Chile: Dockers and copper miners declare strike action over pension attacks

Chilean protests in 2019, in Puerto Montt (North Patagonia) Photo: Natalia Reyes Escobar

Breaking news: Since the article below was written further protests have erupted in Chile. Congress had approved a proposal allowing workers to withdraw another 10% from their pension contributions. The government tried to block this. On Wednesday 21st, protests broke out at night with pot-banging. The dockers in Valparaiso have declared a rolling strike and the copper miners have declared a strike on Friday 23rd. The trade union confederation, CUT, and other trade unions have called for a national strike on 30th April.

The current events in Chile are marked by the social explosion that began in October 2019. This opened a crisis for the government and of the social and economic model, with mass mobilizations totally unexpected by the ruling class and the political elites at its service.

The media usually call it a “social outburst”, as if it were something explosive and unexpected, that nobody could foresee. The reality is that it is a perfectly foreseeable phenomenon. We anticipated that a social rebellion was coming, although we did not know when it would take place.

The uprising in Chile is one more of a series of rebellions and mass mobilizations that took place in Latin America. These began with the rebellion that demanded the departure of the governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Roselló, on July 13, 2018. And when the Chilean uprising began in October 2019, the indigenous and workers’ rebellion in Ecuador, triggered by the gasoline hike, was still in full swing.

There are moments when social and political processes take an accelerated speed. This happened in Chile in October 2019, after decades in which unrest was growing, but the protests, in general, were not national. When there were large mobilizations, they were generally concentrated in specific sectors of workers, such as subcontracted mining workers, forestry workers, or high school or university students. It had seemed to many that the Chilean people would never seriously move to overthrow the political regime or the economic and social model of neoliberal capitalism.

The social forces behind the social uprising

The uprising in Chile was led primarily by working-class youth, who drew young people from a wide range of social layers behind them. The spark that lit the fuse was an increase of 30 pesos, 4 cents on the dollar, in the Santiago subway fare. Hence the slogan: “It’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years” of abuses. The protests were initiated in subway stations by high school students. When people saw harsh police repression against teenagers, many were outraged and the movement spread throughout the country. On October 19th, it was already a national tide.

Although militants of the left-wing parties and social activists joined the mobilizations, neither the parties nor the unions played a prominent role. But under the pressure of the masses, and in order not to be left out of the game, on October 23rd, hundreds of organizations grouped in Social Unity, among them the national union CUT, called a general strike.

We were facing a situation that included pre-revolutionary characteristics. For two months there were barricades and clashes with police repression, as well as gigantic demonstrations. The largest march in Chile was a demonstration that took place in Santiago de Chile on October 25, 2019. According to official government figures, more than 1.2 million people participated in Santiago alone. More than 3 million people participated nationwide. Demonstrators carried handmade placards with their demands. The widespread demand for a Constituent Assembly, to put an end to the Constitution inherited from the Pinochet dictatorship, stood out.

Workers, young people and their families filled the Alameda, Santiago’s main artery and road artery, and nearby avenues. It was exciting to see President Allende’s words spoken on September 11, 1973, come true: “Keep on knowing that, much sooner rather than later, the great avenues will open, where free men will pass to build a better society.”

Piñera’s government, and behind him the political caste, as a whole, responded late and badly to a revolutionary social movement that questioned not only the government but the regime based on the Constitution of 1980 and its economic model.

The Assemblies and Cabildos

In the meantime, the workers and the people began the task of raising self-convened grassroots territorial organizations in all the communes and popular neighbourhoods. They mobilized people said to themselves: “The political caste and the traditional political parties do not represent us, we self-organized have to take the future in our hands and begin to exercise our power in the practical organization of society”.

People are no longer satisfied with crumbs, subsidies, and fine words to make a fuss. We want a good life, for all. The great Alamedas have been opened, we will not allow them to be closed.

