Having gratefully sat out all the Joker discourse here in the States, I didn’t expect events in my other country, Chile, to drive me to watch Todd Phillips’ polemical blockbuster. Nor did I expect an icon of a damaged and disaffected loner to briefly become a meme for a mass movement whose catchphrases include “Estamos Unidos”—We Are United. But there he was, leading a group of protesters, in front of a bus, spray-painted on walls …
Chile erupted into chaos on Oct. 18, and protests and vandalism have since spread throughout the country. I did not expect to see Chileans of all classes pouring out to demand massive, systemic change, or for that protest to last into a second uncertain weekend with the largest numbers in Chilean history. I also didn’t expect to see the military back on Santiago’s streets, or people standing in lines for hours in supermarkets. These last two images are particularly freighted spectacles in Chile. Those who were alive in 1973, when a military coup overthrew President Salvador Allende and resulted in Augusto Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship, are no doubt grappling with uncomfortable echoes of that traumatic period. While much of the country remains in a state of emergency and under military curfew, pro-Pinochet folks will likely look at those supermarket lines and think back to the bread lines during Allende’s administration, recalling food shortages and disorder in the streets. Pro-Allende people may see soldiers policing Santiago’s streets and remember the coup that overthrew him: the bombing of La Moneda, the curfews, and the horrors that military tanks on civilian streets led to.
But symbols get scrambled when they’re reused. If a spectacle resurfaces, its meaning rarely remains exactly the same. That’s happened with the Joker, and it’s happening with other old reference points too. Take the loud pot-beating protests that have been taking place all over Chile, called cacerolazos. People leaning out of windows or marching on the streets, loudly expressing their dissatisfaction with the status quo and their support for the protests. (If you don’t know what that sounds like, here’s a video a relative sent me from Oct. 19, taken in the middle-class neighborhood of Ñuñoa.) If you were around and right-wing in 1971, the cacerolazos ringing out all across the country the past week—in rich neighborhoods and poor ones, in cities big and small—might remind you of the March of the Empty Pots, which many forget was actually undertaken by conservative Chilean women to register their opposition to Allende’s socialist government. Those protests were largely and functionally right-wing, but—like the cacerolazos against the government today, which have a very different politics—they also managed to transcend class differences.
Today, the cacerolazo seems to be transcending categories again. Because they seem to be coming from every sector, it’s not clear that Chile’s current situation is reducible to the usual right–left axes. On Friday night, the largest protest in the country’s history gathered, with approximately 1.2 million in Santiago and protests in solidarity all over the country. The sheer size also doesn’t lend itself easily to factionalist descriptions. That’s what sets this moment apart—and makes it seem just very faintly possible that a country that’s been rehashing the same triumphalist and traumatic stories about itself for decades might be able to pivot for a new chapter. While over 120 allegations of human rights violations are being investigated, including possible homicides by law enforcement and allegations of torture and sexual abuse—as well as hundreds of people injured by birdshot—the massive gatherings have not yet resulted in the kind of brutal military crackdown that happened in 1973.
I started here by referring, as for years one had to, to the country’s two protagonists: Pinochet and Allende. They were symbols of two very different Chiles. But when I said that these sights in Chile the past week would be traumatic if you were alive in 1973, I meant it. Many Chileans weren’t alive then. This contingent—young, buckling under increasing costs of living and enormous debt—seems tired of relitigating the past. They’re objecting, at least in part, to the long shadow Pinochet and Allende have cast: to the way Pinochet has been used endlessly as an excuse by the left while they preserved many or most aspects of his economic model; to the way Allende has remained a boogeyman for the right, used to scare children with stories of financial ruin and leftist terrorism. It even makes a certain horribly Freudian kind of sense that breaking the country out of these unproductive narrative recursions would require a strange and terribly dangerous semi-reenactment. With tanks on the streets. Lines in the stores. Fires. Fights.
