have also worked with ecumenical networks to denounce the human rights violations and have communicated with international churches and organizations to keep them informed of what is going on. Pastors and lay leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chile have been courageous and outspoken in their support for the struggle to create a just country.
For over 37 years, EPES has been helping build strong community organizations that have fought for health, dignity and justice and that will undoubtedly continue to play a major role in this national struggle. And of course, with fear and hope we are participating in the massive marches and cacerolazos (noisy gatherings involving banging pots and pans to express protest)!
On Saturday, the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, of Argentina, was at our center in Concepción for a gathering organized by EPES with 80 local community leaders, church members and students. He brought a message of solidarity and hope, and when asked by someone in the crowd what people should be doing to bring about change he replied: “Keep fighting and stay unified. It is the only way!”
We do not know what the future will bring, but we are hopeful that real change is possible. Today, there is a nationwide strike of major unions and community organizations calling for justice and change. Again, we thank you for your love and ongoing support. Please keep EPES, the health promoters, the Lutheran Church and the Chilean people in your thoughts and prayers.
abrazos y bendiciones,
Karen, on behalf of the EPES Staff