Chile’s social uprising: One year on
It’s been one year since the ‘Estallido Social began in Chile. The uprising began in October 2019 with a student rebellion over metro fare hikes and culminated in months of protests and socio-economic demands from a wide coalition of groups, from trade unions to feminists. Activists converged on the push for a new constitution, that is, to remove the constitution that was imposed by the ruthless dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1980.
Some change has been won and a plebiscite on whether the current constitution should remain (Rechazo) or be removed (Apruebo) will be held on 25 October. While the Sebastiaán Pinera led administration appears to be conceding in the face of increasing inequality and discontent, by agreeing to hold the historic vote, recent months have been marred by allegations of brutal human rights abuses and the downgrading of expectations.
While it’s expected that the Apruebo vote will win, providing the catalyst to finally enable change in one of the world’s most unequal economies and feeble democracies, some are skeptical that the plebiscite will bring any substantial reform to Chile’s extreme free market systems.
‘This is not a plebiscite that has been called for by the people. It is one initiated by Chile’s corrupt political class that has benefited over the last 30 years’ says Michel Saez, an activist from La Legua, a working-class area in Santiago that was a symbol of resistance and militancy during the Pinochet Regime.
‘We, the people, have taken to the streets to ask for a Constituent Assembly, free, sovereign and plurinominal. The political class have twisted our demands to their advantage and to protect Pinera’s interests. We have now been presented with two options: Mixed assembly or Constituent Assembly, neither of which include us grassroots movements.’
Michel fears that the vote will paper over the most urgent demands. ‘We don’t want another fraud like the 1988 plebiscite (when Pinochet was forced to step down as head of state by the No Vote but made himself head of the armed forces and Senator for life).
‘By removing the Constituent Assembly option, social organizations, sexual and ethnic minorities are being excluded from the process. That is why we are conducting our struggle in the streets. We reject agreements made among four walls by an illegitimate political class that does not represent the people. Yet again, we feel robbed by this process.’
The overhang from the dictatorship is ever-present, and not just in the extreme neoiberal economic model that has been deepened by each successive government. Despite over 30 years working towards a transition to democracy, many problematic institutions have remained unchallenged since the days of Pinochet’s regime.
One of these is the militarized police force that yet again hit international headlines on 2 October when a policeman threw a minor from a bridge into a river, leaving the boy unconscious and bleeding.
The security forces came under intense international public scrutiny in October 2019 and well into the new year, as five international human rights bodies unanimously condemned the actions of Chile’s carabineros. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International andthe United Nations among others, all found extensive evidence of torture, sexual abuse, arbitrary detentions and even death at the hands of police.
The onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic has not abated tensions as a strict curfew was imposed preventing many from working and prompting a food crisis that has led to the resurgence of community kitchens.
Those running the kitchens report being followed by unmarked cars, watched by drones, detained and even beaten during raids on community centres. There have also been cases of violent detentions after curfew hours with one case leading to the death of a young construction worker at the hands of police, on his way home.
Campaigners for ‘Apruebo’ however, remain undeterred and are preparing for 25 October when they can voice their discontent and cast their vote at the plebiscite.
Jorge Saavedra Utman, affiliated lecturer at Cambridge University’s Sociology department is optimistic.
‘The new constitution will be a change because it will mean that Pinochet’s Constitution is something of the past. That, to start, is a symbolic and real win. Now, how substantial will be that change? We do not know.
There are reasons to be cautiously hopeful. For example, there is a wide agreement on turning Chile’s path from a wild neoliberalism to a different type of society in which rights are guaranteed, in which the property right does not stand over social rights, in which water – for instance – is no longer in private hands,’ Utman explains.
‘Of course this wide agreement, and the writing process of a constitution [is] substantially different. [It] will have to be closely followed by civil society, by journalists, by leftwing political parties, in order to avoid watering down all the hopes to end up with a feeble Carta Magna.’
Despite the curfews, national state of emergency and successive laws designed to curb and criminalize social protest, huge crowds continue to gather at the emblematic Plaza Dignidad in Santiago Central every Friday afternoon, calling for constitutional change and an end to police brutality.
One protester, who wished to remain anonymous, told New Internationalist the ‘atmosphere at Plaza Dignidad tonight [9 October] has been euphoric. People are no longer afraid. Change is coming whether Pinera’s weakened government wants it or not.’