Chile at Crossroads Towards a People’s Democracy

S Raj //

Chile witnessed its biggest ever mass protest in recent history in October 2019 with tens of lakhs (millions) of people on coming on streets to demand an end to almost half a century neoliberal attacks and anti-people policies. This mass movement caused the government to succumb to the demand of a national plebiscite on the question of drafting of a new Constitution which would replace the existing neoliberal Constitution enacted by imperialist dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1980. Due to the magnitude and diversity of the protests, the Chilean media referred them as an Estallido social (social outbreak).

In the referendum held on 25th October 2020, the Chilean masses have majorly voted for a new Constitution which would be drafted by a freshly, fully and directly elected Constitutional Convention. The election of members of this Constitutional Convention will take place in April 2021 which would then give way to the constitution drafting process. The newly drafted Constitution will be put to vote before the Chilean masses by August 2022. This development opens a plethora of revolutionary possibilities before the Chilean masses.

The Mass Protests

On 14th October 2019, Chile’s capital Santiago saw a fresh eruption of mass protests and civil unrest as a direct response to the Santiago Metro’s fare hike by 30 pesos (almost ₹3). Although they started against a small fare hike, the protests immediately took a protracted form when more and more of Chilean masses began coming out on the streets and the demands rose against privatization, inequality, increasing cost of living, and neoliberalism itself. The popular slogan emerged, “It’s not about 30 pesos, it’s about 30 years!” which accurately explained the rapidly increasing magnitude and scope of the protests over just a small fare hike.

The protests began as a coordinated fare evasion campaign by secondary school students which led to spontaneous takeovers of the city’s main train stations and open confrontations with the Carabineros de Chile (the national police force). On 18 October, President and one of the richest billionaires of Chile, Sebastián Piñera announced a state of emergency, authorizing the deployment of Chilean Army forces across the main regions and invoked before the courts the Ley de Seguridad del Estado (“State Security Law”) against dozens of detainees. Subsequently, a curfew was declared on 19 October in the Greater Santiago area.

However, all such tactics proved futile as on 25 October, over a million (10 lakh) people took to the streets throughout Chile to protest against the neoliberal policies and even the resignation of President Piñera. As was expected, the State unleashed unspeakable terror on the masses including killings, torture, eye mutilation, rapes and sexual violence. As of February 2020, 36 people had died, 11,564 had been injured and 28,000 were detained.

However, the undeterred people of Chile kept moving forward with their demands which caused the Government to finally succumb. On 15 November, the National Congress signed an agreement to call a national referendum in April 2020 regarding the creation of a new constitution. The referendum was later rescheduled from 26 April to 25 October 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Background Of The Unrest

After the democratically elected Salvador Allende led socialist government which came to power in 1970 (backed by the Popular Unity coalition comprising the Communist Party and 4 other left parties) was violently overthrown by a CIA-sponsored military coup on 11th September 1973, dictator Augusto Pinochet took control and dissolved the National Congress (Legislature), suspended the Constitution and established a military dictatorship in Chile which caused deaths and disappearances of thousands.

A new dictatorial constitution was enacted in 1980 through a fraudulent plebiscite which was largely written by Pinochet advisor Jaime Guzmán and enshrined into law the neoliberal ideas of American economist Milton Friedman and the “Chicago Boy” economists who dictated the country’s economic policy for decades, leading to increasing inequality and all forms of oppression on the Chilean people. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) stated that 1% of the population in Chile controlled 26.5% of the country’s wealth, while 50% of low-income households had access to just 2.1%.

While Pinochet was compelled to step down in 1990 due to popular protests, he stayed the commander-in-chief of the armed forces for the next 8 years and still had indirect control and influence over other organs of the state. Chile amended the Pinochet Constitution in 1990 as a part of its transition to ‘democracy’ and removed some of its anti-democratic features. However, the neoliberal and exploitative provisions stayed on which are present to this day.

When the 2019 protests against neoliberalism first broke out, President Piñera, in a manner similar to that of Pinochet, sent tanks to the streets, declaring “We are at war with a powerful, relentless enemy that respects nothing nor anyone,” echoing Pinochet’s infamous catchphrase.

