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Lessons from the Chilean uprising

The antineoliberal uprising that took to the Chilean streets recently moved and renewed hopes of struggle in several countries. In a scenario of extreme-right governments such as Trump and Bolsonaro, the social storm was an insurrection that exploded where it was least expected, precisely in the country called the “neoliberal laboratory”, and already leaves very important lessons for socialist militants around the world. In a moment of confusion and fear in various left-wing political circles, the current process in Chile gives us a series of important clues and warnings.

It is not a question of generalizing or using the Chilean example for automatic transpositions into other realities, but of reflecting on the process to think about our political action in building resistance to the authoritarian neoliberal attacks that we live in countries like Brazil. The Chilean estallido has unprecedented elements in several aspects because it occurs in one of the countries in which the neoliberal prescription was applied more deeply and for longer, forming an insurrection with ideas much more concrete than recent similar uprisings. The Chilean people have felt for decades the terrible effects of this form of capitalist organization and know clearly who the enemy is.

And in this process the population on the streets has surpassed its supposed political representatives of the Left in ideas and actions, raising flags with the weight of the masses much more advanced than those the institutional Left was able to assimilate and defend. The Broad Front (Frente Amplio), a political initiative that brought together socialist, social democrat and even liberal parties, broke their contact with the spirit of the streets and became an obsolete tool in a few days.

The social estallido

The Chilean social explosion began against a 30 pesos increase in the Santiago metro fare (equivalent to 4 cents of dollars or 17 cents of real today) that generated an action of students evading fares from the city’s periphery that was violently repressed. This student action was then covered with support from the population and ignited the spark that set fire to the country. The population took to the streets in practically all Chilean cities, and marched together students, workers, neighborhood neighbors, the elderly and even children with a central idea: “it’s not about 30 pesos, it’s about 30 years”.

A little less than 30 years ago, in 1990, Chile formally left the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet and entered without any break into a regime of “controlled democracy” with the same Constitution and the same economic and institutional model of Pinochetism. To get an idea, the assassin Pinochet continued as head of the Armed Forces until 1998 and was a senator for life until the end of his life, leaving his mark to this day on the economic model and in deep control of Chilean political and social life.

In Chile, water and other natural resources have been privatized, there are no free public universities, and pensions are managed by private funds that often drop the amounts received by retired workers by more than 50% (the hated AFPs). There, companies mediate almost all relations between citizenship and the State, and the idea of a “business subject” has penetrated deeply into all layers of life and human relationships, promoting an individualistic and meritocratic culture that has excluded a large part of the population.

The crash then appears as a cry of “enough!” against an economic model that stimulates competition among young people while turning its back on the alarming rates of suicides among the elderly. With the Mapuche flag as its main symbol, the original people who resist in the now militarized region of Wallmapu, the uprising of the Chilean people is a broad uprising against neoliberalism, anti-colonial, feminist, LGBTQ+, from the territories of the countryside and from the assemblies of neighbors in the peripheries of the big cities. It is, in a way, an unprecedented movement in human history, both for the desperate scenario and the general political clarity against neoliberalism.

Self-organized popular initiatives such as the neighborhood assemblies and the “cabildos” demonstrated the organizational power that emerged after October, with residents organizing themselves in streets and neighborhoods and building several spaces for debate and deliberation that represent a milestone in the recent history of social movements. Organizing community actions such as round tables of talks and collective dinners and, at the same time, acting in demonstrations and actions to influence the general politics of Chile, the assemblies are experiencing a very strong process of articulation and rooting in different localities.

The reaction of the Right

Faced with the various social conflicts in Latin America, President Sebastián Piñera declared just before the storm that Chile was an “oasis”. Shortly after the protests began, Piñera declared that the country “was at war” and that the popular mobilization was in fact an attempt at destabilization promoted by the Cuban and Venezuelan governments, and declared a state of emergency with a curfew that put the army on the streets and ran for weeks.

The soldiers outside the barracks recalled the years of dictatorship but also demonstrated Piñera’s fragility. General Javier Iturriaga declared “not to be at war with anyone” in response to the president and with each moment the despair of the government and the political lack of control of the right wing over the country became more evident.

In response to the state of emergency, the population increased its mobilization despite the harsh repression, which already has countless reports of sexual abuse in the police stations, hundreds of young people with eye damage, thousands injured and 24 confirmed deaths. In Dignity Square (the old Italia Square), the epicenter of the protests in downtown Santiago, and in several other locations, tens of thousands marched demonstrating their discontent and supporting their democratic right to demonstrate. This put more crisis in the Chilean bourgeoisie and led the Piñera government to an enormous demoralization and fragility, being rejected by the immense majority of the population.

Sebastián, who comes from the right-wing UDI party, is the brother of José Piñera, the creator of the Chilean private pension system and one of the formulators of the current Constitution. Sebastián Piñera represents like few others Chilean neoliberalism, the privileges and prejudices of this country’s bourgeoisie, and the cry “Outside Piñera” has spread, with widespread slogans demanding its fall and comparing it to Pinochet.

The mistakes of the Broad Front

Against this backdrop of street fighting, the Broad Front (Frente Amplio – FA) has made one of the biggest political mistakes of the recent Left. Formed by left-wing parties such as Social Convergence, the Democratic Revolution and the Equality Party, and also by centrist groups such as the Humanist Party and the Liberal Party, the FA was an attempt at articulation that posed itself before the classical right wing and the Concertación, the two traditional blocs of Chilean politics. Reaching third place in the last presidential elections with Beatriz Sanchez, the Front elected several deputies and a senator, besides the mayor of Valparaiso Jorge Sharp. This coalition was in a position to be the political representative of popular demands, but unfortunately it was not up to the challenge.

