Lessons from the ‘Chilean October’, three years on

Protest in Chile, 2019 (Photo: CC)

Friday, October 18, 2019, is marked as the day on which a large-scale revolutionary process began in Chile. A massive mobilization, where millions of young people, workers, women, residents, and social organizations took to the streets to demonstrate against exploitation and the enormous inequality created by the prevailing capitalist neoliberal system. The anger accumulated over three decades was present in these great street demonstrations. This October 18th marks three years since that great social explosion and it is good that we try to draw some lessons from the Chilean October.

“It’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years”

Civil disobedience started in Santiago, provoked by the last straw of an increase of 30 pesos in public transport. The protest spread rapidly like an oil stain throughout the country. What became clear is that working people were not willing to tolerate any more abuses. The popular protest revealed an institutional crisis of the government and of the political caste as a whole.

It was not the first time that a rise in fares has unleashed popular anger and protest in Chile. Thousands of Santiago citizens took to the streets, even facing bullets and death to protest, from the full force of the so-called, Law for the Defense of Democracy, under the right-wing government of President Gabriel González Videla, who ruled from 1946-52.

The social explosion that we saw in October 2019 was inevitable. It represented the accumulation of too many years of abuses, such as miserable wages that most Chilean workers earn, along with hunger and low pensions, in one of the most expensive countries in the world.

To the above, we must add a private and expensive education system, with young people indebted for life, a public health system that has been destroyed to do business with private clinics, with the AFP pension system stealing from us for decades, to finally deliver miserable pensions. In addition, we have businessmen robbing us with electricity, water, gas bills, with the collusion of prices being set high in pharmacies and supermarkets. The bubble had to burst at some point.

The great greed of businessmen and capitalists finally ended up breaking the patience of the people, of the young people, of the people who are already sick with so much abuse and having to accept the miserable living conditions in which they have been plunged from the dictatorship until today. Rebellion and civil disobedience is a right that peoples have when they are being abused and permanently repressed by those who control the State.

The workers had to take control of society

That was the moment for the workers and their union organizations needed to give a powerful response and put themselves at the head of this movement to lead the movement towards the seizure of power. Spontaneous struggles are not enough to lead and produce the changes that the working class needs. Unfortunately, the leaders failed to do this.

Not even the enormous repression deployed by the right-wing government, headed by Piñera, was able to stop the struggles. The  Carabineros, PDI, and contingents of the armed forces were not able to stop the demonstrations that were taking place. Under the pressure of the masses, the military had to be returned to their barracks.

The mobilized masses demanded Piñera’s resignation; in fact, the power was in the streets and not in La Moneda. With a Little further push and the Piñera government would have ceased to exist.

That was the time to call for the formation of a government headed by the workers and the social organizations that were fighting in the streets. Capitalism proved incapable of solving any of the problems that the working class has. The only real alternative was to aim at building a democratic socialist society in opposition to this system of injustices and social inequality.

More than two million were on the streets and demanded the end of the Piñera government and the convening of a Constituent Assembly. These wonderful mobilizations were followed by calls for massive protests and strikes. The revolt took place alongside the deployment of soldiers on the streets and brutal repression, which had not been seen since the dark days of the dictatorship.

The need for a Revolutionary Constituent Assembly

A Revolutionary Constituent Assembly was needed. Neither Piñera nor the parties that are part of the system could be trusted to convene a democratic Constituent Assembly. It was necessary to democratically elect committees in all workplaces, communes, and regions, linked at the level of all cities and at the national level. This was the only way to guarantee the convocation of a revolutionary and genuinely democratic Constituent Assembly.

This massive movement was a spontaneous uprising and a display of enormous pent-up rage. It was not initiated or directed by any party or social organization. The absence of a mass party of the working class with a revolutionary socialist programme to carry the movement forward was the main weakness of the social uprising. At that time, it was urgent to channel the revolutionary movement to overthrow Piñera and the Chilean ruling class, to establish a government of the working class and the poor, with a socialist programme to break with capitalism. But unfortunately, the movement stopped halfway.

The betrayal begins on November 15, 2019

The corrupt political caste took the initiative and on November 15, Congress announced a National Agreement for Peace, with the clear objective of stopping the popular protests that had already been going on for a month. We should emphasise that it was Congress that made this decision, one of the least representative institutions of the movement that had originated on October 18th.

Opinion polls showed that parliamentarians are the ones who had and have the worst standing amongst the population. They were lucky to get 4% approval ratings. The polls showed that the rejection of President Sebastián Piñera was close to 80%. Neither of these two institutions, the government, and Parliament, had the legitimacy to conduct a constituent process. The main objective of the Congress Agreement was to save Piñera and block a genuine process for a Constituent Assembly.

It was millions of protesters in the streets that forced the political caste to accept the need for a New Constitution. The popular rebellion led by working-class precarious youth managed to break the moorings that had been tied by the transition of the civic-military dictatorship. The working people and youth have barely touched a shred of its power. But what has happened means nothing will ever be the same again.

