Chileans Are Hungry for an Alternative to Neoliberalism

After continuous mass protests in Chile, left forces in the country may be able to build a governing majority. But whether they can or not, it’s clear that huge swaths of the country are desperate for an alternative to the neoliberal order that has reigned in the country for decades.

A demonstrator is arrested during protests against President Piñera at Plaza Italia on December 2, 2019 in Santiago, Chile. Jonnathan Oyarzun / Getty Images

On October 18, 2019, Chileans in their capital of Santiago launched a massive revolt at a handful of metro stations over a fare increase of a few cents. But their discontent was much deeper than the fare hike, as one popular slogan proclaimed: “This is not for thirty pesos, but thirty years” of neoliberalism.

This rebellion sparked the ongoing uprising that, at the very least, seems poised to eliminate the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship–era constitution and force the state to address accelerating inequality despite improved living standards. This rebellion also has real potential to fail if there is not a concrete path for a peaceful transition for both political and social demands.

My father was one of the tens of thousands of Chilean exiles in the 1970s. From childhood, I visited Chile nearly every year, seeing it turn from dictatorship to representative democracy and from poor country to OECD member. Those years showed how periodic social uprisings and political fissions over the past decade and half facilitated the possibilities for a progressive turn not seen in a half a century since Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government. I recently spent a week in Chile at the invitation of A Toda Marcha, and I saw how a country that had been a model and laboratory for neoliberalism could reject three decades of extreme free-market consensus seemingly overnight.

Before the Revolt

Since returning to a representative democracy in 1990, Chile has been largely governed by a center-left coalition of the Christian Democrats and three social-democratic parties. Eventually, the small but active Chilean Communist Party joined. But in 2018, billionaire Sebastián Piñera won his second term as president and carried out an agenda that included reviving the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), but as   — highlighting his priority to push pro-capital, anti-worker policies. While his right-wing government is certainly more anti-labor and anti-indigenous than the previous coalition, both he and the center left largely managed neoliberal privatization in Chile, including the unpopular private pension system left over from the Pinochet dictatorship.

Their rule has not been without resistance, of course. Students born after the dictatorship have been a pillar of backlash against neoliberalism. Many of the founders of the new socialist formations came out of the student uprisings in 2006 and 2011.

The 2006 student protests were named “Penguin Revolution” after the black-and-white school uniforms of high schoolers; the “Chilean Winter” in 2011 included both high school and university students who pushed against a failure to rebuild education buildings after the 2010 earthquake, application of the primary through secondary school voucher system only to nonprofit institutions, and low levels of public funding for higher education by OECD standards. The latter upsurge against the neoliberal education system sparked the political careers of national student leaders Camila Vallejo and Giorgio Jackson, now Communist and Democratic Revolution congressional representatives, respectively.

Democratic Revolution (Revolución Democrática, or RD) is a product of the student movement. They are the largest political party in the coalition of left parties called Broad Front (Frente Amplio). Today, Frente Amplio holds twenty out of 155 seats in Congress and one of forty-five senators, with RD representing thirteen of the deputies and the senator. The demographics of RD mirror those of today’s Democratic Socialists of America: largely millennial and middle class. The coalition explicitly embraces socialism and rejects neoliberalism. RD’s party name originates from a quote by Salvador Allende, the Chilean socialist president overthrown in 1973, about his struggles against obsolete political systems and prejudice, concluding: “As fate would have it, I have led this democratic revolution in Chile.” This symbolism is not lost on young people, who have built new parties instead of revitalizing the old ones of Allende’s Popular Unity coalition.

The heavy presence of the student movement in this uprising is matched by increased labor militancy. There was a general strike on November 12; a few days later, when I arrived, the airport had handmade signs celebrating that customs workers had struck. Rolling strikes have become the norm. The demands are rooted in social movement, such as being against TPP and for basic rights. For instance, the garbage collectors went on strike just as the hot and dry spring began, making lack of trash pickups visible and olfactible. One of their demands: bathroom breaks while on shift. This kind of working-class self-activity makes the labor presence of the uprising unavoidable and clear.

State Violence Against the Uprising

But the uprising has also been marked by violence and mass human rights violations. Since the beginning, more than two dozen people have died and nearly 250 people have lost at least one eye. The eye injuries are so massive because the police have been using illegal tactics such as aiming rubber bullets above protesters’ legs. In fact, while I was there, the police were forced to remove metal they had inserted inside the rubber bullets. (The metallic amounts were small enough to still be considered technically “rubber” but were much more dangerous.)

