The Independent Socialist Group (ISG) interviewed Hugo Rodríguez, a member of Socialismo Revolucionario (then Workers Democracy), the Chilean section of the Committee for a Workers International (CWI), with which ISG stands in political solidarity. Hugo lived through the three years of the Popular Unity government and became a young political activist and member of the CWI underground during the subsequent Pinochet dictatorship. Hugo brings events up to date, explaining the experience of the mass movement that erupted in Chile in 2019, the ongoing constitutional process this placed on the agenda, and links both back to the lessons of the Chilean Revolution of 1970-73, its crushing, and the struggle against the Pinochet dictatorship.
Can you give an overview of what brought you into political activity and into the CWI? At what stage of the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary events was this?
My introduction to politics was in the 1980s. I was young and my family was always sympathetic to Salvadore Allende. A friend invited me to join the effort to rebuild the Socialist Party. The government was a full dictatorship and the party was underground. In truth, it seemed like an adventure. I began to help with meetings with people who had been militants in the Socialist Party.
About a year later, I met a comrade from Workers Democracy, the original section of the CWI in Chile. We began to discuss the situation and read documents, meeting weekly. Within a month I belonged to Workers Democracy and the CWI. We’re talking 42 years, more or less, fighting for socialism with the CWI.
How old were you when the September coup took place? What do you remember of the changing social conditions and attitudes?
I was nine years old when Allende was elected and twelve during the military coup. I remember the promise of a half litre of milk every day for every child in the country. We were very poor. We were five siblings and my mom. My father had died. So we were in a very precarious situation.
To people who criticized the Allende government, I say, “Every day during the Allende government, we had milk. After the coup, milk disappeared from our house.” Also, there was a dentist at my rural public elementary school. Imagine – free dental care for all children in the public schools.
We had to stand in enormous lines to buy bread and sugar, but even kids like me knew this was a problem caused by the rich hoarding all of the food. Organized workers searched for businesses who had their stores and warehouses full of food but refused to sell it, would remove the bosses, then make sure the food was sold to the people at prices set by the Supply and Prices Board.
The day of the coup was strange. I was at school. We waited for several hours in the school yard for the teachers to arrive, then a classmate’s older brother arrived and told us all to go home. We asked, “Why is there no class?” He answered: “Because there has been a government coup.”
On the hour-long bus ride home, six tanks drove past us. It was like in a movie. I arrived home around noon. My siblings and mom were home. Around 4 pm a curfew was called so we couldn’t leave or even open the curtains to see the military passing by.
You came into political activity during the period of military dictatorship. What were the political tasks that you faced?
The first stuff I did was to read political material, discuss it, and to help organize the regular meetings. I helped organize and recruit to our youth group.
It was a dangerous time to organize underground against the dictatorship and be a socialist, and more so because the building that we could arrange for meetings was controlled by an organization loyal to the dictatorship. We gave the woman in charge of the building the excuse that we wanted to do a youth program to rescue the youth from drugs. We would bring in “professionals” to give talks and organize “cultural activities”.
The dictatorship was interested in having social organizations publicize the work and propaganda of the dictatorship so they approved our program “Sótano” (”Basement”). We used the organization for years to bring international comrades into the country as “speakers” to help build the underground Chilean section.
And of course we produced a newspaper with analysis and material to help us organize. We had very few resources and it was very DIY. The first papers were handwritten – we didn’t even have a typewriter. We used a stencil to make copies. The text went on first, then you put the stencil, then a sheet of paper on top with some ink and ran a copy. You had to let it dry for two hours. But the newspaper was crucial.
Can you explain the main features of the struggle to end the dictatorship? How did the CWI organize and what were we calling for?
The first protests began in the early ‘80s. The repression eased a bit and there came small opportunities. The first call for national protests against the dictatorship arose from the copper industry workers. We supported the protests with slogans like “No Price Hikes on Food,” “Liberty,” “Democracy.” These were very basic but necessary slogans in the very early stages of rebuilding working class consciousness.
It was a complicated time because people continued to die each time protests were called. Our organization participated in the protests, but our emphasis was political education. To understand what led up to the coup and to understand the current situation.