The protests did not end with the brutal police repression or with the curfew. Not even when the military took to the streets did the protests cease. They had to return to the barracks. Piñera’s government was on the verge of collapse.

The government did not understand what was happening

Despite the fact that even Facebook denied it, the government insisted on making a fool of itself with an alleged foreign conspiracy for the protests, especially blaming Venezuela. At the time, they claimed to have a definitive report in their possession that they would release. When the government finally presented its report it was a total joke. They accused eastern European countries and K-Pop. It seems that they still do not realize that in those countries capitalism has been restored and their governments are in the hands of the right-wing. The accusation against K-Pop is hilarious. These are South Korean pop groups but they are not a protest movement and clearly have no relation with the Chilean popular uprising.

South Korean newspapers scoffed at the Chilean government’s accusation, saying it may have confused South Korea with North Korea. The report was so ridiculous that when Congress asked the government how much the study had cost, and who had carried it out, the answer was that they had received it free of charge from an anonymous source. The report that was supposed to be definitive and had been publicized for days quickly disappeared from the agenda.

No resolution to the causes of social unrest

None of the major problems that triggered the social uprising in October has been solved. The wage increase has remained a dead letter, Covid-19 and the intermittent lockdown measures that were taken to slow down the progression of the virus have plunged the international economy and the Chilean economy into a serious crisis, triggering unemployment and increased poverty and vulnerability.

In the most impoverished communities, it has been the communal soup kitchens, a tradition carried over from the Pinochet dictatorship, that has alleviated hunger. The withdrawal of funds from the AFP pension scheme (Congress authorized withdrawals of workers’ funds from the privatized AFP pension system) and meagre state bonuses have been a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of families. But the government has systematically opposed these withdrawals of the workers’ own funds.

All the laws promoted by the government and approved in Congress as a result of the protests sought to harden repression and aggravate attacks. At the same time, the government insists on trying to pass its anti-worker laws on labour issues, such as its pension reform that leaves intact the AFPs and the miserable pensions, or its reform to SENCE that removes the free training for low-wage workers. Low salaries and indebtedness together with unemployment and labour precariousness continue to increase mark our daily lives.

A poster reads, “What scares me the most is to go back to normality without earning anything”.

The country is not returning to ‘normality’. The social movement has taken a breather only to return with force.

The ruling party point to the new Constitution as their only triumph. They want to repeat the negotiated exit of the civic-military dictatorship that allowed the big bourgeoisie thirty years of massive profits and good business. The congressional pact was made to stop the increase in protests and to block the way to a real Constituent Assembly that would put an end to the decomposed political and economic regime we have in Chile.

We are facing a real social earthquake unleashed by the mobilized youth and workers, a crisis of the political regime and of the economic model of neoliberal capitalism, in this sense, in October, we entered a pre-revolutionary situation.

No society can live in a state of permanent assembly and mobilization. It was to be expected that with the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic in Chile the rhythm of protest would slow down, but those who believe that this means the movement had ended are deceiving themselves. We have been forced to take a break but to come back with more strength.

In the eye of the hurricane

In the centre of a hurricane, there is an area called the Eye of the Hurricane. When you are in the center of the storm, at first glance it appears that the height of the storm has passed. Inside the storm zone in the eye there is calm. However, it is a false perception, as the hardest is yet to come.

The Eye of the Hurricane is a good metaphor for the reality of the popular uprising that began in October 2019 and subsided with the terrible coronavirus pandemic. It would seem that the movement has subsided, that the mobilizations have been reduced, that fatigue has affected the people who would like to return to normality.

This is a dream for the ‘parties of order’. Without the need to deliver serious concessions to the working masses, it would seem that they can reduce the whole conflict that exploded in their faces last October to a simple police problem of public order. But they are wrong. The anger and frustration are now multiplied many times.

On November 15, 2019, the political forces in Congress reached an agreement they called “For social peace and a new constitution”. Almost all the parties signed, except for the Communist Party, the Humanists and the Regionalists (a part of the Christian Democracy).

