Chile’s Social Explosion
An Interview with Emilio Dabed and Pablo Vivanco
The catalyst for the 2019 uprising in Chile was an increase of up to 30 cents to Transantiago transit fares. High school students in the capital called for fare evasion en masse and posted videos of themselves jumping turnstiles on social media. Carabineros, the Chilean state police, responded with brutal force and on October 18, 2019, people began protesting across the country for a multitude of reasons, many stemming from the consolidation of neoliberalism since the return of democracy in 1990. The ruling class, always out of touch with the reality of the majority of Chileans, was caught completely off guard by the Chilean people’s social demands: an end to state violence and femicides, more public spending, Indigenous rights, a new constitution and more. To understand Chile’s estallido social, or social explosion, in the context of the South American nation’s recent history, Pamela Arancibia spoke to Emilio Dabed and Pablo Vivanco.
Emilio Dabed is a lawyer, specializing in constitutional law, international law and Human Rights, and has a PhD in political science. Currently, he is Adjunct Professor at Osgoode Hall Law School and Visiting Fellow at the Nathanson Centre on Transnational Human Rights, Crime and Security at York University in Toronto. Previously, he was an associate researcher at An-Najah National University, Palestine, from 2017 to 2018. Between 2015 and 2016 he was the Palestine and Law Fellow at Columbia University-Centre for Palestine Studies, and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Law at Columbia Law School. In 2014 and 2015 he was the director of the International Law and Human Rights Program at Al-Quds/Bard College, Jerusalem, where he taught between 2011 and 2015.
Pablo Vivanco is a Chilean-Canadian journalist, producer and writer who served as Director of teleSUR English. He has bylines in The Jacobin, Asia Times, and The Progressive, and he has produced video reports for Redfish and The Real News Network.
No son 30 pesos, son 30 años / It’s not 30 cents, it’s 30 years.
What does neoliberalism in Chile look like for the average, working-class person?
Emilio: Chileans are saying: “It is not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years.” Really, it is 47 years if you count from Pinochet’s coup d’état, 210 years if you count the social and economic struggles after the creation of the republic, and about 500 years from an Indigenous perspective. It has been four decades of an obscene neoliberal consensus introduced by the dictatorship. Pinochet’s legacy is based on four basic but brutal tenets: private property before and above any other right, modernity and progress but only through the market, liberty and emancipation redefined as choice of consumption, and the sacred observance of these rules before justice, or the idea that justice amounts precisely to the respect of norms.
I’d just like to highlight the ironic role that the last tenet played at the outset of the revolt. Within the ad hoc “neoliberal democracy” created in Chile, Chileans are expected to choose between products but not to raise economic, social, or political demands that could put capital accumulation at risk. What the Chilean establishment couldn’t tolerate on October 18, 2019, was the political significance of the actions: fare evasion at Transantiago is an immense action, and we’ve never seen a meaningful strategy to disrupt neoliberalism. But some socially and politically conscious kids jumping turnstiles as a political act risked opening the doors to “unrealistic” demands challenging the norms, and those kids needed to be stopped. The response was to close the subway and send in the police, who created chaos in the city and propelled the revolt. By enforcing the de-politicization of freedom and order before justice, the government helped create the conditions for revolt that threaten the other tenets of the Chilean neoliberal regime; what Chileans are demanding today is a renegotiation of the structures of property and an economic alternative to the market as sole regulator.
We’ll see where this uprising leads. The prospects aren’t great. If the Chilean bourgeoisie has proven something in its history, it’s the Marxist fear that bourgeois class consciousness may be the strongest form of class consciousness.
Pablo: Why was the fare increase the straw that broke the camel’s back? It was an accumulation of things that had also been exacerbated by the constant and ongoing humiliation that the people are subjected to by the ruling political class. Not only have people been living in poverty, inequality, and debt with all of these structures that the ruling class created, which are the legacy of the dictatorship, but the ruling political class continue to snub their nose at the people at every turn. So, what happened when the students started to protest? The head of the metro went on TV and said: “There are only a few thousand protesters going out, you aren’t doing anything, nobody is following you, no one cares.”
Then, another cabinet minister said: “Well, yeah, we increased the fares.” Which, you know, 30 cents sounds like a nominal amount, but when you have hundreds of thousands of people trying to subsist on minimum wage, which is only a couple of hundred thousand pesos a month, that small increment adds up and takes a toll on people. So this minister said: “We still have reduced fares for off-peak hours, so somebody could go to work much earlier and leave much later.” Not to mention the repression in response to the protests. For the last 15 years, there have been at least one or two protests a year that draw tens of thousands of people to the streets, and the government never responds, whether it’s a right-wing government under the UDI/RN coalition 1 or the Concertación (centre-left) governments.
