Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Where the Cure Is Worse Than The Ailment

Chilean duo The Spirit Within play a clandestino show in Valparaiso, Chile, July 24, 2017

IN 2012, a new strain of the norovirus emerged in January in Constantinople, earning it the nickname "the Byzantine flu". For almost an entire year, the Byzantine flu ravaged the globe and became the deadliest pandemic in human history, scoring a resounding one billion deaths worldwide.

In the years since, the virus has abated, although clusters of infections flare up from time to time. Most of those clusters occur in the Virtue Federation, which has yet to approve of a vaccine or a treatment for use against the Byzantine flu. This despite evidence that the vaccines and treatments developed by the Romans and Casarans have proven effective in those territories, in what can only be a case of political brinksmanship by the Virtue Federation.

Most of Virtue has gotten past the disease, but in many parts of the Federation, vast restrictions on daily life- originally meant to curb the spread of the Byzantine flu- are still in place today. One notable country where the restrictions remain in place is Chile, which has banned the operation of almost every business where people can interact with each other and restricted gatherings to no more than two people at any time, regardless of where they live. This means that, legally, businesses such as restaurants, bars, salons, in-person services like bank tellers and dentistry, nightclubs, festivals, malls, conventions, sporting events and even places of worship cannot operate under Chilean law, due to the "state of emergency" Chilean Emperor Eduardo Martinez has imposed since February 13, 2012. Many beaches and parks also remain closed (with the decision up to the local municipalities), though the few that are open are strictly monitored to ensure crowding does not occur. Every business and service that can operate remotely, like schools, shops, office work and groceries, have done so, with the only option to the customer being having the goods delivered to their house. The only businesses that remain open in Chile where there is actual human interaction are the Army, the police, manufacturing facilities, mining and farming, though the latter two have "health standards" imposed on their operation that are haphazardly enforced. Chilean borders are also completely closed both inside and outside of the country, although a few Chileans do manage to escape as refugees, usually to the Roman Empire.

What was once a bustling, cosmopolitan country full of vitality has descended into a dreary, lifeless cesspool where millions struggle with poverty and millions more struggle with mental health issues resulting from isolation. Indebted servitude is on the rise as more and more of Chile's wealth coalesces into the hands of the few. Describing life in Chile in the eight years since the pandemic struck as "depressing" would be an understatement, since by now most Chileans have lost hope that their situation will ever resolve itself. Every few weeks, just when Chileans think they may finally be "out of the woods", a new cluster of cases seemingly emerges or reports of bathrooms where "an explosive cesspool event" (one of the Byzantine flu's hallmarks) occurs, justifying another new round of "emergency measures". Conspiracy theorists abound in Chile claiming most of these new cases are fabricated by the government as, despite the initial "excitement" over the new cases, none of them ever restart the epidemic that has, for all practical purposes, resolved itself in early 2013.

Despite the dreariness, the Chileans have found a way to move on with their lives and regain a small sense of the "joys of life" they once lost. They have done this through the everpresent clandestino scene, a place where, you guessed it, organized black markets have revived many of the "in-person" industries and businesses the Chileans had lost. Many meet- literally- in underground locations deep in the Chilean mountainside and away from government surveillance, although several other clandestino organizations use abandoned buildings for their purposes.

Finding these clandestino businesses are done by word of mouth, as operators largely avoid social media as that is heavily monitored by the government. Because of their illegal nature, the clandestini have no universal standards, although most try to operate honourably out of fear that poor services will mean shutdown by the government. Fines for illegal businesses are heavy and prosecution is strict, with clandestino operators facing a lifetime in prison and fines of over two billion pesos or $2 million in American currency. Patronage in these businesses can also be costly, with patrons facing 20 years imprisonment and a fine of 850 million pesos, or $850,000 American, which is the average amount of money a Chilean will make in their lifetime.

Those who operate a clandestino say the risks are worth it because they have no other choice. Antonella Ramira, a native of Valparaiso and one half of the electronic metal duo The Spirit Within, said that the choice for the vast majority of Chileans are to pick up scarce work where it's available, or operate a clandestino. "The only legal jobs available are unsafe factory work, farming, public works or other kinds of public jobs," said Ramira, "with very few of them paying more than a pittance. Working legally in Chile means having to go days without putting food on your table or gas in your car, not to mention having to deal with the disrepair in our housing and the poor reliability of our utilities."

