On the first Tuesday of each month, hundreds of "Ciclistas Furiosos" trudge through Santiago's streets with the only weapons they know: their bicycles. They weave through the rush hour traffic, pedaling as slowly as possible, blowing whistles, and waving flags in the name of bike paths and catalytic converters.
Determined to get bike paths on the capital's busy thoroughfares, these "enraged cyclists" - often moms, dads, and kids - are in a way, reviving Chile's culture of protest - abandoned for so long during and after Augusto Pinochet's oppressive dictatorship.
At the first red light along the parade route, the ciclistas lift their bikes in the air, chanting "El que no salta es auto" - "He who doesn't jump is a car." The saying is an adaptation of a popular battle cry from the military dictatorship, where those in favor of deposing Mr. Pinochet were pro-active, trying to make a change and would therefore 'jump', and anyone else who stood still or was content with the status quo, was considered a sitting duck or lame.
In Santiago, with a population of 5 million, polluted air gets trapped by the surrounding Andes, creating thick smog. Santiaginos have long been resigned to the gray cloud that hangs over the city nearly nine months of the year. City dwellers watch the news each day to see if elevated toxin levels will prohibit cars from circulating. The diesel-fueled buses, micros, circulate unrestricted however. Despite numerous cases of respiratory disease, most citizens just complain quietly and cling stubbornly to their way of life, fearing retribution in a higher cost of living.
The Ciclistas Furiosos [www.furiosos.org] are trying to convince citizens to change their habits - not only to impact city government officials. "Our movement is the answer to a system - in this case transportation - that literally doesn't make room for differences. So I think the fight will intensify if our demands aren't met," says principal organizer Csar Garrido. "But in any case, even if things do progress ... the real challenge is changing the conscience of the people."
The spirited group has been slowly building contacts and membership for the last seven years, and now boasts 5,000 members throughout the country, modeling activities on similar groups in the US and Europe. The latter has been successful recently in organizing car-free Sundays.
The organization's representatives are hopeful that the new Socialist President Roberto Lagos will be more open to supporting such changes with legislation. "We weren't received very well by the last administration [of President Eduardo Frei]," says Csar Garrido, one of the principal organizers of Ciclistas Furiosos. "The new government has shown sincere interest...." Meanwhile, the Minister of Transportation, Carlos Cruz Lorensen, says he is "open to new alternatives that will make Santiago a better and safer city for all...."
More bicycle transportation seems a logical step in the green direction - a lot less drastic than some past ideas. There was the suggestion to have planes dump water on the capital to simulate rain. Pinochet even rallied to cut a hole in the Andes mountains that encircle the city.
After that, the Ciclistas Furiosos seem pretty tame.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society