Chile: Neoliberal Laboratory and the Current Uprisings
By Michael Ramminger | 04 December 2019
Note: You can read more about the situation in Chile in Amandla! Issue 67/68, out now. Look out for the article titled Chile: Neoliberal Oasis in Flames by Carlos Torres.
As has been the case in recent years, there were protests and demonstrations by the students in Santiago de Chile this year as well. Again and again, students protested against the privatization of education or against excessively high prices in public transport – especially the Metro, whose connections are extremely important due to the expansion of the capital city. These increases affect both pupils and the poor from the poor quarters, the so-called Poblaciones, who rely on the metro to reach school, university or working places.
On the 14th of October this year, students overran the turnstiles in the metro stations with the slogan “Evadir – no pagar – otro forma de luchar”: “Skip over – don’t pay – another form of struggle”. But unlike in previous years, this time it wasn’t just individual actions. These actions were the initial spark for the explosion of nationwide protests and rebellions in the streets, which continue to today. After nineteen metro stations and several trains were set on fire, there was a fire in the administration building of the electricity company ENEL. ENEL is an Italian company and symbolizes the absolute privatization of Chile’s public goods. It is also representative of the raids of the political class on the country’s wealth. A lot of government members, for example, hold rights on water.
It is not about thirty Pesos, but about thirty years
Simultaneously with the massive expansion of the protests, the slogan “It’s not about 30 pesos, but about 30 years” was increasingly used on banners. This was the street’s reaction to the announcement of the right-wing president Sebastian Pinera’s withdrawal of the 30 pesos Metro fare increase. 30 years is the time since the formal transition from dictatorship to democracy that occured in 1989. It is also the time period which has seen the continuity and expansion of the neoliberal-capitalist model that began in Chile in the mid-1970s with the so-called Chicago Boys.
At that time, the military did not return power to the classic elites, but rather, on the advice of their ideological helpers, transferred economic policy competencies to young Chilean technocrats who had been trained by the neoliberal mastermind Milton Friedman in Chicago. In Chile, they found an optimally manufactured laboratory: democratic parties, trade union organizations and professional associations had been eliminated or were under control of the government like universities, newspapers, radio and television stations. In these conditions, the Chicago Boys began their neoliberal experiments – deregulation of the capital market, reduction of protective tariffs and abolition of subsidies. The role of the state in the economy was progressively reduced to a minimum. Chile once again took its place in the capitalist world economy as an exporter of cheap raw materials and provider of cheap human labor.
State of emergency
The government reacted to the clashes and uprisings by declaring a state of emergency on the 19th of October and massive police repression ensued. But this only resulted in an intensification of clashes, with mobilization and demonstrations growing. It wasn’t only the pupils and students in the streets, but also their parents and grandparents. Even parts of the middle class now felt reminded of the dictatorship, or held the (liberal) perception that the military should only be used to defend against external enemies. Pinera himself lacked the authority and charisma to enforce this state of emergency. One Chilean described the situation: “Even before the president declared the state of emergency, the people had put themselves on the edge of the law, because they had the dark feeling that the law was no good anymore. To stand outside the law was a form of the search for a new law, this time to search for a law of life … ”
On the 26th of October, one of the largest marches in history took place in Santiago. 1.2 million people demonstrated and resisted the state of emergency. One day later the president lifted the state of emergency, apologized, withdrew amendments to the law and dismissed almost a third of his cabinet. This included the unpopular Interior Minister, who has been heavily criticised for attacks by security forces on demonstrators, and the Finance Minister. But the protests continued and have since spread throughout the country. In addition to the protests in the streets, which are mainly carried out by schoolchildren and students, committees have been formed in many districts which have taken up an older demand of the opposition for a reform of the constitution, which still stems from the dictatorship.
On the 15th of November there was a surprising consensus between the government and the opposition in parliament. A referendum for March/April next year was agreed on to decide whether there should be a new constitution, and whether it should be discussed between 50% parliamentarians and 50% elected representatives of the people or only elected representatives of the people.
In view of this consensus and a certain degree of demobilization due to the fact that uprisings and protests that have been going on for six weeks now (and in which about 30 people have lost their lives, 200 have lost eyes through targeted rubber bullets and there has been about 2000 cases of human rights violations, violence and torture by the police and the military) the question arises: how things will continue in Chile? The danger of complete demobilisation by next year is very great.
The necessary interaction of resistance in the streets, in the district committees, and in parliament, with the enforcement of the demand for the resignation of the president and the government as a prerequisite for a constitutional process in which the left could be significant, seems to be endangered. In particular the agreement of the largest opposition party alliance, the Frente Amplio (a coalition of left-wing, social-democratic and even bourgeois-liberal forces), to the president’s proposal seems to endanger the successes of the people. Yet on the other hand, nearly 200 important leaders of a left part of the Frente Amplio, the so called Convergencia Social have resigned, because they disagreed with its negotiating course.
Digging the grave of neoliberalism?
In addition, there is an alliance called US (Unidad Social – Social Unity), in which besides the most important student organisations and the Women’s Strike Alliance, or 8 of March Alliance, the trade union umbrella organisation CUT, human rights organisations, Mapuche associations and over 200 other organisations, are members. This alliance had already rejected the agreement for a new constitution on the 16th of November and declared a general strike for the 26th of November. This included the dock workers, the airport workers, the transport workers’ union, construction workers, health workers and the Líder-Walmart workers. Announcing the strike in public, Esteban Maturana, vice-president of Confusam (the union of public health workers), said: “We must make it clear to the ruling political class that we will not accept the games of politicians who want to change everything without changing anything. Chile has changed. Chile has woken up. And here in Chile, we are digging the grave of the predatory and wild neoliberalism that was imposed on us during the dictatorship of blood and fire.”
So it is still open whether the forces that prevail are those demanding the resignation of the government, a new constitution, punishment of those responsible for human rights violations, free health, education and a fundamental reform of the pension system as a condition for ending strikes and protests. Or whether a compromise is reached, and pacification of the people and continued rule of the political class prevails. This will only become apparent in the coming months. We must not forget that Chilean society is still divided, just as it was in 1973 when Pinochet, the Oligarchy and the CIA carried out the coup d’état.
Michael Ramminger is a theologian and left-wing activist. He works at the Institute for Theology and Politics in Münster, Germany and has been active in solidarity work for Chile since the 1980s.