The Referendum

The Chilean national plebiscite was held on 25th October 2020. The referendum asked whether a new constitution should be drafted (Approve) or not (Reject), and whether it should be drafted by a “Constitutional Convention”, comprising members elected directly by the citizens for this convention, or by a “Mixed Constitutional Convention”, comprising half by currently-sitting members of Parliament and the other half by directly elected citizens. The “Approve” side won by a landslide, with 78% agreeing to draft a new constitution. On how the new text should be written, 79% opted for the directly elected “Constitutional Convention”. The voter turnout was 51%.

A second vote to elect the members of the Constitutional Convention will be held on 11 April 2021. The “Constitutional Convention” will be a 155-member constituent assembly comprising entirely of members elected by citizens and will have an equal number of female and male participants. A third vote, which is expected to occur no later than August 2022, will accept or reject the new constitution after it is drafted. So, replacing the Constitution is going to be a two-year process.

Political Parties & Equations

The main forces in support of replacing the Constitution are the working class, trade unions, left-wing parties and various social groups and movements. While those supporting the current Constitution come from wealthy sectors and conservative/right-wing political groups.

Chile Vamos,the ruling neoliberal coalition comprising of right-wing parties viz. National Renewal, Independent Democratic Union, and Political Evolution, was the main political force which, naturally, supported the existing Constitution. Apart from it, the three other major political coalitions having left-liberal leanings viz. the Socialist Party led ‘Progressive Convergence’, the Democratic Revolution party led ‘Broad Front’ and the Communist Party led ‘Unity for Change’ have vocally supported replacement of the existing Pinochet Constitution.

In January 2020, Commando ‘Chile Digno’ or Dignified Chile, a platform bringing together various left-wing political parties, was formed which began an electoral campaign for replacement of the Constitution through the upcoming referendum. The Chile Digno consisted of the Communist Party, Progressive Party, Social Green Regionalist Federation, Humanist Party, Equality Party, Libertarian Left, People’s Democratic Movement, and various social organizations.

Revolutionary Possibilities Ahead

The historic referendum vote comes just days after the electoral victory of Evo Morales’ Movement for Socialism party in Bolivia where the neoliberal Jeanine Anez government, which came to power in November 2019 through a US-backed military coup, was defeated.

The Chilean masses have created history through their undeterred struggle against neoliberalism despite facing the worst forms of repression, by laying the ground open for not only drafting of a new Constitution but also for adopting a democratic process of drafting and enacting that Constitution. The situations are most ripe for Chile to move from a neoliberal dictatorship to a genuine people’s democracy through the adoption of a revolutionary Constitution.

A new people’s Constitution must have the provisions to facilitate the transition of the society towards socialism. Under it: all wealth of capitalists and all sectors of economy from education and health to industry and agriculture must be nationalized and placed directly under the people’s control instead of a bureaucracy; all lands of landlords must be distributed to the agricultural labourers and marginal peasants; right to recall must be present in the democratic election process; police and security forces must be replaced by people’s militia; armed forces must be reorganized based on a people’s militia for guarantee against military and imperialist coups, all imperialist agents and puppets must be incarcerated as per due process.

Naturally, such a people’s Constitution for establishment of a people’s democracy would require revolutionary forces to actively present themselves as a vanguard to the toiling and common masses of Chile, which can instil revolutionary fervour and ideals in the people’s imagination. At the same time, in order to defend the menacing imperialist threat and avoid isolation, broad and militant unity of the people including workers, peasants, common masses and even the petty bourgeois must be formed. Chile stands at a historic juncture today where the old era is falling apart and the new era stares directly at it. The revolutionary forces must act with unprecedented vigour and activeness to take forward the struggle of the Chilean masses towards establishment of a people’s democracy and towards socialism.

Chileans celebrate the Referendum outcome to replace the Constitution (26 Oct ’20)

[Originally published in The Truth: Platform for Radical Voices of The Working Class (Issue 7 / November 2020)]

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