- Interview by
- Pablo Abufom
Daniel Jadue is a Palestinian, a communist, and mayor of the Recoleta commune in Santiago de Chile. An architect and sociologist by training, he has emerged as a possible candidate for the Left in next year’s presidential election, with some polls attributing him 19 percent support. But how does a communist become a contender in a country with a long anti-communist tradition, dating back even before the Pinochet dictatorship?
The most striking factor seems to be Mayor Jadue’s capacity to carry out national politics from the local level, with welfare projects and community participation initiatives adopted by other municipalities throughout Chile. Yet the national political situation is also extremely unstable, and for decades, political representation has been running on inertia more than anything else. Jadue is one of those few figures who has raised his head above the gnawing distrust toward representative democracy — instead calling for a “democratic revolution.”
On Sunday, Chileans voted by a 78 percent majority to abandon the Pinochet-era constitution, triggering a process to write a new one. Ahead of the vote, Jacobin América Latina spoke to Jadue about the possible outcomes of the constituent process, the broader progressive cycle in Latin America, and his bid to conquer a majority in Chilean society.
Since the popular revolt that began last October, countless new challenges have arisen which, with the pandemic, have only deepened and worsened. How did your municipality see them?
The first thing I think we have to look at are the “new challenges.” If you look at the October revolt, there was no demand that is new, original, or “generationally specific.” No. They are exactly the same demands that we had in the 1980s, when we were fighting for the end of the dictatorship. And this is perhaps what I consider most important.
Before the dictatorship ended, we were arguing for the restoration of labor rights, for the restoration of the right to education, for the restoration of the right to health, and for the end of the AFPs (Private Pension Fund Administrators). Before the end of the dictatorship, we were discussing these things, but they were minority opinions. We should have left the dictatorship behind, with a new constitution, and not with the constitution of the dictatorship.
But you have to be honest: at that time, there was a citizen and political majority that opted for the alternative route, the route of neoliberal social democracy. I believe that part of the political system hides from the public the fact that it has undergone a convergence, in terms of economic policy, with the dictatorship and that, therefore, making real changes to this model isn’t really part of their program.
This can be linked to the fact that those who gave Pinochet the “Brick” (the dictatorship’s economic policy document) to initiate economic reform in Chile were Christian Democrats and economists from the Catholic University, who were later in the governments after the dictatorship. So, I think that what happens here is that the ideas of the more traditional left, which were in the minority in 1988, have over these thirty years turned into majority ones. Indeed, today they are part of common sense and the lowest common denominator of contemporary thinking.
The second thing to note is that in Recoleta, these ideas had begun to be in the majority long before last October. It decided to confront this model long before, to put an end to neoliberalism and to dispute free market spaces so as to make people’s lives “simpler, easier, and cheaper.” This meant the state playing a different role in the economy. So, we started to create these popular initiatives: the pharmacy, the optician’s, the bookstore, the record store, the real estate, the open university, neighborhood health provision . . . This generates change in the mode of production, and the social base begins to perceive a different form of social organization, now responding to the needs of citizens.
The “municipality in the neighborhoods” program is done together with the neighborhood councils, and they are considered as part of the state; we attend to the “supply” of health care, but they organize the “demand.” Or take the “open schools,” where the community can take over the infrastructure as if it were its own. In our view, the citizens are the state, and they are the owners of the infrastructure and resources. When we start to remove from the “market revolution” some essential things like medicine, glasses, books, or housing, that sends a political signal, creates a symbol, generates a collective imagination that begins to realize that the country can be different. That is what it had been told was impossible, for the last thirty years.
The part of the neoliberal social democratic left which governed Chile for twenty years had never done any of this. So, Recoleta began already eight years earlier to move in a different direction. One could say that, while in Chile the cost of living rose every day, in Recoleta, it began to fall. This was thanks to municipality that broke into areas of the market whose abuses had overwhelmed Chileans.
We could say that in Recoleta there was an experiment of doing national politics from the municipal level. I think that is what makes sense of your potential candidacy: Recoleta has shown an alternative path for national politics. But the question that one could ask is how transferable to the national level this municipal experience really is. And was the national perspective there from the beginning?