From "The Sky's The Limit" To "The Sky Is Falling"

Ramira was 15 when the pandemic first hit Chile's shores, on February 4, 2012. It was a traveller returning home from Constantinople, who managed to infect thousands simply by using the public restroom at the Arturo Merino Benitez Airport in Santiago. Within two weeks, after over 500,000 Chileans were infected by the Byzantine flu, Emperor Martinez imposed the lockdown that still remains in force today.

Ramira says she was "too young" to appreciate the impact of the lockdown at the time, but as the days, weeks and months passed, she began to understand it better.

"I had wanted to be a musician since I was eight," said Ramira, "though my parents tell me I had it in me since the day I was born. When I was 11, my parents started taking me to concerts and other kinds of shows, and I just fell in love with it, dreaming of the day that I, too, could be on that stage. For my 14th birthday (November 29, 2010), I received backstage passes to Seventh Wonder's The Great Escape tour stop at the Valparaiso Auditorium, where 80,000 others were in attendance. I got to meet the band and, at that point, I knew what kind of music I wanted to make."

Ramira spent the next few months working on her craft and perfecting her sound, but it wasn't until she met Cesaro Langria- now the other half of The Spirit Within- after school that she decided on the band's current sound. "Cesaro was really big into techno, house and other kinds of electronic music," explains Ramira. "It wasn't until Cesaro showed me some pieces that I finally figured out what sound I wanted. I had struggled with making a distinct sound before meeting him and since he opened my eyes, I figured a partnership was natural."

Soon, the pair had an album recorded and concerts booked, and The Spirit Within was officially formed. With a unique blend of trance and symphonic metal, The Spirit Within quickly went from smaller venues to larger ones, becoming one of the hottest acts in Valparaiso in 2011. Though they managed to play the Valparaiso Auditorium themselves (as the opening act of the Hallowe'en Festival), Ramira said the real highlight was when Seventh Wonder's Thomas Karevik made a surprise appearance at Ramira's 15th birthday party at a local bar.

"That's when I knew we made it," said Ramira. "Knowing Tommy became a fan and sought me, I was floored."

Ramira explained that she had big plans for 2012. The Spirit Within signed a major label deal with Warner Brothers Chile in January, with the company planning a global push for the duo. Karevik also invited the duo to record with Seventh Wonder, a song the band intended to release as a single, as well as play with the band on the subsequent tour. Promoters were lining up around the block to book The Spirit Within, with the duo set to play several major festivals that year.

Everything was looking up...and then everything fell apart.

"The timing of the Byzantine flu was awful," said Ramira. "We had such big plans but they all got wiped away essentially overnight. To say it was a bummer is an understatement."

That the virus struck wasn't what bothered Ramira. What bothered Ramira was the ever-changing narrative surrounding the virus.

"First they said it was nothing serious," she said. "Then they said a few weeks of lockdown was all we needed. Then it turned into months...then suddenly we were told that unless we got a treatment or a vaccine, we couldn't 'go back to normal'. They kept stringing us was hard to know what was real anymore."

The entire population was on edge, being told to "be patient" even though the more time ticked by the more that patience was lost. No one could plan for the future because no one knew what it would look like, with the increasing uncertainty only increasing the anxiety. The uncertainty was especially hard on Ramira's parents, her father, Raul, the Conductor of the Chilean National Symphony and her mother, Esmeralda, a travel agent, as their entire livelihood depended on a "return to normal".

Eventually, every Chilean was going to break and lose all of their patience. The breaking point for Ramira was when the Romans found several treatments and vaccines for the virus but Chile refused to consider any of them.

"At that stage my opinion of the virus changed immediately," said Ramira. "No longer did I think the government had our best interests in mind...this clearly became about control, about oppression...the Byzantine flu was the greatest mind game humanity ever came up with."

