Chile: A Matter of Time

“Time,” writes Gabriel García Márquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude, “stumbles and has accidents and can therefore splinter and leave an eternalized fragment in a room.” Something of this sort is going on in Chile: time has splintered into infinite possibilities through the politicization of Chilean society. Despite the New Year’s celebrations that saw thousands gather in Santiago’s central plaza (now called the Plaza de la Dignidad, or “Dignity Square”), Chileans are still living in the moment that began with the outbreak of massive protests last fall. We recently called a friend living in Santiago to wish him a happy New Year. “What are you talking about?” he replied wryly, “it is October 92nd, 2019.”  


The excitement that accompanied the first month of protests starting on October 18th soon became mixed with a deep uncertainty about the future. There is no clear way out of the social and political crisis that started last fall—the most significant in almost fifty years—no consensus about its specific causes, no generally accepted solution nor reform package. For now, time continues to stand still.


Repression and Backlash

The events that caused this deadlock are now well known. The first demonstrations began when a small group of high school students decided to jump over the subway turnpikes in central Santiago, in protest to a sudden increase of 30 pesos ($0.04) to the subway fare. However, the government’s responsibility for escalating the confrontation—originally a small affair—has not been stressed enough. The hyperbolic violence used by carabineros against these minors, along with the mocking phrases used by government officials in reference to the fare increase, caused widespread outrage throughout the country, uniting the population in solidarity with the students. 


This popular show of force culminated during the night of October 18th in the burning of twenty-five subway stations and the looting of dozens of supermarkets. In the face of this new scenario, president Sebastián Piñera decided to double down, imposing a military curfew and declaring in a national press conference that the government was “at war with a powerful and implacable enemy.” On October 25th, Chileans held the largest anti-government demonstration in living memory, with 1.2 million people marching in the capital city alone—despite a heavy military presence on the streets. Since then, the people no longer heed the government’s warnings to stay home, and police violence has continued. Even the recent New Year’s celebration took place against the wishes of the conservative mayor Evelyn Matthei. At each confrontation, skirmishes erupt between small groups of protesters and carabineros in a mechanic, almost ritual sequence. 


The erratic behavior of the government gives insight into the problem. Piñera is disoriented, unable to articulate the causes of the crisis, much less a solution to the pressing demands of the Chilean people. “It’s like an alien invasion,” said Cecilia Morel, the First Lady, about the social protest. Her phrase went viral, both because it is utterly ridiculous, and because it tells a lot about the capacity of the billionaire president and his circle to empathize with the suffering of their fellow citizens. Clueless as to what to do, the only consistent response of the government to the long list of grievances that fueled the protests—squalid pensions (50% of which fall below the poverty line), severe drought, the extreme segregation of the health and education system—has been an attempt to “contain” the popular violence. In other words, to treat a political and social problem as a matter of “public order.”


The National Institute of Human Rights recently reported the results of this approach. At the time of this writing, there are 3,583 people hospitalized (almost two-thirds of whom were shot), 359 eyes injured, nearly 10 thousand people detained, 205 cases of sexual violence (including forced nudity and rape), and 886 criminal actions filed for torture. More recently, the government has begun to face consequences for its abuses: Piñera’s approval ratings are at a mere 6 percent according to Chile’s most prestigious (right-wing) survey; the former Secretary of State has been impeached and forbidden from occupying public positions for five years; international organizations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights have issued damning reports of abuse; and multiple judicial actions are pending against Piñera for human rights violations.


Is it Neoliberalism?

Having failed to recognize its own shortcomings, the government latest move has been to put the blame somewhere else: in the unruly character of a fraction of the population, in feared drug-dealers that supposedly pay people to loot supermarkets, or in the influence of foreign politicians and international celebrities. The sense in searching for these sorts of scapegoats eludes us. Is it so hard to believe that a majority of the Chilean population lives poorly, and that they are incensed at social inequality? The economic data summarized in a recent United Nations report allows little interpretative leeway:


Despite having one of the highest per capita incomes in Latin America, Chile is among the countries of the region with high levels of inequality. According to ECLAC, wealth in Chile is highly concentrated. In 2017, while the poorest 50% of households owned 2.1% of the country’s net wealth, the richest 10% owned two thirds (66.5%), and the richest 1% accounted for 26.5%. For many Chileans, access to goods and services has implied incurring substantial debt, including to cover items in the basic social basket such as food, health, education, housing, and transport. According to the National Institute for Statistics, in 2018, half of the Chilean workers earn less than US$ 500 per month; per capita income is approximately US$ 15,900.


In a similar vein, a report issued a week ago by Chile’s Central Bank concluded that household debt is at its highest historical point, amounting to 75 percent of the yearly available household income (it was 41 percent in 2004). Chile’s Secretary of Economics described the situation as “asphyxiating.” Surprisingly, this is not new. During the last two decades, Chile has been able to sustain its condition of extreme income and wealth inequality, not through comprehensive welfare programs, but under a model of low public debt and high private borrowing used to compensate for low wages and pensions. 


