In October of 2019, the Chilean people took to the streets in a nationwide rebellion against inequality, state repression, and the legacy of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The rebellion was initiated by the youth of Santiago, who refused to pay an increase in subway fares, and drew the support of the people of Santiago. Soon after, all of Chile took to streets when the police began to brutalize the young fare-dodgers who refused to accept another increase in the already unbearable cost of living. Throughout the rebellion, the slogan “not 30 pesos, but 30 years” rang in the streets, expressing the true significance of the rebellion: an onslaught against capitalism and a state that has, for decades, enriched and empowered itself at the expense of Chile’s working people. The right-wing parties are not solely to blame for the imposition of neoliberal austerity policies in Chile; such policies could not have advanced without the active support of Chile’s reformist left-wing parties, such as the Communist and Socialist Parties. In response to this betrayal, reflecting a deep distrust in all political parties of the bourgeoisie, Chilean workers, youth, and indigenous people organized mass marches, assemblies, strikes, and rebellions that shook Chilean society to its foundation and forced a Constituent Assembly process which is ongoing today.
Chile’s “October” didn’t spring out of the blue. Years of struggles by Chile’s workers and youth laid the groundwork for such a massive rebellion. In 2006 and again in 2011, Chile’s students battled the police in the streets in the fight for a free public education system as they suffered cuts to schools and increasing costs for higher education. In 2016, workers again organized nationwide mobilizations against the state’s pension system that left Chile’s elderly with a shadow of pension, if anything at all, while insurance companies raked in millions of dollars off of their misery. Chile’s industrial workers, particularly in the ports, mines, and public sector organized their own struggles for improvements in living conditions, while the Mapuche indigenous communities in southern Chile continued their fight for self-determination and equality. In short, the youth who began jumping the turnstiles in Santiago’s subway system in October of 2019 detonated a nationwide revolutionary process that amplified and brought to the fore Chile’s existing ecology of struggles, uniting them in key moments of the rebellion and demonstrating the transformative power of a unified and militant proletariat, even if in an uneven and ephemeral form.
To place this in its proper context, we must look at Chile’s position within the world imperialist economy. As with Latin America in general, it holds a subordinate position in the world division of labor controlled by imperialist capital and its governments. Chile’s copper mines for example, which produce the nation’s most lucrative export, primarily lie in the hands of foreign capital. If we take a step back into history, it was the nationalization of these mines by the government of Salvador Allende in 1971 which led the United States – which needed copper for its war machine – to organize the bloody coup d’état against Allende’s government in 1973. The nation’s privatized health system, which every yeaer leaves thousands to die on waiting lists for medical care they never receive, is another egregious example of the effects austerity has had on Chile’s workers, who must also pay exorbitant prices for medications sold through foreign pharmaceutical companies. For Chile’s youth, precarious work, high student debt, and unemployment continue to mark their existence and were part of the wellspring of revolt that led them to take the front lines against the Chilean police and military.
At the same time, the fight for indigenous rights and sovereignty, and the feminist struggle against patriarchal domination, have been key currents of mobilization that played a central role in this last rebellion. Chile’s feminist movement, with its recent participation in the movement for public education, against sexist violence, and for greater political/economic rights, reached a crescendo in the context of the Chilean Revolution. Working women broke with the domination of productive and reproductive life and entered the revolutionary process in all spheres of the movement: from the barricades and the popular assemblies to the labor strikes and now to the constituent convention, placing their demands at forefront of the movement. The Second Plurinational Conference in January of 2020 brought together thousands of activist women across Chile to strategize in relation to issues such as sexual and reproductive rights, access to public services, indigenous sovereignty, and anti-racism, with a focus on preparing for a feminist strike in March 2020, in which millions of Chilean women participated, many protesting for their first time. In the aftermath of the revolution, and in the middle of an ongoing pandemic, capital and state continue to attack working women’s lives, with precarity, unemployment, and sexist violence intensifying under a government that refuses to hold its own repressive forces accountable for the violence enacted on women in retaliation for their rebellion.