Her family tried to make it work, but they soon realized it would be fruitless. Ramira's mother found a job working in the mines with the aid of Langria's parents (who both worked office jobs there), but she found that the amount of money she would make in a year there would be a fraction of what she previously made in a week. Ramira's father thought his job with the Symphony would allow him to get a lucrative government job, but this didn't pan out. He tried to find another job, but, as he had back problems, there wasn't an employer that would hire him.

Ramira, too, tried to finish her schooling, but online schooling was vastly inferior to what she experienced before. There were no teachers and no grades, all Ramira had to do was finish the online coursework on time (meaning she could write random letters in the answer boxes and that too would suffice). Soon, she gave up and went back to her music.

"Music is my calling," Ramira explained, "and there's no bulls*** with it. Either people like it or they don't. No way to not know if you failed."

A Ray Of Light...

However, she had one problem- there was nowhere for her to play. That's when she learned about the clandestino, from a colleague at the mine her mother worked at.

"Her work buddy thought The Spirit Within had quit," said Ramira. "We didn't- we just stopped playing together because we simply couldn't. Cesaro and I had every intention of restarting the band once we could."

Ramira's mother learned her colleague had a friend willing to pay The Spirit Within to play at their birthday party. Despite the initial reservations, the gig became a reality and Ramira and Langria reunited once more (although they did not mention this on social media at the time, knowing it would tip off government monitors).

Afterward, her mother would use her day job at the mines to network for the duo, while her father would drive her and Langria to their gigs. For three years- from the beginning of 2013 to the end of 2014- was spent doing this, and the pay was a far cry from what the duo made in 2011. It was enough for both families to pay off their bills, which was more important.

The networking soon led to Ivana Castro, the owner of The Cathedral, to recruit The Spirit Within for a regular show, beginning in February 2015. Castro had made millions off the nightclub, but ahe burned through that cash in a desperate bid to keep it open. She did this by trying to book acts for online-only shows, but she had lots of trouble finding performers for various reasons, and, worse, she found fewer willing to pay for the streams. The Cathedral was once Valparaiso's top nightspot, but by 2015 it was the last one to stand, teetering on the brink of closure.

"I relied heavily on international acts," said Castro, who usually booked Top 40 dance and hip hop acts, "but even most of Chile's talent had left the country by that point because they had the money to do so. The Spirit Within were the only guaranteed 'name' left in the country...when I heard they were still around, I had to take the chance."

Initially Castro wanted to cap attendance at The Cathedral at 100 patrons- so as not to create "scenes" for the police to see- but word of mouth meant that every time The Spirit Within played, The Cathedral would reach its 20,000 patron capacity. Since they were the only reliable act she had, The Spirit Within went from performing The Cathedral once a month to performing there once a week. Because of the economic conditions, Castro couldn't charge patrons what she normally could- but she was able to make enough to pay The Spirit Within well and turn a well as pay the police enough of a bribe in order to leave The Cathedral alone.

While they played The Cathedral, The Spirit Within continued playing house shows- often landed as a result of their gigs at The Cathedral. Though they never asked for it, the duo often received hefty payments for these shows, making them Valparaiso's highest earners. Ramira soon thought, "with all this money, it's time to give back". Soon, she developed plans to "revive" Valparaiso, bringing back as many businesses as she could.

To do this, Ramira teamed up with Castro, and together they hired as many different business and service operators as they could. By the summer of 2016, 65% of Valparaiso's previously shuttered businesses were brought back to life, with the police sufficiently "bought off" in order to prevent them from shutting down the businesses once again. By the end of 2016, Valparaiso looked almost like it did in 2011, as Ramira's and Castro's plan came to complete fruition.

...Of The Oncoming Train

Other businesspeople caught on to what Castro and Ramira did, realizing there are profits to be made if they revitalized their own cities. By the spring of 2017, the once lifeless Chilean society sprang back to life as cities embraced the clandestino concept, now largely without the need to bribe the police as, by this point, many police officers grew tired of enforcing that law.

Martinez too decided against toppling the clandestino regime, since- because the businesses were illegal- he faced no liability for their actions. He reasoned that, even though the situation meant he held less actual power, if this was the way to keep Chile out of trouble, it was worth it.

His advisors warned him that if he didn't move to take back power, the clandestini could threaten Chile's internal stability. The business owners will soon clash for power over each other's territories, and, since they're illegal, Chile collects no tax from any of them.