On November 15, in a scenario of enormous mobilization that left the country ungovernable, the right wing proposed a new constitutional process and gave the parties 48 hours to accept the proposal. This ultimatum had as its backdrop a veiled threat of the military’s return to political prominence, including a pre-emptive coup d’état, a rather unlikely possibility given the weakness of the Piñera government and the statements of the military itself.

The notorious Social Pact was then signed by the “parties of the order” in the early hours of a Friday with the proposal to “pacify the country”. The agreement was jocularly dubbed the “Kitchen Pact” by the population, since it was made on the sly and without any kind of consultation with the mobilized people. A few weeks earlier, in Ecuador, the population also took to the streets of the country and the negotiations that led to an agreement were made in public, in the light of day and even televised, giving much legitimacy to the process. In Chile, the Kitchen Pact had no legitimacy at all and pushed the streets further away from their supposed representatives.

It is interesting to note the vertiginous escalation of events during the storm. A few days before the signing of the Pact the demand for a new Constitution was an almost unattainable agenda, but with the growth of mobilizations and the total disorganization of the right wing, the new Constituent became the lifeline of a drowning government. The Chilean bourgeoisie then promised to hand over the rings so as not to lose its fingers, that is, it accepted the end of the dictatorship’s Constitution in order to maintain its privileges.

The Pact did not guarantee a sovereign constituent process. Through a clause that designated the need for a quorum of two-thirds of votes for any profound change, the bourgeoisie guaranteed its power of veto over structural changes in the new Magna Carta. As a trap, they also deliberated on the creation of a technical commission for the planning of the constituent (which has already failed) and extended to the maximum the deadlines both for a plebiscite on the new constituent (which will not take place until April) and for the elections of the constituent deputies (which will probably not take place until October 2020), diluting the urgent expectations of social change in a process which will take years to complete if it really happens.

This agreement had the support of the majority of the parties of the Broad Front, which in practice collaborated with the government’s attempt to demobilize the streets. While parties like the Democratic Revolution saw the pact as a big step forward, a vision in line with their reformist and institutional position, others like the Equality Party did not accept and broke with the Front. Social Convergence, a sector on the left in the FA, did not formally sign the agreement, but relativized the “individual” signature of its deputy, Gabriel Boric, and suffered the ruptures of Mayor Sharp and other important sectors that built this party.

To make matters worse, a few weeks later, the Front congresspersons voted in favor of debating the Anti-Sacking Law, a government project to criminalize the demonstrations under the justification of fighting looting, which hardens punishment for closing down streets or resistance to police repression. The reaction of public opinion was brutal and the deputies soon made the self-criticism, but once again they showed the institutional logic and detached from the streets with which they operated during the weeks of the struggle.

Today there are no more flags of the parties of the Broad Front in the demonstrations or in the concentrations of tens of thousands in Dignity Square. The choice of the parliamentary route put the comrades of the FA into the skillful trap set up by Piñera and in opposition to the widespread desires of the Chilean workers and youth. There is no guarantee that the new Constitution will be a tool for transforming the Chilean reality, and so far the situation has even formally worsened with the most repressive legislation.

Perspectives for the fight

The estallido represented a movement of tectonic plates of Chilean society that have not yet settled. The change in the economic model demanded by the demonstrators is categorical and this demand will not disappear immersed in parliamentary debates, and any future constituent process will only advance in a sovereign way, in the sense demanded by the masses, if it is the fruit of a broad process of mobilization that comes from the periphery neighborhoods, the cities of the interior, the categories of workers and the vanguard of student struggle.

The process of struggle of the Chilean people is still open, the workers and the youth have already shown diverse signs of their advance of consciousness and willingness to confront, and only a unified response built from below by the diverse sectors of the struggle can dispute and influence the direction of this process. The first months of 2020 will be months of conflict, with great possibilities for a general strike, the calling of a meeting of the women who fight and various other initiatives to mobilize the categories and territorial assemblies. The struggle for the sovereign Constituent is a structural part of this street process, which will continue and can bring about truly concrete changes in the lives of Chileans.

For these changes to materialize it is vital that there be a great political convergence among all the sectors that today are fighting neoliberalism in a consistent manner. The neighborhood assemblies play a fundamental role in this dispute because they represent one of the most advanced elements and must play a leading role in the formation of a new political bloc that can dialogue with the real aspirations of the streets. Together with independent unionism and the vanguard of students, the assemblies have the potential to represent a catalyst pole of the various agendas represented in these days of confrontation.

And for this to happen, it is necessary to form a new independent left that seeks to become a reference through a commitment to coherence and radicality, and that is part of the dispute for a sovereign Constituent demanding answers and fighting for advances in a tenacious manner, without wavering in the face of institutionality or parliamentary temptations. This articulation, which only takes its first steps at this moment, is an important step towards the next challenges that will be placed both in the struggle for a sovereign Constituent process and in the confrontations that could further alter the correlation of forces in Chilean politics and promote a new economic agenda that is opposed to predatory neoliberalism.

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  • Pedro Fuentes
  • Bernardo Corrêa
  • Charles Rosa
  • Clara Baeder