In Chile’s massive mobilizations, the Mapuche flag – a symbol of the indigenous people of southern Chile – waved high and became a sign of the revolution’s anti-colonial spirit. The Mapuche continue to wage a centuries’-long war against the intrusion of domestic and foreign capital into their fertile lands and the heavy militarization enacted against its people who have dared to resist this incursion. Historically marginalized from Chile’s broader social movements, Chile’s October raised a pro-Mapuche consciousness that brought its struggle and its demands for sovereignty to the forefront on a national level, breaking the Mapuche people’s isolation and strengthening the rebellion’s revolutionary consciousness. Sebastían Piñera intensified the violence against the Mapuche; he created a “Jungle Command” trained in the U.S. and Colombia in an attempt to quell the ongoing unrest in Mapuche territories, leading to ongoing cases of abuse, torture, and murder under the guise of fighting ‘terrorism.’ Chile’s right-wing movement contains an anti-Mapuche organization called the Association for Peace and Reconciliation in Auracanía [a southern Chilean province with significant Mapuche presence] (APRA), which has ties to capitalists with interests in the region, who foment anti-indigenous racism in order to justify the exploitation and violence towards Chile’s indigenous communities. As with Chile’s feminist and labor movements, reformist currents within the Mapuche community continue to exert a heavy pressure to channel social discontent into parliamentary avenues that would maintain domestic and foreign capital’s domination over Auracanía and Chile at large.
When the uprising began to radiate from Santiago to the rest of the country in late October 2019 – about two weeks after it kicked off in the subway stations of the nation’s capital – Piñera responded by revoking the 30 peso fare hike. It was too late: Chile’s workers and oppressed groups maintained mass mobilizations, skirmished with the police on the streets, organized barricades to defend their territorial gains, and created popular assemblies to discuss the movement’s next steps. Piñera responded by sending the military to the streets, leading to intense clashes between Chile’s proletariat – with the youth on the front lines, also known as the ‘primera linea’ – , and an uptick in labor militancy, particularly in Chile’s seaports, forcing Piñera to call his troops back into barracks. The movement gained momentum and the state responded with further repression and offers of concessions that fell short of meeting the people’s core demands: an end to austerity, a new constitution, and justice for those killed and wounded, among others. One month into the rebellion, the labor movement’s activity reached a high point with a nationwide strike, forcing Piñera and the reformist parties to agree to a new constitutional convention, in which Chileans would first vote on whether or not they wanted a new constitution, followed by a constituent assembly in the case of a victory in the first vote. The movement then began to recede at this point. The reformist labor bureaucracy at the helm of the worker’s movement refused to call more strikes for fear of losing control of the mobilizations, and the reformist parties that the unions are subordinated to collaborated with Piñera in passing repressive laws in order to crush the continuing mobilizations around the country.
Between October 2019 and March 2020, the state arrested twenty-five thousand activists, most of whom remain in jail on trumped up charges or without any clear charges at all. Chile’s reformist left is pushing a nationwide pardon for political prisoners in the legislature, a law that would affect only a minority of political prisoners because most political prisoners have not been formally charged and would thus be ineligible for these pardons. The state’s repressive measures include more than two thousand activists serving indefinite preventative prison sentences, where their status is unclear as they were never offered public trials. Four hundred people lost one or both eyes, countless faced torture and sexual assault, and about forty people were assassinated by the state. However, the state failed in its attempt to completely quell the fire, given that mobilizations, street fighting, and popular methods of self-organization continued well past the high point of the struggle in 2019.
In the midst of elections to the new constituent assembly, María Rivera of the Movimiento Internacional de los Trabajadores (MIT) and the International Worker’s League (IWL) faces threats from the Chilean armed forces’ hierarchy. As a socialist candidate to the constituent process, she called on the carabinero (federal police) rank and file to stop repressing the people and, instead, refuse to obey their commanding officer’s orders and take the side of the people in the streets. The carabinero hierarchy, closely tied to Chile’s ruling families, is charging her with ‘sedition,’ while their own torturers, rapists, and murderers run free. The right-wing corporate media has been at the forefront of condemning María Rivera. The MIT is mobilizing its forces to denounce the state and its media mouthpieces for their attacks on her freedom of speech, but also contextualizes this particular campaign within the larger fight against state repression and for the freedom of Chile’s political prisoners. The IWL invites all revolutionaries and sympathizers to denounce the charges against María Rivera and to build a solidarity campaign on her behalf and, consequently, on behalf of the Chilean uprising.
