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Chile Awakens

Chile’s mass mobilizations challenge the neoliberal model and have raised expectations for millions of Chileans. With the country’s explosion of protests in recent weeks at its back, the fledgling left coalition could fight back against the decades of neoliberalism that have immiserated so many Chileans.

A Chilean flag is displayed during protests against President Sebastián Piñera's government on October 25, 2019 in Santiago, Chile. (Marcelo Hernandez / Getty Images)

Last week, in response to a four-cent rise in the price of the metro fare, mass protests fed by dissatisfaction with thirty-plus years of post-Pinochet neoliberal consensus erupted in Santiago and then across Chile. In response, students organized mass fare dodging, the government escalated with heavy police presence, and mass protests ensued. The right-wing government of President Sebastián Piñera reacted swiftly and severely, imposing a state of emergency and toque de queda (curfew), a legacy feature of the 1980 Chilean constitution deeply reminiscent of the most turbulent days of the military dictatorship.

The youth of Chile, and in particular students, have been at the forefront of popular resistance, not just in the present moment, but as far back as the mass mobilization of students in 2007 and 2011 against privatization and the for-profit education system. These earlier mobilizations led to the formation of the Frente Amplio (or “Broad Front”), a broad left electoral coalition composed of distinct left parties and social movements whose principal aim is to challenge the neoliberal consensus.

By forwarding a platform including a new constituent assembly, the public ownership of water, and an end to Chile’s privatized pension system, Frente Amplio surprised Chile’s political elite by winning twenty seats in the Chamber of Deputies, one Senate seat as well as four mayoral races (including Valparaíso, Chile’s largest city outside of Santiago), and dozens of seats in municipal governments in 2017. But the most important figurehead of the election was Frente Amplio’s presidential candidate Beatriz Sánchez, who despite polling at 9 percent finished the first-round presidential election with 22 percent of the vote and came within 150,000 votes of passing to the final round, shocking the Chilean political establishment.

Collapse of the Neoliberal Consensus

Despite its reputation as a relatively wealthy Latin American country, Chilean society is deeply divided between the rich and poor. Income inequality is worse in Chile than in any other OECD nation. Meanwhile, public services ranging from the pension system to water remain privatized — as much a legacy of the Pinochet years as the 1980 constitution and the state of emergency.

“Economically, Chile continues to do the same thing it’s been doing for twenty years, namely following an extractivist model, which relies heavily on copper but also has to do with forestry, fisheries, etc.,” explains Emilia Ríos Saavedra, a Revolución Democrática (a member party of Frente Amplio) militant and city councilor in Ñuñoa, a suburb of Santiago. “This creates a tension and a feeling of helplessness where the political system cannot respond. There is no capacity on the one hand, and on the other hand, the political and economic elites, above all, are not capable of thinking about the larger needs of the country.”

As the center-left coalition that led Chile through the transition to democracy failed to address the growing crisis caused by the economic policies of the Chicago Boys who collaborated with Pinochet in the 1980s to dismantle Chile’s social democratic legacy, their popular support has collapsed. In the 2017 presidential election, the right-wing billionaire who introduced consumer debt to Chile, Sebastián Piñera, was elected.

“Piñera’s government was the result of both the erosion and contradictions of the Nueva Mayoría (the center-left coalition) and the promises of better times he made during the campaign,” says Francisca Perales, a member of the national directive of Convergencia Social in the Valparaíso region, another of Frente Amplio’s constituent parties. “However, currently, unemployment has increased, cases of nepotism and corruption have not disappeared, and its reforms have been recognized as favorable to large business.”

The extent to which Piñera’s government of elites is out of touch with the economic realities of everyday Chileans helped ignite his government’s current crisis. In response to long wait times at hospitals, his assistant secretary of health care networks Luis Castillo suggested people show up early to health centers to socialize while waiting to be seen, and his economic minister Juan Andrés Fontaine suggested workers get up before dawn to avoid rush hour fares in response to the recent price increase.

The response of the Piñera government, including the declaration, “We are at war,” has only fanned the flames of popular opposition. Despite this bellicose rhetoric and in contrast to the government’s characterization of the mass mobilizations, the mood on the streets of Chile is energetic, optimistic, and at times, exuberant. As Perales puts it, “We are filled with hope, because instead of fearful reactions, people on the streets are saying that Chile has finally woken up after years of abuse from neoliberal policies.”

Frente Amplio — a New Left Alternative

The Chilean people are demanding an end to the private pension system, a reduction of the workweek to forty hours, deprivatizing water, a new Labor Code, fixing the public health system through direct financing to public health care institutions, strengthening public education at all levels, making public transportation free, and starting a new constitutional process through a constituent assembly.

Despite the modest presence of Frente Amplio in national politics, the demands of the mass popular uprising mirror the coalition’s political platform, opening the possibility for Frente Amplio to harness some of the energy. As an electoral coalition, Frente Amplio has taken an explicit stance against nepotism and corruption which has characterized Chilean politics for decades. Instead, they seek to involve the citizenry in the political process, an approach that hints at their roots in Chile’s long history of social struggle.

“Frente Amplio is a recent alternative, born of past social mobilizations and struggles of resistance to the dictatorship,” Perales says. “We know that we do not have all the answers and that this mobilization exceeds us.”

In response to the mounting pressure of the mass popular uprising, the Piñera government has been forced to issue a political response to the crisis. In recent days, Piñera has released a new “social agenda,” including concessions such as pension reforms, a guaranteed minimum income, and taxes on the wealthy. However, for protestors and Frente Amplio militants alike, these reforms are a nonstarter until the repression by the military ends.

“The first step in making any progress in resolving this conflict is to have democracy restored in Chile,” Perales says. As for Piñera’s attempts to placate protestors, she says, “People will not stop mobilizing only for promises and speeches. The citizens have already spoken, and the only possible way out of this crisis is for the government to respond to popular demands aimed at overcoming the precariousness of life.”

With one foot in the halls of power and one foot in the streets, Frente Amplio is in a unique position to take the lead in dismantling the neoliberal model in Chile. When the National Congress reduced their own bloated salaries in response to the mass mobilizations, Convergencia Social deputy Diego Ibáñez commented, “Without the social mobilization, this would not be possible.” On Friday, they launched their proposal for a plebiscite on whether to call a constitutional assembly to replace the 1980 constitution.

However, Frente Amplio is far from committed to a model of working solely within the state to achieve concessions. Perales says, “Frente Amplio will not hold any kind of dialogue with the government until the state of constitutional exception is lifted and an immediate demilitarization begins” and refused Piñera’s offer of a “working meeting” to help resolve the crisis. Their approach to forwarding the cause of Chile’s mass mobilizations is, as Perales says, to “fight through all possible means available to us for those demands to be met and advanced.”

“The first mission we have as Frente Amplio is to recover the sense of hope that was a hallmark of the Popular Unity government (of Salvador Allende). The people who lived during the Popular Unity in its moment of glory, what they experienced was this tremendous hope, a huge sense of agency, and the belief that change was possible,” says Rios. “Without that spirit, we will hardly be able to achieve anything.”

Born of exasperation with the abuses of the neoliberal model, and menaced by the shadow of the military dictatorship, the popular mobilizations in Chile also bring this spirit of hope and agency. Frente Amplio hopes to harness the popular energy and be a vehicle through which that transformational change can occur.

“It is not the time to give up and be overcome by the fear of repression exerted by the state,” Perales says. “We must continue to mobilize to advance along this path of transformation of our society, which allows us to build a more participatory and deeply democratic Chile.”