The Chilean uprising: something very different happening?
Amandla Magazine | Issue 69 || March 2020
Why we need to take notice – an eye-witness account
“We not going to stop – we began already. If we have to go out a hundred thousand times we will do it.”
A defaced statue, including a bloodied eye, in the town of Coyhaique in central Patagonia
Now in its fourth month, the Chilean uprising continues to gain momentum, with rapidly unfolding developments on numerous fronts. A lull was expected over the Xmas / New Year period, but demonstrations and other activities continued apace, including a major event on New Years’ eve in Santiago.
A new Chilean movement has arisen – full of militancy, dynamism, creativity, sense of purpose and clear political direction. Unlike in the past, this movement is also fearless of the harshly repressive state, including the Carabineros (military police).
With its explicit anti-elitist stance and powerful challenge to neoliberalism, the Chilean movement, spearheaded by the youth across class formations, is demanding fundamental transformation, starting with a new constitution.
In this eye-witness account it is argued that a new and highly significant scenario is evolving, warranting our close attention. As found emblazoned in graffiti everywhere, Chile has woken and will never sleep again – Chile desperto…Y no volvera a domir!
Arising out of direct engagements and discussion, the ‘underbelly’ of the uprising is explored. This will include the front line of the demonstrations, the Las Tesis feminist flash mob interventions, the omnipresent graffiti with its potent imagery and messaging, the local assemblies and the Concert for Dignity attended by half a million defiant people.
The current dynamic
A Carabineros vehicle splattered with paint by demonstrators
At the time of writing, violent repression continues with conflict between the Carabineros and demonstrators escalating further. Demonstrators in Santiago virtually declared war after a police vehicle drove at high speed through a crowd outside a soccer match, killing Jorge Mora. This is after another demonstrator in an earlier incident was crushed (but survived) in a pincer movement by Carabineros, with the incident treated lightly by the court that heard the case. Police stations were then attacked in retaliation, along with Molotov cocktails thrown into police vehicles. In another incident, Ariel Morena died after been hit on the head during a protest in honour of Mora.
There is much detail involved, but overall the dynamic has greatly intensified across the country, with the state sponsored Carabineros deliberately taking advantage of the uprising to try and create a chaotic situation.
In addition to daily battles and interventions, such as the recent national boycott of an extremely unpopular tertiary education entrance exam, intense mobilisation and preparations are occurring for the 26 April 2020 referendum on a new constitution and other changes. A number of new, civil society-linked political parties are emerging for this specific purpose. This includes a party inspired by the Las Tesis feminist revolt.
Along with the ongoing state repression, the right is consolidating and also mobilising, including for a no vote in the referendum. Even the Chilean Senate, which has a fairly large representation of opposition politicians, is involved in an intense dynamic over a vast range of issues.
Against this backdrop, what is new and different that deserves particular attention?
A new and growing movement
Firstly, it is not only the fact that there is a new movement in Chile, but also its very depth and breadth. Support for the new movement is found throughout Chile, from bustling Santiago to the furthest reaches of its territory. The term ‘the movement’ is on the lips of a broad swath of Chilean society. Deep in rural Patagonia for example, such as in the town of Coyhaique, statues with one bloodied eye and graffiti projecting messages linked to the movement can be found (see photo above). In fact no statue in Coyhaique, of which there are many does not have a bloodied eye!
Symbolic eyes strung up at the Plaza de la Dignidad in central Santiago
A bloodied eye and eyes in general are one of the many symbols of the movement, reflecting the extreme violence inflicted on demonstrators, including over 400 eye injuries, with some demonstrators completely blinded. The powerful slogan ‘Even though they take away our eyes, we won’t be blind anymore’, is often seen amongst the graffiti.
The movement also spans across extremely broad layers of Chilean society. As stated by Victor Orellana in his article ‘A new people is borne in Chile’, a “broad social mass”, excluding only the elite, is involved. In fact, “virtually all of Chile is out protesting”. “There is an ‘us’ – all those who make a living from their labour, be it professional or unskilled – and ‘them’ – the political class, the military and the rentier business class”. This includes Chile’s highly organized and militant student movement both at secondary and tertiary educational levels, who along with other layers of youth are spear-heading the movement.
Different groupings have different ways of manifesting their involvement. Families in apartments surrounding the Plaza de la Dignidad in Santiago, for example, may not join the demonstrations but they are providing support in the form of food, medication, water and information (such as on the movements of the Carabineros).