By the late ‘80s, workers had a genuine opportunity to not just overthrow the dictatorship but to overthrow capitalism in Chile (the real source of Chilean workers’ exploitation and oppression), if the Communist and Socialist parties had confidence in the working class to lead a revolution. Trotsky had laid out this historical process in his theory of Permanent Revolution in 1906.
The two parties demonstrated through the Popular Unity government that they wouldn’t act decisively against the capitalist class. When the protests were powerful enough to challenge the dictatorship they said “One Day General Strike!” We took the slogans and added clearer directions for the movement, saying we had to organize an indefinite general strike of an insurrectionary character. We put forward demands to orient the movement with the goal of the working class consciously taking power because this is ultimately the battle we face.
Instead, these parties preferred to partner, yet again, with the bourgeois. They created a coalition called the “Democratic Alliance” which included capitalist parties that supported and participated in the military coup. The Democratic Alliance coalition was created to steer the anti-dictatorship movement, which was developing a revolutionary character, back into the existing institutions of the capitalist state.
The dictatorship gave itself a way out. The government established a referendum in 1988 which asked if people wanted eight more years of the Pinochet dictatorship or wanted elections for a new president. The no campaign mobilized over a million people in Santiago. It was an opportunity for the workers’ movement to go on the offensive against the capitalist system the coup had defended.
In the CWI, we called for a no vote and for workers to defend the vote against the dictatorship in the streets with strikes. In comparison, the Socialist Party said “No until We Win!”, which is a vague slogan. Win what? Win when? In 20 more years? We called for a vote to end the dictatorship, defended the right to a democratically-elected government, and called on the working class movement to challenge the undemocratic capitalist system itself.
The dictatorship was voted out but didn’t really end until the presidential elections were finally held two years later. The transitional agreement also granted Pinochet a seat in the Senate.
Some right-wing parties had seen that the dictatorship was not going to last much longer in the face of the mass movement, so they signed-on to the constitutional process to end the dictatorship. The 1980 constitution was designed, in the words of its author, to “prevent a communist government from surprising us… They can win an election but they are going to carry out our work.” This constitution was designed to defend capitalism and remains in place today. The reactionary Christian Democratic Party won the presidency.
This is the context of the social explosion in October 2019. Everyone – the bosses, politicians, bourgeois – thought Chile was a neoliberal paradise where everything worked. But they were looking at the top 20% that benefited. The other 80% didn’t.
We said, “something is bubbling under the surface, something will happen”. Even we underestimated how soon. About six months later Chile exploded when the government decided to raise the metro ticket prices by 30 pesos. The high school students organized the protest, flooded the train stations, and jumped the turnstiles. The slogan was born, “It’s not 30 cents, it’s 30 years.” A clear example of the law of dialectics in society, where small change follows small change, until the hour that it produces a qualitative difference and everything changes.CWI flag on commemoration events in Santiago.
How are the events of the whole period of revolution and counter-revolution remembered today, what do you think are the most important lessons?
The Communist and Socialist parties in Chile, among others on the left, drew the conclusion that the Popular Unity government provoked the coup by moving too fast and scaring the capitalists. To us and many other people, events showed the bourgeois were not startled, but prepared. The 2019 movement protested 30 years of abuse and privatization by the post-dictatorship parties. The dictatorship privatized part of the economy, but it was during 30 years of capitalist “democracy” that the drinkable water was privatized, the electrical grid, the roads, healthcare, education, the construction of public housing, the copper industry.
So people exploded, demanding a constituent assembly for a new constitution. We’re talking about two million people protesting in the streets in Santiago. Protests in every town and every city for five thousand miles from Arica in the north to Punta Arenas all the way down south. You can still see the protest graffiti on walls everywhere today.
Unfortunately, there was no party that existed to help give direction to this explosion. None of the mainstream parties in Congress could channel it. During one week the government’s power was completely up in the air. The president called a curfew and brought soldiers out into the streets, same as the dictatorship. But something happened that no one expected. The youth, born after the dictatorship, had never faced the soldiers. The soldiers had never put a gun to their heads. So when the soldiers came out into the streets, the youth stayed out. They didn’t return to their homes.
