Chile – The struggle to bury Pinochet’s legacy

By Ana Borges

Chilean presidential candidate Gabriel Boric, from the Apruebo Dignidad party, speaks to supporters during his opening campaing rally in Talcahuano, Chile, on December 5, 2021. (Photo by GUILLERMO SALGADO/AFP via Getty Images)

Chile will have to wait one more year to commemorate the anniversary of its military coup, free from Pinochet’s constitutional legacy.

On 11 September 1973, the democratically elected socialist President, Salvador Allende, was overthrown by Augusto Pinochet’s military forces. Allende was committed to free education and healthcare, redistribution of productive land and urban reform.

Pinochet’s government brought the antithesis of this agenda – upholding unmitigated free market policies that hurt entire generations of Chileans. The regime’s neoliberal policies were ultimately codified in a new constitution adopted in 1980.

It supports privatised health, education and pensions, leading to extreme inequality as students and workers acquire increasing amounts of debt while the elderly receive a (private) pension below the poverty line.

Students’ and workers’ protests were recurrent in Chile, challenging the government and its mandated curfews. A wave of widespread protests that started in October 2019 were violently repressed by Chile’s Carabineros, a militarised national police force – another inheritance from Pinochet’s era.

Police repression has left 34 people dead. A further 450 have lost their sight, completely or partially, due to being shot in the eye with rubber bullets. There are 490 claims of torture, including 112 of sexual violence, at the hands of the police.

Arguably, this severe police violence against social movements is proof that the market economy requires state repression.

It was this process of mobilisation and defiance that forced former president Sebastián Piñera to agree to a referendum in 2020, where 78 percent of the population voted in favour of a proposal to elect a constitutional convention to draft a new constitution. In 2021, the new and diverse assembly was elected to do that.

After so much struggle and such a clear mandate in 2020, how do we explain that last weekend 62 percent of voters rejected the new constitution drafted by the Constitutional Convention?

Participation in the elections in Chile is not mandatory, but it was for this referendum. That may have been a factor.

Another consideration is the right-wing propaganda machine. People received online messages containing the old anti-communist tropes, saying the constitution would make abortions legal up to 9-months and end the right to private property. These talking points seem to never get old.

The last reflection though, may be a lesson to all socialists involved in large organising: It was hard for the left to mobilise masses of people and attract more supporters for the new constitution when the document was written in a close group, with limited popular consultation and encompassing several new ideas.

It included numerous brave and radical points (i.e. abortion as a constitutional right) and profound political changes, such as the end of the Senate and the beginning of a ‘Pluri-national Chile’ with all 11 indigenous groups in Chile recognised and represented in the political and judicial systems.

These changes were introduced alongside the main points of the 2019 protests, which focused on free education, free health and a publicly funded old age pension.

The new constitution was full of ideas that are dear to many socialist programs and First Nation movements, but those ideas were spread over a document with 178 pages, 388 articles and 54 transitory norms. People were confused! They could not understand the full document nor felt they could agree with so many political changes.

An end to the senate and a pluri-national state were at the top of people’s disagreement. They had supported rallies for basic rights, but people were not radicalised to embrace those other changes. The only way to vote was “yes” or “no” to the whole document.

The proposed constitution was not ‘too woke’ for the working class to get behind (as the bourgeois media is claiming), but too obscure.

If the priority of the Chilean united left (Apruebo Dignidad) was to bring such radical changes to the Chilean system, it was also important to engage in democratic practices similar to the ones proposed in the new constitution – allowing people to embrace the new ideas that would be placed alongside their historical fights.

The Chilean people had no chance to defend the new constitution because they had no chance to know it.

Having said that, a new constitution may yet come. Chilean President Gabriel Boric has called on all parties to discuss how to move forward with the inevitable removal of the old constitution, which was rejected in the 2020 referendum.

There is no doubt that sitting at the table with the bourgeois parties to create a new constitution will move any future document away from many radical ideas. The question now however, is how the left coalition will deal with this loss and how will the social movements mobilise towards this new project?

It was not the case in 2022, but Chile may still find itself celebrating the end of Pinochet’s constitutional legacy by 11 September 2023.

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