There is scarce political debate about the social tensions created by this particular debt system. When such a discussion emerges, it is usually under the label of “neoliberalism,” a label that—while not inaccurate—is not sufficiently nuanced to capture the precise nature and magnitude of the problem. That Pinochet’s economic model is the basis of Chile’s development path is hard to deny. Equally hard is to affirm that Chilean protesters are opposing neoliberalism or have traditional socialist or even social-democratic aspirations. Yes, some of the people in the street are left-minded and committed to party politics. But one of the distinctive features of the protests is its inorganic character and its anti-establishment or anti-institutional sensibility.


This acephalous nature explains both the scale of the protests, and the fact that the left-wing parties, even those born out of the 2011 student movement, have failed to emerge as leaders. In almost three months of demonstrations, no political group has been able to capitalize on citizen unrest and transform it into public support. In the same survey quoted above, political parties have a mere 2-percent approval rating—below the poll’s margin of error—while the two politicians leading the polls are Joaquín Lavín (37 percent) from the far-right and Jorge Sharp (26 percent) from the far-left. In this scenario, triumphalism on the left seems as wrong-headed as the government’s scapegoat tactics. It makes us oblivious to the fact that similar protests in Brazil in 2013 ended, after some years of uncertainty, in the election of Jair Bolsonaro.


October Awakening

By acephalous or inorganic, we don’t imply that the movement is irrational, but rather that it does not have a functional body. It resembles a landscape where different parts interact to form a general scene emerging from the spontaneous collectivity. To search for a head is to miss the particularity of the entire view. It was precisely this quality that allowed the demonstrations to gather people who had no formal political affiliations and lead them to engage in new forms of political action. 


The so-called “Chilean Awakening” inspired relationships among citizens that would have been unthinkable before October 18th. Images circulated of fanatics of rival soccer teams—known for fights that not uncommonly end in death—hugging each other and marching together to the beat of a shared song. Thousands of people occupied the streets and attended cabildos (local assemblies) to discuss the possible contents and limits of a new constitution. As a sign assertively expressed during the October uprising: “It took us so long to find each other. Let us not let go.” 


To be sure, the spontaneity with which people stepped out of their homes and onto the public spaces was not unprecedented in Chile. Previous demonstrations foreshadowed the re-appropriation of the streets as a political space: protests for public education (2006 and 2011), over pensions (2017), the environment (2019), and feminist causes (2019). All these actions opened in the Chilean imaginary the idea that public spaces could be used to express collective political aspirations. The varied character of previous demonstrations also helped to open up those spaces to people beyond traditional left-wing militants.


The 30 pesos that sparked the current protests demonstrate how, as an SDS activist once wrote: “The Issue is Never the Issue.” The tariff increase came to represent not the old-time workings of the neoliberal system, but a newfound feeling of abuse. For society to run, all citizens need to sacrifice part of their private interests. This calling for self-abnegation, however, contrasts with the reality that Chilean elites make no sacrifice at all. On the contrary, there is an increasing sense of impunity to commit abuses within Chile’s central power groups: the church, the military, the police, politicians, and major businesses.


The Chilean Catholic Church—always a strong opponent of divorce, contraception, and abortion—was assailed between 2011 and 2018 by accusations of child abuse and concealment. Between 2015 and 2018, criminal investigations against the National Police and the Military, long resented for their generous pension system financed with taxpayer money, revealed a private appropriation of more than $40 million in public funds. In the private sector, price-fixing cartels on essential goods such as medicines (2009), chicken meat (2011), toilet paper (2015), and supermarket prices (2019) removed the illusion of “free market” competition. In parallel, between 2014 and 2018, criminal cases concerning illegal financing of political campaigns and bribery exposed the crony nature of Chilean capitalism, the links between economic elites and representatives in Congress (including members of the traditional left), and the network of private favors that influences lawmaking. 


The unmasking of elite corrupt behavior seemed to reveal the true nature of our social norms: that they were made only to be obeyed by the 99%. The Chilean state, which provides little in terms of social welfare, is financed mainly with resources taken from the lower and lower-middle classes. The most important income source for the Chilean treasury remains a regressive consumer tax of 19 percent over all goods. Meanwhile, the president himself has allegedly avoided tax payments by transferring money to tax havens (the Chamber of Deputies is currently investigating the accusation). The list of abuses could go on, including cases of environmental damage, the hoarding of water rights (and the privatization of water in general), and consumer fraud by financial institutions. Our social crisis has less to do with an overarching thesis about the complexities of capitalist modernization—a favorite of political analysts—and more with a widespread disillusionment caused by an aggregation of scandals. With it, political, religious, military, and economic authorities have lost all capacity to command respect.


