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Chile Needs a Political Revolution

Hugo Gutiérrez

After weeks of popular protests, Chilean authorities have promised to rewrite the constitution inherited from the Augusto Pinochet regime. But the millions-strong mobilization behind the protests wants to totally undo the country’s neoliberal order.

Chilean people protest against the government of President Sebastián Piñera on December 20, 2019 in Santiago, Chile. (Marcelo Hernandez / Getty Images)

Interview by
Denis Rogatyuk

The protests that broke out in Chile this October have seen the biggest wave of social struggle since the end of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship — and a revolt against the political and social order bequeathed by his regime. While a thirty-peso increase in Santiago metro fares was the initial trigger for the protests, the issues driving the rebellion were much wider — as one slogan had it, “It’s Not About Thirty Pesos, It’s About Thirty Years.” Demands have ranged from the resignation of right-wing president Sebastián Piñera to action over the soaring cost of living.

Yet even three decades since the end of Pinochet’s regime, the protests have not only highlighted young people’s economic ills and the destruction of the pension system, but also a yawning democratic deficit. Piñera has unleashed terrifying state repression against the demonstrators, with thousands of arrests and at least twenty-six protesters killed. Conversely, Chilean citizens have built impressive mobilizations from below, with thousands of local initiatives contributing to marches involving over one million people.

On November 15, as a concession to the movement, the government promised a rewriting of the constitution inherited from the Pinochet era, allowing a firmer break with the legacy of the dictatorship. Yet while most parties in Congress back the idea of a new constitution, to be ratified via referendum, many on the Left have sharply criticized the plan, casting it as an elite stitch-up while noting that none of the forces involved in the protest movement are to be consulted on the new document.

One such critic is Hugo Gutiérrez, a lawyer and an MP for the Communist Party of Chile (PCC). He spoke to Denis Rogatyuk about the democratic demands raised by the protest movement, the constitutional reform plan, and the prospect of Piñera being tried for crimes against humanity.


DR

What is your stance regarding the agreement between Piñera’s government and other Chilean political forces on the writing of a new constitution? What are the biggest problems with it?

HG

This is an agreement of and within the political elite. Citizens are rising up against these elites because of how they’ve run the country these last thirty years — and these same elites met in a room on the morning of November 15 to fix a way forward that would secure their own control of the process toward a new constitution. So the existing constitution will determine how the new one is written.

Faced with this whole process, President Piñera has maintained his silence, obviously because at the most crucial point of social conflict this deal served as an institutional life jacket. But this is not a real constituent process. It has established a road map that does not include compulsory voting throughout the whole process, but only in the final ratifying referendum. Sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds are not allowed to participate, even though they were the forerunners and main supporters of October’s movement.

The reform plan has been formulated by a technocratic commission which only includes representatives of the political parties which signed the deal. The constitutional reform process, moreover, maintains the two-thirds quorum for the approval of the constitutional text — something which ultimately hands the minority a veto.

The worst thing is that the absolute protection of our current form of state is taken for given, in one little paragraph. That is, the current form of the republic and its democratic system — the unitary national, presidentialist state — is fixed in place ex ante. And it will be up to the Supreme Court to resolve any disputes. To put the icing on the cake, it’s stipulated that the constitutional convention will cease its functions once the writing of the constitutional text is complete, and if citizens don’t approve this specific text then Pinochet’s constitution will stay in place. So where is the constituent power, here? Its power, its freedom, is totally strangled by the established authorities.

DR

The writing of a new constitution is a historic process — for the first time, it provides the possibility of getting rid of Pinochet’s constitution. So why is your party critical of this process?

HG

The historic thing, here, is the awakening of the consciousness of millions of Chileans, who have piled pressure on the political elite and forced the government to propose a way out of the crisis.

History will look kindly on these thousands of kids who have been in the front line, defending their compatriots from repression. We shouldn’t forget that more than thirty people have been killed, more than three hundred young people have lost an eye, and protesters have been tortured and sexually abused.

The security forces have continued to serve as a repressive machine for the elites, against the great majority of citizens. And history will look kindly on these millions of young people — not to the miserable elites who propose a pseudo-democratic, pseudo-constituent plan serving only their own needs and their own privileges.

The Communist Party of Chile’s critique of this process mainly centers on the fact that it is an attempt to bypass and restrict the people’s own leading role. It leaves out the millions of citizens, since the people’s sovereignty will again be limited to the simple act of voting.

The mobilized people met in action — holding thousands of neighborhood meetings, creating residents’ committees, discussing and setting the bases of a new constitution, making the constituent process a material reality. Yet this deal, agreed among elites, arose as an alternative to all this. Sovereignty was taken back off the people. The elites did not invite the participation of the leaders of Unidad Social or Bloque Sindical, who had already gathered and processed the conclusions of thousands of neighborhood meetings across Chile. All this simply wasn’t taken into account.

