Protest art at the Centro Gabriela Mistral in Santiago, Chile. Detail. (Joseph Flipper)

Will a Plebiscite Bring Reform in Chile?

Thirty Pesos, Thirty Years

Within the past year, a kind of revolution has taken place in Chile. Some worry this revolution will turn out to have been stillborn, ended prematurely by the pandemic. Others worry that the country’s government has already succeeded in blunting its force. But what has already happened still has the potential to change the course of Chilean history.

Last October, a thirty-peso fare hike for public transportation sparked mass protests that brought together almost every marginalized or disaffected sector of Chilean society: high-school and college students, feminist groups, indigenous activists, environmentalists, the economically shaky middle class. The protests did not end until March, when the coronavirus lockdown began. What came to be called the estallido social, or “social outburst,” included clashes between protestors and security forces, looting, hundreds of injuries, at least thirty-four deaths (including six protesters who died in clashes with security forces), and millions of dollars in damage to urban infrastructure. On November 14, the right-wing government of Sebastián Piñera tried to appease protestors by agreeing to a plebiscite that would allow Chileans to approve or reject a new constitutional convention.

One of the protest movement’s leading critics is Arturo Cifuentes, an expert in finance who has consulted for previous governments in Chile and once testified before the U.S. Senate on the subprime-mortgage crisis. Cifuentes senses that a historic moment is at hand for his country. “This is the Chilean Brexit. It is a jump into the void without being clear about what comes next.” While affirming that Chilean society is in many ways “unjust,” he has also called the estallido social a “coup d’état.”

Supporters of the revolt also foresee a break with the past, but cast it in more positive terms. For them, the movement that began on October 18 is the predictable result of long-term economic and social trends. But for many of the activists most devoted to this new movement, the connection between its true ideals and Piñera’s plebiscite is tenuous at best.

I spoke with one such activist, Dominga G., a college student who took to the streets almost every day for three months, often volunteering as a nurse for wounded protestors. She said that while Piñera’s plebiscite might work as a “peace treaty,” what she and many other protestors desire is “el buen vivir,” the good life, “a form of life of the ancestral countries, a communitarian way of life, a home, school, small debt, a no to a life for the sake of work.” Many, if not most, of the protestors subscribe to similarly radical ideas. For them, the protests are less about the constitutional order than about the ideological order that supports it. Their word for that order is neoliberalism.

When the Piñera government announced its fare increase last October 6, high-school students were the first to protest. Though it might sound implausible to North American readers, high-school activism is a major political force in Chile, and its organization and methods have roots in the struggle against the Pinochet dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s. Most high-school activists are organized under the banner of the Secondary Students Coordinating Assembly (Asamblea Coordinadora de Estudiantes Secundarios, or ACES), a dynamic and media-savvy organization founded in 2000. The group’s Instagram account captures something of their character and ideology: provocative posts denouncing the police; images of raised fists accompanied by calls to join this or that protest; gender-neutral spellings of conventionally gendered Spanish words (e.g., “Libertad a lxs presxs políticxs Mapuche”). But they are primarily known for marching in the streets.

The students, most of whom use public transportation to get to school, quickly recognized that another thirty pesos per trip (about four cents), though it may not seem like much, was a significant expense for the struggling middle class. They saw the fare increase as a symbol for other pressing injustices in Chilean society. They swarmed the metro stations, chanting and shouting and jumping turnstiles, helping non-protestors to get on the trains for free. For months, they occupied the Plaza Italia, the public space at the heart of Santiago where Chileans usually gather to celebrate joyous occasions, such as a World Cup victory.

On October 18, violence erupted. Protestors burned down subway stations, including the one near Plaza Italia. (Investigators have yet to establish whether this was a spontaneous or coordinated action.) They went on to occupy several sectors of the capital city, employing a stratagem made famous during the 1999 anti-globalization protests in Seattle and known by the English term “black bloc”: protestors, all dressed in black to make it harder for the police to identify them, mass together in public spaces. Grainy footage, distributed through WhatsApp, shows burning buses and cars in Santiago, as well as acts of police brutality. Black-clad protestors, many of them wearing masks (this was before the pandemic), were seen chanting songs and clashing with police. On October 18, three people died from injuries they suffered when a supermarket was looted by protestors. On November 8, a Catholic church was vandalized, its statues burned in a bonfire. Protests spread to other major cities. A slogan emerged: “It is not thirty pesos. It is thirty years.”

