Mass Uprisings and Their Aftermath in the United States and Chile
Both Chile and the United States have seen massive social upheavals over the past year. The two countries have much to teach each other about how such unrest can translate into substantive political change.
In October 2019, Chile faced a sudden and massive upheaval following a metro fare hike of 30 pesos (about four cents). This was a relatively small fare increase, but one that immediately became the straw that broke the camel’s back. The uprising brought together, at its peak, more than one million people on the streets in one day and continued for months with thousands of protesters, yielding both a few victories and much remaining uncertainty — a situation not unlike the one the United States finds itself in after unprecedented protests over the police murder of George Floyd.
Recently, we organized an exchange between Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and elected leaders of Revolución Democrática (RD), a Chilean political party. RD was born in 2012 after the student strikes calling for free and public education. RD is also the largest member of a political coalition of four parties called Frente Amplio (“Broad Front”). The alliance’s presidential nominee Beatriz Sánchez received 20 percent of the votes in the first round, barely missing the opportunity to be one of the final two candidates. The conversation between DSA and RD drew clear parallels between the Chilean uprising and the ongoing uprising in the United States.
During the Chilean protests, a common refrain was: “No son 30 pesos, son 30 años” (“30 years, not 30 pesos”). The principle was that while the transit price increase may have triggered the uprising, it was not the real cause of the mass protests. Instead, the deeper cause was the accumulation of injustices and indignities throughout Chile, the ridiculously high cost of living in the country, the obvious social and economic inequality that characterize Chilean life, and a wide range of unfair policies enforced and protected by a constitution that was not deeply changed after the end of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1989.
In much the same way, the current situation in the United States cannot be adequately understood as only a reaction to George Floyd’s murder. It’s a response to decades of discontent with police brutality and militarization (against black people in particular), and ever-deepening economic, social, and racial inequalities. More recently, the uprising is also a response to the government’s capital-first response to the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving tens of millions of Americans in circumstances ranging from precarious to desperate in the middle of a crippling economic downturn. The bipartisan refusal to serve the vast majority of Americans during the crisis has made the masses incredibly restive.
Chile shows what the political effects of both the uprisings and the police violence that comes with such popular resistance might soon look like. The Chilean “social explosion” featured five months of constant mobilization in the streets. It also started with a violent reaction by police that catalyzed long-standing anger. Twenty subway stations were burned, the streets were littered with graffiti, and hundreds of thousands of people were going out to peacefully protest the streets. The media talked about nothing else.
But what really made the difference in Chile was its right-wing government’s failure to understand the depth of the widespread problems protesters were so angry about. Instead of attempting to offer some solutions to these social problems, Chile’s right-wing government — run by Sebastián Piñera and supported by Unión Demócrata Independiente, Renovación Nacional, and Evopoli — tried to halt the mobilizations by repressing them in the streets.
Chile also saw massive human rights violations last year at the hands of the army and heavily militarized police forces, who were deployed to restrain the protests and enforce curfews. More than three hundred Chileans have lost their eyes as a result of rubber bullets fired by the police. We have seen the same in US cities, but with non-state white supremacist and fascistic volunteer forces adding to the violent repression. And like in Chile, many American protesters are losing their eyes, too.
Similarities between the two countries don’t stop there. Soledad Rolando, RD’s executive secretary, in the exchange with DSA leaders noted that there are three parallel demands of Chile’s social explosion and the United States’ uprising. Chileans are calling for better treatment for indigenous communities, especially the Mapuche. Activists in the United States are seeking equality for black people. Both groups face historic forms of state repression, which ties to the second demand of changing police policies that affect the treatment of these groups. In Chile, this means reforming the national law enforcement force; in the United States it is a call for defunding police and abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). And both sides face and seek to change the actual right-wing presidents, too.
In the exchange, Blanca Estevez of DSA’s National Political Committee spoke about this corporate control and the unique role of Walmart in both uprisings. In Chile, its unionized workforce stood in solidarity with the demonstrations even when the company’s stores were burned. Arkansas, where Estevez lives, is home to the global corporate giant’s headquarters — a recent target because of the company’s responsibility in the anti-union climate and racial inequality in this country alongside promoting neoliberal policies through its foundation’s efforts and lobbying. She believes that there is potential for international solidarity if we were to create an anti-Walmart campaign that targets both its Arkansas headquarters and stores and offices abroad.
These parallels between both countries show certain processes common to the American countries that are changing: the inability of the state to listen to and to make social organization part of the development, dissatisfaction with police and institutional abuse, and racist attitudes toward historically oppressed groups. Chilean and US socialists have much to learn from each other.
For example, one gain reached as a result of the mobilizations in Chile was its forcing of constitutional reform. The right-wing parties, which traditionally were not open to constitutional change, were forced by large mobilizations to seek an escape valve. Pushed by the left and center-right parties, a large part of the Chilean political parties (with the exception of the Communist Party) signed an agreement in response to the protests to hold a national referendum about whether and how to rewrite the existing constitution.
The constitution is a relic of the Pinochet dictatorship and has, remarkably, been maintained with amendments since the return to democracy and has successfully limited progressive reforms as its authors intended. This referendum was initially scheduled for April, but the pandemic forced the electoral calendar to run for October of this year.
The final results of the uprising for black lives and COVID-19 relief in the United States are still to be determined. Cities like Los Angeles are moving, at least rhetorically, toward reimaging public safety in ways thought impossible before the wave of mass action. President Trump’s inability to turn public opinion against the demonstrations manifests his own weakness in the presidential race.
But his opponents have their own issues. Democrats such as Nancy Pelosi insisted on means-testing COVID-19 relief that should be universal, and presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden called for more federal funding to police as part of his reforms. The indifference to human suffering and science by Republican state and local elected officials has helped provide cover for the inept and dangerous initial responses to the pandemic in heavily blue New York and DC. Regardless of the party in power, it is clear there is still a need for sustained movement pressure and socialist action.
Like our countries’ respective socialist heroes Salvador Allende and Eugene Debs, our belief in socialism is rooted in our faith in working people. Today, US collective action is expressed in an unprecedented movement for racial justice — in Chile, in the ongoing push to end the vestiges of dictatorship. In both cases, the hope remains that we the people can win sustainable and systemic social change — reforms that are rooted in a commitment to democracy and the building of an inclusive, democratic, dignified society.