We need a Constitution that guarantees social rights. That guarantees good pensions with a system of fair distribution and financing. That guarantees health care for all, as well as public education, housing, and employment. That puts an end to the deterioration of the environment, the growing pollution, and abusive privatization of water and the sea.

In Chile, most of the political parties joined the so-called, “Agreement for social peace and the new constitution”, with the exception of the Communist Party, which was undecided about this question. But despite everything, the betrayal was set in motion.

The massively rejected Piñera government was saved thanks to the parties of the former New Majority and the Broad Front (Frente Amplio). The first was the Agreement for Peace in Congress, ensuring a constituent process without a Constituent Assembly, with elections according to the same system as the current party law.

The entire regime was being questioned by the bulk of the population; the working class and especially the youth who lead the mobilizations with clear demands against neoliberal capitalism that has made life precarious and does not offer a future to youth.

The long-quashed socialist and democratic aspirations of the peoples of Chile, by the military, came to the fore in all its splendor. It remains for these gigantic movements to find their channel in their own political organization independent of the corrupt political caste that has governed us for the last 30 years.

The itinerary of the Agreement for peace and the pandemic

Originally the plebiscite to approve whether a new constitution was wanted, and what the composition of the Constitutional Convention would be, was changed from April 26 to October 25, 2020, due to the pandemic.

What became clear on Sunday, October 25, is that it was not a small group of violent or self-appointed leaders who demanded changes in this country, as the right and the Piñera government would have us believe.  An estimated 78.3% voted in favor of approving a new constitution.

The people and their longing for profound changes finally prevailed; their desire to have a more just, dignified society and respect for their most basic rights, won at this stage. The people struggled to block the path clear for the more reactionary right to impose their plans.

For many, it was impossible to accept that the right and conservative sectors, with barely a third of the delegates, could veto the decisions made by the majority.

The elections of May 15 and 16, 2021, and the defeat of the political caste

The Congress Agreement was full of tricks. Firstly, a plebiscite was voted with a voluntary vote (October 25, 2020), in which the people had to vote if they wanted to maintain or change the Constitution. Another vote was to decide if the new constitutional charter should be discussed in a mixed Constitutional Convention (half members appointed by Congress and half elected by citizens) or in a Convention with 100% of its members elected by universal vote. It was clear that it was not a free and sovereign Constituent Assembly since there were issues that could not be discussed, such as the International Free Trade Agreements that tie the Chilean social economic model to the interests of the multinationals and the industrialised capitalist countries. In addition, the approval needed of a two-thirds majority was incorporated. In other words, one-third of the right could block the approval of any article of the new Constitution and include the operating norms of the Convention.

The results of the elections held on the weekend of May 15 and 16, 2021 in Chile ended with an unexpected blow to the traditional political apparatuses at the service of the ruling class. These results somehow constitute a continuity of the social uprising that began in October 2019. In this massive movement, millions of people were launched demanding social, labour, and democratic rights denied during decades of savage neoliberal capitalism. The social movement developed without the leadership of political parties or large unions. The revolt led by the working youth entered an ebb, although it was never properly defeated, with the “Agreement for Peace and the New Constitution” in November 2019 by the vast majority of the political forces in Congress. This agreement was a lifesaver for the right-wing government of Sebastián Piñera together in March 2020 with the arrival of the Coronavirus pandemic in Chile.

Exit plebiscite, widely rejected

On September 4, 2022, the radicalised sections of Chilean society suffered an undeniable defeat in the defeat of the proposed new Constitution.

This was a jug of cold water poured over the movement. The bewilderment and frustration were generalized among the social and political activists of the left. Fear won out over hope, and the bourgeoisie played its cards very well by appealing to backward emotions, xenophobia, racism, fear of losing one’s home, fear of unemployment, and chaos. This rejection of the new constitution means that for the moment everything will remain the same; poor health, poor pensions, lousy public education, difficulty in accessing their own housing, and the abuse and destruction of nature will continue.

The result of this defeat, however, is quite reminiscent of the situation we experienced when Sebastián Piñera won the presidential election for his second term with a wide margin in 2017. Yet it is necessary to remember how protests quickly became generalized until in October 2019 they led to a generalized social uprising.

The political crisis that opened with the social outbreak that began in October 2019 has not been closed. The demands of the people’s uprising have not been resolved. This uprising was harshly repressed with systematic human rights abuses, murders, eye mutilations, rapes, and other political-sexual violence. The demands that brought millions of people, especially young people, and women to the streets, forced the political caste to reach an agreement. They opened a limited constitutional process despite being limited by issues that could not discuss and with agreements with supra majorities of two-thirds, which the PS and FA blocks in the Convention refused to modify.

