The Tide of Feminist Organizing Is Rising in Chile
- Bree Busk
- Andrea Anderson
In recent years, the women’s strike in Chile has become a driving force in the broader fight for dignity and equality across society. As the country prepares to rewrite its constitution, feminist organizers want to steer the process toward deep social transformation.
- Interview by
- Claudia Korol
Karina Nohales and Alondra Carrillo are two of the most prominent members of the Chilean 8M Feminist Coordinating Committee (Coordinadora Feminista 8 de Marzo, or CF8M). The group, formed in the midst of Latin America’s powerful feminist wave, has become a leading presence on the Chilean left, especially after the revolts of October 2019 shook Chile to its core.
Speaking on behalf of CF8M, Karina and Alondra — and much of the Chilean left — have been critical of the Agreement for Social Peace and the New Constitution that was signed in November last year, in the wake of the preceding year’s uprisings. While formally initiating the process that would lead to the drafting of a new constitution, the agreement was regarded by some as a rearguard effort by President Sebastián Piñera and the Chilean political class to pacify street mobilizations, preserve the existing technocratic party structure, and provide a cloak of amnesty for human rights abuses committed in the midst of the uprisings.
Even with those misgivings, the results of the October 2020 plebiscite have drawn social movements like the CF8M into the heart of the constitutional process. The first takeaway from the vote held on October 25 was that the Chilean people — and perhaps even more significantly, a heavily working-class constituency — was in favor of scrapping the current constitution that dates back to the Pinochet dictatorship. Not only did upward of 80 percent of those voting — in record-number turnouts — favor the drafting of a new constitution, but they also preferred that the document be drawn up by a constitutional convention comprised of directly elected citizens and social movement activists. This unexpected turn of events led the once-skeptical social movements to embrace the constitutional process as a vital arena of social transformation.
Karina and Alondra are today candidates for the Constituent Assembly, the body responsible for rewriting the Chilean constitution. They sat down with Claudia Korol to speak about the fraught constitutional process in which the social and political demands of the Chilean people will try to find expression in the nation’s institutional framework.
I am one of the spokespersons for the Coordinadora Feminista 8 de Marzo. My political trajectory has been marked by two moments. One has to do with the grassroots work I have been doing in the neighborhood where I come from, Puente Alto – a large, peripheral neighborhood of Santiago. For years, I was involved with campaigns around labor and social security, which led me to participate in different areas and eventually in the No Más AFP campaign — a social movement against Chile’s privatized pension system.
With the arrival of the wave of feminist-led university occupations in May 2018, women active in No Más AFP seized the opportunity to focus on the problem of work and social security from the point of view of women workers. From there, we began to organize a series of meetings focused specifically on feminism, labor, and social security. It was also in this period that the Coordinadora Feminista 8 de Marzo was born, and I was one of the people who founded the Committee of Women Workers and Trade Unionists within that space.
What was your journey to feminism like, Alondra?
I am twenty-nine years old, and I’m also a member of the Coordinadora Feminista 8 de Marzo and currently one of their candidates for the list of territorial assemblies and social organizations in the 12th district — an electoral list called “Constituent Voices.” I am part of the generation of Chileans that became politicized during the student demonstrations that began in 2006, while I was in high school — the Penguin Revolution.
Later, in the student protests of 2011, I was a student leader in my university department, and I organized around the demand for free, nonsexist public education. I have been a left-wing feminist militant for several years now. Since 2018, my main feminist work has been around the creation and expansion of the Coordinadora Feminista 8 de Marzo, for which I was a spokesperson between 2018 and 2020 during the process of organizing the Feminist General Strike in Chile.
Karina, is there a history of feminist labor struggle in Chile?
There had been some feminist activism at the beginning of the twentieth century, although those feminist comrades referred to themselves differently. Their activity was very influential on how people were thinking about organized labor. For reasons unknown, the memory and legacy of that activism has largely disappeared. The period in question coincided with a stage of stagnation within the Chilean Communist Party, which led the great historical struggles of the working class in this country.
In more recent times, during the struggle against the dictatorship, feminist activity was significant in the fight for democracy, though was not widely recognized beyond specific figures. At present, feminist organizing is claiming a space within trade union circles, but I feel that it is very difficult to speak of a feminist trade unionism in Chile. This is one of the things the Coordinadora Feminista 8 de Marzo aspires to achieve as we are pushing to build a feminist organization of women workers at the national — plurinational, as we say — level, which brings together women not only from organized labor — which is numerically quite weak in this country — but from all areas of work where the organizational forms don’t neatly fit into the modern labor union structure.