The slogan refers to the period of economic liberalization that began under General Augusto Pinochet, who took power in 1973 after a bloody coup that ousted the democratically elected socialist Salvador Allende. After Chile suffered extreme inflation during the first two years of Pinochet’s regime, he turned for economic advice to the “Chicago Boys,” a group of University of Chicago economists who promoted a market-driven model of the modern state. Public services were to be either privatized or gutted. Pinochet wanted to make Chile a country “not of proletarians, but proprietors.”

A bloodless transition to democracy in 1990 put an end to Pinochet’s regime and its egregious human-rights abuses (censorship, imprisonment, assassinations, torture), but it did not put an end Pinochet’s economic policies. Even today, Chile still has a largely privatized pension system, and a mostly private health-care sector. Moreover, the national constitution adopted by the Pinochet regime in 1980 remains in place, though it has since undergone a series of reforms and today bears the name not of Pinochet but of the socialist Ricardo Lagos, who was president of Chile from 2000 to 2006. But further attempts to change the constitution, including one in 2012, have failed to obtain parliamentary approval.

Today, most Chilean politicians on the right reject Pinochet’s authoritarianism but defend the Chicago Boys’ economic reforms. Juan S. Montes, the former governor of the Los Lagos Region in southern Chile who is now a professor of business at Boston College, maintains that the thirty years now being decried were in fact a great success. “After 1990, we combined democracy with a free market, and like in most cases, when that happens, society thrives and prospers. That has been the case in the past thirty years in Chile. Chile moves from an economy dominated by hyperinflation (more than 1,000 percent in 1973), closed to international trade, regulated prices, to a fully open economy.... The outcome is that if in the 1980s almost half of the population was living below the poverty line, today it is 13 percent.”

According to the World Bank, today 65 percent of Chileans are middle-class, up from 24 percent in 1990. And many Latin Americans would happily acknowledge that Chile is arguably the most prosperous country in the region. I grew up in Paraguay, one of the poorest countries in Latin America, where Chile is sometimes spoken of as “casi Estados Unidos”—“almost America.” This phrase implies prosperity, security, order: people wait in line for the movies in Chile; public utilities work in Chile; banks don’t (usually) collapse in Chile. Chile ranks high in what political scientists call “stateness” because its institutions run efficiently. (By way of comparison, a friend from Santiago once guiltily confessed that in Chile, he’s heard people refer to Paraguay as “almost Africa.”)

 

A full 81 percent of Chilean voters did not identify with any political party in 2015—up from 53 percent in 2005.

But the impressive numbers cited by Montes obscure the sources of discontent among Chileans. I am not sure what they would mean to a young activist like Dominga. Chile may have achieved high levels of “stateness” but it still has slums and shantytowns. While the country has seen a massive increase in college enrollment (from around 200,000 students in the 1980s to more than a million today), college graduates find it increasingly difficult to find a job. The official poverty rate may be low, but the level of inequality remains staggeringly high: in Chile half of all workers make no more than $550 per month. Compare this with the average cost of housing. In 2020, the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in downtown Santiago is slightly under $400; in the outskirts of the city, the figure drops to around $350. Add monthly costs of food and amenities, and one can see how even a small increase in the cost of transportation might be a serious burden for the average Chilean.

Some of the protest art playfully appropriates religious iconography; a dog with a halo is a frequent image. (Joseph Flipper)

For Chile’s upper classes, however, it is no burden at all. The rich have no use for the public services the middle class depends on. The result is that different classes in Chile live in parallel societies. This divide is reflected, for example, in pensions. The state-funded option—available to low-income workers who have paid into the system for twenty years—yields a median income that falls below the poverty line. With an increasing number of retirees facing material hardship, the official poverty rate begins to look less reassuring. Meanwhile, the country’s elite can count on private pension plans.

To understand what has happened in Chile, it is useful to consider a social phenomenon that the philosopher Nancy Fraser calls the “crisis of care.” According to Fraser, advanced capitalist societies tend to exploit pre-existing social bonds the same way they exploit environmental resources—in order to grow. But eventually the social bonds break apart under the pressure of this exploitation, just as rivers become polluted. Many Chileans now feel that the country’s economic success as measured by such people as Montes stands at odds with “the good life”—el buen vivir—a life in which the economy serves the people and not the other way around.

