Chile: Fatal repression marks general strike and massive protests

Relative “social peace” shattered

After 20 years of a relatively low level of struggle in post-Pinochet Chile, the last months have seen an eruption of social and workers’ struggles which has shaken the country. 20 years of government by the ‘Concertacion’ alliance of ‘left’ and ‘democratic’ forces brought nothing but empty promises, and a continuation of the neo-liberal policies of the dictatorship, exasperating the long-held hopes of the masses and alienating the young generation. The subsequent election of Sebastian Pinera’s right-wing government, and its more nakedly anti-worker policies proved to be the “whip of counter-revolution”, which has shattered Chile’s period of relative “social peace”. Pinera’s attempts to bask himself in glory over the rescue of the 33 miners and the earthquake relief effort, provided him with only the briefest of honeymoons. His approval rating, over 60% at the time of the miners’ rescue, is now below 30%.

The last weeks have seen hundreds of thousands repeatedly take to the streets. The CUT trade union federation was forced to call a 48-hour general strike for 24 and 25 August, in solidarity with the students’ demands and for improvements in labour law and profound political and constitutional reform. Media reports indicate that despite the bureaucracy’s undermining of the mobilisation, the strike had a somewhat significant impact, at least in the public sector, and brought many tens of thousands onto the streets. A 16 year old was shot dead by police while passing the demos of Thursday in Santiago, with another youth of 18 critically injured. Anger is boiling in society, with over 80% in support of the students’ demands in opinion polls. The lid has been lifted and a period of struggle and confrontation has opened up. From being seen throughout the past period as a bastion of neo-liberalism, the “model” for right-wing economists worldwide, Chile could now come to be seen as a centre of struggle and resistance in South America.

General strike – a missed opportunity?

The 48-hour strike of the last 2 days was the first strike of this duration since the fall of the dictatorship. It being called by the CUT leadership, a conservative officialdom linked to the apparatus of the official “left” parties, was an unprecedented development. Only massive pressure from below by working people could provoke such a call from the CUT leaders, used to acting as a brake on the mobilisation of the working class’ power. And indeed, the struggle of the students, as in many cases throughout history internationally, served as a battering ram which opened the way for the wider working class to enter battle. The sentiment that the student’s example in entering militant struggle should be emulated across society was decisive in the calling of the general strike.

An earlier expression of this was the massive and solid strike by copper workers around the country on 11 July. In response to Pinera’s “re-structuring” attacks and the inspiration of the students, the strike paralyzed the industry, which accounts for 16% of Chilean GDP, in a country which produces one fifth of the world’s copper. The solidarity between the students in struggle and the striking copper workers was instinctive and powerful. Assemblies in occupied schools and universities throughout the Chile saluted the strike and organised demonstrations in support. However, the role of the Trade Union leaders, who openly dissuaded workers from attending the protests of the student movement on that day, had a limiting influence on the extent to which these sentiments of unity could be registered in action.

The general strike had the potential to be a huge further step forward in this sense. The call was widely supported throughout the student movement, which built for massive protests which took place, in which organisers estimated 600,000 people took part around the country, including a reported 400,000 in Santiago, to coincide with the strike. However, tragically the behaviour of the CUT in the run-up to the strike, followed a familiar pattern: call the strike, then do nothing to build for it or try to make it a success!

The participation in the strike reflected this. While the strike had a powerful effect in the public sector, with over 80% of the sector participating according to unions, the private sector was less affected. Even traditionally combative sectors – the Copper miners and dock workers for example – while openly declaring their support for the strike, did not participate. Key to this was both the fear of draconian private sector bosses and the losing of jobs, but also the weak mobilisation and strategy pursued by the union leaders, which failed to enthuse wider sections of the working class in the private sector, where there is a lower level of union membership, to join the strike action.

Its history of a cosy relationship with the Concertacion governments, sell-out pacts and a refusal to lead workers into battle, has served to greatly diminish the authority of the Trade Union movement and the CUT in particular. The CUT leaders are seen by many as relics of the establishment, far removed from the struggles of working people. Re-enforcing this impression, In July, the main leader of the CUT, Arturo Martinez, was jeered at by workers when spotted wining and dining in a luxury restaurant, as a mass demonstration of Valparaiso dock workers passed by! The lower participation in the general strike indicates the limits imposed on the development of struggles, with Martinez and other bureaucrats exercising total control.