Another reason we saw this sort of energy was because it was led by young people who didn’t have the same fear that people who lived through the dictatorship had. I heard on the streets when I was there—from a number of people, particularly folks who were older, who were militants, who had lived through the dictatorship—that when the government sent out the military to impose a curfew, those people went home because they got scared. The young people stayed because they didn’t necessarily have the same trauma. It didn’t flip that switch in them like it did in folks who had lived through it. As a result, the fact that they stayed on the street, that gave the rest of society the confidence to say: “Maybe this time is different.”
Chile despertó / Chile awoke
The social upheaval has been framed as an awakening, suggesting that Chileans have been in a slumber since the dictatorship ended. To what extent do you think it’s true that Chileans had been sleeping through recent political developments and have only now woken up?
Pablo: I understand why it’s framed that way, particularly inside Chile. We’ve seen annual demonstrations about how the country is run, inequality, the legacy of the dictatorship, but mostly they’re about people getting by and being able to project how they’re going to be able to live in the future, about being able to have some hope. But tens or even hundreds of thousands of people have been known to hit the streets over labour laws, the extractive industries in the south, 2 environmental concerns, 3 and the privatization of education. So it’s not like Chile has been asleep. But, up until October 2019, a lot of these things hadn’t necessarily converged out onto the streets in such a mass, sustained way and, as Emilio said, actually challenged the basis of the system. The recent demonstrations really went beyond the traditional organizations and out into all of society. And it didn’t really follow the leadership of the traditional left political parties, or the mass organizations that political parties had been influential in. Those organizations participated in the uprising, but things on the street were functioning independently of them. So, I do think there is reason to say that Chile woke up. People would still be on the streets if it weren’t for the pandemic. People were ready to go for the long haul. The only reason the protests stopped was because of COVID-19. But the awakening builds on all of that history, on the accumulation of broken promises and false hopes that were not only something that the right is responsible for, but that in many ways the centre-left— the electoral left that’s part of the Concertación— has been responsible for. They sold people a bill of goods and told them to hold on, and people were willing to hold on. After the dictatorship, there was a sense of patience. We can only get so much so fast. But after a while, a new generation comes and none of those promises mean anything. So for me, it’s an awakening, but it’s an awakening that is a part of an accumulation of frustrations that just burst out onto the street.
Emilio: It is important to distinguish between different times. I think things really changed after 2005. Before then I saw a country sleeping in the promises of neoliberalism. In 2005, the centre-left coalition that had been ruling the country since 1990 was still operating as a mere administrator of the former military government’s political and economic legacy. No major economic, social, or political reforms had been undertaken, social and economic inequalities were obscene, and social movements seemed contained within a neoliberal and conservative status quo. The country seemed to be sleeping, but that changed by 2006 with the Revolución de los Pingüinos. 4 The October 2019 revolt did not happen in a vacuum. It was preceded by numerous calls and mobilizations since 2006 from students, workers, and Indigenous people. None of these were properly attended to and, in the case of the Mapuches, they were brutally repressed.
The magnitude and force of October’s revolt was necessary for people to be heard and, after so many years waiting, to make the political class understand that their demands were serious and urgent. Chileans were jolted awake by the violence and the indignity imposed on them. Take the case of the Administradoras de Fondos de Pensiones de Chile (AFPs), which is emblematic of the injustices, violence, and obscenity of the Chilean political and economic regime. 5 The legal framework regulating the property and administration of the pension funds belies another myth of Chilean neoliberalism: that private property is sacred. What the AFPs regime shows is that the only sacred property is that of those who rule the country, certainly not the property of workers. This is why the ruling class in Chile is willing to do anything as long as the AFPs system remains untouched. From October 18, 2019 Chileans began demanding the restructuring of property in Chile and the role of the market. But Chilean democracy is one in which you can discuss and negotiate some things, but property and the role of the market are not among them. We need to ask: what are Chileans demanding? Are Chileans asking for radical transformations, or do they want a more redistributive capitalism and more access to consumption?
Por una nueva constitución / For a new constitution
One of the immediate demands of the uprising was for a new constitution to replace Jaime Guzmán’s constitution. What does this look like? And should Chileans put their faith in a new constitution? Do you think we’ll see meaningful change?
Emilio: Well, Pinochet’s constitution articulated the two first tenets of the new political and economic regime: private property before and above any other right, and modernity and progress but only through the market. These principles are constitutionally entrenched in the Chilean political regime, making any meaningful reform in these areas very difficult. That’s why the constitution needs to be abrogated and replaced by one that translates the aspirations of Chileans at the centre of a new social contract, one that allows us to reimagine Chile.