The two right-wingers did their reactionary job well

The rejection of a proposal for a new constitution won in the plebiscite and therefore the Constitution of 1980 remains. This is the legalistic point of view. Yet everyone recognizes that this is not politically viable. The Constitution of the dictatorship has completely lost legitimacy. Even most of the forces of the right and the former Concertación that promoted the Rejection of the new constitution say that the constitutional process must restart. For thirty years these sectors refused to replace the Constitution of the dictatorship and limited themselves to making changes that never modified the subsidiary State, its neoliberal carácter. This is a defeat for them in that in their campaign to reject the new constitution they could not defend the 1980 constitution which they have done for 30 years. On the contrary, they called for a no-vote to elaborate a new Magna Carta that would satisfy everyone. In recent years, Chile has gone through a cultural and social revolution that will not be erased by the result of this plebiscite. Chile has changed, and there are some things in which there will be no turning back.

If again the two right-wing blocks get drunk on their victory, they will not understand the deep discontent in society – the weariness with the abuses, the record social inequality in our continent. They will face permanent instability, which is an abyss that has always caused them panic but which they constantly stir up.

For us in the field of working people, the struggle for a new Constitution will remain central; to putting an end to the subsidiary State and neoliberal capitalism, and opening the way towards public policies of a socialist and popular nature. Now we need to replenish our strength and mood to resume the struggles.

The popular revolt was never defeated

It is important to underline that what made it possible to unblock the path toward a new Constitution was the popular revolt. This was not crushed despite the criminal repression. It entered a low ebb due to the November 15 Congressional pact and the arrival of the Covid pandemic and the lack of a mass socialist alternative.

Our biggest problem is that a well-recognized and implanted political-social alternative in neighborhoods and places of work or study has not been built, with activists capable of debating with colleagues and communities and workplaces, exposing the falsehoods propagated in campaigns, promoting and sustaining the status quo and existing opinion.  It is necessary to build a new political representation of the working people, as well as the other oppressed and exploited sectors.

Some reasons for an announced defeat

The effort to discredit the Constitutional Convention began before it was installed: fake news, falsehoods and outright lies were constant. But “fair play” could not be expected from a ruling class that has not hesitated to stage coups and commit massacres to defend its interests.

In the first plebiscite, voting was voluntary. However, in the plebiscite on the new constitution, it was obligatory. In fact, the number of votes broke all previous records. The vote of the depoliticized, non-mobilized people was decisive.

A referendum on the Boric government

On the other hand, voting to approve the new constitution seemed to many to be a kind of referendum. It was confused with voting in favor of the Boric government, which is no longer popular, according to the polls. It now only has a third of citizens supporting it. They have not met the wide expectations when Boric and his coalition won the elections.

Boric’s government is a weak executive that has appeared more concerned with passing a good maturity test for the ruling class than with quickly confronting the great problems that the poor, and most depoliticized population faces on a daily basis.

The wide defeat in the plebiscite, with 62% of the voters voting to reject the new constitution, is especially frustrating because a little over a year ago the opposition to the 1980 Constitution reached 78%. The new proposal was drawn up by a body completely elected by universal vote, with gender parity and representation of indigenous peoples. Later, in the conventional election, the rejection of the traditional political leadership swept the election to the Constitutional Convention, which was filled with women and left-wing independents. However, a unified common agenda was lacking and it was the sum of many partial, divided identity agendas.

No to the ‘recovery’ of copper

One of the great errors of the convention was that it did not approve the renationalisation of copper and other natural resources. That sowed many doubts that the right-wing helped to foster the way in which the social rights included in the new Constitution were going to be financed. In addition, the two right-wing parties permanently presented themselves as guarantors of the country and its symbols. The recovery of our natural wealth, which they oppose, in addition to allowing us to project a new model of social development, would have unmasked the character of the conservative forces and the bourgeoisie in Chile and their false patriotism and their links to imperialism.

Rejection of campaign closures and celebration

The closing rallies of the Reject the new constitution were very poor, without the ability to mobilize the masses. On the contrary, the Approval in many parts was gigantic. After the broad triumph of rejection throughout the country, there was practically no celebration.

A new social revolt, also accompanied by the people who voted rejection, is very likely now, though not tomorrow, of course. However, we emphasis the triumphalism of the right after Piñera’s big victory in his second mandate, in which he failed to recognise the massive discontent which existed later backfired. He insisted  Chile was different from the rest of Latin America, an “oasis of tranquility.”

We have a global, developing economic and social crisis. Our elite is not capable of responding to the main needs and aspirations of the bulk of the population in a global recessionary context the perspectives of which are bleak. Boric’s government, already weak, will be worse off and will take the lifeline of lead from the remnants of the Concertación, that is, it will go even further to the right.

The danger of rise of the extreme right

The vote to reject the new constitution had a racist, xenophobic, misogynistic element and fear of the future and change. In the very difficult situation that is approaching, of instability, falling employment or increasing informality, we have the breeding ground for far-right populism, as we have already seen in Brazil with Bolsonaro, and in the US with Trump. Social unrest will result in the rise of the extreme right that seems imminent in Chile. It will be facilitated by Boric’s weakness and his faltering rule.

The only ones who can stop a turn to the extreme right are the workers and youth, raising a socialist left political alternative, that is clearly representative of the interests of the working class, and raising a clear democratic socialist programme. This points to a just and supportive society that eradicates the abuses and the enormous inequality of this neoliberal capitalist society.



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October 2022