They stayed out because it was clear the soldiers were not prepared to fire. There was one case where the soldiers did fire and killed a person. But I saw a young person bike up to ten soldiers guarding the subway entrance and stop to rebuke them. “Go back to your barracks, this has nothing to do with you.” The soldiers stood there and the police had to come to remove the young person.
Fear that soldiers would side with the people rapidly united the bourgeois and the parties in government. That night – November 15th, 2019 – there was a “Peace Agreement”. The only force represented in that agreement that could claim to represent the demonstrators was Gabriel Boric representing the left coalition “Broad Front”.
The protests forced the government to organize a referendum which asked if people wanted to change the constitution and, if so, who should draft the new one. Options included Congress drafting a new constitution, a group consisting of half Congress and half elected representatives, or 100% representatives elected by popular vote. 80% of the population said “we want a new constitution”. 73% said “we want the new constitution to be drafted by 100% elected representatives.” People did not want the Congress involved at all and the convention representatives were elected by popular vote.
The right wing ran a ferocious terror campaign against the process. They worked to discredit the convention representatives. They claimed the new constitution would take away people’s individual retirement savings because the draft constitution talked about a more supportive system and fairer distribution. They used lots of “fake news” threatening people’s homes. When the referendum came, the new constitution was rejected in favor of a different, completely undemocratic, process.
The House chose 12 members and the Senate chose another 12 to make up an “expert panel” whereas in the first referendum, the people had protested that they didn’t want Congress involved at all. Congress also ran elections for “advisors”, using the same way the Senate is elected instead of a representative vote. So Santiago with 8 million people elects, for example, four senators. One senator for every 2 million people. The Aysen region in the south has 100,000 inhabitants, and they elect two senators. This type of election favors the right wing. These less-populous areas have greater relative representation, the people tend to be more backwards, and the sectors of very rich people and the influence of the right-wing are very strong.
The right wing has basically 50% of the representatives writing the new constitution. Paradoxically, the explosion of protests was meant to eliminate the constitution of 1980, yet today we are poised to go and vote for a constitution worse than we currently have.
In 1980 the military didn’t dare touch the nationalized copper, though they still leased the mining rights to a multinational corporation. Today, the right-wing intends to completely privatize the copper supply. They intend to prevent the state from publically managing services or resources like education and healthcare. Everything is to be handed over to the private sector.
The lesson that we take from the Popular Unity period and the military coup is that all the solutions of the reformist parties drive, necessarily, to disaster for the working class, even massacre. The reformist parties thought to make one small transformation after another, without scaring the bourgeois, until one day we’re going to wake-up and have socialism. But it doesn’t happen like that.
The working class has historical experience from the Paris Commune and the Spanish Civil War, among others. When using a reformist approach – where movements or parties respect the institutions designed for capitalism – parties in power hesitate or don’t want to take the final step in overthrowing capitalism, reaction inevitably strikes back.
People saw Allende fulfilling promises in office. This had never happened before. The politicians promise lots of things and after they take office, they give excuses. Allende promised a half-litre of milk and within his first week in office, people received milk. He began to work on the nationalization of copper, began to expropriate the largest monopolies. The people said, “Now this, yes, this is our government.” But the people wanted to move towards socialism faster than the parties in government.
Many measures of the Popular Unity government ran into the capitalist institutions. There is a very illustrative story in the documentary The Battle of Chile. The peasants organized collectively, removed the landlords in the region around Santiago, and took the land into their own hands. People from the workplace committees in the city went to support the process of expropriation. They discussed with the peasants who said, “No one is using this land and the city needs food. If we don’t farm the land, the citizens are not going to have food and this effort towards socialism will bomb. We are going to plant and we’re going to produce food.”
A government bureaucrat came and said “Comrades, this is illegal. You cannot take the land into your own hands because the owner will go to court and we will have to defend the government in court. This could take up to six months.”
The peasants replied, “Six months? And we know it’s illegal but it doesn’t matter. What is illegal is that the landlord doesn’t want to produce! We want to! So we are going to take the land and we are going to farm.”
The bureaucrat said back, “Look, we have to do things within the legal system. People cannot act on their own initiative because the owners will accuse the government of acting unconstitutionally and impeach the president.”
