“This is the Largest Demonstration Ever in Chilean History,” states expert on Chile, Margaret Power
In recent times, Chile has been referred to as an economic miracle, the example to follow in Latin America, but in mid-October, mass protests erupted in Chile leading to a national strike last Tuesday. People across social classes went out to the streets to protest. Banging on pots with spoons, a regional practice known as cacerolazos, Chileans took to the streets to protest years of inequality and to demand a new constitution, one, not been imposed upon them by dictatorial regimes, but created out of the citizenry’s debates for how they want to live. At the heart of the debates, is the belief that the current constitution is upholding a neoliberal economic model that oppresses Chileans and that has turned Chile into a private corporation and not a country. The demonstrations in Chile reflect a deep discontent with a class divide that has grown unbridgeable and has been accumulating for years.
Latina Republic interviewed Chilean expert, Margaret Power to unpack the debates that led over a million Chileans to the streets. What follows is Power’s insightful commentary on the road to the National Strike of November 12th, and the politics behind the Chilean demand for a new constitutional process. Margaret Power, is a professor of history and expert on Chile and Latin America at Illinois Institute of Technology.
Latina Republic: How does your background connect with what is happening right now in Chile? How does it inform it?
After I graduated from college I moved to San Francisco. When I was in San Francisco in 1975 I got involved in the Chile Solidarity Movement. I worked to oppose the Pinochet dictatorship and to get political prisoners out of Chile and into the United States.
I later went to live in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship and was politically active in Chile working with the families of the disappeared in poor neighborhoods and I also visited political prisoners.
When I came back to the US after six months living in Chile, I went to graduate school and got my masters and my PhD. I decided to study why a majority of women in Chile opposed Allende and supported the military dictatorship. To complete research for my book on right-wing women I traveled to Chile and interviewed them.
I have kept in touch with Chile ever since. I have a pretty long history with Chile.
Latina Republic: What are your thoughts on the National Strike of November 12th? What is the backstory and how do we get here?
I am a historian, so my backstory starts with the Allende government, and especially the overthrow of his government, the Popular Unity. The Popular Unity government had introduced a socialist economic model in Chile, which included agrarian reform and the nationalization of many foreign-owned and some private enterprises. The U.S. government opposed this model and worked with the Chilean military and opposition forces to oust the Allende government on September 11, 1973. The military dictatorship held power from 1973 to 1990 and unleashed an incredible level of repression.
The other part of the backstory was the introduction of neoliberalism into Chile.
Chile was the birthplace of neoliberalism. It was there that the neoliberal policies developed by the so-called Chicago Boys from the Department of Economics at the University of Chicago put their economic theories into practice. Neoliberalism was only able to be implemented in Chile because of the dictatorship, which dismantled the unions and privatized the economy through force and brutality. The transition to democratic governments took place in 1990. Despite these changes, the 1980 constitution engineered and imposed by the military dictatorship remained in place. So, too, have the neoliberal economic policies instituted during the military regime.
Many people say that Chile is such an economic success, a role model for the region. In reality, Chile is one of the most unequal countries in Latin America. And that reality explains the recent protests in Chile.
The spark was the rise in metro fares, but the base of the protests is the misery people suffer due to the neoliberal economic policies that favor the rich at the expense of the majority. That’s why one of the slogans has been “it is not the 30 pesos [increase on metro transportation, which is 3 or 4 cents in US], it is 30 years.” And that refers to the successive governments since the dictatorship that have not dealt with the economic injustices affecting Chile, and allowed the lack of real political participation to continue.
Latina Republic: In your opinion, what are the biggest inequalities in today’s Chile and why?
The inequalities of today are related to what happened during the dictatorship. The people who rose to power took advantage of their political power to convert themselves into millionaires. For example, the current president, Sebastián Piñera, for a long time owned the Chilean airlines, Lan Chile, the Chilean airlines. Today, he is one of the wealthiest men in Chile.
Prior to the dictatorship, there used to be a great pension system. At the heart of today’s debate is the issue of private pensions.
Under the dictatorship everything was privatized so instead of having a state-run pension system you have private pension systems and many of them have gone broke. Many of the people who had money put into them lost everything. Or, the pensions have not paid retired people what they owe them. There is a whole senior population that has very little to live on. This is just one example.
Now Piñera is saying, let’s raise the minimum salaries to $700 a month. The average salary is $500-$560ish, which is not enough for people to live on.
When the price of the metro was raised 3 to 4 cents, it made it so difficult for high school students and college students to get to school. They protested and said: “We cannot pay this. We need to use the metro to get to schools and we can’t afford it.” This is such a telling example of the level of economic inequalities that people live with every day.
You can go down the line from there.
In a poor neighborhood, if you don’t have access to a medical facility, people have to get on the list to get into a medical facility and they may have to wait a year plus to get treatment even if they have a serious condition. And not all medical conditions are covered.
The Pinochet regime privatized the educational system. Similar to the United States, money for education is based on the taxes raised in the district where the schools are located. In many communities in Santiago and around Chile, this means that the wealthy have great teachers, great resources and facilities and poor schools have very little of anything. So right off the bat, there are kids whose ability to get a good paying job in the future depends on receiving a good education. But most are in a system in which that is not available to them.
The educational system is stacked against them from the get-go. That’s one reason why we are seeing that many of the protests in Chile for the last 12 years have originated with college students, high school students, and even middle graders. They go to the streets and say, we want a fair education system. What they are really saying is that we want a fairer economic system, because both are so closely connected.
Latina Republic: How do years of discontent culminate in a national strike? What are Chileans hoping to accomplish?
