After more than two months of mass mobilisations, Chileans continue to pour into the streets against the right wing government of president Sebastián Piñera and decades of neoliberalism and state repression. Yet the Chilean rebellion is under assault, facing intense repression from the Piñera government and betrayals by Chile’s parliamentary left, most notably by parties from Nueva Mayoría (New Majority) and the Frente Amplio (Broad Front).
While Nueva Mayoría is a centre left coalition of establishment parties that has been in government for much of the last 30 years, the Frente Amplio is a relatively new coalition of left wing parties touted by many on the Chilean and international left as a radical alternative to the status quo. For example, in a 26 October Jacobin magazine article, Andrew Richner and Abigail Gutmann-Gonzalez wrote: “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”. Recent events prove otherwise.
Last month, the government signed a Social Peace Pact with several opposition groups, including the Socialist Party of Chile, the largest of Nueva Mayoría’s constituent parties, and the Frente Amplio. The Piñera government promised to call a referendum for April 2020 on whether to reform the country’s constitution. The current constitution is deeply authoritarian and neoliberal, a relic from the 17-year military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Yet, far from providing an opportunity chance to fundamentally change the structures of Chilean politics, the pact is a trap to demobilise the mass movement.
Like previous referendums and plebiscites throughout Chilean history, the referendum – and the elections for a constitutional convention that may follow – will be stymied by the undemocratic structures of the Chilean state. Trade union officials will not be able to run as delegates. Nor will those under 18 – the youth of Chile at the head of the mass movement – be able to run or vote. Further, a two-thirds majority will be needed to approve a new constitution in a second referendum, raising the prospect that a right wing minority could block any reforms.
While there is mass support for a new constitution, the pact has been received poorly by the mass of protesters, who continue to demand the downfall of the Piñera government. Even some within the Frente Amplio and Nueva Mayoría have rejected it. Jorge Sharp, mayor of Valparaiso (Chile’s second-largest city), has resigned from Convergencia Social (Social Convergence), one of the Frente Amplio’s largest parties, along with hundreds of others in protest at the party leadership’s cooperation with Piñera. The Communist Party, while remaining within Nueva Mayoría and promoting a negotiated solution to the crisis, has been pressured to abstain from the pact.
The parliamentary left has now backed Piñera’s new anti-protest law. Sold as “anti-looting” legislation to protect small businesses and end lawlessness on the streets, in practice the law vastly increases the level of repression against the protest movement and in effect outlaw’s opposition to the government. The law bans any protest, mobilisation or strike that interrupts public services of “primary necessity”, including public transport, hospitals, emergency services, electricity, fuel, water, or communications. It also places limitations on legal street protests by banning barricades, face masks, the blocking of traffic, and school, university and workplace occupations. Those violating the new law face a maximum five year jail sentence.
In parliament, the new law was approved with the near-unanimous support of the Frente Amplio and Nueva Mayoría, with only a small number of MPs from their constituent parties breaking ranks to voting against it. Revolución Democrática (Democratic Revolution) and Convergencia Social, two of the main parties that make up the Frente Amplio, voted in favour of the new law, only to publicly backtrack the next day, with party leaders claiming that they had made a “mistake”. Both the Communist Party and Comunes, possibly the most left wing Frente Amplio member party, abstained during the vote, unwilling to present even a modicum of opposition. Even Jorge Sharp publicly supported the new law. This shows the extreme limitations of even the most left wing figures in the Frente Amplio.
Instead of providing genuine opposition to the Piñera government, all the parties of the parliamentary left have pursued a strategy of bureaucratic manoeuvring. Recently, the Chilean parliament voted to censure Andrés Chadwick, a far right politician who, as minister of the interior and public security, deployed the Chilean military to crush the protest movement. Their “constitutional accusation” (like an impeachment) passed with the centrist Christian Democrats joining Nueva Mayoría and the Frente Amplio in banning Chadwick from holding public office for five years. Yet Nueva Mayoría and the Frente Amplio have failed in attempts to censure Piñera. They fell short of the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to censure the president, with the Radical Party breaking from its partners in the New Majority coalition to vote with the right. While Piñera and his government have survived, Chadwick has been presented as a sacrificial lamb in a failed attempt to pacify the movement, which is clamouring for justice for all the human rights abuses committed by the forces of the state.
There is a real sense of betrayal and anger among protesters. Gabriel Boric, a former leader of the Chilean student movement and now the most prominent parliamentarian from Convergencia Social, was filmed being confronted by protesters when he attended the latest mobilisations in the capital, Santiago. Video shows him being called a “sell out” and being told to leave the demonstration while having water bottles and cans thrown at him.
This response is hardly surprising. The actions of Nueva Mayoría and the Frente Amplio are an astounding betrayal of the rebellion still raging on the streets of Chile. The parliamentary left has tried to demobilise and divert the mass movement via their peace agreement with the government and their endless parliamentary manoeuvring. Worse, they have now handed Piñera the legal tools he needs to shut down the mass movement.
The repression of the Piñera government is only getting worse. Twenty-eight thousand have been detained. Three hundred and forty-five have been left with permanent eye injuries as a result of lead and rubber bullets fired by police. Twenty-six people have died, more names added to the long list of Chileans who have died in the fight for freedom over the last 50 years. The United Nations has documented 113 cases of torture and ill treatment and 24 cases of sexual violence at the hands of Chilean police. On 20 December, 20-year-old protester Óscar Pérez was filmed being crushed by two armoured police vehicles after they rammed into a demonstration in Santiago, nearly killing him. This is perhaps just a small taste of the repression and violence that is to come under the new anti-protest law.
The government has also moved to repress and persecute the radical left outside of parliament. Dauno Tótoro, former election candidate and prominent member of the revolutionary socialist group Partido de Trabajadores Revolucionarios (Revolutionary Workers Party) has been charged with “inciting subversion” for comments made against the government. The comments amount only to the chants and demands of the movement itself, such as for the fall of the Piñera government. Tótoro is currently facing a state investigation.
In the face of this repression, protesters continue to take to the streets in large numbers. They seem undaunted by the realisation that the parties of the parliamentary left, which many of the protesters put their hopes in, have betrayed them. But the betrayal should be sobering for those on the Chilean and international left. For many in Chile, the experience of betrayal has shown that parliament is a dead end and hardened attitudes against an institutional resolution to the rebellion. It has also shown that the potential to dismantle the Chilean neoliberal model lies in the power of masses of working class people uniting in struggle.