The idea of developing a government of rupture, one breaking with the prevalent model, was always present from the beginning. But we never imagined that from here we could jump into a bigger adventure. That was never a pretension of ours, or part of our budgets. What we did say is that we were going to create a completely different government, based on the Communist Party’s program for local governments based on the writings of Luis Emilio Recabarren from 1920.
Recabarren stated, precisely, that municipalities should provide housing, services, health, education, and other essential rights. He said that its fundamental concern should be to simplify and make life cheaper in a context of radical capitalism, where life was deteriorating and becoming more precarious every day.
We started to do this consistently and realized that the impact was much greater than expected. An example is what happened with the Popular Pharmacies: more than 150 communes in Chile imitated the initiative. Not for pleasure, not because they were convinced . . . most of them, just because of electoral factors, because they felt citizens’ pressure to set up a Popular Pharmacy in their commune. So, some mayors closest to me tell me that everyone was saying, “Look, every time Jadue does something in Recoleta, the next day in the communes, people come out saying: ‘Well, why not us?’”
So, we began to develop a gradual process of “pushing the envelope,” with one measure and then the next. This then eventually produced a new collective imagination at the nationwide level. I mean, if someone asked me today, “Did you ever imagine yourself being a presidential candidate?” No. “Was it ever an aspiration of yours?” No.
But what is happening today? Well, citizens from Arica to Magallanes look positively on the possibility of having, in all the communes in Chile, medicines at a fair price, glasses at a fair price, books at a fair price, rent at a fair price, an Open University, the possibility of democratizing knowledge and learning, health care in the neighborhoods . . . And, of course, if you imagine that existing throughout Chile, it would be a completely different country. And I think that’s what people have started to feel: that it can be done, even before the constitutional change.
Now, we hope that the constitutional change will make it even easier. Because imagine that today Las Condes or Providencia [high-income municipalities] today have between 900,000 and 1,200,000 pesos [to spend] per inhabitant per year. There, we are talking about $1,100 to $1,500 per inhabitant per year, while other communes have only $150. We are in the second camp: we are at almost $250 per inhabitant per year. So, one wonders, what could we do in Recoleta if we had $1,000 per inhabitant per year? How much more could we change things? And if that budget was owned by all the communes of Chile, how different would the country be? People imagine a country with 200,000 social houses for rent at a fair price.
I believe that these issues are building toward this alternative that is emerging today. Without our party having proclaimed us, without my ever saying that I want to be a candidate, people say: “This is the country we dream of . . .”
In terms of the experience in Recoleta, what things could be extrapolated to the national level? Or, conversely, what could change at the national level if aspects of this experience were adopted?
The first thing is that the Recoleta government believes in multinationality and interculturality as a founding fact of the Chilean nation. That has to be recognized from day one, from the campaign itself, if we ever become a government. The second is the belief that the key to policy development lies in local government and not the central state apparatus, an instrument of class domination. So, we need La Moneda [the presidential palace] to relinquish its power.
You look at the central state and see that it spends 80 percent of the entire state budget, while 8 percent is spent in the regions and 12 percent in the communes. This central state is, truly, an instrument of class domination, all-powerful and impervious to citizen control. How can that be transformed? Well, relinquishing part of that power and devolving powers, prerogatives, and resources to the regional government and local governments. Above all, that means power starting from below: moving from the local to the national level and not the other way around
The third thing is that the process in Recoleta truly believes in the need for citizens to be able to permeate all levels of the political system. In other words, citizens should be able to use plebiscites, referendums, popular initiatives, the citizen veto, and recall referendums to intervene in the political system whenever it feels necessary. We need to break with this absolutely regulated form of participation, which is rather like the right to strike in Chile; when this right is defined by the bosses and not the workers, it is not a right at all.
We need to balance the field and for this to be a more democratic country. Regardless of the political system that emanates from the new constitution — whether it is presidential (which I hope not), semi-parliamentary, parliamentary, or federal — we need it to be much more permeated by the citizenry, participating in decisions from the outset, in a binding, systematic way, as a protagonist. Nobody can ignore that today participation in our country is almost farcical.
I would like us to talk about the situation of the Left and the fight for power. In this context of crisis, how would you define the moment the Left is going through today? What would allow an articulation of the forces connected to the Left’s historic project?