Having said that, we also need to be alert to the traps of the law and moderate our expectations regarding a new constitution. We must keep in mind that law is a reflection of power relations and operates according to them. Change can only come from our capacity to create new power dynamics, hence the importance of a solid leadership and organized mobilization. In this process, law is not necessarily on our side. One defining characteristic of contemporary political regimes around the world is not so much their open and blatant disregard for the law, which is frequent, but rather the constant recourse to “strategic reinterpretations” of the law, legal concepts and principles to introduce mechanisms of exploitation, repression, and violence into the law. We live in regimes of exception, in a permanent state of exception. The law is an integral part of their strategy to normalize their violence.
All this emphasizes a surprising phenomenon, crucial for the understanding of contemporary politics: that the entrenchment of colonial regimes, the division within emancipatory movements, and the ever increasing authoritarianism, have been reinforced, not against the law, but precisely through legal structures, and are justified by a disconcerting use of the language of the “rule of law,” “good governance,” and “human rights.” Power does not see the law anymore as a limit to it, but as a strategic resource used to expand itself. The language of rights and the law are not at odds with the practices of power, as was understood in classic liberal theory; on the contrary, power seems to speak this language comfortably. Power has colonized and mastered the language of law and rights, puts them at the service of its own reproduction, and uses the courts to rationalize it in legal terms.
It’s time to think of emancipation beyond the frame of the state.
Pablo: I think the question of the constitution offers insight into why people are on the streets: are they on the streets looking simply for some redistribution, or are they demanding a radical departure from what exists? A new constitution is necessary, and there is broad consensus for it among people on the streets, for people organizing in their barrios, comunas, organizations, in society as a whole. It may seem odd: I’ve had a number of people ask me if a new constitution is what Chileans really want. It seems like an odd demand for a mass movement to be making. But I think that there is broad consensus in understanding that the constitution does exactly what Emilio said. It creates a legal outline, a structure, and foundation in the state that puts the interests of capital and private property above everything else. And it makes even some of the smallest reforms impossible. A new constitution would result in the removal of this crass, neoliberal ossification within the state, but it wouldn’t change the nature of the state itself, of its functioning in the service of the rich, because the rich in Chile still own everything. This is one of the legacies 50 years after the dictatorship: everything was privatized. In Latin America, and in Chile in particular, the ruling class doesn’t do concessions.
While a constitution and the fight for it is just and necessary, I’m interested in the process that’s involved in fighting for it, particularly the form in which a new constitution is shaped. Legislators, in their proposal, have tried to stay away from a constituent assembly at all costs, which is something that we’ve seen in other parts of Latin America, particularly where spaces have opened up for social movements on the Left to be able to not only accumulate forces but create a consciousness among the general populace, to create a debate around social debts and around what type of society people want to build. The bourgeoisie is aware of that. They’ve been opposing constitutional change since before October; this is something that’s been debated in the past. It’s one of the things Michelle Bachelet promised to do. She promised to make changes to the constitution when she was last elected but didn’t follow through. So, a new constitution creates opportunities and a terrain for struggle, for organization, for getting people out in the street, for the left political parties that are actually interested in deeper social transformation. And this is what the bourgeoisie in Chile are afraid of. I don’t think they’re necessarily afraid that at the end there’s going to be a document that dispossesses them of the things they’ve stolen over the last half century, but they are afraid of what the struggle for this document will do and that that document will stop insulating them from the reforms that people have been demanding for the better part of the last two decades.
¿Qué pasa si el virus muta y se pone buena persona? / What if the virus changes and becomes a good person?
These are the infamous words of Chile’s former Minister of Health. Until recently, the government could continue to gaslight the Chilean people and deny their grievances. However, the government’s catastrophic response to the new coronavirus has laid bare the failures of the neoliberal model. What has COVID-19 revealed about healthcare, education, housing, food security, etc.?
Pablo: I don’t think it revealed anything new, but it did confirm everything. From early on, the response was “we have bigger things to worry about,” because people didn’t know the scale of the pandemic and they were very skeptical about anything the government was telling them. When people realized that it was real, they left the streets because they knew they had to take care of themselves. The virus reaffirmed that the healthcare system is incapable of dealing with a pandemic, and incapable of serving the interests of the population. It revealed that food security is a real problem. People have had to respond on their own to the crisis by preparing ollas communes, or “common pots,” ensuring the community could get through this. People knew very early on that the government wasn’t going to come to their rescue and that the things necessary to protect the population were not going to be there. COVID-19 has reaffirmed and validated all the concerns that drove people into the streets in the first place.