In the present condition, there is no way the government can carry through its program, which included tax cuts and the reversal of some of the main reforms implemented during the presidency of Michelle Bachelet. Piñera has become part of the problem. His position as a billionaire politician makes him the worst possible candidate to solve the crisis. As it is often said, Piñera’s government ended on October 18th.


Such a falling out between the president and its citizens would naturally point towards resignation or the need for new elections as a way to keep institutional politics alive. Yet in a presidential system like Chile, these actions have a dramatic connotation that is absent in parliamentary systems. So instead, Piñera has chosen to disappear as much as possible from public view and let Congress take the lead, a strategy that seems to be bearing fruit. On November 15th, most of the parties represented in Congress signed an agreement to begin a constitutional process that may end in the creation of a new constitution. Given the nature of the crisis, this looks like a step in the right direction.


Time for a New Constitution

Chile’s Constitution was drafted and implemented by the Pinochet regime. It has been reformed several times, most significantly in 2005, leading the center-left president Ricardo Lagos to declare that “we have a Constitution that no longer divides us.” Nonetheless, the Constitution continues to entrench mechanisms that protect the dictatorship’s political legacy. Formally, it has neutralized party politics, creating a tie between the two major political forces, and favoring the dictatorship’s program as a default. Materially, it has stopped critical social changes that could have alleviated some of the deprivations that motivate the current restlessness. Symbolically, it represents the institutional legacy of Pinochet’s dictatorship. 


Because of these deficits, the people cannot relate to their Constitution or the Chilean political system. Its spurious origin and purpose explain why the demand for a constitutional assembly is so central. The resolution of the social question alone—that is, the provision of the material necessities Chilean people so desperately need—is not going to be enough. Pensions, healthcare, transport, housing, education: the areas of concern are so varied and disagreement so significant that it is impossible to create meaningful public policies under the current conditions of institutional illegitimacy. 


The constitutional assembly is an institutional space to recognize one another, to speak for the first time in a voice other than the dictator’s. It is an opportunity to explore possible responses to the people’s deeply felt demands, in an arena that is not as discredited as the Congress. Of course, the institutional crisis is not just a consequence of Pinochet’s Constitution. A cursory gaze at the massive protests that have exploded worldwide is enough to see how there is something about Chile that appears strikingly familiar. But at least in the medium term, a political refounding seems a plausible path to confront some aspects of the global crisis.


The mechanics of the process are easy to summarize. There will be an entrance plebiscite in April 2020, where people will get to decide if they want a new constitution. Next, they will decide on the mechanism employed for its drafting. The document may be written by a Constitutional Convention, in which case all members will be specially elected for this purpose, with no participation of representatives from Congress. Alternatively, the document may be drafted by a Mixed Convention, in which case, half of the members will come from Congress. Whatever the case, elections will be held in October 2020. The Convention will need a two-thirds quorum to reach its decisions. 


A proposal currently before the Senate (already approved by the Chamber of Deputies) states that the Convention will have gender parity; independent candidates will be able to form lists separate from the established parties; and indigenous people will have secured places. In the Chilean context, these are necessary correctives to the exclusionary effects of traditional politics. Their incorporation is fundamental, as the crisis is both material and institutional. With the October uprising, people became more politicized. From popular talk-shows to local farmers’ markets, people have been constantly discussing political issues. Communal cabildos remain an active form of association. By the end of November, the Constitution became the best-selling book nationwide. For these reasons, the project currently before the Senate could be a way to cast a bridge between the political experience of the protests and the institutionalized forms of democratic participation.


Where the Constitutional strategy will take us is something we have yet to see, but the revolutionary potential of its realization lies precisely in the uncertainty of its results. What exploded on October 18th is, in many ways, unprecedented for the Chilean people. It expresses a political demand for a new foundation, a genuinely collective beginning. It represents an encounter with forgotten modes of social organization and alternative ways of doing politics. In its simultaneous dialogue with past, present, and future, the protests opened a myriad of complementing, competing, and alternating temporalities. The Constitutional Convention offers a possibility to recompose our disjointed time.


Naturally, this does not mean that the mere establishment of the Convention will realize the movement’s demands. Profound welfarist reforms continue to be urgent, and at least some are needed to provide political institutions with minimum conditions of legitimacy. Right now, however, the main issue is institutional. 


There is a sign in the protest that reads: “My biggest fear is that all this will stop, and everything will remain the same.” The constitutional process now in course will mean nothing if the institutions created by the Convention do not give body to the political hopes that occupied the streets of Chile. If, in other words, we remain trapped in a pre-October 18th moment. 


What the new institutions will look like, we cannot anticipate. That must be discovered collectively through the exercise of political action. Until that happens, time will remain still.


Photo Credit: Carlos Figueroa, Protestas en Chile 2019/10/22, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

All other photos by Pierre de Baeremaecker, used with permission.


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