Chile: Workers and youth begin to fight

Exceeding all estimates, more than 50,000 people protested against the APEC summit and the presence of George Bush in the country on Friday 19 November in the streets of Santiago.

The demonstration gathered together a whole number of people who had not been on any common activity since the end of the dictatorship at the end of the 1980s. Despite all the official propaganda, the government did not succeed in convincing the population of the supposed economic benefits that this APEC summit would bring the country just through the presence of Presidents and representatives of the big trans-national companies and large economic groups. In reality it is the powerful economic groups and multi-nationals that plunder the copper, the wood or the fish and are in reality the only benefactors of this kind of meeting.

To avoid any critical voice against this summit, the media, the government and the police had intended to create an atmosphere of armed alert in the city. The threat of a terrorist attack was the excuse for a strong display of security that converted the capital into a scene reminiscent of the period under the dictatorship. To avoid any demonstrations, the "war against terrorism" has been used to repress the protests and the only demonstration allowed was called by the Social Forum. The protests which took place had a strong anti-capitalist character.

This was combined with a propaganda campaign which gave out optimistic and confusing information concerning the benefits of being a host member of APEC and also the benefits it would bring to have allies such as the EU, Russia or China. However, when they proclaimed how the country would benefit, they did not report that the only ones benefiting are a dozen national economic groups that have made themselves rich by plundering and selling minerals or cellulose at low prices to the big capitalist countries, without any concern for the environment, or high levels of unemployment, or the long working days and low wages of the majority of the workers.

The television channels filled their programmes with special announcements and reports about the other countries integrated in APEC where the same neo-liberal policies of privatisation, flexible working arrangements or low paid work have been implemented. These were presented as "a model form of society" or "a great market for our products". Taiwan and China were especially featured in this campaign..

A lot of work, low wages and unemployment

The Chilean entrepreneurs and multinationals today operate under the guarantees and the laws implemented under the dictatorship and the governments of the Concertación. (government alliance ). These were implemented to protect their profits. They have a workforce that is divided, with many working between 12 and 16 hours per day to be able to maintain an acceptable living standard, but drowned in debt – to banks, for their housing or to shops.

On the other side, a majority of the population whose salary is not even enough to cover the expenses for a basket of basic goods that, according to the figures of the official organizations, should be on average 240,000 pesos per month. The statistics prepared by different independent organisations, including the University of Chile, conclude that the costs of one family’s basic basket of goods today exceeds 300,000 pesos per month.

Research by the Fundación Terram (Land Foundation) that relates to the figures drawn up by the Dirección del Trabajo (Labour Ministry) and Mideplan (Planning Ministry), 50% of workers earn less than 161,000 pesos per month. Another 40% only receive 110,000 pesos per month.

The government has tried to manipulate the unemployment figures during the last few years to keep the level of unemployment below10%. Anybody who only works a few hours a month is counted as being employed. Even using this measure, more than 15% of the population do not have work.

Pensioners are another sector of the population that is suffering from a total lack of protection. In the last period, the absolute fiasco of the private insurance system that the majority of workers were forced to join by the dictatorship two decades ago has become more and more evident. Now, many workers are going to be faced with pensions so low that they do not reach the amount of two thirds of the current legal minimum wage which is 120,000 pesos! All the statistics indicate that more than 50% of the population that will retire in the next years will end up below these levels. Meanwhile, the insurance companies which hold the pension funds have been one of the sectors which, with the money of the workers, have got the best profits in the last decade.

The rich increase their profits, if poverty increases

Recent social studies, such as Caracterización Socio-económica, Casen 2003, point out that 18. 8% of the population live in poverty. They divide the poor into two different types. The destitute that amount to 4.7% and the "poor non-destitute" that comprise 14.1%. However these figures hide the reality. To be considered as "destitute", income per month must not exceed 21,000 pesos and to be "poor non-destitute", a family has to receive 43,000 pesos monthly. Others whose income is higher than these levels are not considered poor.

Hypocritically, the government and the bosses use economic growth of nearly 7% to try and whip up a feeling of national pride. However this is totally the opposite to what the mass of the population experiences. How do these Señores explain the headlines in articles proclaiming high levels of economic growth achieved during the so-called economic boom years of the 1990s and the ever rising levels of unemployment?

The permanent threat

The bosses blame the "rigid labour market" for preventing workers being given a permanent contract. They use this as a means of pressing for even more flexible working conditions which includes eliminating the minimum wage, abolition of insurance payments and sacking striking workers.

Yet many of those threats are already a reality for many workers as shown by the thousands of complaints received by the Dirrecion de Trabajo (Labour Ministry) against employers that have not paid the insurance payments or have sacked workers without justification or have not even obeyed the inadequate labour laws.

On the other side, the government is directly attacking thousands of employees in the public service who fought against low wages and the introduction of multi-tasking and out-sourcing to the private sector. The decision of the government not to pay these workers for the days they went on strike showed how far Lagos is prepared to go to defend the bosses and attack the workers and to attack the public sector.

Those who defeated the dictatorship and have supported the Concertación are starting to break with it. Many workers voted for Ricardo Lagos as the lesser evil in the face of the right wing.

The results of the municipal elections

The right wing

The right wing in this year’s municipal elections, despite the millions of pesos that the candidates of the right wing spent on their campaigns, did not get good results. Their vote decreased and in many cases, they did not manage to retain control of many councils they previously ran. The right wing did not manage to repeat their earlier electoral triumph in the municipal elections of 2000 when they got higher support because of the economic crisis at the end of the 1990s.