I don’t want to downplay the intensity of what’s happened the past week. The chaos has many Chileans exhausted and on edge. What began with a student protest over a subway fare hike has exploded into nationwide marches against much more: an unsustainably high cost of living, poverty-level retirements, bad and expensive health care, poor education, and crushing debt, to name a few. President Sebastián Piñera called a state of emergency in the early hours of Oct. 19, deploying the military. Much of the country is now under curfew. As of this writing, 18 people have died. There is footage of soldiers beating civilians; one video captures Carabineros (militarized police) bludgeoning people as they walk by. A TV network aired live footage of soldiers shooting as they drove through a neighborhood in Recoleta. On Tuesday morning, an Argentine TV news team was broadcasting when a soldier lifted his rifle and shot at them with a rubber bullet. By Tuesday night, there was footage of soldiers shooting into a building in Las Condes. Chile’s infrastructure has been heavily damaged in the protests too: After Oct. 18, most of the subway system was severely damaged and temporarily shut down. Dozens of stations were burned. While some lines are partly operational, full function won’t be restored for months. Buses and police precincts and stores were set on fire. Hundreds of small and medium-size businesses throughout the country have had to close due to looting or other damage. Things are loud and frightening and wild.
Through it all, thousands upon thousands of Chileans have kept peacefully protesting. There’s this off-putting image some have circulated of a face made up of four different quadrants. When you look closely, you realize each quarter of a face belongs to a different president dating back 30 years. Piñera, the current conservative president, is there. But so is Michelle Bachelet, his predecessor. And Eduardo Frei, and Ricardo Lagos. These last three are on the political left. “They are all to blame, absolutely all to blame,” the caption reads.
This isn’t just dissatisfaction with a single administration, in other words. It’s dissatisfaction with a system. With every party. You might notice, too, that one face is missing from this image: Pinochet’s. The dictator was an unmissable feature of every leftist protest for the last few decades—but the current contingent has tired of how leftist politicians have, by constantly invoking him, evaded their own responsibilities.
The 30-peso Metro fare hike that started all this (about 4 U.S. cents) was not a backbreaking increase, but it was the proverbial straw. It prompted a student-led fare-dodging protest—billed as an experiment in civil disobedience. This large-scale action, which began a few days before everything exploded, was strongly condemned by Piñera and members of his cabinet. His administration branded the students as criminals, and the Carabineros were deployed to deal with them, in some cases quite brutally.
Just a few days earlier, Piñera had hailed Chile as “a true oasis within a convulsed Latin America.” He was preparing to host world leaders including Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Xi Jinping at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting. This may have contributed to the intensity of the government response. The subsecretary of the interior, Rodrigo Ubilla, declared—on Oct. 17, the day before the widespread unrest—that “this is delinquency, purely and clearly.” “We are going to be absolutely firm and clear with prosecutions,” he said, announcing that wrongdoers would be prosecuted within the penal system. One might have thought he was addressing the occasional acts of vandalism that took place during the fare-dodging protests. Not so: He meant all the protesters. That same day, right-wing politicians presented a proposal that would increase the penalties for fare evasion to up to 480,000 pesos (about $660).
The extremity of the public response to the fare hike was surprising. So, for the same reason, were the enormous fines (or serious criminal consequences) the administration sought for protesters. But if the resistance to the increase was symbolic, Piñera’s response turned out to be too. Of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nations, Chile ranks among the worst in economic inequality, and the government’s massive overreaction seems to have confirmed, for many watching, what they had long believed: that a government that had shown extraordinary leniency to corrupt white-collar criminals (and its own parties and functionaries) was prepared to legally decimate ordinary citizens for smaller, borderline meaningless infractions.
Public fury overflowed, and Piñera tried the repressive response a second time. He deployed the military. It’s fair to say now that this backfired. By the next day, the protests had spread all over the country, to areas where there are no subways and no one cares about them. On the morning of Oct. 18, Transportation Minister Gloria Hutt said the subway fare would not be lowered. A week later, the fare hike has been reversed, Congress has voted itself a 25 percent pay cut, and Piñera eventually—five days after this began, and after escalating things immeasurably—proposed some incremental reforms and even apologized for a “lack of vision.” But that hasn’t stopped the protests. This wasn’t about the subway.
So what was it about?
Trying to track a social movement from afar means you’re annoyingly dependent on images. Also: distressing accounts from family. This was a long time coming, one relative observed. Another was horrified by the destruction, afraid, and had to cancel a much-needed surgery. These are hard things to hear your loved ones say. As I desperately refreshed social media feeds and looked at photos of the protests, I started noticing a theme. “We are all clowns” reads graffiti on a wall in Santiago. In Chile’s Los Angeles, a man dressed up as the Joker dances before a marching crowd. On the day that everything blew up, Joker memes were circulating; one added a third diamond to the Joker’s face to mimic the Metro subway system’s logo. People dressed up as the Joker. Danced like him.