Despite these clear abuses, many observers fear Piñera would have made it much worse. Some reports say he wanted to establish martial law and send the military to the streets, but he was unable to grant the army total immunity, and they refused his request. With some in the Pinochet regime facing trials decades after their crimes, the military may have feared accountability for such actions.

On my fourth day, I met with student union leaders at University of Chile. Many of them had leadership experiences dating back to the 2011 Chilean Winter. Their headquarters had become a de facto triage medical center to deal with the injuries from ongoing protests and police violence. They explained that their national student federation was in the midst of revival because of the protests, but that it’s still weak relative to the campus-only affiliates. The student leaders are seeking international help from groups such as the Young Democratic Socialists of America in pressuring the government to be held accountable for human rights abuses.

Their concerns are not unique. A Chilean working for a European foundation told me in private that police, which are a national rather than a local force in the country, are denying United Nations observers from visiting injured protestors.

Protesters have launched counteractions against the police and capital, with riot cops and numerous businesses having been scorched. It’s unclear how much was caused by the uprising itself, and how much by vandals taking advantage of the moment or the armed forces. While many businesses have been burned, with the exception of clear targets like bank branches, most small stores are unharmed — primary targets are corporate chains and financial giants. (Small businesses are being harmed more by lack of customers, especially as tourism is likely to drop tremendously.)

Signs in front of small businesses expressing solidarity with the uprising and asking people to leave them alone are typical. Many supermarkets, especially the Walmart subsidiary, have been destroyed in working-class neighborhoods. The perpetrators are still unknown. When interviewed about the incident, the union president representing Chilean Walmart refused to break solidarity with the uprising.

Activists and allies believe that police and the state are both instigating and exacerbating the situation to turn public opinion against the uprising. When a famous Santiago church burned down, there was near universal consensus among those I spoke with — including the mainstream center left — that the arson was actually carried out by the police. In fact, one person told me that when a protester did commit a crime, the only witness was an undercover officer who could not testify without losing his cover.

Many Chileans feel that police have unnecessarily closed subway stations to make commuters’ lives harder. While straphangers were happy to walk to work at first, many are growing understandably weary of prolonged delays in their work life. This puts the democratic and radical in danger of losing public support. To the trained eye, the vast majority of the violence and looting today is disconnected from the actual progressive social movements. They tend to be criminals and people taking advantage of the chaos. However, this prolonged instability could shift support toward reactionary and extra-governmental responses that would cause even more violent harm as well as reservations about the gains already made.

The Peace Agreement

The dissatisfaction with the ability for a peaceful transition seems to come from general public attitudes toward the political class and their parties. Chile’s political parties have power but lack legitimacy.

For example, RD is the most popular party in Chile — with negatives at 65 percent. The president, on the other hand, currently has just a 9 percent approval rating. In fact, his unpopularity leads many to believe that Congress is effectively running the country. He only remains in office to avoid a power vacuum that could further destabilize Chile.

There was hope for a peaceful end to the protests. On my second day in Chile, the major political parties reached a midnight peace agreement. The parties, with the notable exception of the Communists — who publicly wanted to distance themselves from the compromise for various reasons, including distrust of the Right and a desire to reconnect with social movements — agreed to move toward replacing the Pinochet-era constitution on November 14. This constitution has historically favored the Right, such as the already abandoned binomial electoral system (allowing two representatives per district) that gave Pinochet’s allies disproportionate representation in Congress.

The tentative peace agreement sets in motion two national referenda: one to start a constitutional process, another to approve the final version. The treaty agrees to a constituent assembly of people proportional to the number of congressional representatives.

Protesters were at first elated. But the euphoria of my hosts on November 15, at what seemed like a clear victory, quickly evaporated over the next twenty-four hours. In the morning, I saw people on the news celebrating in Plaza de la Dignidad, the downtown center of the protests. By the time I walked over to see it myself, the protesters had thrown red paint on a reporter who was broadcasting live on national television. This was a harbinger for interactions to come that day.

That afternoon, we attended a demonstration in downtown Santiago that had seen up to 1.2 million participants weeks earlier. Notably, attendance still remained in the hundreds of thousands. Despite the agreement, police continued their teargassing and the violence that led to the death of a young man later that night.