The 38% obtained by the right wing this time marks the collapse of the presidential aspirations of one sector of the bourgeoisie. This was the sector that was previously euphoric and confident of forming a government under the leadership of a loyal collaborator with the dictatorship, Chicago boy, student of Milton Friedman and man of the Opus Dei – Lavin..

The Concertación

The Concertación, did not lose many mayoral positions to the right wing. However, neither could they increase their votes and they lost 5%. Neither the image of the president at the top of nearly all the propaganda of the candidates, nor the image of the presidential logo of the Concertación – Michele Bachelet or Soledad Alvear – appearing in the leaflets with the aim of reinforcing a high level of support in the polls, allowed the government alliance to recoup the loss of support in the earlier municipal elections.

The growth of the Left

The relatively high level of support of 9,1% votes was won by the left alliance PODEMOS. This is led by the Communist Party together with the Humanist Party and includes other small political organisations such as the Christian Left, a fraction of the MIR and the ‘Movement Manuel Rodríguez’. In total, the electoral pact of the Left succeeded in winning four mayors and ninety councillors throughout the country.

Nevertheless, in this campaign they made the mistake of copying the format of the right wing and the Concertación, and thereby losing the opportunity to differentiate themselves clearly from the two principal blocks that defend the capitalist system.

The rejection of the neo liberal model does not only need figures expressing the bad state of things. It is also urgent to present and defend an alternative society we that we can build here and now. It is also necessary to build a working class alternative that goes further than a merely electoral struggle and clearly poses the necessity to transform society, to break with capitalism in all its guises – both neo-liberalism and the idea of capitalism with a human face that so many leaders of the Left defend. It is necessary to fight to replace it by the participation of the workers, the youth, the poor and all those who reject the current capitalist system, for the construction of a socialist society that is really democratic and different from the Stalinist regimes and the caricature of socialism that was imposed in the Ex-Soviet Union and the Eastern European countries.

Confidence in the workers

Many inside the PODEMOS and now in the Chilean Social Forum too, raise long and sometimes interesting discussions about what we need to build. However, when it comes to the question of how and who should lead the struggle for change, opinions are divided into those thinking that is has to be "civil society" by making pressure on the present politicians and others thinking that it is simply enough to obtain good electoral results, to get into parliament and support projects in favour of the masses.

On the other side, there are those who embrace the idea that the new generations will manage to transform the situation within the capitalist system. They think that capitalism has always tended to make progress or that the bourgeois elite and their system can resolve the problems which exist. These ideas reveal a total lack of confidence in the workers, in their social weight and their capacity as a class -given their role in the economy – to be the principal motor of the transformation of society and defeat capitalism. Maybe they think that the big bosses are not organised in powerful associations, maybe they are not the same ones that are directly or indirectly involved in the parliament?

The serious environmental problems, ethnic, human, religious or sexual rights, etc, are questions that society has to solve. And the majority in society are the workers working in industry, fishing, mining, agriculture, education, the public sector. It is these layers of workers which can resolve the problems of society by overthrowing capitalism and building socialism.

A silent majority?

In this election, the rejection of the economic and political system of capitalism in its neo-liberal version is clearly reflected, as it is not providing any solutions for the problems that are oppessing the majority and at this stage displays a bourgeois democracy in its death agony.

In these elections, more than a 36% or 2.4 million people able to vote did not do so because they were not registered in the electoral registers.The majority are youth between 18 and 30 years. On the other hand, 900,000 people were failed to vote and 520,000 people spoilt their ballot form or left it blank. We can say that more than 4 million people did not vote and have not been represented by the current political system.

Many of those are not interested in participating because they do not associate their personal situation and their living conditions with those of the people in power. They do not think that the existing political parties and leaders represent their interests.

During fifteen years of democracy they have shown what they defend and represent. They justified and supported first a dictator like Pinochet who was head of the armed forces, then was permitted to sit in the Senate side by side with the other designated senators, ex-military people and ex-judges that participated in and supported the dictatorship. A parliament elected under an undemocratic electoral system, which, with all the lies and democratic phraseology used in periods of campaigning, does not change by one iota the antidemocratic character of the Chilean political system. It has been and is still is bourgeois democracy, protected and led by the Concertación.

Moreover, many of the old leaders of the left went over to directly defend the interests of the rich, working as their advisers or falling into an enormous theoretical depression that, in the majority of cases, meant the absolute abandoning of every alternative to capitalism.

So there has been a growing number of youth who do not vote today who have grown up under the aggressive and dazzling propaganda and influence of the dominating economic and political elite, the bourgeoisie, that, with its economic system imposes the idea that the market is the only form of managing and ameliorating living standards, to be successful and to be happy.

By means of television and the mass media, the dominant elite has partially managed to postpone the involvement of many young workers and students in opposition activities. Many have not started yet to play an active political role.

The biggest demonstration of recent years

The number of political demands was reflected in the thousands of leaflets – as many as there were people at the demonstration. All the issues came up against the same point – that the maintenance of the capitalist society is to blame and incapable of providing solutions. It cannot guarantee the rights of ordinary people, prevent the destruction of the environment, the super-exploitation of natural resources, stop the restrictions on political participation, political repression, interference by the church, low pay, etc.

The APEC summit has shown a Ricardo Lagos almost begging in English, asking the bosses of the world to ameliorate the distribution of income of the countries that are members of this organisation.

In the APEC, the presidents act like public relaters of the very protagonists of the conference: the owners of the big companies, who had not been here to make well intentioned speeches but to make good business negotiations.

This demonstration marked a real change in Chile. It represented the beginnings of a new awakening by the masses beginning to struggle against capitalism and imperialism. The need for a fighting socialist alternative is now more urgent than ever for the masses in Chile and Latin America.

Translated by Conny Damien

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December 2004