Unity and solidarity – with no political parties
The second factor is the high levels of unity and solidarity involved across the entire movement. This cannot be overemphasized. This is being manifested in numerous ways, such as the million person march on 25 October 2019 (in fact an estimated 1.2 million) and the ‘Concert for
Dignity’ on 13 December 2019, involving an estimated 500,000 people. One just had to be in the middle of half a million Chileans singing, chanting and waving in unison to feel the overwhelming sense of unity, solidarity and defiance of the elite. This included the Allende-era song ‘The people united will never be defeated’ (‘¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido!’), performed by the iconic group Inti-Illimani. The song was composed and recorded in June 1973 and after the coup on 11 September 1973 it became the anthem of the Chilean resistance, with Inti-Illimani making it famous around the world.
Mapuche and Chilean flags waving at the Concert for Dignity in Santiago on 13 December2019
An important unifying aspect is the overwhelming opposition to and critique of the ‘political elite’, encompassing virtually all established political parties and parliamentarians. Even the Frente Amplio, the new left-wing coalition party with parliamentary representation, has credibility problems. One seldom if ever will see party political flags or other regalia at
demonstrations, for example. While the Mapuche indigenous people’s flag, together with the Chilean flag to a lesser extent, waved everywhere at the Concert for Dignity, no political party flags were apparent (the Mapuche cause has been adopted and is strongly promoted by the movement, with the Mapuche flag now being a symbol of resistance).
Another example is the demand for independents to be eligible for the constitution-making structure, along with gender parity and indigenous people’s representation.
Fundamental change and a new popular consciousness
Thirdly, the movement is highly focused and clear about what it wants, with the overall demand for fundamental change, starting with a new constitution. Significantly, in a consultative process held by the Chilean Association of Municipalities in mid-December 2019, approximately 92% of voters favoured a new constitution, with about 83% support for a Constituent Assembly as the mechanism to draft it.
While there are a range of immediate reforms being demanded, such as around minimum wages, pensions, health care and education (see page 9 below for an example), it is clear that Chilean society is demanding structural transformation. Linked to this is the call for restoration of dignity. A twenty three year old youth, when asked what sort of change he wishes for, responded definitively in one word – ‘everything’. When pressed further, he expressed the view that the key is equality.
La lucha sigue hasta que caiga el capitalismo – the struggle continues until capitalism falls
The movement is also very clear about who the enemy is, as explicitly depicted for example in the graffiti. There is a specific focus on and critique of capitalism, neoliberalism and the associated political and business elites, along with inequality. This is all clearly expressed and quite remarkable. Examples of graffiti depicting this are: ‘The neoliberal scam is over’,
‘F… capitalism’, ‘It is not depression – it is capitalism’,’ Out liberalism – newconstitution’,
‘Fire to capital’ and as in the photograph above ‘The struggle continues until capitalism falls’.
A scan of graffiti across Chile results in the inevitable conclusion that it represents deep and incisive anti-elitist and anti-capitalist analysis. This is an important dimension to the uprising. As stated by Orellana, “institutional politics have been completely thrown off balance”.
Key to this focus and underpinning it, as represented by the slogan that surged through Chile soon after the uprising began on 18 October 2019: ‘Chile has woken and will not sleep again’. This slogan and the associated shift in popular consciousness is also quite remarkable. Orellana refers to “a new set of values” involving “a new popular consciousness”. While there obviously has been a lengthy build-up of the experience of Chilean-style concentrated, family owned hyper-capitalism, a seismic shift in consciousness has now occurred. This is a crucially important component of the new and unique situation in Chile and can be experienced literally everywhere.
Innovative forms of resistance and attack
While not the exclusive reserve of the Chilean uprising, the innovative and high impact nature of the forms of resistance and attack used are quite astounding. A key example in this regard is the Las Tesis feminist flash mob intervention, which has not only swept through the length and breadth of Chile, but also numerous other countries as well. The only real way to do justice to describing this initiative is to watch a recording of an intervention being carried out and to read the powerful words of the chant used. Beginning with “The patriarchy is a judge” and entitled “A rapist in your way”, this is undoubtedly the most important feminist intervention this century – taking patriarchy in all its forms head on.
This is another example of the remarkable nature of the Chilean uprising. Initiated by the feminist collective Las Tesis, much can be said and has been documented on this amazing development.
Keeping with the street dynamic, demonstrations have taken many forms and involved various configurations of participants, ranging from the million person march, to national strikes, to the Concert for Dignity, to bicycle demonstrations, truck go slows on highways, various forms of flash mob interventions and to the daily battles with the Carabineros. Laser beams are one of the innovative tools used and have been seen to bring down a drone for example. As already mentioned, high levels of violence and aggression have been displayed by the Carabineros, involving a literal arsenal of equipment, weaponry and vehicles. The abuse, injuries and fatalities have also been extensively documented.