Joker debuted in Chile a couple of weeks before the protests, so the timing made a certain kind of sense. (There was also, it should be noted, a pretty decked-out Batman spotted patrolling the streets.) It’s both weird and eerily appropriate that this movie would play a small symbolic role in Chile this week. It’s an American movie, yes, about American issues, and yet Chile’s longtime status as an accelerated, hyper-capitalist laboratory—which has basically survived many attempted reforms—makes Phillips’ Joker land even more intensely in Chile than it does here. I don’t know how to describe the experience of watching such a film (a superhero spinoff, for Christ’s sake!) as it dawns on you that many of the fictional spectacles it depicts and fetishizes—the fires, the protests, the social upheaval—are happening somewhere you love but cannot be, and to people you love and cannot be with. “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?”—a line from the movie—could be Chile’s motto right now.
More startling still was how well calibrated much of the movie’s dialogue was to Chile’s social history and present situation. The film portrays a billionaire Thomas Wayne as mayoral candidate—though possibly designed to evoke Trump, the character is directly comparable to Piñera, an ultra-wealthy businessman whom many Chileans believed would make a great leader because, as is said in Joker, “everybody says so.” Here’s the thing: Chile, for years, fetishized the idea of a meritocracy even more than does the United States. Faith in that has shattered, but this is a culture still obsessed with class. The people looting right now, for example, are popularly referred to as the lumpen (as in lumpenproletariat). And when the Chilean right talks about the underclasses, especially the ones who protest, it uses a very specific term. It calls them resentidos. As in the resentfuls: a pejorative often deployed with hatred and contempt. Per this worldview, if any such person complains or protests, it’s not because their complaints have merit, but because they’re envious, lazy, and want what they don’t deserve. You are literally not allowed to resent the elite; if you do, you fulfill what the elite call you. It’s a trap. If you’re struggling in Chile, you’re supposed to keep it to yourself and, in Joker parlance, “put on a happy face.”
So when in the movie Wayne says, “They’re just envious of those more fortunate than themselves,” I suspect that would resonate in a particular way in Chile. So would his claim that “those of us who’ve made something of our lives will always look at those who haven’t as nothing but clowns.” When Wayne enjoys a silent film in a cushy theater, blissfully indifferent to the protesters outside trying to be heard, I thought of where Piñera was on Oct. 18, as the country burst into flame: at a nice restaurant, eating pizza.
I left the theater anguished that a movie so clearly pitched to provoke American controversies predicted certain real scenes that real people are now experiencing, and by how obviously and even eloquently it would have spoken to the concerns of Chileans watching it. Of course the Joker would be dancing before all this.
In a speech on the night of Oct. 20, surrounded by military personnel, Piñera said “we are at war against a powerful, implacable enemy that respects nothing and no one, that is ready to use violence and crime without limit.” He would walk this back on Tuesday—even apologizing and proposing some reforms—but that Sunday, many deemed the language a stunning escalation. Pinochet used that exact phrase in 1986: “We are at war,” the dictator said after an assassination attempt against him, claiming the incident signaled a war between “Marxism and democracy.”
There are still plenty of pro-Pinochet Chileans, many of whom appreciate this kind of discourse and the implied callback to what many regard as a more orderly time. This contingent dislikes public disturbances more than most. Many approve strongly of violent and even lethal measures. It wouldn’t be that surprising, in other words—given the estimated $300 million of damage done to the subway system, the looted supermarkets, hardware stores on fire, buses attacked—for the upper classes to lean into Piñera’s message and embrace that strategy. Instead, there seems to be a brewing recognition, even among the comfortable, that something bigger is happening here. Right-wing figures like Sen. José Ossandón inverted the president’s framing. “One must defend the public,” he said, “therefore the ‘war’ must be made on the pensions, on our deficient political work, on inequality, on abuses, on collusion. I am sure we can do it.” Even right-wing TV personalities like Raquel Argandoña observed that the escalation of protest tactics to include property destruction (which most of the protesters condemn) was predictable given the government’s policy of simply ignoring the demands of peaceful protesters. “The peaceful protests and cacerolazos didn’t cause the government to react,” she said on her show. “This leads to the protesters becoming aggressive, and, lamentably, this leads to vandalism.” She’s right: Some 1.3 million people marched to protest the privatized pension system in August 2016. Very little changed. An Oct. 19 poll found that 99 percent of people polled knew about the fare-dodging protest. While 87 percent disapproved of violence and destruction as modes of protest, 65 percent approved of the fare-dodgers.