Alondra, you brought up the Penguin Revolution. What space was there for feminism in the Penguin struggles?
During the Penguin Revolution, I began attending assemblies for the first time, and I met comrades from other social movements. I am from La Florida, a district next to Puente Alto. That’s where I got to know various forms of what we call “market education”: underfunding, competition, segregation, the misappropriation of school subsidies. It was my first glimpse of the impact that economic and political organization can have on our lives, and it was also my first experience of effective democracy. I think this is worth mentioning, because in Chile it has been the organized high school students who have created openings for many of the most transformational moments in national politics.
Just like in 2006, in 2019 it was the high school students who called on the rest to rebel, to see how far we can push for change by standing together. I personally experienced this in the assemblies at my school, and in the coordinating spaces between student organizations, among other places.
Back then, feminism, at least in terms of an organized or visible movement, was not the thing that most impacted me. My first interaction with organized, militant feminism was much later when I was at the university, with the student mobilizations of 2011. Those took place in high schools as well as universities and institutions of higher education, and it was there I first heard the slogan for “nonsexist public education.” It was also where I had the opportunity to experience left-wing feminism through my comrades who created an organization called La Alzada in 2012.
What were the central elements that came together to generate the potential for the revolt of 2019? How did you experience it as feminists?
Together with Javi Manzi (another CF8M spokesperson), we developed the idea of what we call “the destituent desire,” meaning something like the desire to say “no” and to do so collectively: no more. We have argued that this exercise of saying “no” to what we do not want, of being able to collectively challenge that reality, is an exercise that enables feminist politics. As some feminists point out, Sara Ahmed among them, to say no is, for feminists, a political project, and we have to say it repeatedly.
The “destituent heart of the revolt,” as Raquel Gutiérrez has called it, was made possible, in part, by the feminist political activities that preceded the revolt. These have been developing ever since 2016 and have taken on an organized and mass character since 2018 with the conscious and deliberate building of the Feminist General Strike and with the collective decision that feminism should emerge as a transformational force, as well as an oppositional force to all political and economic sectors that have overseen the precaritization of life. Feminism’s rejection of the existing order puts the lives of women and sexual dissidents at the forefront as a political issue, and, in that sense, too, it laid the groundwork for political and social revolt.
In January 2020 we gathered at the Plurinational Meeting of People in Struggle to reflect on the role of feminism in the revolt. More than three thousand women and sexual dissidents participated. We agreed that there was a prefigurative factor to the revolt, that it had a history. It was not a spontaneous event that no one saw coming; it was preceded by many struggles over many decades and in different social sectors: the struggle for housing, the socio-environmental struggle, the student struggle. What feminism has brought to the table is the capacity to name something that we all had in common.
In 2018, we identified that shared condition of struggle with an overarching concept: “The precarity of life.” We marched under that slogan: “Women workers to the streets against the precaritization of life.” Then, we said to ourselves: the precarity of life is not only a phenomenon exacerbated by extreme neoliberalism; there are people actively promoting it. We drew up a list of those people and institutions we considered responsible for sustaining policies of precarity, and we declared ourselves autonomous from those sectors — in open conflict with them.
When the revolt exploded, many of the issues raised came directly from the language we had been using and working to spread, as feminism became a mass movement. With the slogan “normality is the problem,” we called for the disruption of normality. That was the spirit informing the 2019 call for the first Feminist General Strike.
Then there was the slogan of the revolt: “It isn’t 30 pesos, it’s 30 years.” This meant that it wasn’t just about opposing the right-wing parties; almost all of the parties from across the political spectrum in Chile have overseen the democratic transition, and they were all responsible.
On November 15, 2019, almost a month after the revolt kicked off, the Agreement for Social Peace and the New Constitution was signed. The agreement initiated the constitutional process, but, as the name implies, it also produced a lull in activity. Still, a few days after the agreement, the performances of Las Tesis’ “Un Violador en Tu Camino” premiered and went worldwide.
We called this “a revolt within the revolt” because of the prominent role feminism came to play in the process. The performance of Las Tesis posed a very interesting question about how the violence that we have historically been told is private is actually perpetrated by public institutions and by the patriarchal state.
What role has the generational factor played in the revolt?