Worse, Martinez was told, what was to stop any one of the business owners from getting ambitious and coming after the throne itself?

The Emperor initially scoffed at these suggestions, but by the fall of 2017, Martinez, complaining of an "unnamed clandestino" having "designs" on his throne, changed his tune.

On November 14, 2017, an "explosive cesspool event" was reported by the Imperial Health Authority (ASI) in the main bathroom of The Cathedral. This was the first visible sign of the Byzantine flu in over four years, as previous ASI reports of virus outbreaks were simply messages about supposed clusters. The event at The Cathedral spurred new fears of the Byzantine flu spreading in Chile, with public opinion sharply turning on The Spirit Within and The Cathedral for playing "years" of "unsafe shows". Martinez ordered the venue to be shut down, and, within the week, the Chilean Army came and seized the building.

"Seems odd, doesn't it," said Ramira, "that the Byzantine flu conveniently reappears at the same time the Emperor claims to have a threat to his throne. Worse, the ASI reported it then immediately cleaned it up- no one else saw the supposed 'event'. They totally planted it just to strike back at us."

Faked or not, Chile's honeymoon was over and it was back to its stark reality. Martinez clamped down hard on the clandestini, ordering the Army to round up as many as they could. Raids would be done at random times and locations in order to foil escape attempts, with no one- patrons, service providers or business owners- spared from the arrests. By the end of 2017, some two million Chileans had been arrested for various offenses regarding the clandestini, with periodic arrests and clamdowns continuing to this day.

Ramira knew at this point she had to find a way out. She oscillated between going into hiding and living with her family, knowing that doing so increases her chances of being arrested. Her hand was forced when, on her 21st birthday (which she spent with Langria at a Santiago hotel under an assumed name), her mother messaged her that the Army was raiding their house, eventually arresting Ramira's parents and her two younger sisters. Ramira knew she would be next.

The Great Escape And Aftermath

With Langria driving, Ramira had only one option. Her father owned a yacht anchored in the Valparaiso Marina, a yacht he often used to travel to Easter Island. Since Easter Island is Roman territory, Ramira and Langria figured they could escape there and claim refugee status. The only issue would be outrunning the Chilean Navy, who were vigorously out on patrol keeping the nautical borders closed.

Fortunately the weather helped them out, as, on the cloudy night, the Navy's radar did not detect the yacht which allowed them to escape. They spent a week out at sea before they eventually reached Easter Island, where they were- predictably- stopped by the Roman Navy.

The Romans immediately seized the yacht and took Ramira and Langria on to their vessel. Their nerves were at an all-time high, but fortunately the Roman officers took pity on the pair and treated them well. The Romans had processed quite a few Chilean refugees since the Byzantine flu outbreak- estimates suggest that some two million Chileans have fled their country to Roman territory since 2012- so Easter Island officials were already sympathetic towards their plight, but since the pair were in a successful band, Roman officials were even more eager to process the duo to gain entry into Rome, since they could work right away.

After a month at Easter Island, Langria and Ramira eventually moved to Rome itself, where The Spirit Within bases itself and continues its operations to this day. They have not released any new material yet, although the duo says they hope to have an album out by early 2021. They only tour in Roman territory because outside of it the Virtue Federation still has enforceable arrest warrants for the pair, which has meant that neither have been able to visit their old family and friends and puts a damper on The Spirit Within's global plans.

Ramira says she hears from her friends and family sporadically (because of "issues" with Chile's network connections), telling her that the situation in Chile has only gotten worse since they left. Martinez's war with the businesses have many business owners deciding they had enough of Chile with many doing what they can to leave, with Martinez doing all he can to arrest them and seize their assets. Others, she explains, are doing what they can to create militias of their own in order to challenge Martinez's rule, putting the country's stability at stake. Ramira says many in Chile are more scared of the future than they are of the virus, which has created a "cauldron of discontent" that the world has never seen before.

"Chile is a lesson for the world," said Ramira. "It is a lesson to world leaders who think they can milk fear for their own game. Eventually, we see 'what's up'- and those 'sheep' you think you've raised are really ravenous wolves."

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