The first thing we have to understand is that in Chile, the dictatorship produced a fairly significant shift of the entire political landscape to the right. So, when you compare it with any other country in the world, you find, for example, that the European right is much more progressive than Chilean social democracy: the German right, for example, decided I don’t know how many decades ago that it would no longer question the right to free, good-quality public education and free, good-quality public health care.
Here, social democracy is still not convinced of that, no matter how much they say it. They were in power for twenty years and were never able to establish free, good-quality, public education systems ensuring essential rights. The tax rates they charge, the welfare state they promote and defend to this day, are completely different from what even the European right has. It could hardly be called “left-wing” in any other part of the world. And what is known here as the Left has a fairly wide ideological diversity, ranging from neoliberal social democracy, through left social democracy, to a more traditional and radical left, which even disbelieves in the system.
But there is something that permeates them all — the values of neoliberalism. After forty years living in a completely neoliberal country and culture, it would be pretentious indeed to think that leftist organizations were not themselves permeated by this intellectual and cultural model. So, what do we have (and not only in Chile, but also in Latin America)? An absolute fragmentation of the Left, much more linked to caudillo [heavily leader-centric] projects, individual projects, personal projects — quite far from what a political project really is. This often hinders achieving the widest possible social and political unity. I think that as long as the Left is not able to put the collective intellect above personal considerations, this will continue to be a problem.
This isn’t just Chile but also in Brazil and Argentina. In the last elections there, as in Chile, 70 percent of the presidential candidates said they were from the Left. So, what’s going on? Of course, this is also part of the ideological diversity of the Left, encompassing both those who say they are on the Left but act more as the center-right, as well as those who are effectively convinced of the need to overcome capitalism and neoliberalism as forms of social organization.
A couple of days ago, Frei Betto said again that there was no greater naivete than wanting to “humanize” capitalism. But there are people in the neoliberal and more centrist social democracy who are convinced that what must be done is to humanize capitalism and not overcome it. That, for me, is not a left-wing outlook. Today, we lack a discussion of what the word “Left” actually means.
In the Chilean opposition, there are opponents of both the dominant model and the government, and then there are those, including on the far Right, who oppose the government but defend the model at all costs. I believe that today the Left is on the rise in Chile, with the historical link it has with citizens. But a part of what is called the “Left” has almost zero connection with citizens, comes from university circles that have not done grassroots work . . . like a superior intelligentsia standing above the citizenry. And citizens are no longer ready to swallow that.
If one defines the Left based on the programmatic, political, strategic vision of overcoming capitalism, overcoming neoliberalism, if we consider that that is the definition, can that Left govern in Chile? Does it have the capacity, popular roots, the possibility of building social majorities, even the capacity to manage a national development project?
I think that the question, more than whether the Left can govern, is whether it is in fact determined to do so. Because once you decide to do so, you can argue whether you have the ability to rule or not.
I see that there is a part of the Left that is not determined to govern, that is afraid of being a government. It is an old fear, related to the dictatorship. They say they want everything to change but are afraid to risk a new popular democratic government; and there are those who say, “Ah, no, but we still don’t think that the country is ready for it.” There is a problem of political and ideological conviction. Many even think more about how many government posts we will have if the neoliberal social democracy wins than about developing our own strength. This makes things rather easier for them.
Now, if we overcome that, I believe that the Left has every possibility to govern, and to manage things better than the neoliberal social democracy and the right wing ever have. Furthermore, I am convinced that, while most Chilean citizens today do not want another government of the Right, nor do they seek a return to the times of the Concertación [neoliberal social democracy in alliance with Christian Democrats]. So, I think that the first thing to establish is if we want to be an alternative. If yes, then we can go forward, and we can establish a broad unity precisely insofar as the project’s hegemony is based on transformation and not continuity.
Do you think it makes sense to call this vision of transformation “socialism”? Does that word still apply? What would it mean in Chile today?
I don’t know who can claim the right to determine that in the realm of ideas any idea has died. Socrates and Plato would laugh at anyone who thinks that in the realm of ideas something can perish. Ideas come and go. They have high times and low times.
I’m not a big fan of “marrying” models or projects. Projects are ideal models that rarely work. I prefer to talk about journeys, which is something different. The path is a direction in which to move: you don’t have to have all the answers, because it is likely that each time you move in the direction defining that path, new obstacles and new problems will appear and will need resolving. The important thing is to keep moving in that direction.