Perhaps the clearest sign of social dissatisfaction is a lack of civic engagement: 81 percent of Chilean voters did not identify with any political party in 2015—up from 53 percent in 2005. In 2016, only 30 percent said that they sympathized with either the Right or Left political coalitions—down from 60 percent in 1990. Less than 15 percent of eligible voters voted in the last election. But thousands of those took to the streets in protest. One survey conducted in October showed that up to 84 percent of Chileans supported the protests, even after the destruction of several metro stations. A similar survey conducted in December reported 68 percent of citizens support the protests as necessary for “generating change.” In Chile, the Nixonian law-and-order effect doesn’t seem to obtain: the excesses of the protestors have not translated into greater public support for the forces of order. Such is the depth and breadth of disenchantment with the government.

Middle-class protestors also stepped up, expressing their dissatisfaction with the economy.

Piñera’s response to the protests combined concessions with confrontation. On October 19, he announced that the transportation hike would be suspended. But he also declared “war” on the protestors, declaring a state of emergency and imposing a curfew. The violence continued to escalate for weeks. The protestors developed a tactic involving the Primera Línea, or Front Line: a group of demonstrators, often masked and wielding makeshift shields and barricades, would form a barrier between the police and the bulk of the demonstrators marching behind them. Clashes would follow. An acquaintance describes life during that time: “If you live in downtown Santiago, tear gas bombs were a part of your daily life.” At least twenty-nine protestors have been blinded during the protests. Police tactics are to blame: one human-rights watchdog group estimates that out of the 3,746 reported injuries, 286 involves the rubber bullets used by police. Covering one eye with a hand or a bandanna has become a sign of solidarity among protesters.

The demonstrations grew when the high-school students were joined by groups organized by the student governments of Santiago’s two major universities—the University of Chile (the FECh) and the Catholic University of Chile (FEUC). They were also joined by members of 8M, an international feminist group, and by indigenous activist groups, especially those representing the Mapuche, the largest indigenous community in Chile, who are demanding greater regional autonomy. Middle-class protestors, who previously did not identify explicitly with any activist groups, also stepped up, expressing their dissatisfaction with the economy. Plaza Italia, whose official name is Plaza Baquedano, has been renamed Plaza de la Dignidad (Plaza of Dignity) by the protestors, and it remains a hub of radical activism. But another city square, Plaza Ñuñoa, emerged as the center of middle-class discontent. Soon the daily clashes between protestors and police had interrupted the lives of many Santiago residents.

At around 4 a.m. on November 14, after weeks of negotiations between Piñera and members of the left-wing opposition coalition, the government announced the constitutional plebiscite. The announcement came on the anniversary of the death of Camilo Catrillanca, a Mapuche farmer and activist who was shot in the head by police in 2018. This grim anniversary might have been the occasion of a new wave of protest, but Piñera’s announcement succeeded in shifting the focus of everyone’s attention.

The plebiscite was supposed to take place in April but was rescheduled for October 25 because of the pandemic. Voters will have to answer two questions: whether or not they want a new constitution, and, if so, whether they want the constitutional convention to be made up entirely of delegates elected explicitly for that task or to include participation by senators, representatives (of both houses of parliament), and constitutional delegates.

I asked two academics sympathetic to the protests whether they thought the plebiscite would satisfy the protestors’ demands. Pedro Güell, who was director of public policy during the presidency of the socialist Michelle Bachelet, believes that changing the constitution would go a long way. “Chile is the clearest and most outstanding example of neoliberalism,” he says, “not because of the form of the economic system, but because of the ultimate goal of neoliberalism, which is to form a particular type of society.” This type of society is “depoliticized.” It is a society in which citizens are represented less by political institutions than by commercial institutions. Güell argues that certain provisions of the 1980 constitution helped create this new kind of society. He cites the following examples: the “extreme autonomy” of the Central Bank, the ineligibility of the labor-union leaders to hold elected offices, narrow limitations on parliamentary power, and too few limitations on executive power. In general, the current constitution has the effect of weakening the political expression of public demands, and channeling them instead into various markets. But even if a constitutional convention takes place, Güell is not sure that reformers would be able to mount the two-thirds supermajority required to implement the needed reforms.

