Over the last half century, Chile has run the gamut from one of the world most original experiments in popular democracy and grassroots socialism during the government of Salvador Allende to the most brutal military dictatorship and neoliberal laboratory under Gen. Augusto Pinochet and his acolytes. Hailed for decades as a success story by free market ideologues, Chile’s people grew increasingly restive over the past fifteen years, until they launched the hemisphere’s largest uprising in decades against poverty, humiliation, and corruption in October 2019. The ruling parties were forced to play for time and agree to a plebiscite to reform Chile’s Constitution, written under Pinochet’s dictatorship. It was originally scheduled for last spring but was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has hit Chile as hard as any nation on the planet. Rescheduled for this October, Chile’s people resoundingly voted in favor of rewriting the Constitution and electing a constitutional assembly to do so, thus opening a new period of political struggle and organizing.
Part 1 of this interview covers the 1980 Constitution, the left during the post-dictatorship period, and the social and political forces that took root prior to the October 2019 mass uprising in Chile. Part 2 will focus on the role of the feminist movement, and Part 3 will discuss the prospects for the left after the victory of the constitutional plebiscite in October 2020.
Nicole Kleinheisterkamp González is a member of the International Committee of the Democratic Socialists of America and co-chair of DSA’s Syracuse branch. She is a PhD student at Syracuse University in the geography department. Tamara Ortega Uribe is a member of Fundación Emerge (Chile) she took part in the creation of the Chilean Frente Amplio, and now is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, Santa Cruz branch. She is a PhD student in Politics, University of California, Santa Cruz. Todd Chretien spoke to them for No Borders News.
Todd Chretien: What were the most antidemocratic and repressive aspects of the 1980 Constitution that was adopted under the regime of General Augusto Pinochet? Of course, a bourgeois constitution is a bourgeois constitution, but what were its most defining negative features?
Tamara Ortega Uribe: We can begin with the origins of the Constitution itself. It lacked any democratic legitimacy because it was created under a civic-military dictatorship in a context of blood and fire, a context of severe repression, assassinations, and torture. And this origin forms the basis for its widespread rejection. Furthermore, the Constitution is a neoliberal document, one that concretized the neoliberal model, which had already been imposed by the regime by adopting varies laws, starting approximately in 1976.
What do we mean by this? The Constitution defines the state as a subsidiary institution, not as a guarantor of rights. In other words, the state was conceived as a kind of mediator between private parties, primarily between companies and individuals, not society, not the people, but individuals. Thus, the state was to guarantee that individuals would receive services from the business class, but not be guaranteed rights. And that individuals would be permitted to choose between these services, be it health care, education, housing, employment, and pensions. There were no social rights, only services.
The constitution privatized water as one of its principal acts, and thus we are the only country in the world that has privatized its water system. The Constitution also restricted the democratic participation of the people in decision-making process, and the power of the other State’s branches were restricted as well. It established rigid quorums to pass new laws or reform the existing ones. It defined the binominal electoral system and the high powers of the Constitutional Court. All these changes neutralized and reduced the democratic will of Chilean society, while it was reinforced the veto power of the right wing. So, the constitution essentially enshrined the ability of the right to veto any reforms throughout the entire period of the transition to democracy. And, of course, it greatly restricted labor rights, including the right to unionize, bargain collectively, or to go on strike.
Nicole Kleinheisterkamp González: Tamara presented a very effective outline. The only thing I would add is that anti-terrorist legislation was directed, primarily, against indigenous peoples, especially against the Mapuche people in Chile. Practically speaking, any kind of demonstration on their part was considered a terrorist act, leading to many Mapuche people being imprisoned under these laws.
TOU: The Anti-terrorism Law.
NMG: Right. Obviously, this was and is a terrible problem for the Mapuche people and many of them have ended up as political prisoners.
TOU: There’s also the question of laws restricting women’s right to control their own bodies, whether these were written into the Constitution or came later.
TC: Jumping ahead from the 1980 Constitution, let’s talk about the factors that lead to the massive uprising in October 2019. Of course, the match that lit the fuse was the government’s decision to raise public transportation fees.
TOU: If you’ll allow me, this seems like a good opportunity to also examine the state of politics in the United States as well and to expand our analysis over a longer period of what took place in Chile. For instance, in 1990, after the end of the military dictatorship, the transition to democracy generated a social pact, in reality, a political pact, based on the idea of a democracy built on consensus. And this consensus was established by the elites from above without reference to the people, without society’s input. During the entire period of transition that began in 1990, there was a tremendous gap between “the political” and “the social.” This explains, along with high levels of fear, why participation in politics remained so low. After all, people feared that the military might intervene at any moment, but there was also fear of the civilian elites. What dominated this period was a pursuit of governability. This was accompanied by a series of retreats by the left and social movements as organized forces. At the same time, Chilean society was experiencing this neoliberal model, which placed a heavy emphasis on individualism and consumption.