The Chilean revolution now stands at a crossroads. Hit by the coronavirus pandemic, Chile’s existing inequalities were dramatically amplified as thousands of workers lost their lives, young people’s precarious working lives worsened, unemployment increased, and the cancer of sexual and domestic violence spread throughout the country. These conditions are the backdrop for Chile’s constituent assembly, one of the movement’s primary concessions from Piñera, who, while not forced to step down as the movement called for, did find it necessary to allow for the formation of a new constitution that would allow a measure of popular participation in a process closely controlled by the ruling parties at the service of imperialist capital. The ruling elites placed specific rules: a ⅔ vote would be required to make constitutional changes, giving the dominant parties a trump card if they can retain at least ⅓ of the votes, a likely result given the mountains of money they’re able to throw into the elections. The bourgeoisie organized the constituent assembly so that it maintains their power and profits: there is no legislation for freeing political prisoners, ending the hated Piñera government, or eliminating the free trade accords that place Chile’s resources in the hands of foreign capitalists. This makes it likely that the very same people who agreed to the Pinochet-era constitution from the 1980s will lead this new constituent process, including the reformist left wing parties that act as the ‘left’ cover for the Chilean capitalist state. This reformist left did everything they could to avoid the overthrow of Piñera by channeling mass discontent towards parliamentary goals and, now, the constituent process, which they see as an end goal in and of itself, rather than as one step towards the revolutionary overthrow of Chilean capital.
Regardless, our comrades in the Movimiento Internacional de los Trabajadores (MIT) in Chile, which has played a leading role in the rebellion starting in October of 2019 – understand that, even though this constituent process is rigged to its core, socialist revolutionaries must do what they can to expose its true class nature and its limitations, while continuing to organize mobilizations to denounce the anti-democratic nature of the process and to demand specific structural changes with the purpose of advancing an independent working-class movement. In this vein, the MIT has been tirelessly fighting for the independent candidacy of María Rivera, a human rights lawyer known for her unwavering advocacy for political prisoners since before the rebellion, and a member of the MIT herself. Having obtained the necessary signatures to become a candidate in the constituent assembly, she will be representing a socialist program at the polls. This program includes a series of transitional demands and an organizational process with Chile’s working-class. The MIT is calling for the dismissal of Sebastián Piñera and his cabinet for their brutal violence and repression upon the Chilean people; the immediate, unconditional freedom for all political prisoners and a complete end to state repression against political mobilizations, a truly democratic constituent process with a majority vote rule, and a vote on the free trade accords that impoverish Chile’s people. In addition, María Rivera represents a call for truly democratic elections with the right for independent candidates to actively participate in the formation of a new government without the unfair economic advantage the ruling parties enjoy.
Beyond this, the MIT’s strategy is to mobilize Chile’s workers, youth, women, indigenous people, and cultural activists to demand a truly democratic process and to strengthen the organs of proletarian self-organization that arose during the rebellion, such as the popular assemblies, student organizations, front line self defense groups, medical battalions, and neighborhood committees to build a unified working class front to defeat Chile’s bourgeoisie and create a socialist society. María Rivera and the MIT understand that the electoral process itself can only play a complementary role to the independent organization of the working-class, and that any vote for a new type of government would have to be grounded in the capacity of Chile’s revolutionary leadership and its working class vanguard to lead a successful socialist revolution. One fundamental lesson from the tragedy of the 1973 coup in Chile is that the masses must organize themselves outside of and in opposition to the ruling state, preparing themselves to overthrow it by any means necessary when the opportunity arises. The alternative, as history has shown, is the bloody defeat of our class and its representatives.
The Chilean Revolution at a Crossroads