The Chilean media were quick to label the October 2019 popular uprising an ‘estallido social’, a social explosion. As the cry of ‘Chile despertó!’– Chile woke up! – rang out in the streets, the refrain in television studios was that ‘no one saw this coming’. This is hardly the first time that elites have been disconcerted by popular uprisings, or blind to widespread discontent. For those who had studied the Chilean model and the extreme inequality it engendered however, the uprising and ongoing protests were no surprise. A rebellion of the plebeian classes had been looming ever since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990. After suffering defeat in a referendum on his continued rule, the general and his jurists crafted a system of counter-majoritarian constitutional provisions to protect the neoliberal order that had been imposed at gunpoint by the military after the brutal overthrow of Allende in 1973. Implemented as part of an exit-pact with the majority of opposition leaders, its intention was to straitjacket any future regime, effectively neutralizing democratic politics.
To incapacity was added ideological capture. Successive governments of the Concertación – a coalition of centre-left parties plus the Christian Democrats that has governed Chile for much of the last thirty years – were not only unable to change the system of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ orchestrated by the Chicago Boys, but in fact continued to deregulate, privatize and outsource. A model in which basic services are private and subsidized by the state to make them attractive to investment was further entrenched. Access to credit was used as social policy (leaving Chileans with the highest household debt in Latin America) and low wages kept many below the poverty line (70% of workers earn less than US$7,400 a year, while the national per capita income is of US$25,000). The convergence of the political class around this agenda was in large part a consequence of the oligarchization of power enabled by the constitution, in which accountability to citizens is virtually non-existent. Hyper presidentialism and centralism make local government powerless to respond to social demands, while insulating representatives from popular pressures – resulting in political corruption, corporate collusion, and impunity.
During the ‘long transition’ of the last three decades, free elections and changes of government failed to respond to growing dissent, which increasingly came to disturb the image of Chile as ‘the tiger of Latin America’. The narrative of an ‘economic miracle’ focused on aggregate growth went hand in hand with a closure of constitutional debate. In 2005, President Ricardo Lagos – a founding member of the Concertación and the first Socialist Party president since Allende – signed into law an amended constitution, insisting that the last ‘authoritarian enclaves’ had been removed and proclaiming the beginning of full democracy. Neither the ‘economic miracle’ nor the purported changes to the political-legal paradigm made a dent in the material conditions of the popular classes. Low wages and soaring debt, lack of access to quality healthcare and education, poverty pensions and price manipulation of food, medicine and basic supplies endured. So too did the high returns on investments for Chilean billionaires, who ascended into the Forbes rich list.
The origins of the October uprising against this order can be traced to the ‘penguin revolution’ of 2006: a protest of high school students against the inequality of the education system, itself a product of the constitution. This marked the beginning of a new cycle of political contention that would reach its peak 13 years later: union mobilizations in 2008; marches against the construction of hydroelectric plants in Patagonia in 2011; the ‘marca tu voto’ campaign in favour of a constituent assembly in 2013; protests against the pension and healthcare systems; marches demanding justice for the assassinated Mapuche leader Camilo Catrillanca; and feminist revolts against sexual harassment and the patriarchal state.
The direct spark was further civil disobedience by students beginning on 14th October: the coordinated jumping of subway turnstiles in Santiago to protest the impact of fare increases on working-class families. Waves of ‘penguins’ – so-called because of their uniforms – flooded subway stations chanting ‘Evade. Don’t pay. Another way to fight’. After a week of massive evasions, authorities responded by deploying the police, closing stations and finally dragging students by force from subway carts. Videos of civil disobedience and police brutality went viral. To avoid further evasions the authorities then closed two subway lines, disrupting the commute of workers, who ended up joining the long marches. From there it evolved into a much wider rebellion against the political class, with people flooding onto the streets in multiple neighbourhoods.
