Chile: Social and political crisis threatens stability

Movement from below opens the way to a crisis from above.

For the last couple of weeks Chile has been going through the third cabinet reshuffle since the Bachelet government started its tenure a year ago. Chile has a presidential system of government, and ministerial changes were not so normal under previous governments.

Chilean society is progressively unequal, with 20% of the population receiving 60% of the gross national product, while the tendency is towards an increasing concentration of wealth. The promises that were given to people that they would have a better quality of life as a result of the neo-liberal capitalist model is no longer believed by the population. The massive access to consumer goods has only been possible by use of credit cards and a general rise in indebtedness. As result a feeling of frustration and anger has grown in wide sections of society, and it is being translated into social movements of protest.

A sensitive subject, that of housing policy, exploded when tens of thousands of poor owners of ‘social housing’ were threatened with losing their homes because of unpaid mortgage repayments. The “bancarización” policy that transfers the majority of “social” debts to the private sector banks has aggravated the issue. The houses that have been built are increasingly of worse quality (rain comes through the walls of many of them). They are also small – houses of 12 and 25 square meters! For three years the demonstrations of these indebted occupants have been a headache for the government. As result of their struggles, these mobilizations of indebted occupants have forced successive concessions from the authorities.

Last year a national movement of 600,000 high school students exploded, with mass meetings, street demonstrations, school occupations, confrontations with the police, following one after another. The government was forced to recognize the bad quality of education, and to accept that there had to be an end to the LOCE, the constitutional law implemented by the Pinochet dictatorship that allowed the privatisation of education. But until now none of the basic demands of the movement have been implemented. The last demonstrations in 2006 demanded the right to free transport for students. This year demonstrations restarted in Santiago on this same issue but also together with protests caused by the failure of the new plan for transport in the capital, the Transantiago.

The biggest nightmare of the Chilean capitalists is social and political instability which they believed had been overcome. They feared this possibility because it would frighten away foreign investment and the opportunities for big business, but above all because the y still have in their memories the emergence of the mass movement that threatened the continuation of capitalism in Chile, which saw Allende becoming president.

A right wing MP said recently that the worse result of the government’s commitment to change things was that they were teaching people that protesting could change things.

Both cabinet reshuffles were triggered by huge movements of protests amongst the population, the movement of the secondary students and the angry protests as a result of the failure of the Transantiago.

Fall of the government in the opinion polls.

Against the background of endless corruption scandals, the general problems of wages and work, the demonstrations of the indebted, the secondary students, and the users of the Transantiago have merged together. The opinion polls show that gradually but clearly there is a fall in support for the “Concertación” and the government and peoples’ voting intentions. However, at the same time the right wing opposition has not managed to capitalize the depth of this anger.

A fact of no less importance is the entrance of different sections of society into the struggle. For example, young people have been the main part of the demonstrations, a new generation that do not know the traumas of the defeat experienced under the dictatorship. In many of the working class districts, protests have been headed mainly by women.

"You don’t gamble with the economy”

Bachelet wanted to give an indication of stability to the capitalist class. As a result she kept the previous neo-liberal ministers involved in finance and the economy as well as reinforcing them with two additional neo-liberal economists. It was one of these ministers who was deputed to take care of the now recognized failure of the privatised “public” transport in Santiago. If something is clear then it is that the government is right wing exploding any myth that it is a “peoples’ and progressive government” of a woman with a left past.

As one would expect the bosses have expressed their satisfaction by the reinforcement of the "liberal ones" in the cabinet.

Realignment of political forces

The conditions for a reconfiguration of the political map are given, as much the Alliance (the right wing opposition) as the “Concertación” in the government for 17 years, has been signaling exhaustion. In the “Concertación” corruption scandals at all the levels follow one another. These have now entered the legal system and will not disappear unnoticed in the future.

The Party for Democracy, one of the members of the “Concertación”, and representative of lay neoliberalism, has already split. The Christian Democracy, another member of the government “Concertación”, representing a coalition of the "Christian" neo-liberal wing of the ruling class, has seen a minority split in amongst its MPs which maintains its own voting discipline lead by a senator called Zaldivar. He is a successful businessman tied to the big economic cartels and he made a speech which populistically denounced the economic model of the government. Both his group and the split from the Party for Democracy have called for an end to the “Concertación”.

In the rightwing alliance there is the continuation of the by now normal clashes and discrediting within and between the main factions. These are mainly between those wishing to abandon the any reference to the Pinochet era, which they think prevents the right wing opposition from winning the presidential elections and those that link the cohesion of the right with "the work of the military government".

In addition the former presidential candidate: Sebastián Piñera, one of the richest capitalists of the country, is attacked continuously by its allies "to mix the politics and business interests". In spite of the control of mass media by three enterprise groups that always have painted the dictatorship with the best possible colors the military dictatorship of Pinochet is completely discredited by his crimes (including his corruption scams which gave him and his cronies millions) and systematic violations of the human rights that have finally been exposed in the open.

Many “Concertación” MPs have begun to view their own political future nervously, and some have even appeared "heading" demonstrations while others even dared to propose the nationalisation of the public transport service in Santiago, under the ownership of a state company.

The simultaneous weakening of the two big political, and clearly neo-liberal, coalitions that have carried out the political policies in Chile in the last 17 years, hit by the emergence of mass social protest, raises the possibility of the rapid development of populist leaders or a workers’ party. We as revolutionary Socialists are working for the second alternative, since the working class and their families, the poor and the young people need a political instrument that represents their interests.

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April 2007