So, more than talking about names, I say that Chile has to move in the direction of social justice. Chile has to move in the direction of dignity, the right to be happy, full autonomy. Chile has to move in the direction of territorial equity and social equity. Chile has to move in the direction of solidarity and co-responsibility. You can give it whatever name you prefer. But for me, these values and principles are not debatable: they have to be the north star toward which we push the transformations.
Now, how do we get this done, concretely? If you ask me, can domestic work continue to be invisible and unvalued? No. Care work? No. Participation? No. Can health care have legal limits? Can it be right that the public health care system refuses to cover any remedy worth 1.5 million pesos ($2,000), which no family in Chile can afford by itself, except the richest 1 percent? I say no. We have to advance so that anyone can have access to any medicine, regardless of its cost, if it can save their life and provide better health.
If you ask me, can Chile continue to be a patriarchal and macho country? I say: no, we need to give gender parity to the Supreme Court, the State Defense Council, the Parliament, the communal councils, the regional councils. And, as with indigenous peoples, who have to have protected seats at all levels, begin to permeate the patriarchal worldview with a feminist vision. This implies that, at least until the patriarchal culture is deconstructed, we are going to have to make efforts to positively discriminate in favor of the participation of feminist women — not “women,” but feminist women. We are going to have to make quite a powerful effort as a society.
There are many topics like these that are no longer debatable. If you ask me if wealth can continue to be generated by paying workers much less than their work is worth, so as to pay capital much more than its contribution is worth, I say: no, that is not sustainable. If someone asks me, can we continue to overexploit nature so much that it has no chance of regenerating itself? I say: no, that is not sustainable. We are going to have to move toward an ecocentric vision, in which the ethics today limited to relations between human beings also extend to the relationship between humans and nature as a subject of law.
There is a huge cultural change to be made. If someone wants to name it, they can. But what I propose to Chile, more than a model, is a strategic direction. Because models always mean discussion in the abstract, and I want to discuss in concrete terms.
The most recent experiences that have embraced this type of vision, and embarked on this transformative journey, have been the so-called “progressive governments” in Latin America. In the current context, not only will — often odious — comparisons be inevitable, but it is also important to draw lessons. How would you assess this progressive cycle in Latin America? Looking at these very varied experiences, what do you think can be improved, and what should be rejected or avoided?
First of all, I do not share that very common trend to make generalizations that are, after all, a bit simplistic. I am not aware of such a thing as a “progressive cycle” in Latin America. If someone tells me, “But there have been anti-neoliberal governments” . . . Oh, yes, they have defined themselves that way.
However, I think that, except in the Bolivian case, none of them tried to change their country’s economic base, and, therefore, they never bet on a transformation of the mode of production and the productive base. Already with that first criticism, which is rather devastating, one could say, “Okay, there is no progressive cycle.” Because if in so many years, with so many commodities and with so much money, they were not able to change the productive matrix, it is debatable how leftist and how progressive those projects were.
In addition, they were too based on caudillismo. Apparently, they, too, were permeated by neoliberal values, and continue to this day to assume the supremacy of individual leaders over collective intellectuals. There I’m striking another hard blow, and this time, I can’t even think of an exception. Perhaps the Broad Front in Uruguay can be distinguished a bit, in the best of cases. But all the others have been tremendously personalistic and caudillista projects. I think it is clearly a Left with a neoliberal deformation.
Third, we have been lax on issues important to the leftist electorate, like corruption and lack of transparency. It is clear to me that the Right is not interested in these issues. It has never had a problem voting for bank robbers, for the corrupt, for scoundrels, for scammers, because it is part of the logic of the model. They don’t mind. But the Left’s people resent it. And yet, we have been lax on these issues, and we have not been able to stop an endemic problem of corruption and lack of transparency in Latin American governments. This is a problem that came from before, and it is not the leftist governments’ fault. But many such governments, in order to maintain their “social and political majorities,” turned a blind eye. Without understanding, moreover, that neoliberalism confronts transformative projects by looking for weaknesses and highlighting them so that they will fail. And corruption is one of those weaknesses. On the Left, it must be unacceptable.
