By Walescka Pino-Ojeda

Chile’s road towards drafting a non-neoliberal constitution has been long and painful according to Walescka Pino-Ojeda.

In the mid-1970s, making reference to Chile, Milton Friedman stated: “it was the first case in which you had a movement towards Communism, which was replaced by a movement towards free market.” He was right in his reference to the free market. However, the democratic election of President Salvador Allende on 4 September 1970 did not move Chile toward Communism, but to what Allende himself described as “the road to Socialism.” He was fully aware that the obstacles to introducing Socialism using democratic processes were more than ideological because postcolonial or neo-colonial nations existed in the world capitalist system. Most importantly, countries like Chile faced an entrenched local institutional order championed by the criollo elites, which was fully aligned to serve their class interests and those of the Western metropolitan capitalist countries they depended on. In such a context, the core agenda of the Popular Unity coalition led by Allende (Unidad Popular –UP) was to grant what was described then as Chile’s “second independence”: an economic autonomy. Consistent with this programme, the UP government nationalised strategic natural resources, the most important of them being copper, of which Chile is still the world’s largest producer. Supported by existing global economic tariffs on royalties, the nationalisation of copper took place rigorously adhering to such regulations: it requested the US based Anaconda Copper Company to retroactively pay the royalties it owed to the Chilean state, as those being paid to Chile were significantly lower than those applied to other copper producing countries. This caused the collapse of Anaconda, at that time the largest copper company in the world.

This is where my second correction to Friedman’s assertion arises: Chile did not arrive at the free market economy through “a movement”, but through a coup d’état prompted by the above-mentioned elites, who received financial and strategic military support from the Nixon-Kissinger administration. In the context of the Cold War, there is no doubt that the 11 September 1973 coup d’état in Chile was part of the US campaign devised to contain Communism (as Friedman puts it).  However, equal or more important are the ‘business’ interests that the US was protecting in the wider resource-rich Latin American region (which the US considered to be its own “backyard”), which started to be significantly threatened after the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Still, more broadly, the Chilean “road to Socialism” represented a more significant precedent and risk: the goal of pursuing greater economic independence guided by socialist principles, but through democratic institutional mechanisms, endowed the Chilean process with a political legitimacy that was hard to respond to, except by force and violence. Such popular aspirations of the Chilean people were therefore crushed with the bombardment of La Moneda Government palace and the death of Allende. Furthermore, the two “Truth and Reconciliation Commissions” established after the return to democracy (1990), recognised that close to 3,000 Chilean citizens had been disappeared, 200,000 were exiled (2% of the population), and more than 28,000 endured illegal imprisonment and torture.

From a different perspective, it is nonetheless possible that, when referring to “a movement towards the free market”, Friedman actually had in mind the young Chilean economists from the Catholic University, who in the 1960s received generous scholarships to be trained by him in Chicago: the infamous “Chicago Boys”, who since 1976 served as Pinochet’s Financial Ministers and closer Advisors. That was indeed part of “a movement”, certainly not one orchestrated by Chileans, but by global capitalist interests reacting to a new cycle of economic crisis that had started in the late 1960s, as David Harvey so persuasively analyses in A Brief History of  Neoliberalism (Oxford UP, 2005). This is how the human rights violations perpetrated by the dictatorial regime soon also continued in the form of the economic policies put forward by the Chicago Boys. “The model” became consecrated soon after with the Constitution of 1980, which was approved amidst the climate of fear created by Pinochet’s state terrorism. Since then, the Constitution of 1980 has served to legalise the sustained plunder of state assets, and the gradual and continued privatisation of natural resources (including water), and the partial de-nationalisation of others, such as copper.

Chileans have been responding to this chain of systemic forms of abuse since the dictatorial period itself. During the last 47 years, civil forms of resistance have gone through different phases, and have adopted multiple strategies. Starting with the families of those victims who were disappeared, executed, imprisoned and tortured, the denunciation of human rights abuses has also been conducted by journalists, forensic professionals, lawyers, academics, cultural workers, and artists. All of them have facilitated a sustained political memory process, which has served to counterbalance the impunity set in place in 1978 by the dictatorship’s Amnesty Law. These actors have also been instrumental in tempering the ethos of reconciliation imposed by the first three post-authoritarian governments, to propose instead “neither forgiveness nor forgetfulness (Ni perdón ni olvido)”, as the only feasible avenue towards the full recovery of democratic coexistence and values.