Territorial assemblies

An essential part of the necessary strategy to overcome the CUT leaders’ roadblock lies in the potential of the “territorial assemblies” which have sprung up in some areas. Such assemblies, with mass participation and democratically structured on a regional and national level, are indications of the perfect means to build a successful general strike from below, capable of shooting over the heads of the CUT leaders. Such assemblies are also key to the forging of deep links between student fighters and working class militants in a mass movement, through the conscious involvement of representatives from workplaces in the assemblies. They can also be vehicles for fighting rank & file trade unionists in their necessary struggle to combat the right-wing union leaders and transform the unions into real instruments of struggle. Socialismo Revolucionario (CWI in Chile) calls for the proliferation of these assemblies all around the country, their democratic linking up, and adoption of a democratic plan to escalate the struggle. This would include both continuing the student protests and occupations, but also beginning for the preparation of a real general strike, organised from below with fighting slogans capable of mobilising the mass of working people around the struggle for an alternative.

Fatal repression

The shooting dead of a 16 year old and the similar attack on an 18 year old youth whose life still hangs in the balance, have resulted from the government’s obscene deployment of repressive force, which saw hundreds arrested and dozens injured on Thursday alone. Water cannon and tear gas were used in copious amounts, at the cost of many millions of pesos, against young protestors, some of whom set up barricades and blocked main highways during pitched battles with the ‘carabineros’. This continued brutal repression comes as part of the establishment’s attempts to brand the students as senseless and violent. However, unfortunately for capitalism, these attempts have so far spectacularly failed, as on the contrary, support for the students in society has grown and hardened. And Pinera’s stance has not softened either. In response to the events, government spokespeople threatened the introduction of a special “state of emergency”, an old law never before implemented. This, along with the statement of a senior government official, who seemed to have advocated the killing of a central leader of the student protests in terminology made famous by Pinochet (saying “if the bitch is killed you get rid of the litter”), has served to re-enforce the hatred of the government, and its association with the brutal repressive legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship.

Such murderous repression, with the criminal taking of young lives, could backfire on the government and establishment and provoke a further explosion in the rage of the youth and working people. The response of the workers’ and students’ movement to such developments must be swift and decisive. Statements by Argentinian workers organised by the CGT, that they are willing to mount blockades of the Chilean border in solidarity against this repression must be matched by action on Chilean soil, to make clear that such savagery will not be tolerated.

Student movement – revolt against neo-liberalism

The Chilean education system is a text-book model for neo-liberalism. The Pinochet dictatorship encouraged the proliferation and dominance of private education. This neo-liberal approach was continued and nurtured further by the Concertacion governments. Profit-making universities run by big businessmen, including establishment politicians, dominate the educational scene. The former Minister for education, Lavin, who attempted to pose as a “neutral” moderator between the student movement and the universities and was removed by Pinera in a desperate “re-shuffle”, himself has huge shares in a major Chilean university! Education has become a profitable field of investment for capitalism, with rising fees and worsening standards thus the logical norm.

There is a chronic under-funding of universities. For example, the University of Chile, the country’s main “public university” receives only 14% of its funding from the state. This puts the emphasis for funding on exorbitant fees and student contributions. The average student leaves university with $45,000 in debt!

The current movement in response to this situation, has lasted over 3 months. Weeks of mass mobilisations culminated twice in massive days of protest on 30 June and 20 August, when 500,000 took to the streets in the biggest demonstrations since the fall of Pinochet. The overwhelming majority of public universities and secondary schools have been occupied.

The movement has truly rocked the government. They first responded with the suspension of classes and the beginning of “negotiations” with the movement’s representatives. Concessions, including an increase in the funding of education, have come from La Moneda (government palace), which has always feared an escalation of struggle and social protests. But the movement, with its radical central demand for free education, just last week rejected a third attempt by the government to end the protests, by pledging to lower the interest rates on student loans.

This was a clearly correct decision, as it is clear that the movement has Pinera on the back foot. His government’s response, swinging from concessions to brutal repression shows the disarray it is in. Politicians and bosses’ representatives have even described the situation as “un-governable”. To achieve the movement’s demands, for the right to a free and quality education, a strategy for escalating a mass struggle is necessary. Negotiations with representatives of a bosses’ government, from a political establishment which is itself full of education profiteers, may win some concessions but cannot fundamentally break with the profit-driven education system as the students demand.

