Everywhere you walk in the streets of Santiago, there is political graffiti spray painted on the buildings. A popular slogan among the graffiti is “Chile despertó” – Chile woke up. And truly, the whole society has awoken, with daily street protests and constant political discussions among all layers and all ages.
After a month of daily protests, on Friday, Nov. 15, Chile’s political parties agreed to organize a constitutional convention in order to rewrite the country’s constitution. The pact – the “Acuerdo” – was called “Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution.” The agreement referred to the “the grave political and social crisis of the country,” and said that it’s purpose was to “the reestablishment of peace and public order.” That same evening, and every evening after, the crowds gathered, the stones flew at the “carabineros”, and tear gas filled the air. And the next evening, the carabineros murdered Abel Acuña The following day, Sunday, normally a day of less protests, hundreds of bicycle riders (!) gathered at Santiago’s Plaza Italia – the central gathering place for the protests – in order to hold their own anti-government protest. Beatriz Sanchez, former candidate of the “Frente Amplio” (a coalition of several parties, including the Socialist Party) came down to express her support and to criticize the carabineros. She was greeted with chants of “y fueera! Y fueera!” – leave! Leave!
Pinochet/”Chicago Boys” constitution
The background to this huge social and political crisis that is racking Chile is the constitution put in place by the Pinochet dictatorship before Pinochet left office in 1990. That constitution – a model for the neoliberal “Chicago Boys” – enshrines the privatization of nearly everything. Water is privatized, according to the constitution. So is health care, the national pension plan, the transport system – even the highways. And with this, a huge wealth gap has opened up. The exact same complaints that the youth in the US express are expressed by their counterparts in Chile – lack of jobs, student debt… everything.
Every morning, as you walk by Plaza Italia, your eyes will water and your nose will sting. The tear gas from the night before lingers. So did the fear from the Pinochet years linger in the years that followed. But no longer. The youth have broken it. Not having lived through those years, they lacked that fear, and they have affected all the older generations. “Chile despertó” – Chile has awoken – is a popular wall slogan.
One worker in his late thirties or early forties explained that up until now, neighbors around where he lives wouldn’t talk to each other. Now, everybody is talking with everybody, he said, and they’re talking about politics.
The new patron saint of Chile appears to be “Matapacos” (cop killer). This refers to a black dog who had been living in the streets near some university and was popular with the students. For some reason, this dog (who recently died of natural causes) hated “paco” – the carabineros. One recent morning, a group of middle aged, nicely dressed women were in a restaurant celebrating the birthday of one of them. I was seated nearby and heard something like this: “blah, blah, blah… laughter… blah, blah, blah, laughter… Matapacos… blah, blah, blah.” Even at this celebration among these middle aged women, they were talking about Matapacos!
Literally for miles around Plaza Italia, the buildings are covered with political graffiti and posters. It is common for people to stop and read them. Getting into a conversation with those who are reading them is like walking up to an automatic door of some store. All you have to do is walk up into the electronic eye and the door opens. In Chile today, all you have to do is ask one of those reading those posters what they think and – boom! – your in a conversation whose length is only limited by how much time that person (or group of people) have to talk. It could be a 63 year-old woman selling crafts at a stand or a group of 18 or 20 year-old young women talking with this 73 year old man. It doesn’t matter. Everybody wants to talk.
The government appears to be divided in several ways:
First is the division between the elected wing and the carabineros, known pejoratively as “paco”. Organized at the national level, they are the only police force. There is no local or municipal police. And “paco” has a long history of brutality. In one instance, close to 100 years ago, they rounded up a group of some 100 or so workers who were organizing a union and killed them all. In another, they entered the class room of two college professors who were known to be members of the Communist Party and kidnapped these two professors. A couple of days later, the decapitated bodies of the professors were found by the roadside. As with any such force, the carabineros are also corrupt, with cases of the command faking payrolls to pocket the money and other such acts.