The key event that triggered the revolt in Santiago was the high school students jumping turnstiles in the subway. In that sense, the youth triggered the revolt, but it quickly became intergenerational. We want to underscore how intergenerational it was, because what nationalized the revolt was not the fare evasion. That is what made it explode in Santiago, but elsewhere it was really the decision of Sebastián Piñera to decree a State of Constitutional Exception and deploy the military in several cities and regions, on the night of October 18, 2019. It was in that moment that all regions of the country rose up, reviving the unfulfilled promise of the democratic transition: never again.
In the decades since the end of the dictatorship, the military has never intervened to put down social unrest. This was the first time they were deployed in this way, and that made people of all ages stand up and take notice, because the trauma of the dictatorship was suddenly made present. It was something that the country as a whole simply decided not to tolerate. Then the revolt became a national phenomenon, and in a few days the entire country was militarized.
How has the plurinational dimension of the revolt been expressed?
This is a complex issue, and there are other voices that can speak with more authority. At the beginning of the revolt, there was a moment where the dominant slogan was: “Chile Awakened,” as if we had been asleep for a long time and had suddenly gained consciousness.
I think that people are starting to draw a link between the forms of repression, criminalization, and persecution that we recently saw deployed in the revolts, and the brutality that indigenous peoples have been facing for the last three hundred years, particularly the Mapuche who are still in active resistance against the Chilean state and predatory industries. Many of those who mobilized for the revolt experienced firsthand a kind of violence that previously seemed alien to them.
Another important precedent for the revolt was the murder of Camilo Catrillanca, a young Mapuche shot in the back by the Comandos Jungla, a special police force in charge of “keeping the peace” in Mapuche territory. The government justified his murder by alleging that there was a confrontation, which we later learned never happened. It was a cold-blooded murder from behind, and, really, we’re talking about the torture of a child. In the three days of mourning after his murder, mobilizations and street protests were carried out by the Mapuche people in Wallmapu, as well as in Santiago and other parts of the country.
After the first days of mobilization in 2019, we began to see the two Mapuche flags — the Wenufoye and the Wünelfe — being raised. And with the coup in Bolivia, we began to see the Wiphala flag of Andean indigenous people in demonstrations as well. In terms of building a symbolic framework to support the revolt, it is very interesting that these historically subordinated symbols came to the foreground.
Speaking about the state’s response to the uprising, we should discuss the current constitutional process, where some claim that the radical potential of the rebellion is potentially being derailed. How were those issues discussed within feminist circles?
The Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution was rejected by almost all social movements and feminist groups. Since then, the discussion has been ongoing. A significant debate took place at the second Plurinational Meeting of Those who Struggle, where basically three irreconcilable positions emerged around differences of tactics once the Agreement for Social Peace went into effect (concerning how to respond to policies of repression and the constitutional process established by the agreement).
One of the first steps of the constitutional process was the plebiscite to decide whether to approve or reject the drafting of a new constitution. Chilean citizens also voted on the drafting mechanism, on whether it would be a constitutional convention or a mixed constitutional convention (the former fully elected by the citizenry, the latter composed of elected individuals and incumbent politicians). It was there that the first differences emerged, in relation to whether it was necessary to participate in the plebiscite itself and unite with those political forces calling to take a position about the contents of the ballot (specifically, whether to back the left-supported “Apruebo + Constitutional Convention” campaign), or whether the plebiscite should be opposed altogether. The third position was to not only opt out of the plebiscite process, but also the ensuing electoral process.
Faced with the impossibility of arriving at a common tactic, we decided at the Plurinational Meeting of Those Who Struggle to unite around two issues. First, to fight for a free, sovereign, feminist, plurinational, and popular constituent process — to push the Agreement for Social Peace to its radical limits. Second that, beyond any particular tactical initiative, to defend our feminist program against the precaritization of life.
However, later in the year, we had to face the reality of the pandemic. That meant that we avoided taking a position regarding the plebiscite, the institutional agenda, and the Constituent Assembly, focusing instead on the militarization of the country that has been ongoing from March 18, 2020 to the present. In addition, we needed to organize around acts of patriarchal violence in the context of quarantine and food insecurity, which has become a major issue in Chile.
By October 2020, as it came time to vote for or against a new constitution, it was becoming clear that we needed to take a more unified position around the constitutional process. Nevertheless, there were two conflicting positions: there was the position that Karina and I held — along with the majority of the popular and feminist sectors — about the need to use the plebiscite to express the overwhelming popular will and put an end to the Pinochet constitution. We felt it was necessary to draw a line showing that opposition to the plebiscite was a minority position limited to far-right sectors and to emphasize that the will of the people had been expressed in the revolts. The other position on the table, which we did not share, was to argue that the plebiscite and the constituent agenda were an attempt to deceive the people and that participating in this process was lending credence to this deception.