Emilio: Yes, of course, COVID-19 has exposed the catastrophic effects of decades of defunding public services, and the racial, ethnic, and social lines of poverty and vulnerability. This will only deepen political and social fractures. But COVID-19 has brought about something much more fundamental: a kind of crisis that capitalism may not be able to overcome. When we look back on recent history, we are astonished by capitalism’s capacity to adapt and survive, transforming all past crises into new opportunities for business. But the crisis brought about by COVID-19 is of a different nature and it has a great potential to force us to look for alternatives. Because COVID-19 produces what may be a wound in the heart of global capitalism: the stopping of movement. COVID-19 not only has the potential to halt the production and availability of merchandises, but it also reduces our capacity to consume. All the urgency measures implemented—bailouts, emergency assistance, etc.—rest on the bet that COVID-19 will end soon. But we don’t really know that. If people can’t produce for a longer time, supply chains could break down. But even if companies produce and we can’t consume, the collapse will be imminent. Governments can’t afford permanent or long-term bailouts or assistance programs. And what would be the point of bailing out companies that would go bankrupt anyway? Maybe governments would have to start thinking of more advantageous ways of expanding their reserves. Nationalizations would come first, but in the longer run, it would force an alternative form of economic organization. This is why governments around the world, despite their rhetoric about human safety, are desperate to send people back to work. In France, a law was being discussed giving immunity to public officials from the risks and legal responsibilities of reopening the economy. They are administering death to save capital.
El violador eres tú / The rapist is you
One of the most prominent actions of the past year has been the performance piece A rapist in your path by the Valparaíso-based, feminist collective Las Tesis. 6 It went international, with translations into various languages and performances around the world. What has been the role of the arts in Chilean social movements, now and in the past? How have they been able to reflect the critical thought, concerns, and aspirations of Chile’s social movements, whether it’s the issue of sexual and gender-based violence as we see with this performance, or of class struggle as reflected in the songs of Victor Jara and other artists of the nueva canción music genre?
Emilio: The role of arts in politics, particularly in Latin America, has always been huge: from the Cuban revolution, to Allende’s declaration of Chilean art as an integral part of the socialist revolution in Chile, to the most recent explosion of politically-engaged art emerging in Chile before and after October 18, 2019. Slogans, paintings, performances, songs and other artistic expressions have inspired and crystallised Chileans’ demands. One slogan in particular struck me as one of the most powerful poetic expressions that emerged during the revolt, reflecting not only the impact of the illusions of neoliberal rule, but also a solid point from which to re-imagine Chile. It says: “Estamos peor, pero estamos mejor, porque antes estábamos bien, pero era mentira. No como ahora que estamos mal, pero es verdad.” This translates to: “We’re worse off but better because before we were fine, but it was a lie. Unlike now where we are doing badly, but it’s the truth.” Another powerful slogan that emerged from feminist movements, expressing the need for radical transformations in Chile, says: “Con todo, si no pa’ que?” or “All the way, or why bother?” And, of course, we had this powerful performance from Las Tesis denouncing the intersection of gender, patriarchy, capitalism, and the state in the current structures of oppression.
Pablo: I don’t think it’s a surprise to see some of the imagery, and the conjuring of the history, of Chile’s social movements: of people like Salvador Allende and Victor Jara. Beyond what you saw on social media, in Plaza de la Dignidad, 7 as it was renamed, you would constantly hear Victor Jara’s El derecho de vivir en paz blasting. People really identified with that figure, those lessons, that part of Chilean history. Again, not saying that the call was necessarily for socialism, but that part of the history, the message, the lyrics, and the folklore resonated with folks. But it has been resonating with young folks for a long time. One thing I’ve always found interesting, looking at Chilean pop culture and pop music, is that Chile is almost an exception in the sense that many of the different genres, whether it’s Latin rock or urban music, always have a sort of social critique and have for many years. It isn’t that there’s music for lefties and conscious people and music for everybody else who’s drinking in the discotecas. There’s very little gap between those two, so there is continuity there. In terms of Las Tesis and some of the issues they speak to, there are some very interesting lessons to take from that. One of the themes is the legacy of the dictatorship and of the state that has continued into the present with state violence and impunity. So, we have to talk about the impunity that the state facilitates when it comes to femicides and rape. And there a number of high-profile cases in which people connected with the ruling class are let off precisely because with the law, as well, there are two different types of societies. There’s a society for the ruling class and a society for everybody else. All these things are very much intertwined. That’s one of the reasons why Las Tesis were able to get a lot of people out into the streets, and it didn’t seem foreign either. There are also discussions around language: Spanish is a gendered language. One of the discussions taking place is about inclusive language and gender parity. That’s one of the issues that’s been raised around the constituent assembly. Looking for different representations of what actually constitutes Chilean society. And then we get into the Mapuche people and what role they should have in there. I think that a lot of these things are not separate from everything we’ve discussed so far about what led up to this uprising and how it is connected with four decades of neoliberal rule that were cemented from a brutal dictatorship. All of these things have a continuity built into what we see today.