While the “Acuerdo” makes clear that the politicians are seeking to pacify the population by making concessions, the carabineros seem to be doing the opposite. One recent night at Plaza Italia, somebody threw a molotov cocktail at one of the “zorrillos” (or “skunks”), which are kind of mini armored personnel carriers. The vehicle sped away with flames spreading on its hood. The rest of the police withdrew. After they left, the “protest” turned into a giant street party, with the young people singing, dancing and in general celebrating their public gathering. A half hour later, “paco” returned and the crowd was immediately transformed. The chants and cursing of the police (“Pacos culiao” – more or less FTP in the US) returned and the rocks threw once again, as tear gas filled the air.
Everybody that this writer talked to agreed that the police actually want to agitate things so they can have an excuse to crack down. If they could, I believe the carabineros’ command structure would like to return to the “good old days” of Pinochet. But that is not possible at this time. According to one article, the approval rating for the government is at 9.8%. Nine point eight percent! When Pinochet seized power, he more or less had the support of the Catholic hierarchy, which had an influence in Chilean society. Today, Catholicism is collapsing. In 2016, 70% of Chileans identified themselves as Catholic. In 2018 that figure was 58% and now it is down to 45%. Meanwhile, those who identify themselves as either atheist or having no religion has grown to 32% (from 21% in 2018).i
The Acuerdo, itself, calls for a plebiscite in April of 2020. That plebiscite will ask two questions: First is whether people want a new constitution. If the answer is “yes”, then the question is how a new constitution should be written. There are two choices: Either a “mixed” constitutional convention which would be half directly elected delegates and half present politicians; or a “constitutional convention” composed entirely of elected delegates.
In either case, a two-thirds majority would be needed to approve a new constitution.
Already squabbles are breaking out between and even within the different political parties and some politicians are already questioning whether this agreement is workable or whether it will collapse. Meanwhile, different politicians regularly criticize the carabineros’ violations of human rights in general terms, but never raise the specific acts nor do they actually propose doing anything about it.
In other words, the government is paralyzed.
View of Chileans
As for the movement from below:
Nobody seems to believe in the Acuerdo nor to trust the government.
The protests at Plaza Italia are every night. Starting around four in the afternoon, the youth start to gather. Then, around 5:00 or so the pacos turn up and within an hour the tear gas flies. There doesn’t seem to be any formal organizing of these protests. People just spontaneously appear. There almost seems to be an anarchist mood among these youth, but they are not “anarchists”. For example, I have not seen the anarchist symbol anywhere among the graffiti.
Another aspect is the weekly gatherings of the neighborhood “popular assemblies”. There are hundreds, probably thousands, of these that meet every Saturday afternoon. The one that I attended didn’t seem to have a formal, elected leadership. Rather, an agenda had been worked out by some group who simply
had taken the ball and ran with it. That seemed to work out okay for the moment. This seems to be similar to how things worked in Occupy Oakland back in 2014. There, a small group of anarchists in effect decided the agenda and the general direction of the general assemblies. In that case, too, it worked out in the beginning. However, at a key moment, this small group of anarchists turned to the union bureaucracy and that turn meant that Occupy Oakland would not try to build a radical base within any sector of the working class, most especially not among union members.
Then there are the unions. While I was there, there was a teachers strike of sorts and a march and rally. They were joined by some students, and there was a very militant atmosphere. “Paco” was nowhere to be seen. At the ending rally, the speakers (in other words, the leadership) spoke in general terms. They talked about the need for a “decent wage”, but didn’t specify what that wage should be. They called for remembering those who had been wounded or killed by Paco, but didn’t say what should be done about Paco’s brutality. They called for “a constitutional convention that represents everybody in Chile”. One speaker even denounced “savage capitalism” and called for the construction of a “new society”. But what kind of society and how to construct it?
Next week, there is supposed to be a call for a several-day general strike. However, there was supposed to have been one on the day I arrived in Chile (November 14), but as far as I could see it didn’t happen. We will see what happens this time.
How can this situation be resolved? What might develop?
It seems to me that the carabineros (“pacos”) are not under the complete control of the rest of the state. I could be wrong, but it doesn’t seem to be ruled out that they could initiate a new outrage on a major scale – maybe kill a dozen or more of the youth in one single event. Were they to do that, I think the result would be a general uprising and a near complete paralysis of the country, including a general strike. From there, who knows?
