Franck Gaudichaud and Alex G: Between the October revolt and Covid-19 in Chile

As of April 30, Chile is reporting 15,135 coronavirus infections and 216 Covid-19 deaths. The government has taken advantage of the pandemic to gain breathing space after six months that witnessed the largest round of mass strikes and protests anywhere in the world, including millions of women marching and strike on March 8. In the coming months, the mass movement’s staying power will be put to the test as the health and economic crises escalates and Chile’s repressive regime prepares to defend itself and the neoliberal economic model that has enriched its elite. 

Alex G is an activist based in Toulouse and a member of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste. Franck Gaudichaud is a professor of history and civilization of Latin America at the University of Toulouse. He works on the ContreTemps editorial committee and is a member of the NPA. Published by NPA and Viento Sur, translated and published by No Borders News as part of our international coronavirus coverage. 

Since October, Chile has lived through a great social and popular revolt, with massive demonstrations against the political regime against the deep inequalities in which the country is immersed, and against neoliberalism itself. That process of rebellion achieved what could be interpreted as a concession from the government of billionaire Sebastián Piñera, although it just as well could be understood as an attempt by Piñera to regain political power, that is, the convening of a referendum on April 26, 2020 to decide whether or not to change the Constitution. The Constitution, it should not be forgotten, was inherited from dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Now the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in Chile has postponed the referendum until October. And as in the rest of the world, confinement and the risks of contagion have paralyzed the demonstrations and protests that were developing in the run up to April 26.

Epidemic and class struggle

Covid-19 was carried into Santiago by wealthy people flying in from Europe and China, or on cruise trips. As of mid-April, Chile had more confirmed coronavirus cases than any country in Latin America, although its mortality rate was lower than that of Ecuador. Brazil, Mexico, and Peru have since suffered to an even greater extent. The refusal of the wealthy families – who travel between their first and second residences – to abide by confinement is publicly acknowledged. This has even led to protests and direct action by people building barricades by the inhabitants of the spa towns to prevent members of the capital’s bourgeoisie from traveling to their summer retreats. During the Easter weekend, some members of the corporate elite, in order to avoid police controls, went to the absurd length of traveling by helicopter to reach their summer mansions on the coast!

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The numerous local assemblies that arose after October’s revolt have allowed at least some level of popular response in the face of the health crisis, and these assemblies continue the fight against Piñera and his system. These self-organized spaces played a key role during the revolt by guaranteeing supplies while businesses were closed, providing security and vigilance against human rights violations by the police, and anchoring the organization of protests. With the passage of time, these assemblies became spaces for deliberation and political debate from below. As Karina Nohales of the March 8 Feminist Committee (Coordinadora Feminista 8M), puts it, “with the onset of the pandemic, the neighborhood assemblies have facilitated making lists of older people, those suffering economic hardships, and those most isolated and vulnerable to organize to get aid to them. However, at this point, we would be wrong to see these neighborhood social networks as a parallel state organization with a significant social impact.”

The fear that had disappeared has returned with the epidemic

The government has used the health crisis as an opportunity to retake the political initiative after months of paralysis and protests. Symbolically, Piñera has been walking around, taking photos in the Plaza de la Dignidad, the epicenter of the October protests and confrontations, to show he’s “on the job.” As Nohales points out, “During the months of the revolt, every government statement fueled the revolt and increased the rage of the mobilized people. Right now, in the face of the pandemic, the country is more or less forced to obey its dictates. This does not mean that government decisions are accepted uncritically, but we do not have the ability to express ourselves, although the government, for its part, does not have everyone on its side. One expression of this is the intensification of repressive measures and the reinforcement of the state of emergency that had already been in place since October. Piñera knows that he can only govern thanks to the exceptional nature of the moment.”

Indeed, the pandemic emerges as a moment of rupture with normality in an already exceptional situation. According to different opinion polls, the president’s approval rating is below 8 percent, that is, the lowest level since the end of the dictatorship in 1990. It should be noted that his management of the pandemic has catastrophic, featuring erratic confinement measures that vary from one city to another, from one neighborhood to another, and even from one street to another. Above all, they are dictated by the imperative to keep economic up activity under pressure from local employers. During rush hour, the Santiago subway is crowded with poor and precarious workers, and the streets are full of workers in the informal sector who have no choice but to go to work to earn a few pesos.

