Heulga de la Carne (1905)
One of the unusual aspects of the Chilean Meat riots of October 1905 was that they were a slow burner – a case of well-done rather than rare – in that the casus seditionis dated back to 1897 and the introduction of a tariff on cattle crossing the Andes from Argentina. The tariff provoked immediate opposition and there were sporadic protests in 1902.
Strangely, the renewal of opposition to the tariff in 1905 was only indirectly associated with the cost of meat. In fact they were fairly stable between 1902 and 1905. What had risen in the interim was the price of staple foods such as wheat, beans and potatoes. This meant that families on lower incomes were forced to reduce their consumption of meat to maintain their level of consumption of staple foodstuffs. Generally, though, the Chilean economy expanded in the run up to 1905 as a result of increases in mineral exports and employment levels rose. Hardly the ingredients needed for a riot, you would think.
Agitation began on 1st September 1905 when the mutual aid society of Santiago meat vendors, concerned about the fall in meat sales, called a meeting to discuss the abolition of the tariff. A committee was formed and a demonstration was planned for Sunday 22nd October. A large crowd, estimates vary from between 12,000 and 50,000, assembled on the Alameda and a group carrying banners portraying a skeleton to represent the common people, a fat man smoking a cigar to represent the landlords and a fat ox labelled “meat for the rich” and a skeletal horse “meat for the common people” made their way to the Government House.
The intention was to hand a petition over to the President but the demonstrators were told that he was not there but had retired to his private residence a few streets away. A smaller group made their way there and were able to hand in their petition but the President insisted on receiving them behind closed blinds. This gave the impression to many in the street that the president had refused to accept the document.
At this point things turned ugly. Some demonstrators stoned the Government House and destroyed statues and public monuments on the Alameda and then proceeded to damage telegraph and telephone lines, burn street cars and attack and stone some private residences. Many of the rioters looted stores, in particular targeting a pharmacy which, allegedly, had refused to proffer first aid to an injured demonstrator.
The police in turn attacked the crowd but soon lost control. Some police in plain clothes went around shooting protesters without warning and this only served to fuel the mobs and spread the violence throughout Santiago. The greatest part of the violence occurred during the Sunday and Monday of what became known as Red Week which is when the majority of the buildings and half of the deaths were recorded. It was only on the Friday that the city returned to a state of clam. By that time some 70, according to Government figures, had been killed but cemetery officials reported burials of over 300 killed in the riots, in either case a significant number for a country unused to political violence.
And what of the cattle tariff? There was no immediate removal of the tariff – in fact it remained in place until 1909 when it was suspended for a couple of years but then reintroduced in 1911 until 1918 when it was abolished.