Among the workers, they began to ask “We can’t do this because it’s unconstitutional, we can’t do that because the government is going to tell us no. We can’t touch this business because it’s English, and that one is French, so what do we do?”
“It’s ok, because the government is going to launch a project, going to pass a law in Congress”.
Comrades said “Congress? They block everything. Everything.”
In 1973, I believe Congress voted down 84 of Allende’s policies. Whatever law he wanted to enact, Congress rejected. So the workers faced laws prohibiting them from taking action the way they wanted.
For example, the U.S. blockaded Chile. They refused to sell repair parts for the industrial machinery. The machinery wore out and, without spare parts, could not produce necessary goods. Workers began to disassemble one machine to repair another and they began to invent, themselves, the spare parts. They said, “Fine, the U.S. won’t sell us the parts? We’ll make them ourselves. The landlords don’t want to farm? We’re going to farm.”
This happened in many factories that the government was not planning to nationalize. The workers simply took over the factories and took control of production themselves. “Coordinating committees” developed that united the industrial workplace committees, the Supply and Prices Boards, and the peasant councils. They channeled production and coordinated distribution of food. It was a situation of dual power. But this parallel process came into conflict with the government.
The Communist and Socialist parties were against the formation of the coordinating committees because they could not control them. They tried to create instead “communal councils” which were organized and run by bureaucrats. The reformist government meanwhile also aimed to return an important number of worker-controlled factories to the capitalists, to convince some of the bourgeois to help keep the Popular Unity government in power.
The bourgeois state was not suitable for socialist initiatives pushed by the workers or reforms attempted by Allende. They clashed and clashed. If capitalism refused and sabotaged even these basic reforms, the workers concluded that they wanted to go beyond the capitalist institutions and “legal” options. They called for arms so the people could defend their government from worsening capitalist attacks. Unfortunately, there was no revolutionary party that could give direction to the workers movement so it could replace the bourgeois state with a workers state democratically controlling the whole economy.
The workers, for example, in one of the largest protests supporting Allende, called for Congress to finally be closed down. Workers had understood that the Congress was acting as a brake on the process. These were workers with an elementary school education. Workers who’d never read State and Revolution, nor Marx’s Capital nor the Communist Manifesto. They learned in the factories, in the workplaces, through the struggle. They learned and came to Marxist conclusions without knowing they were Marxist conclusions.
Chile has seen mass movements in recent years, including facing state violence and repression again. What are the main political tasks for Marxists in Chile today?
Around the world the grave problem for the working class is the lack of a revolutionary party that orients the workers’ movement. We saw it in 2019 during the week when power was up in the air for the taking. One of the slogans of the social explosion was “The People United, March Without Party”. The prestige of the political parties was so low that the people didn’t even want to think about a political party.
We said this is a mistaken slogan in the light of events. The workers movement needs a revolutionary organization that represents all the lessons and experience of past working class struggle. A party drives the struggle, gives direction to the working class masses who carry through the revolution.
So our work today is orientated first towards establishing the revolutionary party, to build our organization, to recruit more comrades, to politicize people. But we are also focused on the creation of a broader workers’ organization—could be a movement, could be a political party—where we unite and fight alongside other workers and left organizations on points of common agreement. About a month ago we held an assembly with eight to ten other groups to start building a party with legal status that could organize electoral work and also work outside of the system.
We are also coordinating with other workers’ organizations in Argentina, Ecuador, and Uruguay. We went to Argentina in May to discuss coordinated work. The comrades in Uruguay—long-time militants and political prisoners of that former dictatorship—say, “The unions are key. We have to go to where the working class is. It doesn’t matter the low level of the unions at the moment, we have to go there.” The politics of the CWI is to orient ourselves to the working class and unions. In this way we’re doing coordinated work like a campaign to defend and free political prisoners in Latin America.
To wrap up with Chile, the referendum in December will ask if voters are in favour or against the text of the new constitution that they are drafting now. A no vote will leave the dictatorship-era constitution in place. Both choices are terrible for workers. So we call for a vote against the new constitution and we call for mass protests and a new process for a truly democratic sovereign constituent assembly to draft a constitution that defends working rights and conditions.