And so, the cacerolazos continue. In the upscale neighborhood of Vitacura. Huge protests in the fancy neighborhood of Las Condes. “It’s truly the end times,” a Reddit commenter replied when someone posted footage of people in Las Condes singing leftist chants like “El pueblo, unido, jamás será vencido!” People are demonstrating in the swanky suburb of La Dehesa. For several nights in a row, folks in the middle-class neighborhood Ñuñoa defied the military and rejected the curfew. It’s not just the poor. It might be something more akin to … the 99 percent. “It’s not 30 pesos,” one protest motto reads, “it’s 30 years.”
What happened in the 1970s is iterating, in other words, but with huge, ambitious, risky, porous differences. This could go wrong at any moment: The truckers could go on strike and cut off supplies, making those grocery store lines actually mean what they once did. Food shortages could happen. The military could even crack down and start rounding up and executing citizens, as it has before. The potential outcomes are terrifying. It feels like a very risky test to see if Chile can avoid repeating a history it’s sick of—a drastic, paradigm-shifting display of state violence.
One difficulty, for the administration, is that there doesn’t seem to be anyone to negotiate with. This does not seem likely to be an “organized plan,” though the president and some members of his cabinet have suggested otherwise. The first lady was caught on leaked audio referring to sinister outside forces (alienígenas, she called them), and a popular rumor among right-wing Chileans is that this is part of a multi-step Communist plot. The rumor has been debunked—as have rumors on the left of torture happening in subway stations. No one knows what’s happening, but whatever it is, it seems less like a calculated plot than a garden gone to seed through neglect.
Some efforts to explain the protests have circulated. In one, a palm-sized leaflet that explains:
It’s not the Metro!!! It’s health, it’s education, it’s pensions, it’s housing, it’s parliamentary salaries, it’s the increased cost of electricity, it’s the increased cost of gas, it’s the theft by the armed forces, it’s the “megapardon” for the businessman, it’s the dignity of a society!!!
In another image, the drawing of an iceberg shows the fare hike as the part above water. Underneath the water the other factors are listed, including the cost of education, health care, the pension system, “miserable salaries,” “precarious jobs,” and others.
What memes like these show is just how much regular people in Chile struggle to get by. Some context: The median monthly wage in Chile as of 2018 was 379,673 pesos—roughly $524.05. And while the minimum wage was raised in March of this year to 301,000 pesos, electric bills have been going up, fuel costs have risen (according to Bloomberg, the price of a gallon of gas in Chile is about 11 percent of an average day’s wages), and real estate prices have soared. Educational debt has exploded (and what public primary schooling there is rather substandard by design—the dictatorship did its best to privatize public education). So while the country looks prosperous and prides itself on “first-world” amenities like the giant Costanera Center skyscraper and mall, some consider this something of a sustained sugar high whose basis is a heavily indebted population. Only about 15 percent of the population is making more than 850,000 pesos a month ($1,170 USD). (For comparison, Chilean senators take home around $8,300 USD/month, not including an extremely generous benefits package.) And many services have been privatized or semi-privatized: energy, water, roads, health care.
People have been trying hard to make the “oasis” version of Chile true—wearing that happy face for years while they were drowning in debt and working long hours. One protester carried a banner that read “I am not afraid to die; I am afraid to retire.” An article from Sept. 30 on yet another increase in the water bill offered tips on how to ration your consumption. So when Minister of the Economy Andrés Fontaine suggested on Oct. 7 that people could just get up earlier if they wanted to avoid the subway fare hike—he phrased this as a “space” opening for the industrious—people were furious. “Doesn’t he realize that workers already cross entire cities and rise and go to bed in darkness?” one person asked. “In the end they believe that the people are lazy and that’s why they lack what they have had all their lives,” said another. (Fontaine apologized for his remarks on the sixth day of the protests.)