We were also lax with management issues — and, for me, that is a betrayal of the ideology of the Left based on its avant-garde consciousness. We have shown no particular interest in the efficient use of resources, in the effectiveness of problem-solving, in innovation or in participation (and we have tried to uphold all these as principles in Recoleta). Perhaps, in terms of participation, Venezuela is ahead of several of us. The level of popular protagonism and participation has been one of the factors that has prevented the consummation of a coup in Venezuela.
If the Left wants the opportunity to lead the continent again, it is going to have to overcome these four elements, which are fundamental to me. Except for Rafael Correa, in Ecuador, I have never heard any president speak of quality management, of continuous improvement, of improved management. If you want to govern, you cannot govern worse than the last bunch.
Of course, modernization appears as a right-wing narrative.
It is completely absurd — modernization should be the Left’s narrative. We have given up certain principles and values that today appear as if they were the property of the Right. It is so absurd that businesses and the Right are specialists in strategic planning and the Left is not. Lenin would be rolling in his grave!
We face a volatile scenario, with a lot of uncertainty. Last October’s revolt marked a turning point, and now your presidential candidacy appears in the media and in the polls. The Right is also experiencing a highly complex moment, with far-right figures thinking they can challenge for the “center.” There is a whole series of elements at stake and an open constituent process, which could end up in a number of different ways. What do you think this unstable dynamic could lead to — and what attitude should the Left take?
The Left has an ethical and moral obligation to achieve unity — not only in politics, but also in terms of its projects. Clearly, it must put all personal projects aside and put a project for citizens first. As long as there is no progress in a process of broad unity, in which citizens themselves are allowed to speak, all the rhetoric on the Left will continue to be empty.
In addition, the Left should focus on developing its own strength before it starts looking for alliances. That means understanding that we seek the broadest social and political unity, but we do not accept people coming along to build unity today by invoking the electoral results of 2012 and 2016 [in order to assert their own supremacy]. For that would mean not understanding anything of what is happening in the country, not embracing the profound transformational trend that has existed in our country these last few years. There are parties that want to sit at the table believing that they count for 25 or 30 percent, when they really count for 5 percent. I believe that is a posture that the entire Left must abandon. So, along with seeking the broadest social and political unity, we must allow ongoing trends to express themselves as well.
And what are the threats to this unity project?
First, the preponderance of personal projects. Second, the fear of labels and the fear of the “power behind the power.” Because some people say: “No! Not with the Communists!” And when you sit down with them to discuss the program, you realize that what separates us is only the title and the name. Having to argue with that childishness seems a little silly to me. The projects have to speak for themselves. Unity, then, is based a four-year transformation project, which must also be projected for eight, twelve, sixteen years. And that requires a strategic outlook, more than just a tactical one.
There are people in our country who sign up to programs without reading them (and then tell the public that no one reads programs!). And that seems to free them from their commitments. I believe that we must begin to be more serious and more honest in politics.
Daniel, I want to thank you for your time and give you the space if you want to add something for the readers of Jacobin.
I would like to make a call to isolate violence. I believe that there are sectors of the far right (there are even sectors of the Carabineros [military police] that have already openly recognized this) that infiltrate demonstrations to provoke violence, justify the repression, and then put in check the political advances that have been developed. So, I call on the Left to continue mobilizing, but with peaceful mobilizations. And to make a significant effort to isolate and separate violence from our legitimate demonstrations, and to distrust those who end up being functional to the Right and the far right, who want only to introduce and implant the idea of chaos into the project of transformation.
Remember that the same people who today call to vote No [to changing the constitution, in Sunday’s referendum] are the ones who said that democracy would be a leap into the abyss. The Communist Party’s historic outlook has always been to participate in whatever political spaces are opening up, regardless of whether the rules of the game are to our liking. There are other political actors who, when the rules of the game are not what they want, organize coups and attack democracy. But we are convinced that ours is the right way, and, therefore, I make a call to remain mobilized in a peaceful way.
And I also make a call to follow the constitutional discussion closely. It’s not a matter of electing members to the Constitutional Convention in April and then going home and waiting for the proposal in another year’s time. No, here we need to follow the progress of the discussion closely, participating both directly and indirectly.