The Minister of Health repeatedly voices optimistic despite the fact that the pandemic has only just begun and that the public health system does not have the capacity to absorb a massive influx of Covid-19 patients. More generally, the health network is fragmented and has been abandoned to the logic of the market and private insurers, while the popular classes must content themselves with crowded and poorly equipped hospitals. “This is why the fear that had disappeared during the October revolt has returned with the epidemic,” as Nohales indicates. “Therefore, our political challenge is to link the protests that have accumulated over the last few months to the way in which the pandemic brutally uncovers all the elements of the crisis. But this mass politicization is not easily accomplished.”

Workers pay for the crisis

The combination of the health crisis and the economic crisis has pushed the majority of the Chilean population to a catastrophic situation. The Pension Fund Administration (AFP) that manages pensions, all of which have been privatized since the 1980s (except for the military!), have already lost 20 percent of their value. And this is only the beginning. In 2008, over the entire period of the economic crisis, losses reached 40 percent. Economic measures announced by the government refer to three elements in line with demands by large employers (Luksic, Matte, Angelini and others who control the economy):

• Aid to companies, providing them with loans at a low interest rate.

• Aid to the informal sector, and to the self-employed, although in ridiculously meager amounts and only for a small sector of them.

• For salaried employees, the government offers to furlough employment contracts, but without the right to wages! The employers’ only obligation is to contribute to the AFPs, the National Health Fund, and unemployment insurance, but only at 50 percent of the normal rates. 

Thus, salaried workers are paying for the crisis because their only source of income is unemployment insurance, financed by the workers themselves. All this, taking into account that the amount they will receive will not equal what has been promised, as is logical under the capitalization and individualization of the Chilean benefits system. More than 23,000 companies have accepted these measures, affecting some 350,000 people, most of whom will not receive more than half the minimum wage.

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This suspension of employment contracts is already in force in fast food chains (e.g., Stark Bucks and Burger King). There have also been massive layoffs in the hotel, restaurant, and retail sectors. When confinement was initiated in the wealthy neighborhoods of Santiago, there was also a massive wave of layoffs in the construction sector as all work stopped.

Unions not up to the task

The union response has not lived up to the situation. Their intervention has focused mainly on trying to maintain jobs, while failing to raise demands about the right to leave work (until necessary healthy and sanitary conditions are met) or how to guarantee dignified and safe confinement for millions of people. Many unions have continued to employ the logic that confinement could jeopardize employment. However, some union organizations have filed lawsuits to protect their members’ fundamental rights and health. The labor courts have issued resolutions authorizing workers to leave work without lose of wages if sanitary and safety conditions are not guaranteed. Despite these decisions, many unions are still not taking advantage of them.

The March 8 Feminist Committee, in relation to other feminist organizations, launched a campaign to respond to sexist and gender-based violence during the period of confinement. This united feminist organizing space, which brought together millions of people on March 8, is also promoting a strike in defense of life, that is, a strike to demand the implementation of a social and health emergency plan to confront the pandemic and its consequences.

Weeks that define the future

Without a doubt, the end of confinement will be marked by the return of demonstrations, strikes, and social mobilizations. The Chilean ruling classes are trying to take advantage of the pandemic to advance their own agenda and organize the recovery to channel and neutralize the current political crisis, while continuing repression. And they will take full advantage of every situation. For example, many families and militants are demanding the release of hundreds of prisoners detained during the October revolt. This is especially critical because prisons carry an elevated risk for contagion. At long last, some of those detained, who are not designated as dangerous, are being released into house arrest due to the health emergency. This has allowed the government to release them without giving a specific response to why they were detained in the first place for simply participating in social mobilizations. Taking advantage of this situation, several right-wing parliamentarians have demanded that the government must also release those imprisoned (in luxury facilities) for systematic human rights violations carried out under Pinochet’s dictatorship. But faced with a public outcry, the government had to back down, despite support for this measure by Pinochet-era judges.

Thus, the next few weeks will undoubtedly be decisive from both the point of view of public health and the popular movement’s capacity to promote demands emanating from the October revolt. Meanwhile, the right and the far right will grow nostalgic for the dictatorship at the same time that an emergency plan is required to deal with Covid-19.

The challenge for the movement is to take advantage of this time of still unstable transition to start weaving together forms of political organization from below that can offer a clear, democratic, and radical perspective. The movement must coalesce the power of struggles that have been expressed in the streets since October while confronting a decomposing political regime and the neoliberal model it enforces.

[For international coronavirus news and analysis in translation from socialist and working-class movements, read No Borders News.]

*Translation by No Borders News.

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