SANTIAGO – Handkerchiefs with the image of a bleeding eye, shirts bearing the slogan “Chile Desperto” (Chile Woke Up) and flags of the Mapuches, the country’s largest indigenous group. Every demonstration brings dozens of people offering protest-inspired merchandise to Santiago’s Plaza Italia.
Julio Carrasco spreads a white sheet on a stretch of sidewalk along Avenida O’Higgins, the capital’s main thoroughfare, to display homemade refrigerator magnets with a variety of images, including a caricature of President Sebastian Piñera as Satan.
Carrasco makes the magnets with his newly unemployed cousin, who needs money to pay the rent and feed his family.
“On a good day, we have sold as many as 400 magnets. It’s our little business,” the 38-year-old administrator tells EFE.
Nearby, Hector Guatemala, 54, takes inventory under the shade of a tree after selling several black-bordered Chilean flags, intended to honor the more than 30 people killed – and thousands more injured – since the country’s largest wave of protests in decades began in October.
“These flags signify that Chile is in mourning. A part of the population, those of us who are at the bottom, is suffering. Those who are up above don’t suffer,” the street vendor says while keeping one eye on an approaching police truck.
Guatemala knows that once the cops and protesters start fighting, he will have seconds to gather up his wares and flee.
What began as a protest by high school and college students against an increase in fares on the Santiago subway turned into an uprising on a scale not seen since the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
Though the demonstrations have declined in frequency from daily to weekly, the disruptions continue to take a toll on an economy until recently regarded as one of the stable in Latin America, albeit among the most unequal.
The most popular “merch” on offer are items with the image of El Negro Matapacos, a black dog with a red kerchief round his neck who became famous during the massive students protests of 2011 for barking, snarling and snapping at the “pacos” – a derogatory term for police.
El Negro Matapacos died in 2017, but he remains a powerful symbol, as attested by the giant replica of the dog that protesters often parade down the streets of Santiago in the manner of a Holy Week procession.
“He’s an angel who watches out for us from heaven,” recent medical school graduate Felipe Gonzalez tells EFE as he peddles cloth patches of El Negro Matapacos to earn money until he can find a job as a doctor.
Also much in demand in Plaza Italia are articles emblazoned with the faces of Salvador Allende, the socialist president overthrown by Pinochet in 1973, and singer Victor Jara, who was tortured and slain days after the coup.
One of Jara’s compositions, “El derecho a vivir en paz” (The Right to Live in Peace), became an anthem in the early days of the current movement, when the Piñera government imposed a curfew and put tanks and soldiers on the streets.
A more recent reference is Camilo Catrillanca, a Mapuche activist killed by police in 2018 in a case that became a scandal when authorities lied to portray the dead man as a criminal.
Other merchants in Plaza Italia specialize in more practical items. Pablo Yañez offers what he calls “the front-line kit,” comprising a gas mask, slingshot, protective glasses (protesters have lost eyes to police pellets) and a ski mask.
And of course, there is no shortage of stands offering empanadas, pizza, hot dogs and beer.