A recent report by the Chilean National Institute of Human Rights indicates that the Military Police have left at least 27 dead, 3,649 injured, 405 people with irreparable eye injuries, 253 injured by tear gas, 191 cases of sexual violence, 412 cases of cruel treatment, and 842 cases of excessive force. The numbers continue to grow daily. A commonly held view in Chile is that the monstrous reaction of the state to the initial demonstrations, along with the arrogant and insulting statements made by Piñera and others, was a key trigger to the uprising.
Within this context it is important to briefly describe how daily demonstrations have been organized, particularly where conflict with the Carabineros is inevitable. Using the following diagram drawn up by members of the demonstrators, it can be seen that battles with the Carabineros are well organized, with a ‘commander’ and a number of lines of attack / defense.
VENCEREMOS – we will be victorious. Lines of defense and attack.
Starting from the bottom of the diagramme, the first line are demonstrators equipped with home-made shields, goggles, face masks and other equipment to avoid injury. They are the shield / buffer of the demonstration, sustain the most injuries and are highly respected for their daring and bravery. They create space for the second line, which plays the role of throwing stones, petrol bombs, paint and other objects.
The third line deal with the tear gas, produce and gather projectiles for the second line and build barricades. The forth line are paramedics, who provide medical support and rescue the injured. The fifth line provide water with bicarbonate of soda and other elements (for tear gas), use laser lights to distract police, motivate and give instructions with loudspeakers/amplifiers to provide important information and strategies.
What needs emphasizing is that demonstrations in various forms have occurred and are occurring all over Chile, with each town taking on its own particular form and dynamic. Looting
has often accompanied the demonstrations and in this regard it needs to be stated that this is largely politically directed, with banks, chemists, upmarket shopping malls and other symbolic representations of the business and political elite being targeted. The credibility and status of the church has plummeted and as such certain churches have also been targeted.
A glimpse of the front line
Mobilising through art, song and drama
The use of art, song and drama also has aspects which are quite remarkable. One of these, as already mentioned, is the ubiquitous graffiti, which ‘frames’ the movement and provides a constant stream of messaging and consciousness-raising.
The graffiti also entails a dynamic process, with the nature of the messages changing as the uprising proceeds. An example is this recent piece of graffiti below with powerful anti- establishment messaging, including an image of the joker, painted over earlier messages drafted at the beginning of the uprising calling for the evading of metro subway fees.
‘ACAB’ at the bottom of the photograph stands for ‘All Cops Are Bastards’ and is the signature of anarchist groups, along with the matching 1312 written around the capitalist.
The highly evocative and symbolically powerful nature of the graffiti, as represented in the photograph below, is also a remarkable aspect of the uprising.
The extent to which Pinochet-era revolutionary songs are used, with the words on the lips of a new generation, is also highly significant. These songs are in fact intrinsic to the new movement. An example is the Concert for Dignity already mentioned, involving the Inti-Illimani group. Another example is the song ‘The dance of the leftovers’ (El baile de los que sobran) by the dictatorship-era group Los Prisioneros, also on the lips of demonstrators and played in family homes. In this case the song focuses on the political elite.
Cabildos and other assemblies – the backbone of the uprising
Pivotal to the new movement are the cabildos, found in every town and village and constituting the backbone of the uprising. Often held in plazas and parks, they are forums for local people and organisations to hold neighbourhood discussion and consultative sessions. They constitute a dynamic and active formation, which are growing in strength.
Santiago for example has a number of Cabildos in each of its thirty two districts. Using one inner city Cabildo as an example, a meeting currently is held every Sunday and it has a WhatsApp group with 300 plus members. An agenda is circulated in advance and speakers arranged. The speakers hold the Cabildo together. People avoid assuming leadership positions and for example will avoid being a speaker too often. Designated people play the role of communicating with other Cabildos in the district and more broadly within Santiago. It has no administrative structure or office and operates on a zero budget. Where money is needed members readily donate. The Cabilo membership consists of a spectrum of political positions but overall holds a progressive stance.
Advertisement for a 4th citizens cabildo meeting in a Santiago park. Theme: participation, citizenship and constitutional process. Dialogue, participation, decision. Bring a blanket to put on the ground and something to share- Sunday 8 December, 11 am
While extensive use is made of social media, including for the holding of cabildo meetings, the organizational strength and sustainability of the new movement resides arguably in the cabildos and other assemblies. There are many other aspects as well contributing to the organizational strength of the uprising, such as the Unidad Social, a national alliance of trade unions and other civil society organisations, which is also playing a role, including releasing in the public arena a set of written demands for discussion early on in the uprising.