Chileans say they have been stretched thin for too long, paying first-world prices with third-world wages while the public gets gouged. They’re gouged by price-fixing scandals, for instance—of toilet paper by manufacturers, of chicken by supermarkets including Walmart, and of medications by pharmacies. By the military, which was found to have committed fraud to the tune of millions of dollars—a scandal nicknamed “Milicogate.” By Pacogate—in which the Carabineros were found to have stolen some 28 billion pesos, and fresh discoveries suggest it might be considerably worse. There’s the police cover-up of the murder of 24-year-old Camilo Catrillanca, a member of the indigenous Mapuche tribe.
Then there’s all the corporate crime, and the impunity with which empresarios once hailed as skilled victors in the meritocracy are allowed to cheat and steal. Back in 2012, the Johnson’s scandal—concerning a chain of department stores—made headlines: the SII (the IRS equivalent) discovered but then inexplicably pardoned $125 million dollars in fines and interest owed by the chain of stores. (Conflicts of interest were subsequently revealed between members of the SII and the company.) Several other cases have since followed, including the SQM scandal which apparently included “millions of dollars of invoices filed with Soquimich in the names of the young sons and daughters of politicians and candidates for public office.” (The investigation of 16 implicated individuals was shut down in January for “lack of proof.”) The “Penta” scandal revealed that one of the country’s largest financial groups used a system of falsified invoices to direct funds to the political parties to avoid paying taxes. The two owners of that financial group, who were found to have participated in a sophisticated scheme that included bribery and excessive campaign contributions in exchange for generous tax cuts (and spent some time behind bars while their case was decided), received a light sentence: probation, a fine, and, to widespread consternation, an “ethics course” that they nonetheless complained about.
As these scandals mounted, it became harder for Chileans to sustain any sense of themselves as citizens of one of the most transparent and least corrupt countries in Latin America. The “meritocracy” seemed rotten. The president himself was recently found to have failed to pay property taxes on a home he owns in Caburgua for 30 years. The treasury determined it would retroactively charge him for three of the 30. This made Piñera’s addresses to the public—in which he characterized a refusal to pay a dollar and some for the subway as criminal lawbreaking—land poorly. As Rodrigo Echecopar, ex-president of the left-wing Democratic Revolution party, tweeted, “I’d be interested in asking President Sebastian Piñera if he thinks his tax evasion inspired the massive fare evasions on the subway.”
Juan Pablo Luna writes for CIPER that this is about more than income inequality (I’ve translated here): “It is also inequality before the law and the recurrent perception of injustice and abuse between those who live very near in physical terms, but are decades apart in terms of the guarantees they receive with respect to their basic civil and social rights as citizens.”
Here’s why that might matter to the rest of the world. Chile, dubbed the “free-market laboratory” during the dictatorship (the Chicago Boys were an immense influence), has frequently served as a kind of bellwether for how other countries will fare in their own accelerating hypercapitalist experiments. Pinochet even made water a privately traded commodity. That has not gone especially well. The current president’s brother, José Piñera, redesigned the pension system, effectively privatizing it. Thirty countries followed Chile’s pension system model (George W. Bush was a great admirer), and are watching with dread as it turns out to be yielding (as of 2016) a retirement of about $315 a month. The companies that manage those funds, however—the pension fund administrators, or AFPs—have been turning decent profits.
It goes without saying, I suppose, that when chaos comes, a lot of spectacles don’t work the way you’d expect. There is footage, for example, of a looter trying to get away with a TV. A crowd of protesters stops him, takes the TV away, and solemnly adds it to the bonfire. A neighborhood pauses its cacerolazo to listen to an unseen woman in one of the apartments sing Victor Jara’s “Te Recuerdo Amanda.”There’s even footage of a police officer picking up and—perhaps as a joke–banging a pot. (If the protesters are younger than the spectacles they’re partially reenacting, the police and the soldiers are too.)
I asked my cousin Bernardita why all this chaos didn’t seem to be slowing down the protests in the wealthier sectors (whose support the president probably needs if a really brutal military crackdown is in the offing). “I think this affects everyone. We’re upper middle class and we’re screwed too,” she said. “The problem is structural and generalized: health care, retirement, stable employment, etc.” Some politicians are now echoing this message. As the mayor of Renca put it: “The government must understand that this will not end without an ambitious announcement of immediate social relief. Just freezing the rate hike is not a solution. The opposition must be active in building this new accord and also accept that security and public order are urgent for our neighbors.”