In response to the growing disorder – several metro stations had been set ablaze – President Piñera, head of the centre-right governing coalition, declared a state of emergency, sending the army onto the streets, something not seen since the dictatorship. Pushing back against the government’s handling of the uprising, people came out on 25 October in enormous numbers, with an estimated 1 million joining a peaceful protest in Santiago. Piñera, a billionaire who made his fortune introducing credit cards to the country, began his second non-consecutive presidential term in 2017, running against the slow growth and unfulfilled promises of his predecessor, the Socialist Party’s Michelle Bachelet. He intended to double down on pro-market policies, but in the wake of the crisis he backtracked, offering a package of piecemeal reforms to placate the protests, including a rise in the minimum wage. Piñera requested the resignation of his cabinet, and ultimately agreed to a plebiscite where the citizens could vote to replace the Pinochet-Lagos Constitution – but only after securing measures to preserve the neoliberal order.
The forces that protect the economic status quo in Chile – a country where the richest 1% appropriates around 30% of the wealth while the lower 50% only 2% – are doing everything they can to control the process and prevent social change. In an echo of what occurred thirty years earlier, the government, finding itself cornered by a movement that it could not stop, has tried to co-opt it instead. A month after the uprising, it signed an agreement with a majority of opposition leaders that imposed procedural limitations on the constitutional process. After years of ‘protected democracy’ based on closed-door agreements and back-door payments, the major political parties on the left – if one can still call them that given their unapologetic embrace of neoliberalism – have joined with the conservative bloc, attempting to obstruct the systemic change that the plebiscite seemed to offer. The few who refused to sign the agreement – members of Frente Amplio (the new left coalition that emerged from the 2011 student mobilizations) and the Communist Party – labelled the negotiations as ‘the kitchen’ in which the future of the constituent process was illegitimately concocted.
As in the negotiations with Pinochet, the main opposition parties conceded to restrictions on popular sovereignty. The resulting ‘Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution’ mandated a two-thirds supermajority for the acceptance of each article of a new constitution, which in practice gives veto power to a minority seeking to preserve the current balance of power. It recognized a ‘national convention’ – a select group that would negotiate, write and approve the constitutional rules – as the sole constituent institution, excluding the collective participation of the people who had been organizing since the first days of the uprising. The agreement also insisted that the convention abide by international treaties. Trade agreements are a point of particular contention. Some would need to be revised if, for example, the new constitution enshrined the right to water – currently an economic good traded on the market – or if natural resources were to be declared public (71% of revenues from copper mining exploitation currently go to private corporations). Anticipating this, the government has recently signed an agreement with the OECD to provide ‘technical support’ to the Convention on the proper limits of popular sovereignty from the perspective of trade, and is pushing Congress to rush through an approval of TPP-11.
Presented with these elitist, counter-majoritarian measures, protesters continued to mobilize, often in the face of brutal state repression. Rubber bullets and metal pellets fired by the Carabineros – still widely associated with torture and disappearances during Pinochet’s rule – have claimed more than 400 eyes from demonstrators. The eye became a symbol of the protests, brandished on placards and pasted on walls. Plaza Italia, a square that divides the privileged from the plebeian Santiago in the social imaginary, became a focal point for collective action. Re-named Plaza Dignidad by the protestors, the square’s weekly occupation routinized the resistance, with regular pitched battles between protests and police. The movement was also energized by its feminist vanguard: the collective Las Tesis performed ‘A Rapist in Your Path’ in front of the Court House in Santiago alongside 2,000 other blindfolded women wearing pro-choice green and purple scarves (the song has since been translated into 15 languages and performed in more than 40 countries). This anti-patriarchal anthem accused the state of allowing femicides and sexual violence to go unpunished. From this point on, the rebellion could not be but feminist.