We never agreed with that view. Our analysis has been that the most conservative political and economic sectors did not want the agreement. We see it as something that no side is happy with, but all that means is that we are in the midst of a political dispute in which social organizations and popular sectors cannot stay on the sidelines. There is a programmatic debate taking shape, and we cannot delegate our voices to others.
Those political parties on the Left that signed the Agreement for Social Peace with Piñera have been subject to scrutiny. To what extent is the constitutional process not just about the will of the people, but a strategy of traditional parties to take control and tame the more radical aspects of the rebellion?
The government lost credibility during the revolt. Every time Piñera spoke, it just threw more fuel on the fire. The political debate shifted after that from the Piñera administration to the parliament, and most of the parties with parliamentary representation, from right to left, took charge of the situation. They were charged with finding a way out of the predicament. Their solution was the Agreement for Social Peace, which not only enshrined impunity, but also actively promoted the repressive laws that were implemented a month later.
On November 15, 2020 the agreement was signed, and in December a series of repressive measures were endorsed by almost all the parliamentary coalitions. These laws are currently in effect, and they particularly affect the political prisoners who were arrested during the revolts. But the agreement is a strange beast: there was also a willingness on the part of the political class, which had previously never intended to alter Pinochet’s Constitution, to do just that. Of course, what they offered was a formula that would mean a tightly controlled Constituent Assembly.
The pandemic postponed all the key dates for the constitutional process, since the plebiscite to approve or reject a new constitution was initially going to take place in April 2020 and the delegate elections for the convention were meant to be held in October 2020. Amid the demobilization, we reflected on whether and how we should participate. We finally decided to participate in the process by thinking of the revolt itself as a starting point.
At stake were the experiences of Chilean people and the working class during the last thirty years of post-dictatorial neoliberalism. The revolt could not be reduced to a group of concrete demands — it simply rejected the current state of things, and, in that sense, it has been an open-ended process. If there is one thing that feminism has taught us, it is the idea of process. The Feminist General Strike is a process, not a single-day event. And the same can be said of all the initiatives we have undertaken.
What began in October 2019 is a process that is still ongoing, even if it ebbs and flows. It was not just an uprising — it has become a vehicle to fight for another way of living. And that is what’s at stake, at least in part, in the constitutional process. Not exclusively, but engagement is unavoidable, because what we are going to witness, and hopefully be the protagonists of, is a debate: a programmatic and ideological dispute about the way in which the powers of the state are organized and how social rights will be understood. This debate will last at least a year and the whole country will be watching it.
For us, this is the most important debate in Chile since the triumph of the Popular Unity, which was the last time that the people went to the polls to back a program. Even the social movements that had initially said, “no, we are not interested in participating in this process” could not very well say, “well, I am absolutely indifferent to the debate on the privatization of water that is taking place in the convention, and therefore we are not going to say or do anything about it.”
It is very important to be able to state our position from within the process, because, in the midst of the socio-environmental crisis, the Constitutional Convention might end up debating things like whether we need a green tax or a radical transformation of the extractivist framework that organizes the economy. These debates are part of the heightened politicization that began in October, which we hope to deepen.
How are candidacies being chosen? How are common programs developed?
During the plenaries and assemblies organized by the Coordinadora Feminista 8 de Marzo, we came to the conclusion that we were going to present our own candidates on independent lists — candidates coming from the social movements who are autonomous from the mainstream political parties that have participated in the administration of the state over the past thirty years. By “independent lists,” we mean candidate lists composed of people without membership in registered political parties.
This was a fairly extensive process of deliberation, and it happened in tandem with our decision to support the campaign to approve the constitutional process. That decision arose from our campaign to, as we say, “jump all the turnstiles” of the political process. This has become our slogan for the present political moment, embodying the idea of pushing the institutional frameworks to their limits.
Other social movements have also been creating their own independent candidate lists. In my electoral district (La Florida, Puente Alto, La Pintana, Pirque, San José de Maipo), it was neighborhood assemblies that decided to summon those who wanted to participate, to discuss whether it was possible to create an independent candidate list with common programmatic goals and a recallable mandate. The idea is that social movement candidates would act as spokespersons for an already existing permanent space of discussion, mobilization, and deliberation — that they would be the means of entry for social movements into the Constitutional Convention.