And while hashtags like #RenunciaPiñera are trending, others emphasize that this isn’t just about the president. The president of the Senate, Jaime Quintana, has said “we cannot attribute all the responsibility to this government,” meaning Piñera’s administration. “We almost have an altar to the economic model of this country.” People from various sectors have reacted accordingly to these less than reverent demonstrations: One of the country’s more astute businessmen announced that no direct employee of his company would earn less than 500,000 pesos per month going forward. The wealthy municipality of Las Condes just voluntarily donated 1 billion pesos to the poorer municipality of La Pintana. As for Piñera’s apology and package of proposals: Some have hailed them as a fine but insufficient first step, but others consider them not enough, more Band-Aid than reform.
On Friday, the Congress was evacuated due to protests outside, and there was a peaceful (if loud) protest that by evening surpassed a million people in Plaza Baquedano alone. Though truckers have denied going on strike for fear of creating food shortages, they joined taxi drivers to bring the highways outside Santiago to gridlock, protesting against high road tolls. Efforts to create enough change are ongoing too: Evelyn Matthei, who served as Piñera’s former minister of labor during his first term, ran for president, and is currently mayor of Santiago’s Providencia district, said in an interview on Friday that the kind of profound change the country needed would require replacing “at least” eight of Piñera’s 24 ministers with people from the middle class with more diverse backgrounds that included (for example) public education experience. In the lower chamber of Congress, the House passed a proposed reduction in the work-week to 40 hours, and the opposition proposed a plebiscite for a new Constitution. To the extent that the demands are legible, the protests seem to be calling, first, for an end to the state of emergency and the military presence, and, more broadly, for a Constituent Assembly—for a new Constitution and a new social contract that sees people more as citizens than as a captive market for corporations seeking government concessions. Many are calling for the resignation of Interior Minister Chadwick, who spearheaded the initial escalation against the fare-dodgers. Others call for Piñera’s ouster. After the extraordinary, nation-wide outpouring Friday evening—Santiago’s protests were made up of almost 7 percent of the country’s population—Piñera tweeted, “The massive, joyous and peaceful protest today, where Chileans ask for a Chile with greater justice and solidarity, opens big roads to future and hope. We all have heard the message. We all have changed. With unity and help from God, we will travel this road to a better Chile for everyone.” Many of the chants had directly insulted him. On Saturday, he announced that he’d asked all his ministers to resign and said he would lift the state of emergency on Sunday if circumstances permitted. The curfew in Santiago is over. No one knows what will happen next.
I’ve noticed fewer Joker references over the last few days. And it feels like the potency of certain old spectacles—men in uniform confronting civilians, long grocery store lines—might be diminishing too. After a week of this state of emergency, things are not better in Chile. Things do not get easier when the “happy face” gets replaced by honest feeling. Tourism has plummeted, there are still fires, and people are anxious and angry and tired. But circumstances are not as bad as they could be. It could all go south at any time, but for now—for now—there is not desabastecimiento. The lines are not bread lines. (Yet.) Disturbing though the images of military attacking civilians are, things have not escalated to the familiar point of no return. I don’t know if that’s progress for a country both saturated by and sick of witnessed and inherited traumas. But it is something.
“Do you think Joker inspired any of this?” I asked my cousin Bernardita. “Of course,” she said, “or actually, the reverse: the social discontent inspired this interpretation of the Joker. Without a doubt.”
Whatever use the protesters have made of the Joker, there are obvious limits to his explanatory power. The protesters’ interpretation of the nihilistic clown has also taken some extratextual—and unifying—turns, such as the refusal of some politicians (and even a general) to adopt the rhetoric of war. The Joker snapped and turned on society. Chile is angry, and parts of it did snap. But by and large, the public still cares and has not devolved into nihilism. On Oct. 21, NO ESTAMOS EN GUERRA—WE ARE NOT AT WAR—was projected on the side of the Telefónica building near Plaza Italia, where huge crowds had gathered to reject the military’s enforcement of the curfew and test this version of Chile to see if it has changed. And if it can.
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