However, by the year 2000, it was already possible to discern a change in the form of popular mobilization. For example, the mobilizations that took place in 2001 and 2006 among high school students, and, most importantly, in 2011. The big difference in 2011 was that the students put forward structural demands that clearly challenged the neoliberal model. They demanded the right to a public, free, and quality education, something that was previously inconceivable. 2011 marked a break and it spread beyond the students into the factories.
Three principal develops marked the period between 2011 and 2019, before the explosion, which coincided with processes happening in other countries, including the United States. First, a deepening crisis of representation within the context of liberal democracy, one that is longstanding to be sure, but one that has intensified significantly. The question is whether or not we have arrived at something that can be called democracy, after a long transition, or what constitutes a democracy in the first place. Second, the rise of social media networks has exposed widespread corruption, illegal campaign financing from big business, patronage, etc. and all of this has stoked dissatisfaction. Third, we have witnessed a total reconfiguration of social and political forces between 2011 and 2019, a development that should not be underestimated. The older, official democratic parties, in Chile, created the New Majority and other forces that led to the creation of the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) alongside the creation of new political articulations with a decidedly movementist character on the left.
So, all of these developments made the 2019 rebellion possible. An uprising that was not planned by any single political actor, even though we have may done a lot of work beforehand. It was a spontaneous movement, but it did not arise from an amorphous mass. Rather, it took shape in a context of contending political parties, forces, and movements pushing it along.
TC: A question in terms of timing. The October 2019 uprising took place, more or less, a year after the end of the center-left Michelle Bachelet government. What sort of impact did the assumption of power by the new right-wing Sebastian Piñera government have on the protests? Was there a causal relation between the two? This seems to me to be an important question for activists in the United States. What was the relationship between the center-left government and the movements? Was it mutually beneficial, opportunist, antagonistic? Did the left emerge from Bachelet’s governments in a better position to fight Piñera? Of course, this is an important question for us in DSA today.
TOU: That’s a complicated question. In fact, it’s a permanent debate on the left among social and political organizations in Chile. Of course, there’s a difference between Bachelet’s first term 2006 to 2010 and her second term 2014-2018, but we can see them as a continuum by which we can judge the center-left during the democratic transition and its attempt to establish a clientelist relationship between themselves and the political leadership of the social movements. We can see this all throughout the 1990s with community, popular, and democratic organizations and movements. This clientelist approach created Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia (the center-left coalition that won all presidential elections between 1990 and 2010) but it also marked a sharp break between the traditional relationship between the center-left and its popular organizations because it created a widening gap between the official political leadership and the social base.
At the same time, it’s not possible to paint a definitive picture because the left in Chile is very broad. Thus, at certain moments, a kind of collaboration was possible with the center-left government, while at other times it was not. We can identify within the left trends ranging from neoliberal social democracy, which were represented in Bachelet’s governments and among all the Concertación parties, and there are social democrats even further to the right. And then there is a social democracy of the left and the parties that initiated the Frente Amplio, and these parties were sometimes able to establish direct dialogues with the center-left and Bachelet’s government, but not at other times. And beyond of either of these trends there is the traditional left, the Communist Party. And beyond that, there is the radical left, which is a very heterogeneous mix that can never come to an agreement amongst itself.
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Thus, in my opinion, it was very difficult to put forward a unified policy that could advance the left. I don’t agree with the view that Piñera’s government, a government of the right, is better for the left because he exacerbates the crisis. After all, Piñera worsened the government’s neoliberal policies. There was more repression. There were a large number of cases of torture for a supposedly democratic governmental context. And the number of assassinations carried out against the Mapuche people increased, as well as against many other people. Of course, they never entirely ceased under the center-left, but the center-left never resorted to the levels of violence we have seen under Piñera. So, we have to have a sense of proportion.
NKG: So we could say that the explosion that destroyed Chile, in a good way, had been cooking for decades. Over the last years, there have been many mobilizations, feminist mobilizations chief among them that managed to bring many, many people into the streets. In fact, the largest feminist marches took place more a less a year before the October 2019 explosion in May of 2018. But there were not alone. High school and college students also mobilized in several waves of protests starting in 2008. So, all of this was adding up.
TOU: Right, it was all building up. Especially from May 2018. The May of the feminists, as we called it.
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