A painting of Mary inscribed with the words, “Reza Por Lxs Que Luchan” (Pray for those who fight). (Joseph Flipper)

Sociologist Nicolás Rojas Pedemonte, the director of a center for social thought at the Jesuit Alberto Hurtado University in Santiago, is even less confident that constitutional change would address the issues driving the protests. He notes that the middle-class protestors in Plaza Ñuñoa went home after the announcement of the plebiscite, but the younger and more radical group in the Plaza Italia remained. When the government began a series of meetings to address the crisis, Rojas Pedemonte wrote an article urging that the young student protesters not be left out of these meetings and describing them as the “vertebrae” of the movement. He thinks the younger protesters are unlikely to be satisfied with the kind of procedural reforms that are likely to be proposed at a constitutional convention. And he worries that these protesters’ more radical demands, such as greater sovereignty for the Mapuche people and a more democratic, less meritocratic educational system, would likely be ignored at such a convention. He warns that if the student protesters feel as though their concerns are not being taken seriously, the conflict on the streets may escalate “from tear gas to car bombs.”

The plebiscite is now scheduled to take place on October 25. Millions of Chileans are simply waiting to see what happens then.

The pandemic has so far prevented things from reaching that point. After Piñera announced the plebiscite, the protests became smaller, but many expected—in fear or in hope—that they would pick up steam again in March, when fall arrives in the southern hemisphere and a new academic year begins. But the nationwide lockdown has kept schools closed and the streets mostly empty of protesters. Meanwhile, the Plaza Italia is being renovated.

With so much uncertainty about both the upcoming plebiscite and the protest movement, I wanted to talk with one of the leaders of that movement. Emilia Schneider is a twenty-three-year-old law student, an experienced activist, and current president of the University of Chile’s student government. She is also the first trans woman to hold that office. During the past year, she was part of the Mesa de Unidad Social (MUS), a conglomerate of different political organizations involved in the protests. (Her great-grandfather was René Schneider, a commander of the armed forces under the Allende government who was kidnapped and killed by right-wing militants before the 1973 coup.) I hoped Schneider might help me figure out who was right, Güell or Rojas Pedemonte? Was institutional reform the fundamental goal, as Güell argued? Or was Rojas Pedemonte right that the estallido social was part of something that went beyond Chile—and, in a sense, beyond politics as we traditionally understand it?

Schneider said that even after Chile’s transition to democracy there was no real break with the authoritarian government’s social model. “What we can see today is that that model is completely exhausted, that it has brought precarity, debt, and burdens to the majority of the country.” Her account of neoliberalism is similar to Güell’s: “The problem is with the subsidiary model of the Chilean state, which means that it does not act when private institutions may act instead. Education, health, housing, etc., are all privatized and instead of being rights, they are places for profit and consumption. They charge us for these things. I believe the most important transformation that we hope for is a guarantee of social rights: pensions, health, social security.... We also need a more participatory democracy, one where social organizations have a greater voice.”

I asked Schneider about the role that dialogue plays in this social movement, and her thoughts turned toward what this movement means beyond political reform. “We always participate in the spaces of dialogue, understanding them as places of dispute. As a place where not everything is given and where one must always have in mind what is happening outside the spaces of dialogue: the mobilizations, social actions, articulations between different sectors of society...and if one finds oneself in a dialogue with the authorities, one has to be capable not of imposing one’s terms but of building a majority....  These dialogues must enter into politics.”

Schneider sums up the goals of many activists with three words: “Relegitimar, reconstruir, reconfigurar la constitucionalidad Chilena”—re-legitimize, reconstruct, and reconfigure Chile’s political foundation. But first, Chile must get past the pandemic. As of late August, the country ranks tenth in the world in total number of infections. Piñera’s government has been accused of mishandling the crisis after bragging, back in March, that the country was much better prepared “than Italy.” The protestors see the government’s failure as more evidence of the failure of neoliberalism: in Chile as elsewhere, the poor have been more affected by the virus than the rich. Recent weeks have also seen an increase in Mapuche protests in the south of Chile. The plebiscite is now scheduled to take place on October 25. Millions of Chileans are simply waiting to see what happens then. Will it just be the end of the protest movement, or the beginning of a larger transformation?

Published in the September 2020 issue: 

Santiago Ramos is the John Garvey Writing Fellow at Commonweal.

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