Without a doubt, we are going through an unprecedented process, although, in electoral terms, it is governed by the same laws that regulate elections in general The level of trust in public institutions and political parties is extremely low, and the emergence of independent candidates has been the only novelty in this process.
In the electoral districts, we are seeing three big candidate lists from political parties and six lists of independents.
Our decision to only run independent candidates does not necessarily reflect a general anti-party stance. That better describes the posture of the far right. It has been complicated because the current system puts independent candidates at an electoral disadvantage compared to the parties. The emergence of independent candidates has come to be seen as something good in and of itself, separate from political parties, but right-wing lists are already being assembled. They are also independent, composed of unaffiliated individuals, celebrities, and people who stand to benefit from presenting themselves as independent.
We have had to clarify that, although, according to the law we are classified as “independent,” we are not apolitical nor are we unaffiliated individuals (certain right-wing candidates, by contrast, have made the “independent” label into their campaign slogan); we are militants and political activists from social movements who represent collectively developed programs and a collective mandate. In the event that we reach the constitutional convention, we won’t be going it alone — we have a project. It may prove divisive when it comes to the electoral process, but that is how we understand the politics that we are doing.
What has been the dynamic between the territorial assemblies and the establishment processes, and is there a possibility that this interplay is not just a co-opting of the revolutionary program?
To answer your question, I think we need to answer another: What are these territorial assemblies? These are emerging sectors of a new subjectivity of the working class — new in the sense that it is the product of the last forty years of neoliberalism. In terms of what that means strategically, we have proposed two relevant ways to think about this relationship: one is that we try to establish a distinction between the ordinary administration of the state — electoral contests for government, whether local, national, congressional — and the disputes around this exceptional moment whose political significance is derived from the programmatic debates that are taking place, many of which question the normative foundations upon which the state is organized.
This distinction informs our decision to participate in the constitutional process and to be able to erect a political barrier between the politics that we are promoting and other forms of political co-optation that are only concerned with which personnel are administering the state. The state is, and will most likely continue to be, one whose function is the permanent reproduction of neoliberal capitalist life in Chile.
On the other hand, there is a second consideration that is essential to our understanding of the process: our strategy is not to achieve “a better constitution.” What is at stake here is not how good or bad the constitution will end up being, because surely it will not be particularly good. Given the way in which the forces behind this process are configured — under conditions of militarization, impunity, and political imprisonment — it is unlikely that we will feel represented by the constitution.
It would be unfortunate if we considered our goal as simply legitimizing a new Magna Carta, a new social contract for the organization of life. Instead, we recognize that this process is a moment of mass politicization, that is going to be fundamental moving forward. That is because we have a long-term process ahead of us in which we have to move together every step of the way. We are committing to the long haul and to doing it together. These experiences are going to be constitutive for us as a class.
Regarding this relationship with the establishment and the revolt, it was somewhat inevitable that things happened the way they have. We are in a very particular political context, which has to do with the revolt and the pandemic. The fact is that we had the plebiscite in October,, and this year we are going to have five elections: the delegates to the constitutional convention will be elected, there will be municipal elections, regional governors, parliamentary and presidential elections. The whole institutional framework is being renewed. In a political context marked by these five elections, plus the plebiscite, there was bound to be some sort of shift in political activity toward the establishment.
How will it all turn out? It is an interesting question. Voting is voluntary in Chile, and in recent decades the tendency toward electoral abstention has been increasing. In the last presidential and parliamentary elections, we saw about a 60 percent abstention rate. But that trend was broken by the plebiscite, because, although abstention remained high, about 50 percent of registered voters participated. Not only was the trend of the last thirty years broken, but electoral participation grew mainly among the youth and in the popular sectors while the participation of the wealthy sectors was slightly reduced. This is unprecedented.
Another potentially interesting development is that although the field of possible presidential candidates has not yet been established, there are early indications that, among those who have declared that they will run, Daniel Jadue, a member of the Communist Party, appears to be leading the polls. This is quite unprecedented, because beyond any opinions one might have of him or of that specific party, we can say that from 1989 onward, no Communist Party member has ever received a meaningful percentage of the vote as a presidential candidate.
It is also unprecedented because — as we learned through the revolt — Chile turned out to not be the neoliberal oasis it was made out to be and, beyond its rulers, nor is it right-wing. It rose up against the deployment of the military, forcefully decided to put an end to Pinochet’s constitution, and now someone from the Communist Party is leading the polls. This is the situation we find ourselves in now, and it’s very interesting.
What political experiences led to your candidacies for the Constituent Assembly?