The parties of the Frente Amplio, the main leftist grouping in Congress, split when some of deputies broke away when their leaders approved the agreement. It was the salvation for the government and of the crumbling regime.

The agreement is full of traps. In fact, it ended the possibility of a Sovereign Constituent Assembly. For example, it will not be possible to discuss international treaties which, nevertheless, have constitutional importance. Furthermore just 25% of the votes in the Convention will be enough to reject any proposal as a 75% vote in favour is necessary to get anything passed. The delegates will be elected according to the current electoral law tailored to the political parties that the majority of people reject.

We have denounced the Constituent Convention as a fraud. At the same time, we are having a dialogue with broad sectors of workers who have illusions in the process. It is true that a 25% anti-capitalist vote could block the proposals to continue as before, subverting the blockade of the neo-liberals. Even a few elected representatives who raise their voices and denounce the attempts to ensure the model of brutal capitalism continues in the new Constitution could, with the mass mobilization of society, have an important effect on the decisions of the Constitutional Convention. But it is very difficult for such a bloc to be formed in the Constitutional Convention. Even so, we fight to support those candidates and activists of the social movement who want to try and fight for a change.

Last October a plebiscite was held in which only half of the potential voters participated. Of those who voted eighty per cent supported a new constitution, approved by an elected Constituent Convention. Yet the Convention’s powers have been curtailed in accordance with last November’s ‘Peace Accord’ and the New Constitution of Congress. Due to the Coronavirus, the elections for that Convention should have been held already but have been delayed until 15-16 May.

However, despite the impact of the agreement in Congress, demonstrations and neighbourhood assemblies did not cease altogether. Protests have continued despite the pandemic. Although there have been killings of protesters and even bystanders with serious eye injuries, even blindness when the police fired pellets into the faces of people. All this increased the rage of the young people.

Mass demonstrations and mass discussions have continued for a long time. But salvation for the government and the regime came with the Coronavirus. On March 3 of this year, the first proven case was announced. Since then, although the mobilizations continue, incorporating new demands such as subsidies and emergency food provision, and the organization of common pots to feed people who fell into extreme poverty, there has been a notable ebb in the movement. The Piñera government’s management of the pandemic has been abysmal. Its priority has been to maintain business. Now we are at a new peak of the disease. Hospitals collapsed or are on the verge of collapse. For now, we have been saved by the public health system and the commitment of the workers in it. The public health system, although weakened, remains a legacy of the Allende government in the 1970s. This has also been a key factor explaining the success of the current vaccination campaign. The benefits of this will be seen in two or three more months when a significant percentage of the population will have received the two doses of the vaccine and will have developed immunity.

Dynamics from “above” and “below”

It is necessary to differentiate between the dynamics in “political society” and “civil society”. What happens in bourgeois political institutions has an obvious impact on society. The people who are affected by the decisions of what is usually referred to as “politics” are forced to respond. Constant attacks can create a certain malaise in the working class. In “normal” times the dynamics of society are subordinated to those of the political institutions, as a whole. But then widespread mobilizations and the organization of those at the bottom result in an exceptional situation in which the families of those who have only rely on their work to live on, the working class, can overturn the existing power, and open the way for great social conquests. It is what we call a pre-revolutionary situation. If we could add the actions of a workers’ party giving direction to this general uprising in society we could speak of a revolutionary situation. In Chile, we have seen elements of a revolutionary situation but there is a long way to go to really reach this point in the full sense of the term.

We are in the eye of the hurricane, and it is probable that once the pandemic is over the mobilizations will once again take to the streets en masse. Our task now is to prepare ourselves to intervene especially from below and to push for mobilizations and organization of the movement.

In this new situation, with the enormous leap in the consciousness of the masses, especially the working youth, there are enormous perspectives for us to advance towards the construction of a new working-class party, with a revolutionary attitude and a socialist programme. This is essential to move forward in the struggle of the working class.

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April 2021