Economic growth, but who benefits?

Pinera’s government continues to justify its existence based on the ‘success’ of its economic policies in securing growth figures for capitalism. This year, the Chilean economy is expected to grow by over 6%, as one of a number of Latin American countries, like Brazil and Argentina, bucking the trend of world recession based on the fragile strength of the Chinese market. Pinera denounced the general strike on the basis that it was putting economic growth in danger. However, the propaganda of capitalism to the effect that Chileans have ‘never had it so good’ jars with the reality of the majority of workers, youth and the poor. Based on the capitalist profit system, economic growth is enriching further a tiny elite, who have found with their growing wealth, a new and growing confidence to attack rights and living standards. Pinera, himself the richest man in Chile, is a direct and faithful representative of this class, and is increasingly seen as such. “The polls show that society perceives this as a government of businessmen and managers”, said a commentator quoted in the Financial Times on 11 July.

The contradiction between economic growth and the continuing struggle of everyday life for many, has proved a potentially explosive mixture. For example, a much-lauded concession from the government, which increased the Chilean minimum wage by 10,000 pesos, is not even enough to cover the recent increase in the price of bread! A recent survey conducted showed that 65% of people thought that economic growth “had done nothing for them”.


The prominence of anti-party sentiments in the student movement is a response of the young generation to their experience of the existing political forces. It is the legacy of the neo-liberal consensus of the political establishment and the litany of betrayals from left and right in the last decades. This anti-party mood, particularly pronounced in Chile, has also been a feature of movements elsewhere, notably Spain but also Greece. However, it is a feature of the beginning stages of the struggle. On the basis of experience and the learning of the lessons on the past, a new understanding of the necessity for alternative political forces of a new type can emerge. Even the Communist Party, which has associated itself with decades of neo-liberal Concertacion governments is seen in a light not fundamentally different. But this is hardly surprising, given the fact that the CP itself runs a for-profit university in Santiago! However, to describe the movement as un-political would be a grave error. A widespread anti-profiteering sentiment exists, as well as massive support for socialist measures like nationalisation of the copper industry. The need to organise around such demands and link them up in a comprehensive programme outlining the transformation of the economy and society is crucial. From this arises the need to build new political organisations, based on the struggles that are developing.

The demands of the general strike went beyond the question of education, and also called for comprehensive change in the political system, for a new constitution to replace the current one inherited from the Pinochet era, and for greater democracy in political decision making. These demands, though more aesthetic than real when coming from the TU bureaucracy linked to capitalist political forces, reflect a growing disillusionment with the system as a whole. The accumulation of anger and frustration at the selling out of the hopes of millions for a better society after the “transition to democracy” seems to be breaking onto the surface in this wave of struggles. This represents a correct recognition that the system has not fundamentally changed since Pinochet, that the dictatorship of capital remains in place and once again the road of mass struggle must be taken to replace it.

Socialismo Revolucionario (CWI in Chile) has participated in the movement from the beginning. We argue for a revolutionary alternative to the current system, the end of the Pinochet-era constitution and its parliament of millionaires and billionaires. On the basis of a mass movement of democratic assemblies democratically organised and controlled from below, a new Constituent assembly could be fought for and established, genuinely representative of the interests of the workers and poor. Such an assembly could then begin the organisation of a workers and poor people’s government, with control over the rich resources and economy of Chile passing to the hands of working people and the youth

The students’ demand for the nationalisation of the copper industry to pay for free education represents the seeds of such a potential alternative to the system – one of democratic public ownership and control of the resources and key industries. On this basis, a socialist society could be built, fulfilling the long held aspirations of the Chilean and Latin American masses, who have a rich history of revolutionary struggle against capitalism and imperialism The internationalism of the movement, illustrated by the impact of the revolt of the Spanish “indignados” in Chile, and the solidarity of the Argentinian workers, is of great significance. The impact of tumultuous developments in Chile could be strongly felt in other countries in the region, whose working masses could then move into action. Thus would the aim of a socialist federation of the continent, as part of a socialist world, become more than abstract. Its potential would be felt in the power of mass struggle across borders.

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