A Chilean activist said he burned $500 million worth of debt papers

In yesterday’s episode of Democracy Now, Amy Goodman interviewed Francisco “Papas Fritas” Tapia, a Chilean activist who said he burned $500 million worth of debt papers from the private Universidad del Mar, a now student-occupied university that has been collecting student debts despite the fact that it is being shut down because of financial irregularities, making it the 18th university in Chile to be closed since 1990.

Tapia, a 31-year-old artist with a round face, bushy lower beard and half-inch thick glasses—who goes by the name “French fries”—says he took the debt paper records, burned them and displayed the ashes inside a van as an art exhibition.

Exhibition of the ashes of Chilean student loan papers burned by artist Francisco Tapia, known as Papas Fritas. Photograph: David von Blohn/Rex Features

“It is a concrete fact that the papers were burned. They are gone. Since these papers don’t exist anymore, there is no way to charge the students,” said Tapia.

According to this video, his act was “an act of love.”

“It’s over. You are free from debt. You don’t have to pay one more cent. This is the artwork. This is the project, simply. . .If we all had the ability to continue doing things for love, for solidarity, we will find each other again. But we have to lose the fear, the fear of the idea about criminality that this state has wanted to impose on us, that we are criminals for being poor, for wanting our rights to be met.”

The video went viral during the current protests over Chile’s education system, which is one of the most expensive in the world.

At one point during the interview, Goodman asked if there was a digital back-up for the IOU documents that he burned. Tapia said “no” and that there were two proposed theories for this, both having to do with the Chilean investigative police.

Many agree that it is hard to believe that there is no archived record—either via cloud, a networked system, or even hard photocopies—of those IOUs. Some additional questions circulating are: Why wasn’t anyone guarding those expensive, one-of-a-kind papers? Also, why is the harshest sentence Tapia could receive “Breaking and Entering”? Are the words coming out of Tapia’s mouth true? Was the ash displayed in his van really an index of the papers he claimed they were?

His prosecutors have their doubts, too.

Because there is no video footage or photographic documentation of the theft or burning of the IOU documents, they argued, their client should not be penalized by law. Even though Tapia publicly stated that he did burn those papers, it is still not enough. They want image proof.

It was more difficult to deny, for example, that the artist and former pop star Bill Drummond and his partner, Jimmy Cauty, set fire to £1 million of their own cash in 1994. The act, which took place in their studio on the Isle of Jura in front of an invited skeptical audience, was filmed on an Hi 8 video camera.

Although Tapia’s words alone do not prove that he did burn $500 million dollars worth of documents, it does prove a few things, including our dependence on photographic documentation.

The conversations around the viability and admissibility and objectivity of photography and digital media are interesting, for sure, but, for me, the legitimacy of Tapia’s claims is in the raised awareness of the larger social issues, including the cost of higher education and, specifically, the violence against students in Chile (see below):

On Wednesday in Valparasio authorities fired tear gas and water cannons on thousands of students demanding free education for all.

Students responded by throwing objects at the officers, with a number of arrests reported.

This is the second student march since Bachelet took presidency on the promise to provide better and free education, paid for by tax reforms that are passing through congress.

Though Tapia’s tactics in addressing the debt crises may be deemed controversial and “radical”, according to a comment on Democracy Now’s Facebook feed, 32 of the 32 posts responded with support for Tapia, expressing the sentiment that education and knowledge should be free.

“Any strike against the predatory banks and criminal capitalism is a wonderful thing,” said one of the comments.

“Where is our papas fritas?”

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