Uprising in Chile

Ricardo Salva says the recent turmoil in Chile heralds the beginning of a potential revolutionary transformation

The political, economic and social system in Chile is in crisis. An historic and concurrent crisis of the post-Pinochet economic and social ‘stability’ era, and a crisis of representation by the current political parties in Government and by the leadership of the ‘opposition’ parties, is taking place.

In a country where there is a deep political mistrust of the institutions, opportunities and spaces have arisen where new formations within the labour movement and social organisations are becoming instruments for the protesters’ demands. Under the banners of “Chile has woken up” and for a “Free and Sovereign Constituent Assembly”, Chile has become engulfed in mass rallies, hundreds of public protests and events, citizen assemblies (‘Cabildos’, usually held in public places) for more than 40 consecutive days. Protesters have faced heavy-handed police and military intervention backed by new and draconian anti-protest legislation.

As they enter the new decade, Chileans are counting the cost of weeks of mass protests, and once the street barricades have been removed many protesters will be asking themselves where their central demand for a Sovereign Constituent Assembly has gone? The ruling right-wing governing alliance and the opposition political forces offered a compromise: a 12-point “Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution”. This new agreement was made with the aim of calming popular indignation and restoring public order in a clear attempt to escape political accountability.

From mid-October, provoked by an increase in metro fares, the streets of Santiago have been alight with student protest – the most important social explosion that has happened in Chile since the end of the military dictatorship. A violent police response – in which nearly 30 people were killed, thousands wounded and detained – inflamed popular indignation, and the demonstrations swelled into a revolutionary revolt against social inequality, the rising cost of living, and a call for the establishment of a Constituent Assembly.

Tear gas, mass arrests and water cannons (also known as ‘Guanacos’), shooting people at head level with hundreds blinded, have evoked painful memories. The crackdown has reminded people of the time when on the 11th September 1973, the former socialist president, Salvador Allende, was overthrown by armed forces under the command of General Augusto Pinochet. The US-backed coup led to political repression, during which the army executed or ‘disappeared’ thousands of political opponents. Now, in spite of the clampdown, daily marches, street barricades, citizen assemblies, women dancing in unison in the streets to the song of “A Rapist Is In Your Way” and other actions are continuing.

Background to mass protests

Social unrest across the region had been simmering for years. It is tempting to search for a common reference, for regions or places with a different character and context. As result of the international financial crisis of 2007/8, the world economy has entered a stage of financial and commercial clashes not seen since the Second World War.

At the same time, popular uprising in Bolivia was growing. On 11th November 2019 Evo Morales, Bolivia’s populist president for almost 14 years, was deposed. Social and political unrest had been stirring elsewhere, apart from in Venezuela, Ecuador, Perù, Brazil and Central America. Chile’s unrest has spread to Colombia as well. According to the Financial Times, “Unlike the Russian and Asian crisis that engulfed the emerging world in the 1990s, contagion this time is not primarily a financial market phenomenon”. The article ironically concludes that this is due to the fact that “populations are much more aware than in the past”.

In Chile the current political unrest started in October 2019. However, as far back as 2006, secondary school students revolted against the cost of education in a movement which become known as “The Revolution of the Penguins”, a reference to the colours of their school uniform. Since then, other social movements have joined them, such as the movement against the privatised pension scheme, No+AFP in 2011; the women’s movement, Ni una menos; and the resistance by the Mapuche people against discrimination.

A mass movement that started in October in Santiago has been transformed into a revolutionary movement not seen since the Pinochet years. More and more protesters have become organised. More than 50 workers’ and social organisations, including the Chilean TUC, were united in calling for a General Strike in September with more than 200 organisations participating. Alameda Avenue and Plaza Italia – renamed “Plaza Dignidad” by the protesters – rang with the cries of “Chile has woken up”, “Piñera Renuncia” and calls for the establishment of a Constituent Assembly.

Much of the indignation can be traced back to Chile’s role as the original testing ground of authoritarian neoliberalism where a free-market economy was protected from democratic and workers’ demands. This resulted in one of the most far-reaching privatisation programmes known and one which was also enshrined and legitimised in an undemocratic constitution. Following the transition to democracy after 1990, this neoliberal model was left largely untouched. The ‘Concertaciòn’ coalition governments of the 1990s and 2000s not only maintained Pinochet’s Constitution, but also deepened the privatisation initiatives. As a result, most of the public goods and services are now provided by private companies or public-private initiatives, making them unaffordable for the mass of the population.

Response to the uprising

The demand for a Constituent Assembly has been an important collective goal together with demands related to wages, health, education and pensions. Initially the government’s plan was for the work to be done in Congress, but this was widely rejected. The 12-point “Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution” outlined a new constitution with citizen participation. This will be subject to a plebiscite to be held on 26th April 2020 where Chileans will be able to vote whether they want a new constitution and if so, whether they want it to be drafted by a mixed citizen-legislator convention or one entirely comprising elected citizens. Who will control these agreements politically and how they will move forward are obviously key concerns for protesters.

“This is an historic night for Chile,” said President of the Senate Jaime Quintana during a joint announcement by the ruling and opposition party leaders early on Friday 29th November 2019. The apparent reversal of the government’s and the political opposition’s position on a potential Constituent Assembly is seen as an important victory by some, while others have criticised it and rejected it. The Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution is seen as an escape route for a government which continues with a free-market economic programme – the longest neoliberal programme applied to any country anywhere and one which has validated a government with blood on its hands. This Agreement has allowed the government to avoid facing responsibility for the serious human rights violations committed during the protests of the last months.

Thanks to the support provided by the opposition parties, the right-wing government has gained an intermission – a necessary respite from the continuous uprising. Last week the Council Leader from Estaciòn Central, Rodrigo Delgado, publicly expressed qualified support for the Agreement, saying that “[t]he most valuable aspect of it was to reach an agreement amongst the political parties”. Yet, in its refusal to recognise the depth of indignation amongst the mass movement, the Government has attempted to apply an old formula of simultaneously taking away with one hand what they claim to be giving with the other. Gonzalo Brunel, the Home Secretary, has pointed out the necessity to re-establish public order as a condition for reaching “not just the Social Pact, but also the Constitutional Agreement and the economic recovery agenda”.

As a result, a ‘Security Agreement’ approved by the government and opposition parties enables criminalisation of the social protests with draconian sentences. These are measures openly directed to make the right to protest illegal. Votes of the opposition parties and those representatives on the left were divided in supporting the Security Agreement measures: some abstained (including the Communist Party’s elected parliamentarians) and only a small minority voted against it. The Agreement between the right-wing government and the opposition parties shows that even when the Chilean right’s ability to face the national crisis collapses rapidly, the bureaucracies and centre-left parties are acting in defence of the system in an attempt to halt the mass movement.

Social Unity (Unidad Social) – the main umbrella organisation involved in leading the social uprising, comprising more than 200 groups, trade unions and social organisations – is calling for an active opposition to the Agreement, and to continuing mobilisation, Cabildos and protests. A recent statement issued by Unidad Social (04.12.19) regards the Agreement for Social Peace as the opposite: a declaration of war against the mass protest movement.

Ricardo Salva

Ricardo Salva is a member of Bethnal Green and Bow CLP.