Marichiweu / We will be ten times victorious
I want to go back to the idea that “it’s not 30 cents, it’s 30 years,” because another slogan was, “it’s not 30 years, it’s 500.” The Mapuche have been fighting colonization and occupation for almost 500 years. Is it possible to have a serious conversation about this revolutionary moment without also discussing Mapuche resistance to Chilean repression?
Pablo: We can’t talk about the current situation without making their struggle one of the central issues of Chile. As one of the stalwarts of the fight against neoliberalism, they were doing it throughout the dictatorship until now, constantly, sometimes by themselves. It’s an opportunity for a unification of struggles that are not disparate but haven’t necessarily worked in unison for many reasons. One of those has been the indifference of Chilean society and parts of the Chilean Left to the issues of the Mapuche people. Again, they resisted colonization up until the late 1800s. They had a dominion they fought for, first against the Spaniards and then the early Chilean Republic until the late 1800s, until they were militarily defeated in the pacification, but they never ceded. And they maintain that the AraucanÍa 8 is their land and they have the right to maintain sovereignty over it. Not as separatistas. From my discussions in the region, it isn’t necessarily their approach, but the approach that they have the right to autonomy and a right to preside over the resources in their territory, whether that’s timber, water, or other things that have been stolen by the Chilean state and by people within the Chilean state. Because that’s the other thing. It’s not like the state just came and took it; they came and took it to privatize it and give it to their own people.
This is a unique and positive opportunity for a meaningful unification of those forces. It isn’t just about waving Mapuche flags at a demonstration while their legitimate claims are being ignored. Those are the things that were taking place, and for me, being there and seeing it, speaking with people, it’s one of the things that gave me a lot of hope: that this isn’t just going to be a demonstration that will bring some people out for a while and then fizzle out; this is something that is going to be around for the long haul until there are some meaningful changes.
Emilio: The conflict between the Chilean state and the Mapuche people is a political conflict of a colonial nature. One in which the colonizer, the Chilean state, uses physical, institutional, and symbolic violence with the aim of subduing another people, stripping them of their ancestral heritage, and, finally, of making them colonized and the violence imposed on them, invisible. This reminds us of Frantz Fanon, when in his book The Wretched of the Earth, he says: “Colonialism is not a machine capable of thinking, or a body endowed with reason. It is naked violence, and only yields when faced with greater violence.” This has been so since the colonial encounter and the brutal force used to displace or exterminate them; it continued with the military and repressive approach adopted by the Chilean republic during its first 150 years of existence, then with the violence of the military regime between 1973 and 1990, until the most recent use of exceptional anti-terrorist laws promulgated during Pinochet’s dictatorship, by democratic governments, and against Indigenous movements.
Despite the fact that these struggles—the Mapuche anti-colonial struggle and the struggle of Chilean people at large—against capitalism, seem different, I do not think that they can be thought of or understood independently from each other. First, because colonialism is a natural emanation of capitalism. Second, because the same strategies, legal regimes, and policing practices are used to exploit Indigenous people and workers in general and contain Indigenous and other social movements.
In the early days of the protests, in an effort to get Chileans off the streets, the government conceded to a plebiscite on the dictatorship-era constitution. On October 25, 2020, Chileans voted overwhelmingly in favour of rewriting the constitution by means of a constituent assembly (78 percent in favour, with only three out of 346 electoral districts voting against a new constitution). On April 11, 2021, Chileans will again head to the polls, this time to elect their representatives for the assembly, after which they will have 12 months to successfully draft a new constitution.
Following a brief pause to the protests during the peak spread of COVID-19 over the winter months, Chileans are hitting the streets to protest once again. One thing is certain: Chileans will not be pacified with a few superficial reforms. It is becoming increasingly evident that the vision for a new society that they are trying to articulate will only be met when they succeed in overthrowing the neoliberal system that pervades all aspects of their lives. Chileans are fond of saying that neoliberalism was born in Chile and that it will die there. The next couple of years will give a much better sense if these words will come true in “the country of poets.” *