We Will Make a New Chile

Isidora Cepeda Beccar

Chile’s protest movement doesn’t want small concessions. It wants to overturn the entire legacy of neoliberalism and the Pinochet dictatorship.

Demonstrators raise their hands for a minute of silence for the deceased in the protests during the day of cultural activities called by Movimiento Unidad Social at Plaza O'Higgins on October 27, 2019 in Santiago, Chile. Marcelo Hernandez / Getty

Interview by
Ronan Burtenshaw

This weekend saw the largest demonstrations in Chile since the return of democracy. In Santiago, more than a million people took to the streets to protest the right-wing Sebastián Piñera government.

Beginning earlier this month as anger over an increase in public transport fares, the protest movement soon broadened to a series of long-standing social and economic concerns over pensions, health care, and wages. But, as it reaches all corners of the country, its demands have deepened: protestors have begun to demand a new constitution and far more fundamental reform of the country’s politics than was achieved in the aftermath of the Pinochet regime.

As cities ring with the sounds of Víctor Jara, the socialist songwriter and supporter of Allende’s government who was executed during the 1973 coup, we discuss Chile’s protest movement with Isidora Cepeda Beccar, a participant and political activist based in Santiago.

Ronan Burtenshaw

First, can you tell me a bit about how this protest movement began?

Isidora Cepeda Beccar

It started, in the first instance, because the government increased public transport fares. In Chile, there is a Panel of Public Transport Experts in charge of defining these readjustments. They argued that this particular rise was due to the rise in the price of oil, the variation in the consumer price index, and other factors, such as the price of the dollar. So they increased prices thirty pesos, which is not a large amount and the government didn’t expect protests. But students organized and started to encourage people not to pay. It was high school students, actually, who have their own fares, so the increase didn’t impact them at all.

They were saying “I’m doing this for my family,” or “I’m doing this for my Mum.” They tried to open the metro stations so people could pass through without paying. These protests caused problems and the police intervened using teargas. This meant that it wasn’t only the students effected — everyone who was in the station, or on the trains was getting teargassed.

The protests escalated because of this and then, last Friday, the chaos was so severe that the metro decided to close some stations. Santiago was a mess. People trying to get home from work would go to a metro station and find it closed, then they’d go to the next station and it was also closed. There was very little information. In some cases, people started attacking the closed stations. Some stations were set on fire in suspicious circumstances.

That was the excuse for the government to call a state of emergency that night. But the protests had a lot of popular support. In recent months there have been a series of statements from government ministers showing how out of touch they were with the precarity impacting many in Chilean society. Working-class families often have to spend 20 percent or more of their salary on transport. The protests began in lower-income areas where people often have to travel two hours from their home to work. People felt they were living for their job and little else.

This meant that the protests quickly became more generalized. People began to articulate demands which have been latent since the return of democracy. They spoke about the private pension system, where people can work their entire lives on a decent salary and then find themselves in poverty at the end. It’s the same with the health system. The state has essentially abandoned the public health system, there are a lot of good doctors but very little infrastructure. In the past month, doctors have even been complaining about a lack of medicines. People can wait three months for basic surgeries. A recent report showed that 26,000 people died in 2018 because of the long wait for medical care.

These are deeply felt injustices. They expose the fact that the system that followed the dictatorship in Chile has only really benefitted a small elite. The media speaks about Chile as a wealthy country, the jewel of Latin America. But most working people don’t see that reality in their daily lives. This movement can’t tell you exactly how it wants to change the situation — but it is clearly demanding change.

Ronan Burtenshaw

Chile has a right-wing president since the election of Sebastián Piñera last year. How has his government responded to the movement?

Isidora Cepeda Beccar

It really began because Piñera refused to listen to the students. But that wasn’t unexpected, there are often small protests about government measures. They figure “they’ll get tired eventually and we’ll move on.” It changed when the government decided to close the metro stations, which impacted every worker’s life, and then reacted with such strong repression to the protests.

The same Friday that the metro stations started to burn another building went up in flames, belonging to the energy company Enel. We don’t really know who started these fires. They were taken by the government as proof that the movement was organized by sinister groups and an attack on, in their words, “every citizen.” This was a mistake — to try to shift the conversation so soon from the demands of the movement, which were quite popular, to demonizing it. People realized how out of touch the government was.