The 2006 “Penguins’ Revolt” (which refers to the school uniform of a blue coat and white shirt) inaugurates a new stage in Chile’s civil society movements: the arrival of high-school students, whose central point of dissent was the privatisation of education. This economic scheme was denounced as representing a system-led form of discrimination with long-lasting consequences for those educated in the public system. Likewise, the 2011 secondary and tertiary student-led social movement was built on what had been previously advanced by the Penguin Revolt. Their motto “No more profit” places this generation as the first for whom neoliberalism as a whole was condemned. Their campaign’s success across generations, political ideologies and social classes has to be explained as identifying a collective dissatisfaction with “the model”, specifically with what relates to growing economic inequalities, civic insecurities, the worsening of labour relations, and the state’s treatment of First Nations. Consequently, the 2011 student movement unveiled to what extent the perverse and unhealthy socio-economic legacy of the dictatorship had in fact been continued and refurbished by subsequent “democratic” governments.

It is at this stage that distrust towards the post-authoritarian political establishment is articulated as a crisis of representation. Since then, different sectors have been contesting other neoliberal post-authoritarian policies and values, such as the “No more PRF” (Private Retirement Fund) movement, whose slogan “I am not afraid of dying but of retiring” crudely exposed the humiliating poverty endured by senior citizens. Similarly, Indigenous and gender perspectives have been gaining renewed relevance in the face of the state’s indifference towards multiple forms of violence against the Mapuche nation in southern Chile, as well as against women and children. This apathy has been perceived as a further demonstration of institutional endorsement of abuse against the country’s most vulnerable citizens, while at the same time corporate crimes have benefited from multiple forms of impunity.

In this context, the social uprising initiated on 18 October 2019 has to be understood as an explosion prompted by the state’s continued unresponsiveness to peaceful, persistent and legitimate social demands that have been expressed by the most diverse sectors of the Chilean society. Citizens’ rage was unleashed by the 30 peso increase in the price of public transport ticket, and the first to refuse to comply were the secondary students, whose strategy of mass citizen disobedience was demonstrated by not paying the metro fee. They were brutally repressed, which sparked an uncontrollable popular uprising against the authorities.  The slogan for this turning point became: “Not 30 pesos, 30 years!” to pinpoint the overwhelming feeling of frustration not only with the dictatorship but with its legacy in neoliberal democracy stealthily administered by subsequent post-authoritarian governments since 1990.

Demands for Human Rights tirelessly championed by the family victims of the dictatorship have transcended to the entire population, who perceive themselves as direct victims of the neoliberal socio-economic model. Likewise, what has been denounced is a direct attack against people’s dignity, hence the main slogans that have defined the uprising:

        [To fight] Until dignity becomes the norm!

                        [To fight] Until life is worth living!

                        Neoliberalism was born in Chile and will die in Chile!

                        Chile will be the grave of Neoliberalism!

                        A New Constitution, or nothing at all!

                        Chile has awakened!

In this climate, in November 2019, the right-wing government led by billionaire Sebastián Piñera was forced to call for a plebiscite to decide on the approval or rejection of a new constitution. Confronted with the crisis of representation against the political class, and following the example set mainly by Bolivia and Ecuador, citizens were also asked to vote on the type of commission responsible for drafting the new document: either a mixed commission comprised of political representatives and regular citizens, or a constitutional assembly, that is, a body exclusively consisting of non-partisan citizens. Although originally scheduled for April 2020, due to the global pandemic, the plebiscite was postponed to 25 October 2020. The final results were indisputable:

            Votes supporting a new constitution: 78.24%

                        Votes rejecting a new constitution: 21.76%

                        Votes in favour of a constitutional assembly: 79.24%

                        Votes in favour of a mixed commission: 20.76%

There is no doubt that Chile’s road towards drafting a non-neoliberal constitution has been long and painful. The path ahead is sinuous: one year to elect the constitutional assembly members, and one year to draft the new constitution, to be later approved via a new referendum.  Although it could be tempting to perceive the current moment as one in which the process that was brutally interrupted 47 years ago has been resumed, both Chile and the whole world have changed in an irreversible manner. One thing is, however, certain: “Social processes cannot be halted, either by criminal means or by force!” (Salvador Allende Gossens, 11 September 1973).


Walescka Pino-Ojeda is an Associate Professor in The New Zealand Centre for Latin American Studies at the University of Auckland.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article reflect the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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