Nicole Kleinheisterkamp González and Tamara Ortega Uribe: Chile after the plebiscite, part 2 – the rise of feminism.

Part 2 of this interview focuses on the rise of the feminist movement in Chile and its role in mass uprising of October 2019. 

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 covered 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 focuses 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.


Members of the feminist group Las Tesis, authors of the performance piece “A Rapist In Your Way,” take part in a demonstration during the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women in Santiago, Chile, on November 25, 2020 MARTIN BERNETTI AFP

Todd Chretien: Let’s talk more specifically about the feminist movement in Chile. We’ve seen a global feminist movement arise in Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Spain, India, Ireland, and, most recently, Poland. Can you explain the roots of Chile’s movement and the role feminist organizations and movements play in Chilean politics. How does it work? Were feminist organizations and movements strong enough to influence and help lead the mass uprising, or does feminist consciousness function more as a common sense or sensibility within the broader movements?

Tamara Ortega Uribe: I think the feminist movement is part of long-term work, very slow and accumulating work, including all the way back to the 1980s and the women who organized as part of resisting the dictatorship. It’s been well documented that it was women who took charge of reorganizing what the dictatorship had broken apart, what it had destroyed. This not only implies a popular or community form of organization, but also institutional forms and there were prominent women who played key roles in the pact that opened the way to the end of the dictatorship. And when the democratic transition began there were certain demands that they insisted be included, one which was women’s rights. Thus, for example, the Ministry of Women was created in the context of democratization.

However, I would say that the feminist movement is very diverse. As you said, feminism is a sensibility, spontaneously coming from the people, and it is an organic factor with its own political weight within the movements. So, all of this was taking place over a long period of time. But the high school student movement during the first decade of this century was where feminism became a more organic component of, for instance, the youth movement, especially among the high school and university students. And this is what has been growing over time, including through the use of social media. Social media allowed feminists to intervene and to expand the movement, both in terms of mobilizing but also to express their very diverse demands. In this sense, I think the feminist movement has showed itself to be much more advanced than the left-wing political organizations and more broadly influential. So, yes, the feminist movements are very present. 

For instance, as Nicole said [in part 1 of this interview], in 2018, the feminist movement took the notable step of proposing a dialogue with the state and the political parties of all kinds while remaining outside of both. This was a direct, conflictual dialogue in which we were a relevant actor, establishing certain valid and legitimate demands for which we fought. I would place particular significance on the role played by the 8M Coordinadora (March 8 Coordinating Committee) — one of the most widely-known organizations outside of Chile. The 8M Coordinadora began national assemblies of women, and I remember the first assembly they organized, to establish a political program for the feminist movement, to make a feminist revolution, to change Chilean society into a feminist society. And this political program, I think it’s clear to see, has borne fruit. And this stands in contrast to the political programs in our mixed gender political organizations where we have not always had these kinds of victories. The 8M Coordinadora established and defined this action program in a nation-wide, pluri-national assembly. And within the action program, they maintained this type of participation. 

However, there were many, very atomized left-wing political organizations on the outskirts of the 8M Coordinadora, principally feminist social movement organizations. For instance, we might point out the colectivo Las Tesis which carried out widely recognized actions. And this, of course, had a deep impact on Chilean society. But they remained very far from any overtly political or institutional expression. So, yes, the feminist movement is an organic part of society, it has its political program, and there is also a feeling or sentiment as well. I would say that the feminist movement in Chile represented a beautiful explosion that showed all women how they could change manner of politics.

Nicole Kleinheisterkamp González: The only thing I’ll add to what Tamara has said is that the explosion in 2018 took place in Valdivia in the south of Chile where I was at the time. It started because a professor at the university was accused in an abuse case. I can’t recall if it was a student or someone who worked there. When this happened and the students saw that the professor was not disciplined, he just kept right on working normally, they took over the university, they closed it down. This led to various cases of abuse being brought to light in universities across Chile, very similarly cases, for instance, in Concepión and other places. All of a sudden, all the universities in Chile were occupied in response to sexual assault and other similar cases. And from there, obviously, it expanded rapidly, even though no one believed it would, into very large demonstrations. Which is interesting because the protests were very large even though they were not specifically targeting broad material gains, like the ones in 2019. This time, they were not spontaneous, they were planned in advance, and they included a huge number of women, and men as well, but feminist demonstrations of this size had never happened before. Perhaps the numbers were similar in Spain.

