From the January-February 2022 issue of News & Letters
by Eugene Walker
The decisive victory of the 35-year-old leftist presidential candidate Gabriel Boric in December’s election put one more nail in the coffin of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s fascist legacy. Pinochet’s 17-year military dictatorship (1973-1990) ruled with an iron fist, imprisoned thousands, executed hundreds, imposed a neoliberal economic regime, privatized vast segments of the economy and imposed an authoritarian constitution.
THE CHALLENGE COMES FROM BELOW
Even after Pinochet’s resignation in 1990 and death in 2006, Pinochet-ism has existed, particularly in the economic field, with neoliberalism’s stranglehold ensuring one of the world’s most unequal societies. Today, some 25% of the wealth produced in Chile is owned by 1% of the population. Low wages, high levels of debt and underfunded public health and education systems are Chilean reality. Center-right and center-left governments for more than a quarter of a century have done little to break from the Pinochet legacy. It has only been an ever-growing popular movement from below that has challenged that legacy, particularly in the last decade.
⁕ Ten years ago, massive student protests over education at the university and high-school level filled the streets of Chile’s capital, Santiago. President-elect Boric was a student leader in those protests.
⁕ In the most recent period, the Mapuche people intensified their demands for full autonomy. (See “Mapuche people fight for their land in Chile,” Nov.-Dec. 2021 N&L.)
⁕ A breaking point came with the massive Estallido Social (social outburst) of 2019-20, which began in Santiago as a coordinated fare evasion campaign by secondary school students. It led to spontaneous takeovers of the city’s main train stations and open confrontations with the Carabineros de Chile (the national police force) over a subway fare increase and then spread to cities throughout the country.
⁕ A “simple fare protest” quickly developed into a massive movement against inequality, privatization, corruption—the whole legacy of Pinochet-ism. President Sebastián Piñera proclaimed a state of emergency, sending the armed forces into the streets against the people.
But the movement could not be stopped. Well over a million took to the streets of Santiago on Oct. 25, 2019. The next month, the National Congress was forced to agree to a referendum on rewriting the Constitution. In 2020 almost 80% voted for rewriting the Constitution, and to do so not via Congress and politicians, but with representatives from below elected in 2021.
Comprised of 155 delegates, divided evenly between men and women—and including 17 seats for Indigenous representatives—the group is drafting a new constitution for Chile, which will then be ratified by citizens through a national plebiscite in 2022.
This is the rebellious background to Gabriel Boric’s electoral victory with some 55% of the vote—under the banner of Frente Amplio (Broad Front), a coalition of left-wing groups—going against Jose Antonio Kast of the Chilean Republican Party, an admirer of Pinochet.
One hopes that Boric is correct when he proclaims, “If Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave.” While his election is to be cheered, there is a vast difference between a Left electoral power, which will face a sharply divided Congress, and the powerful Left movement which has been growing in the streets over the past decade—students, a women’s movement, Indigenous land occupations—demanding not reforms, not only an end to Pinochet-ism, but a new way of life and labor.