Chilean government’s handling of covid-19 crisis is a social, political mine-field

Since October 2019, the political and social situation has changed in a very favorable sense for the Chilean working class and other parts of the population. The country saw a mass uprising which was a sudden and unexpected change for the bourgeoisie, the right-wing government, and for the whole of the institutional political apparatus. After a general strike, on 12 November, the parties with parliamentary representation, except for the Humanist Party and the Communist Party, reached an agreement to call a plebiscite in October 2020, and to convene a Convention with limited prerogatives and special quorums, to reform the Constitution, without changing the core of its character, which is the defense of private property. The majority of the people mobilized to reject this tricky maneuver and reiterated their call for a Constituent Assembly. But with the passage of time, it seemed that the bourgeoisie could carry out its project and the most right-wing sectors of the government coalition began to call for a vote against any change to the dictatorship’s Constitution.

The arrival to the country of the covid-19 epidemic, together with the panic sown by the mass media, caused rapid ebb of the mass movement. The government took the initiative, once again. The forces of the parliamentary parties all aligned themselves with it. The military was put back on the streets and a nighttime curfew was imposed, without opposition. This is contrary to what happened in October, last year, when the deployment of the military was massively rejected and provoked protests on the streets, especially by the youth.

The authorities declared the closure of schools and universities, public offices, and commerce, as well as partial quarantines in some neighborhoods of Santiago, and in other cities. Initially, they did not declare quarantines in poor neighborhoods nor have they suspended work in productive enterprises. The government’s zigzagging management of the crisis has not prevented the pandemic from continuing to spread slowly but surely. Although the authorities maintain that we have reached the peak of infection and deaths, some specialists say that at the rate the disease is spreading, the hospitals will collapse in June. This will be disastrous, as it will be in the winter months when there is a massive increase in health problems and the health system is plunged into a state of collapse.  The government announced that public employees would return to work on Monday, 20 April, and students to the classrooms on 27 April. However, the backlash against this was so great that Piñera had to back down.

At the same time, the government firstly issued a decree, and then passed legislation that allows companies to suspend the employment of workers without severance pay, and when they are able, they have to take out unemployment insurance, which works according to the interests of private insurance companies. Massive numbers of workers have lost their jobs. Only seven deputies in parliament, out of one hundred and fifty-five, voted against the misnamed “Employment Protection Law”. The majority of deputies, including almost all of the Socialist Party (PS) and the Frente Amplio, as well as all of the Communist Party, lined up alongside the government. To understand the disaster that the massive wave of layoffs means for workers, we must remember that the debt of households in Chile amounts to 75% of their income!

Chile and the world enters new era

Covid 19 has accelerated, like a locomotive, all the processes that were already underway such as the new global economic crisis, and the changes in international power relations between the main economic and military powers, firstly, China and Russia, on one side, the USA and the European Union (Germany, France, Italy) on the other side, each with their own clash of interests. The latter are losing their status as dominant imperialist powers, as China rises, as one of the future leading economic powers against the background of a diminishing power of US imperialism.

The working classes of the world are the most affected by the crisis. We face both a catastrophe due to the pandemic and the consequences of a world economic depression. Chile is no exception.

The class struggle, and clashes between states, will be unleashed with great intensity, even in the traditionally powerful capitalist countries. Mass unemployment, with rapid and dramatic consequences on the quality of life of working families and of large sections of the middle classes, will cause highly indebted households to suffer a dramatic fall in their living standards. Securing food, and also housing, with the loss of a place to live, will, within a couple of months after the pandemic hit, have come to the forefront of workers’ concerns.  We have to face a two-headed monster; coronavirus and economic depression.

The privatized and precarious health and social security systems are showing massive inefficiency. Even some of the elite are starting to think about a “post-capitalist system”, or at least the return of Keynesianism. The time for collective solutions, for social policies with an interventionist state, is again gaining support amongst the broad mass of people. Socialist ideas for the future of humanity are rapidly emerging from being isolated to winning increasing support.

In Chile, for the moment, the government believes it can claim a victory. It has regained the initiative in the face of social upheaval. The traditional social and union organizations have retreated. The government imposed a night curfew and put the military onto the streets, without provoking a strong reaction of the youth, as it did in October. Piñera even walked around taking photos of himself in the Plaza de la Dignidad!

However, one must not be impressionistic. Nor must we be like those who are incapable of having a global vision of reality, and who go from exaltation to depression, when faced with the prospects that are opening up. Those who believe that the popular uprising is over are mistaken. The government’s handling of the health crisis, and the foreseeable collapse of the hospitals, is a social and political minefield that can easily explode onto the streets. Already small protests against the government have been organized. The public service union organized a protest at the government’s order for workers to return to work and the union leaders were arrested. The protests have begun even they are currently small.  None of the conditions that gave rise to the mass social explosion in Chile in October 2019 have changed, and the global economic depression is worsening these conditions.

The government and the elites will strive to blame the pandemic for the capitalist crisis, just as they tried to convince the population that the growing social problems were once the responsibility of the people’s uprising. However, after the first stage of fear and paralysis, the working people will again go on the offensive, taking as their starting point where the movement left off previously. They will draw more advanced conclusions from these experiences. Even with a coronavirus, the working class will find the right forms of civil resistance and new forms of organization and mobilization.

The question of the new constitution and the constituent assembly, which the mass movement – not the institutional parties – placed at the center of its demands in October 2019, will again be very much present. But it is likely that the drive for a ‘revolutionary Constituent Assembly’ will gain mass support again, and, if the masses organize to win it, we will certainly have entered a revolutionary situation.

The most lucid advisors to the government realize the limitations of their present apparent victory. The government’s poor findings in polls, even if they propagate, through the media, the opposite, pressured them into changing their press communication team, once again.  In reality, the right wing’s goal is to ensure that Sebastian Piñera remains in office after the pandemic is over, and can reach the end of his term. Under Chile’s presidential system, this should be a minor objective. However, it is far from certain they will achieve this. Even though the political ‘centre’ and bureaucratic apparatuses have abandoned the popular slogan of, “Piñera out”, it might not be enough to save Piñera’s regime. We must resist these pressures and fight, time and again, on the need for Piñera to go. Let us throw Piñera out (Fuera Piñera)!

Every movement can resume its march from the highest point reached in the previous period. We are confident in the recovery of the movement of the masses. We are fighting for the calling of a ‘Workers’ Congress’, to take the fight and the struggle forward. While the trade unions and many other social organizations are paralyzed, at the moment, workers will move to struggle and build their organisations. We can look forward to winning support for a socialist programme, and eventually a majority for the ideas for the socialist revolution. That is our task from now on.


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April 2020