Last Saturday, the government brought the army onto the streets, which was another escalation. Then on that Sunday Piñera took it to the next level and said he was in a “war” against the movement. His exact words were “we are in a war against a powerful and relentless enemy, that respects nothing and no one.” He didn’t specify who the enemy was, but left it open for various interpretations. He was avoiding the real problem — general discontent — by raising the specter of chaos and a threat posed by violent organized people.

Most ordinary people felt this was extreme. There was no justification for sidelining the concerns that were obvious to the great majority. It’s still uncertain who exactly started the fires, but people felt that the President was creating a monster that didn’t exist. The reality is that anger and frustration accumulated for years. People didn’t support the violent acts, but many understood them.

Bringing the army onto the streets in response to this threat was significant. The history of the army in Chile is not a positive one. They have only acted against their own people. They haven’t been in a war with another country in the modern period. It’s intimidating to see the army on the streets, but it is more so when that army was torturing and killing your people for political activities in the recent past. This is really vivid in the popular imaginary.

All of a sudden we had armored vehicles and tanks on the streets. They were at the entrance to the metro stations. They were protecting supermarkets like Walmart. A curfew was imposed. During this time most people went home, because they didn’t want to know what would happen if the curfew was broken. All of this had added to the idea that we are living under siege.

There have been clashes between protestors and both the army and the police. The official numbers suggest eighteen people have died — but, if the protests happen at night, during the curfew, we don’t really know what happens. There is no press. The police have also been raiding people’s homes and detaining activists. More than 3,000 people have been detained in total.

Earlier this week, Piñera started to make concessions. The government reversed the hike in transport fares and offered what he called a “new social agenda” with reforms to pensions, health care, and the minimum wage. But it wasn’t substantial. In Chile we have a saying, “bread for today, hunger for tomorrow.” The minimum wage right now is 300,000 pesos [equivalent of $414] and he promised to raise it 50,000 [$69] — that won’t take anyone out of poverty. On Wednesday, after he announced these concessions, we had the biggest wave of protests so far.

At this moment there was a transversal understanding that everything that had happened until Wednesday hadn’t been enough to force the President to listen. It wasn’t enough to make him concede even on basic elements of the neoliberal system and the development model that are, in fact, the direct cause of the inequality. On Friday, it’s estimated that more than 1.2 million people, in Santiago alone, gathered in the streets. Thousands of others also participated in other cities.

The demands on this demonstration were diverse, but followed a theme: from the President’s resignation, to the proposal of a new constitution; from a criticism of the media, to a reproach of the police and the military’s behavior. The movement was criticizing the government’s handling of the conflict so far, and its inflexibility.

Ronan Burtenshaw

How has the movement developed? It has clearly grown in size …

Isidora Cepeda Beccar

The movement doesn’t have one leader or one organization coordinating it, but social media has played an important role. You get one group, a local feminist organization, for example, posting on Facebook about gathering in a square at this time and then the information is shared through the neighborhood. It has developed like this — demonstrations at the metro stations, local ones in different squares, then bigger ones where people come together as the movement has progressed. The last week has seen mass demonstrations.

People have responded to the narrative from the government about things being destroyed. They saw pictures of fires and of people looting so they have organized to protect their metro stations and neighborhoods. This has brought people together too, which meant the government tactic backfired. And the movement has spread — at first, it was in Santiago, where the metro fare rose. But by last Saturday there were protests in Valparaíso, Concepción, Temuco, Punta Arenas as well, and curfews as well. The movement became national.

There have also been the cacerolazos, which began in response to the curfew, where people bang pots and pans from the windows of their apartments. This gives you a sense of how, even when the movement is national, it is also present in every neighborhood. The cacerolazos became even more powerful when the call went out on social media for everyone to accompany them with a particular song by Víctor Jara, El Derecho de Vivir en Paz, “The Right to Live in Peace.”

Hearing Víctor Jara’s music playing from people’s homes across Santiago was amazing. And it went further than this. As the movement grew you could hear people chanting ¡El Pueblo Unido, Jamás Será Vencido!, “The People United Will Never be Defeated!” That sound transports you to forty or fifty years ago, to the times of Unidad Popular [Allende’s governing coalition], but the people singing it are students, not veterans of those times.

Ronan Burtenshaw

Those songs are evocative not just in Santiago but across the international left, speaking to a time when there were such great hopes for the Chilean left and the Allende government. How has today’s left in Chile responded to the movement?

Isidora Cepeda Beccar

The Left has been reluctant to speak too much about the movement. The discontent it has raised goes back thirty years, not just to the dictatorship but to the transition to democracy. The Left has been in power [through the center-left Party for Democracy and then Socialists] for most of the past twenty years.