The multigenerational aspect of the rallies was gone. It was much younger and angrier. The Frente Amplio cadre noted that day that they were greeted negatively for the first time. In the beginning, I assumed this reaction came from more conservative forces, but it soon became clear that the social base that had initially supported the uprising was eroding.

But the discontent is deeper than feelings toward the ruling elite. It also stems from the social and economic demands of the revolt and the lack of clarity about the constitutional process. The progressive social and economic reform agenda will come with both a revised constitutional process and continued street pressure. But absent one majority-supported group or coalition to push this left agenda, people will feel unsatisfied and distrusting of any process. This could negatively impact the chances of a nonviolent resolution to the uprising.

Constituent Assembly and Its Discontent

Millions of Chileans went on strike at work and at school and stopped their daily lives to both eliminate the constitution and improve their economic conditions. The current agreement only deals with the issue of the constitution. While the government has agreed to some minor pension reform, which makes an unlivable salary moderately better, it is insufficient to placate the desires of Chileans in motion. There is a clear understanding that neoliberalism must end, but not a commensurate vision of what should replace it.

While the constituent assembly to write a new constitution offers democratic promise, it opens up many questions about democratic process. Currently, Chileans are able to vote for representatives to the Constituent Assembly only if those candidates are on party lists. Thus, unless independents are able to join a political party’s slate, they will be left out.

This greatly disadvantages the many Chileans unaffiliated with any party. Chileans already have one of the lowest levels of trust in Congress in Latin America, and more than half the country doesn’t vote. Mimicking congressional elections likely would only delegitimize the assembly. Besides independents, many are demanding gender parity (currently slightly more than one-fifth of Chilean federal elected officials are women) and quotas for indigenous people, who make up roughly one-tenth of the country.

The parity and quota demands come from the uprising itself. The demands of women and indigenous communities were ubiquitous during marches and could be seen in graffiti on the streets. Chile has some of the most restrictive laws for reproductive rights. A popular bandanna (used to counter the tear gas) demanded “legal, safe, and free” abortion. Flags of the Mapuche, the country’s largest native nation, became a symbol of the uprising, too. Mapuche resistance has increased, especially on the one-year anniversary of the police murder of Camilo Catrillanca, a young Mapuche man, and the failed cover-up that followed.

At private meetings, I voiced concern that the hundreds of thousands of newly immigrated Colombians, Haitians, and Venezuelans seem to lack a concrete way to participate in the process as noncitizens who will also live under the new constitution. In general, activists understood this as an issue tied to the fact that social movements and labor don’t have the ability to elect their own representatives to the assembly.

Despite this uncertainty, it is impossible not to have some hope for a more progressive Chile. The left-wing social movements have not let up despite the treaty and still have representatives in Congress (although some elected officials in parties of Frente Amplio have resigned their memberships to support the agreement because their parties and formations opposed the accord). This tension within the uprising means that there is sustained energy for political and social reform, if not revolution. What is critical now is to maintain popular support for the mobilizations.

Whither Chile?

Some Chileans fear that continued violence by criminals and others will soon be blamed on the uprising. So far, we have been fortunate not to see fascistic paramilitaries like the “Patria y Libertad” that formed under Popular Unity in the 1970s. If popular opinion swings against the uprising, that may change. Such paramilitaries would likely be able to function with impunity. For example, a libertarian American who moved to Chile recently opened fire on protesters and received only probation; a leftist professor who is accused of destroying a turnstile, on the other hand, faces ten years in prison.

This uprising coincides with popular and reactionary unrest in countries such as Bolivia, Colombia, and Ecuador. But its reflection can also be seen in the United States. Chilean activists are deeply moved by the recent New York City transit mobilizations against racist policies targeting fare evaders and unlicensed vendors, as their own uprising was sparked with an anti-fare-hike action.

The interconnectedness of the mass resistance throughout the continent reflects the hopes and fears of the socialist movement at the current juncture. Absent a coalition of social movements and progressive parties gaining legitimacy from the majority as its representative in the reform process, however, there is a real chance for continued instability. This could force an even worse violent response from the state and paramilitary actors not yet seen in this historic moment.

My hope is that Frente Amplio and the center-left parties can work with unions and other progressive forces to build a governing majority. It is too early to tell what will come of Chile’s uprisings, much less with the rest of the region. But we now know with certainty, despite the proclamations of neoliberalism’s proponents, that there is an alternative that masses of people are hungry for.