More likely is that the country staggers towards the April plebiscite. I am told that there is some sort of association of the country’s mayors and that in several of the local popular assemblies these mayors have some influence. Possibly something could be stitched up through them. The problem is that a 2/3 vote of whatever constitutional body that comes into being is needed for a new constitution – if the process even gets that far.
There is a general mood against all political parties. (One group of young women that I talked with, when I asked them what they thought of socialism, they responded, “sure, but not with any party”. They were referring to the Chilean Socialist Party.) The Communist Party has not signed the “Acuerdo”, but they really don’t offer any alternative either. There is also a constant comment that the parties are all corrupt.
Overall, it seems that the hope of the government is that over time, a large enough sector of the working class will tire of the protests. Among other things, the unstable situation is having an effect on the economy as is the world market.
To sum up: There seems to be a semi-paralysis as well as serious divisions at the top. After over a month, the protests don’t seem to be fading and the popular assemblies seem to be continuing. The main issue driving this is that of privatization of nearly everything and the huge wealth gap that results. But those at the top are not going to surrender their position. What will be required is an organized movement from below. How the existing massive movement can be organized is the question of the hour.
Some thoughts on Program
The newspapers are full of comments from various politicians saying that a lot will have to change in Chile, but it cannot change immediately. Sure enough, on November 20 the government decided that there will be an immediate 50% increase in pension payments… for all those pensioners over 80 years old! It seems to me that there could be demands for a specific raise for all pensioners, plus for not just a “decent” minimum wage, but for a minimum wage of a specified amount.
The event that sparked off the first protests was an increase in the cost of riding the metro. It seems to me that there could be a demand for free public transport.
Also, abortion is severely restricted and there are numerous wall signs calling for free abortion on demand.
Finally, and of critical importance, it seems to me that a demand could be raised to disband the hated carabineros. In its place, the popular assemblies should be provided with the funds previously spent on the carabineros and they can provide for security, direct traffic, etc.
I suspect that this last demand would be quite popular among the youth who are out protesting every evening, and maybe meetings could be organized near or at Plaza Italia to discuss this demand.
As I understand it, these youth don’t participate in the popular assemblies, but maybe they would be willing to bring this demand to those assemblies and try to get the assemblies to adopt them.
I spent a lot of time in Santiago just walking the streets, looking around and getting into conversations with people as well as at the daily protests at Plaza Italia and a few marches and union events. I have already written up reports on those on my blog.
Also, before I left for Chile, I contacted several socialist groups there to try to meet up. The only one that responded was the MST (Socialist Workers Movement), which is part of a Trotskyist international grouping called the UIT. I spent quite a bit of time with these comrades. I found that time to be very helpful (and enjoyable), and I thank those comrades.
I was also left with a few questions. Some of them are raised above regarding program.
As with the socialist left here in the US, I think that one main focus of attention has to be analyzing the views and positions of different elements of the ruling class and the conflicts within that class and their government. Yes, we must pay attention to the struggle between the working class and the ruling class, but that is only part of the issue. Without the former, it’s impossible to really develop a sense of where things are moving, and without that, the working class movement can in the main just respond to events rather than anticipate and start to control them. Or, put another way, it’s by taking a bird’s eye view of society that the working class can start to see itself as the class that can and should rule.
Being new to Chile and having been there for only slightly over a week, it is impossible for me to have a clear idea of the way forward. One main issue is how can the popular assemblies be developed further? Is it possible for them to make links with unions? Maybe such links already exist to some degree or another. If so, how can that be formalized?
Also, the apparently very open and informal way in which at least some of the popular assemblies are organized may have some advantages for the moment, but it seems to me that there is a danger that that same informality can be used in the future as it was used in Occupy Oakland. So the question is how can the idea of building a formal democratically elected leadership be introduced?
You could throw a dart at a map of the world, and likely as not you’d hit a country that was in crisis and turmoil, a country where mass uprising was underway. Iraq, Lebanon, Iran, Sudan, Tunisia, Haiti, Colombia… In Bolivia, matters are far from settled. How will these movements come together? What will be the next stage in the growing world revolt against the ravages of capitalism? How will the world working class start to stamp its imprint and build its own world working class party?
Also see the photos I’ve posted.
i“El Mercurio” newspaper, 11/22/2019