As Tamara already pointed out, feminist ideas were having an impact already. So if we consider the constitutional plebiscite, there will be parity between men and women in the number of elected delegates, that is, there will be a quota for women so the people writing the new constitution will be half women. However, as Tamara stated, there are certain problems. There are “ultra” feminist groups, some of which are, for example, anti-party and don’t wish to carry out any kind of common work alongside political parties and which are exclusively for women. On the other hand, there are also feminist groups within the various political parties who believe it is necessary to work within political parties in order to win gains for women, but also for everyone. So, I think this is an important point of friction within Chile. There are some groups of feminists in Chile with whom it is easy to work, while there are others with whom it is more difficult. 

Another point I would like to raise, in the context of the United States, is that there were two presidential candidates who were, shall we say, abusers. This would never happen in Chile. Biden could never have been a candidate, would never have been accepted as a candidate with his past. This shows the influence of the feminist movements. If there had been a feminist movement in the United States as strong as that in Chile, Biden would not have been accepted. And if he had left, perhaps Sanders could have been the candidate. So this is one way we can see how feminist movements can impact politics in this type of situations. 

TC: This raises an interesting question. Is the feminist movement in Chile organized in such a way that it can not only change consciousness in a broad sense, but it can make specific demands and influence who is able to stand as candidates in the political parties, to decide on concrete days of action, and put forward clear political goals. Here in the U.S., the feminist movement has changed hearts and minds, but, like most social movements, relies heavily on social media for calling demonstrations. That is, there are few national organizations or movements with internal democratic elections based on local committees that coordinate nationally. In Chile, between 2012 and 2017, was there an organic growth of organizational and democratic capacity within the movement that allowed it to coherently intervene in 2018 and afterwards? 

TOU: Here is where we might find differences between Chilean society and North American society. I’ll make two points. First, the organizational capacity generated by the feminist movement was not necessarily organic, in the sense of “organic” as we on the left might understand it. Why? Because politics within the movement are horizontal, there are no hierarchical organizations with nuclei and established spokespeople. Instead, there are rotating spokespeople who change frequently. There’s no dependence on what the head of the organizations intend to do and what the base is going to do. These are assembly-driven, horizontal organizations with a new kind of doing politics. So, yes, there is a certain kind of organic structure, but not one with which we are familiar. 

On the other hand, the political organizational culture is what is up for grabs. The advances we have seen are based on this feminist way of doing politics, even if the gains are not necessarily attributable to its form of oganization. And in Chile, the way of doing politics emphasizes going to the streets, and this is what is happening all over Latin America. When something’s not going well… take to the streets, protest in the streets, destroy a few things, use a little violence, and, in parallel, create some pressure on one or another of the political parliamentary parties, whether through the media or through social networks, or through civil society organizations, which play an important role. Thus, by various means, enough pressure is created in this context in order to achieve some kind of results. 

But it’s very difficult to translate this to the U.S. because, outside of social networks, how is it possible to mobilize pressure on the streets here. It’s a different situation. At least, that’s how it seems, although I’m not thoroughly acquainted with how things work here. I don’t see that any organization, or more accurately, the feminist movement as a whole with this level or organic capacity (or at least the semi-organic capacity that exists in Chile) to bear this kind of fruit. But maybe there are other channels for mobilization?

For example, that’s what happened with the colectivo Las Tesis. There was nothing organic about it. They just went out into the streets and started singing and their actions were replicated all over. 

NKG: Right, they simply created a song and choreography and it became very popular all around the world, “the rapist is you.” It was later performed in many places, it was translated and performed in Germany, both the song and choreography. 

Part 3 will pick up with the results of the constitutional plebiscite in Chile and the prospects for social change and the growth of the left.