While the political class sought to limit constituent power and restrict the process to a narrow institutional form, the people in the streets continued to act. In parallel to these mobilizations, which articulated a range of demands under the broader push for a new constitution, local councils – or cabildos – and assemblies emerged throughout the country. In their meetings, experiences of injustice and ideas for the new social pact were shared – a first step in reconstructing a socio-political fabric torn apart by years of dictatorship. Though the pandemic temporarily suspended this political effervescence, redirecting communal energy towards mutual aid to deal with the crisis of food supply, the popular constituent process did not take long to adapt to the new context. The form of communication imposed by quarantine, which only allowed for virtual meetings, facilitated links between councils from different regions, while hundreds of free talks were convened by universities, think tanks, territorial assemblies, student circles and popular radio stations to discuss the constitution, maintaining an active discussion about the process.
When the plebiscite was held in October 2020, 78% voted in support of the writing of a new constitution. Such an overwhelming majority demonstrated the strength of the popular mobilization and its wider support. In April, elections will be held to appoint 155 convention members – the first such body in the world to have gender parity. They will draft a text which Chileans will then approve or reject in a second mandatory referendum. What began with the evasion of subway fares and the occupation of spaces has therefore succeeded in superimposing a legal process. But it is one subject to mechanisms crafted by those who already exercise power. The stench of illegitimacy has lingered. The process for selecting representatives disproportionately benefits established political parties, both in registering to run and in the voting system. In none of the electoral projections so far is the opposition able to secure the two-thirds needed to pass constitutional articles without the support of the right.
Given the ways in which the political class are attempting to control the process, and the degree of systemic corruption in the current order, a parallel extra-parliamentary process ‘from below’ appears wholly necessary for achieving a more inclusive and legitimate process, and for holding those elected to account. With no mechanism to force convention members to follow through on their campaign promises, both popular power and authority will be required. Although popular constituent power emerged from the October rebellion, and is periodically reasserted by direct action in the streets, constituent authority requires institutions where it can inhabit and sustain itself over time. The authority of people, organized against oligarchic power and the neoliberal order, needs to be constituted within their own inclusive and egalitarian political organs, to channel local popular wisdom towards decision-making. How far this can be achieved remains to be seen.
With the beginning of electoral campaigns for the convention, national media is fixated on the races of independent candidates struggling to gain enough signatures to run and the strategic alliances between political parties. But the popular sectors and the progressive middle classes continue to organize and debate the way forward. Many networks of cabildos and territorial assemblies are operating in parallel, with as yet few formalized connections between them. In places where social struggle has been a permanent feature, popular organizations of this kind have already been operating for decades: local self-governing assemblies, cultural centres and social organizations present a territorial and grassroots-based municipal alternative to exclusively representative structures. In Santiago, the epicentre of the uprising, there are several networks of assemblies that emerged from the popular movement, which are using various strategies to agitate and articulate demands. In the past month at least eight cabildos – from working class neighbourhoods such as La Pintana, San Bernardo and Padre Hurtado, to lower-middle class areas such as downtown Santiago, Maipú and Estación Central – have been established, using existing rules that give them access to meeting space and funding. Likewise, five hundred kilometres south in Tomé, a small locality of 52,400 inhabitants, residents have been meeting to discuss the constituent process, with around 800 people gathering in the local square to deliberate on proposals for the new constitution.
While it is hard to tell if this incipient council system will be able to turn itself into a national force that could drive popular initiatives into the new constitution, these communal organizations are certainly flourishing. This development comes in the context of mass disaffection with political parties. With approval ratings for existing institutions and political parties below 20%, Chile finds itself in a unique conjuncture which has enabled critical thinking – on a mass scale – about how political and economic power is institutionalized and allocated. The popular awakening that began in October 2019 has transformed many passive consumers of politics into self-conscious agents, attempting to challenge Chile’s lopsided power relations. Collectively, in an organic and decentralized manner, Chileans are opening new avenues for popular empowerment, and establishing the foundations for a more just social compact.
Read on: Manuel Riesco’s retrospective on Chile after Allende; Mario Sergio Conti’s survey of Latin America in the age of Covid-19.