Still today there has been no dialogue or agreement between the social movements and the political elite, to take forward this process. In short, this is nothing but a top-down constitutional reform which will merely be ratified by a referendum. It has very little to do with a really democratic constituent process.

DR

How would you assess the results of the failed impeachment attempt against President Piñera? What is your understanding of why the center-left MPs voted against his impeachment, joining together with the Right?

HG

The result of the impeachment attempt shows that the elite will always ultimately defend its interests and the reserved powers that allow it to maintain its institutional control. Sadly, some claimed that this [accusation against Piñera] was a sort of “coup d’état” or that “democracy was at risk” — which was just nonsense. After all, the impeachment mechanism is stipulated in the constitution, and almost all countries rely on this democratic mechanism as a way of holding their authorities to account for their actions. The funniest thing was that many accused the impeachment attempt of being a political judgment . . . what else could it have been? The Congress is a political arena, by its very nature.

As for the fact that some center-left MPs lined up with the Right to defend Piñera, all that can be said is that they took fright at the sharpening contradictions and feared the macroeconomic effects, the risks of a deepening crisis, and the role that the armed forces might play. I believe there was a mix of accommodation and cowardice.

DR

Piñera is under a court investigation for crimes against humanity. Do you believe that the Chilean justice system will convict him? Is there a proper, ethical justice system in Chile?

HG

The latest we know is that the justice system has admitted the complaints for processing. Now we have to see what role the Public Ministry and the judicial authorities will play during this process. The evidence and testimony from the president’s own subordinates, as well as from the victims, will be important, here.

I don’t think this will be a quick trial, but history will remember that Sebastián Piñera was tried for human rights violations. Whatever the result, this would remain an important precedent for justice systems internationally. Justice is justice, and it is based on fundamental legal norms; what is proper or ethical will be judged by history, by the collective consciousness. In our case, history doesn’t typically look kindly on those who violated human rights.

DR

Do you believe that the United States has designed a plan to impose institutional dictatorships in Chile, Ecuador, and Bolivia — that is, are we dealing with a new Condor Plan?

HG

There is no doubt that the United States will always be a force behind events in Latin America. For the United States, we are its “backyard.” So, it always has Condor Plans up its sleeve, to resolve social conflicts somewhere on the continent or to push things back toward the right if the people give their electoral backing to the Left.

Indeed, we have seen a sophisticated set of operations at work, to take back control of the continent. Much of this is a matter of ideology and conservative religiosity — posing the question of political control as a crusade waged by God’s people. Media manipulation and political patronage have set up a religious populism that has penetrated the political class and the armed forces. I’ve no doubt that this was thought up in some Pentagon or CIA meeting room.

This is a new type of dictatorship — one where political responsibility lies more with the political class than with the armed forces, which operate only as institutional enforcers for these fundamentalist elements. We have seen this in Brazil, in Ecuador, and Bolivia — a neoconservative restoration on the terrain of morality, in order to appropriate the national wealth through the total liberalization of the markets. Doubtless, there is coordination and a plan, whose main beneficiary is the United States.

DR

You are an active internationalist — we’ve seen you defending both Ecuador’s former vice president Jorge Glas and ousted Bolivian president Evo Morales. You even visited Glas in prison. What is your diagnosis of what is going on in Bolivia and in Ecuador?

HG

In both countries there were mistakes, or a lack of audacity, in resolving the question of how to renew their leaderships and ensure the continuity of the change process. In Ecuador trust was put in a vacillating traitor [a reference to Rafael Correa’s successor as president, Lenín Moreno, who has pushed deeply unpopular IMF-backed “reforms”], and in Bolivia they kept on with a leadership arrangement which already had over twelve years behind it.

A bolder approach was needed in terms of resolving the historic leadership vacuum on the Left. And this isn’t just a problem for these two countries. So, it is key not to overlook the importance of consciousness-raising, political education, and popular organizing as fundamental tools for giving the change processes the secure foundations they need. Only if the people play the leading role can the defense of popular interests be secured.

In both Bolivia and Ecuador, the empire and the Right saw a crack they could enter through, and things have turned out moderately well for them. I say moderately, because in each country there has been popular resistance. I am confident that both Ecuador and Bolivia are going to be put right again. But all this has brought a hefty cost. It is a significant retreat, because it doesn’t just affect these countries but the morale of the entire continent.

We have to be careful and have more trust in our people. For example, only now has MAS [Movement for Socialism, Morales’s party] opened up to the prospect of David Choquehuanca being its candidate, even though a while ago he could likely have been a presidential candidate who could have ensured the continuity of the change process. It is important to learn these lessons.