These demands include the following:
- The lowest pension to be the same as the minimum wage and no more AFP (the current pension fund system, which isiniquitous)
- A new system of socialprotection
- Free quality,education
- Dignified health care and an end to waitinglists
- A minimum wage of 500,000pesos
- A constitutional assembly and newconstitution
- Nationalisation of water and sanitation (within a context where privatization in its most extreme and bizarre formprevails)
- Nationalisation of the strategic wealth in terms ofresources
- An end to the areas of sacrifice approach – areas in the natural environment who are over exploited for extractivist purposes (this is based on the Pinera government’s hyper capitalist practices where there are zones of sacrifice – areas of nature that must be sacrificed in order to fit into the production ofwealth)
At the time of writing Unidad Social has called on all Chilean people to participate in the referendum of 26 April and promoted the establishment of a Popular Constituent Assembly. They also criticized the process followed by the Piñera government in setting up the referendum and raised the question of security of citizens participating in the process.
Unidad Social published demands
So what does this mean?
What is unfolding in Chile is quite exceptional, highly significant and warrants being followed closely, with important learnings to be drawn. It gives an insight into what is possible where a united, mobilised and politically directed civil society rises and occupies centre stage in striving for an alternative world.
This is a movement which is united in its focus on challenging neoliberalism in all its manifestations, along with the business and political elite involved. This is a society not only awakened to the evil and failure of capitalism, but recognising it as such. It is not suggested that every person on the street will have an explicit critique of capitalism, but it is asserted that such a critique it is extremely widespread, along with a sharp focus on inequality.
It is not any one of the factors discussed that makes the Chilean uprising different and particularly significant. It is also not suggested that each factor is unique to Chile or unique to this particular historical stage in Chile. What is argued is that it is the total effect of the combination of factors described. The factors identified are also not claimed to be comprehensive.
The ground covered already has been well documented and cannot be addressed in this piece, but it amounts to a set of reforms, such as the adoption by the Chilean Senate in December 2019 of the United Nations Convention for Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, a resolution which had lain dormant for eighteen years. Significantly, some women members of right wing parties broke ranks to support this resolution.
The agreement on a referendum for a new constitution is in itself an important achievement and the direct result of the massive pressure placed on the Piñera government.
A multitude of issues, challenges and questions, but Chile has woken
The purpose of this piece has been to concentrate on the remarkable nature of the Chilean uprising and no mention has been made of impediments and challenges. These are numerous, with the unfolding dynamic still at a relatively early stage and the outcomes unclear. While in this piece it is asserted that the new Chilean movement poses a powerful challenge to the political and business elite, with the ‘neoliberal scam’ under public scrutiny, this of course is not suggesting that the movement will overthrow neoliberalism. Whether ‘Chile will never be the same again’, another popular slogan of the uprising, is indisputable.
It can be said that a number of intersecting ‘scenarios’ are unfolding, each with its own complex and fluid dynamic. A key dimension in this regard is the role of the Chilean right – all those people and institutions that supported the ascendency to power of Piñera two years ago. This constituted a third of the electorate – a significant proportion. From all accounts, this constituency will go to extreme lengths to maintain the status quo. It is widely alleged, for example, that the Piñera group were responsible for burning down the metro subway stations to deliberately escalate conflict and then mete out some of the most violent repression since the dictatorship. Within this context, it goes without saying that the power, greed and impermeability of the Chilean capitalist elite cannot be underestimated.
Within the new movement the fact that there is arguably no legitimate organisation to provide leadership has been raised as a challenge to the movement by some. Linked to this, Orellana raises the question of how the popular unity expressed in the streets can be forged into an effective political force. The role of the youth is regarded as critical, particularly their participation or otherwise in the oncoming referendum and in subsequent local government elections. A movement beyond Chile in Latin America is another question being raised, along with international solidarity.
However, Chile has woken and will never sleep again! Chilean people are and remain mobilised
– ready for another million person march if needed. As one woman at the ten thousand strong ‘senior’ Las Tesis feminist intervention outside the gates of the National Stadium in Santiago said: “We not going to stop – we began already. If we have to go out a hundred thousand times, we will do it”.
Graffiti in the seaside village of Algarrobo
Jeremy Daphne, 7 February 2020 – with thanks to Lorena Nuñez Carrasco