We have to understand that the Socialists who governed were not Allende’s party. The Left presidents we have had, Ricardo Lagos but also Michele Bachelet, did not change the architecture of the dictatorship. Pinochet made the structure and they simply tried to improve it. They continued with the path of privatization while, at the same time, instituting social programs to help people who couldn’t keep up with the flow of the market. Now the social state is largely shaped by what you could call the Official Left.

The last government of the Official Left, Bachelet’s last government, ran under the banner of Nueva Mayoría, or “New Majority,” and also included the Communists. Since the days of the student protests in 2010, the Communist Party in Chile has produced a new generation of leaders, people like Camila Vallejo and Karol Cariola. They are very good, and there were a lot of hopes for them. But when they were in government, they were very disciplined and supported the government line. I think this makes it harder for them to be a strong, critical voice. They are considered in the same “pack” as the others.

There is also a “new” Left in Chile, an alliance of parties called the Frente Amplio or “Broad Left.” They include Revolución Democratica, a party inspired by Podemos, as well as Green parties, humanists, feminists, and so on. They did well in the recent elections and have twenty seats in parliament, but I would say they have struggled to have a clear message on the demonstrations. On the first Saturday, there were votes in parliament on the reduction of the fares — some said they would participate in the discussions, others said they wouldn’t until the army was off the streets. It was pretty ambiguous.

Frente Amplio represents a new generation of politicians, but I wouldn’t say they are “with the people,” so to speak. Their discourse defends popular interests, but their politicians are also part of an educated middle class. They haven’t really built a base. The Communist Party, by contrast, has a very strong structure of participation in lower-income neighborhoods and unions. They are established in many places. The Frente Amplio has a poor political structure in social organizations. But this is to be expected when it is so new.

I think the Left in general did not expect these protests and, in some ways, they showed how far the Left is from the people it wants to represent. So now they are all waiting and trying to engage as best they can, they are trying to show that they are listening. After the mass demonstrations, there are many calls to create and participate in cabildos: bottom-up spaces of social participation (independent from political parties) in order to structure the demands. Many of these are independent calls but the Communist Party will also, I’m sure, be activating its grassroots to incentivize popular participation in these cabildos.

Ronan Burtenshaw

Have the trade unions been active in supporting the protests?

Isidora Cepeda Beccar

Yes. For a long time in Chile, trade unions have been sectional, only responding to their own demands. With this protest movement we have seen them responding to broad, popular demands. They are not only miners’ problems, or the fishermen’s problems, or transport workers’ problems — they are society’s problems.

On Monday, some of the unions decided to stop working and join the demonstrations. This included important sectors like mining, which we call the “salary of the country” because of its importance to Chile, and the ports. But it has also been interesting to see the power of the metro workers. On the first Friday, the head of their union spoke about how the police repression was also putting their workers in danger in the stations. This put them very much in line with the broader protest movement.

The unions then called a general strike which coincided with the mass protests on Wednesday, and they also supported the demonstrations this weekend.

Ronan Burtenshaw

What are the movement’s prospects of success?

Isidora Cepeda Beccar

It is difficult to say because there isn’t a single spokesperson who articulates the movement’s demands. It is very diffuse — so, in the first instance, the response has to come from the government. Piñera had the opportunity to propose reforms that would satisfy the anger and he didn’t. So now we will see where it goes.

Social movements like this can ignite very quickly. But the risk is always that they cannot burn for a long time. People have to go back to work, after a while they want things to return to normal. I do think it’s a risk that this movement has such little institutional form. In my view, unless its demands are taken forward by the Left it could result in no real change in the long term. Because right now no one can be specific — for instance, we can’t say the movement wants to raise the minimum wage X percent and then, if the government concedes, claim a victory.

It’s clear that this movement is not just addressing this or that issue. It is raising questions which go right to the roots. So, I think we need to demand a new constitution. Our constitution today is the heritage of neoliberalism in Chile, dating back to Pinochet and the Chicago Boys. To change things fundamentally we need to cut those roots. We need to create new rules of the game.

We need a completely new constitution, created by a constituent assembly, with all kinds of social representatives involved. That would give real power to the people and encourage a much-needed new culture of participation, involvement, and social commitment to the political space. The president, the parliament, the political parties today are not representing the people’s voice. They haven’t done it for decades, why should they start now?