The two main demands are: First, to have a fairer economic system. For example, they are calling for a pension system that really works; second, they are calling for higher wages, along with all the basic things, like access to good healthcare, education, a decent pension plan, affordable transportation, and affordable utilities.
A major demand has been the rewriting of the constitution. President Piñera’s goal has been to maintain the status quo by throwing some crumbs to the people so that they can be pacified. For example, he says, “yes, we will rewrite the constitution but we will go through congress.”
At this point, Piñera’s approval rate is 9.3% and the approval rating of Congress is something like 3.4 to 3.6%.
Very few Chileans want or trust Congress or trust to rewrite the constitution. A declaration was put out by 15 opposition political parties, including the Green Party, the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, the Christian Democrats, and others across a wide political spectrum calling for a new constitution to be determined by a constituent assembly, by which the people decide and then formulate a new constitution.
People mistrust the established government to the point that they don’t even want it to go through Congress. They want it to go through themselves.
I think what is amazing is how people have organized themselves in the last 3 weeks. Chileans have formed local cabildos, town halls in local meeting places based on old Spanish colonial models. 11,000 of them have sprung up throughout Chile. People gather together in plazas and neighborhoods and talk about their society. People will say to each other, for example, “so what do you think are the problems?” This mass open democratization of Chilean society is going on right now, which is quite uplifting.
Latina Republic: How will Chileans get from all these unique, separate conversations to create a national path for change?
I think that is the question. I don’t think there is a clear answer. I think the reason the fifteen political parties put out a statement is because most of the protest movement has been organized outside of the parties. The movement basically consists of people going spontaneously into the streets and saying, we can’t take it anymore.
A lot of the political parties have been pretty silent or left behind and they want to reestablish their control of the movement. But what is happening is all new. There is not an established path. I don’t think people know what will happen. This level of protest has been going on for 3 weeks now. If you had asked people four weeks ago, “do you think there will be a million plus people walking the streets of Santiago?” They would have said, “no.”
These are the largest demonstrations ever in Chilean history. I don’t believe there is a person who expected it or could have predicted it.
When facing challenges, we always like to have a clear path or think in terms of already constituted organizations or institutions. It seems that what Chileans are saying is, “we want to try something different,” but I don’t think they know what the outcome will be. How could they?
Scenes from the National Strike of November 12th , 2019
Latina Republic: What do you predict will happen next? How does Chile return to a state of peace and create something new?
I don’t think that will happen too soon or that it will be too easy. I think at this point there is mass unity that Piñera should go, and that Chile needs a new constitution but there is no agreement on who should replace Piñera, or what kind of constitution Chileans should have. I don’t think this will be a short process. I anticipate that things will go on as they have been for quite a while. There is no figure or organization that has emerged as a role model or as a leader.What is also going on and has received very little publicity is that there is a very active feminist movement in Chile.
Coverage of the protests and the national strike have focused on men talking, which is Chilean politics as usual. But feminists in Chile are trying to get their voices heard and want to be a part of the reframing of the constitution.
Latina Republic: How are the strikes affecting everyday life, like going to school, going to work?
I have a friend who is a professor and she has told me that many students are on strike. I don’t think classes are being held everywhere.
Most people go to work and leave by 4 at the latest because the protests start at 5:00 pm. They may stop work because they don’t want to be caught up in the protest or they stop because they want to be part of the protest.
Some of the Metro lines, which is the main transportation system in Santiago, are still not repaired. In the southern suburbs of Santiago, people can’t get to work. Sometimes people travel 1 or 2 hours to get to work with the metro but they can’t get there with the lines down. They don’t have cars or alternative transportation so my sense is that the economy is probably at a standstill.
Piñera recently cancelled the Global Summit on Climate, that must have cost a lot politically and economically. He cancelled it because he can’t guarantee visitors’ safety nor the functioning of the Chilean system or economy.
Latina Republic: Is it possible that the military will side with the citizenry, like the case of Bolivia? Do you foresee a military/police alliance against Piñera ?
I don’t think so. One soldier actually did refuse to repress people and he was taken by the military and severely punished for daring to protest. He was arrested and has been released. I don’t see many others following his example, not yet anyway. The Chilean military is very disciplined.
The military as an institution wants to redeem itself following the dictatorship and become an institution that people respect again. The current commanders of the Chilean army don’t want to have an image of themselves as an institution that tortures and imprisons people.
#NoMasViolencia: Como Institución condenamos el ataque violento del cual fue objeto la Escuela de Ingenieros en #SanAntonio. Actos como este no contribuyen a un clima de paz entre chilenos. pic.twitter.com/j27psXMlkf
— Ejército de Chile (@Ejercito_Chile) November 12, 2019
Latina Republic: When it comes to the constitutional debates, do Chileans want to amend, change or start over?
My sense is they want to build on the constitution of 1925 but make it much better, more equal, more inclusive. The Pinochet dictatorship instituted a proportional representation which guaranteed that the right-wing party would get more seats. People now want to eliminate that. What they want the most is to change the dog-eat-dog system they live under today where unscrupulous people and heads of companies exploit Chileans and injustices go unpunished.
Margaret Power is a professor of history who focuses on Latin America, women, and gender. Her earlier work explored why a large number of Chilean women opposed the socialist government of Salvador Allende (1970-73) and supported the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990). She also explored various expressions of the global and transnational Right. She recently co-authored a book on Norvelt, a New Deal community in southwest Pennsylvania named for Eleanor Roosevelt. She is currently writing a book titled Solidarity across the Americas: The Puerto Rican Nationalist Party vs. U.S. Colonialism.