Chile’s 2021 forecast: clouds of unrest and a drizzle of hope

  • February 24, 2021

Capitalism & Crisis

Presidential elections, a constitutional reform process and rising social tensions: 2021 is shaping up to be a critical year that will define Chile’s future.

Statue covered in paint and flags during a protest at Santiagio’s Plaza Italia square. Santiago, Chile – December 6, 2019. Roberto Baeza /

Over the past year and a half, Chile has been making global headlines. Beginning in October, 2019, a wave of historic insurrections swept the country. Kicked off by high school students protesting against a transportation fare hike in Santiago, the cycle of struggle reached a new milestone one year later with an overwhelming vote to replace the old, Pinochet-era constitution.

The significance of this revolt stretches far beyond the confines of Chile itself. The country was, in many ways, a laboratory of neoliberalism. Introduced following Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup, many of the mechanisms of privatization and inequality which citizens across the world live with on a daily basis had their start in the country, transforming it into a key Latin American ally of the United States. Today’s rebellion against that economic and political system might yet have the opposite impact, providing a model for social struggle against neoliberalism the world over.

Now, as 2021 gets under way, the Chilean crisis is still far from over. A packed electoral schedule will coincide with widespread anger and built-up frustration with the government’s poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Economic devastation wreaked during the pandemic will come to replace the pandemic itself as the greatest source of pain. Yet the hope of the rebellion also endures, and, perhaps more than any other OECD country, Chile today remains on the verge of revolution.

Millions in the streets

The 2019 wave of protests quickly spiraled into general unrest. A deep-seated anger at social and economic inequalities, a repressive state and high costs of living took hold of the population. Following the burning of several metro stations along with the headquarters of international energy giant ENEL on October 18, right-wing president Sebastián Piñera declared a state of emergency and suspended civil liberties.

In the repression that followed, dozens of protesters were killed and countless injured by military troops. In response, ever larger and more militant protests were organized, with at least 3.7 million people taking part, or about a third of the working age population.

The government was forced to rescind the state of emergency soon thereafter but normality never returned. Throughout the following months, demonstrations were organized on a daily basis, sometimes numbering in the millions. The center of Santiago increasingly began to resemble a war zone, with its pavement torn up, its buildings burnt down and barricades and tear gas everywhere.

Despite high levels of fatigue due to widespread repression and the de facto introduction of detention without trial — many militants have been in prison since October 2019 without having ever had their day in court — confrontations continued throughout the Chilean summer. By January 2020, word on the street was that March would be the decisive month. With students returning to school and two major dates on the revolutionary calendar — International Women’s Day on March 8 and Day of the Young Combatant on March 29 — it was clear that this would be a make-or-break moment.

But as it turned out, March had a different surprise in store. The rapid spread of COVID-19 quickly cleared the streets. One of the world’s strictest lockdowns was announced soon thereafter and protests were banned. Despite the occasional conflict, such as May’s food riots, the situation remained relatively calm, if tense. As restrictions were eased, the people started returning to the streets. Massive street protests culminated in a historic victory on October 25, when Chileans delivered a hammer blow to the government by tossing out the old, Pinochet-era constitution in a referendum.

The constitutional reform process

On October 25, 2020, nearly 80 percent of Chileans voted to overturn their 40-year-old constitution. Written under Pinochet’s dictatorship, the document had served to centralize power and enshrine neoliberalism in law, beyond the remit of even parliamentary scrutiny. Despite several rounds of reforms during the “transition to democracy,” particularly from 1988 to 2005, at its core the system remained very much the same. Chile retained a strong presidency, an abusive police force and an economy plagued by wild inequalities. At the October referendum it became clearer than ever that the people, rallied by the movement in the streets and sickened by its repression, wanted change.

However, this overwhelming vote in favor of a new constitution masked deeper social divisions. Nuñoa, for instance, located in eastern Santiago and one of Chile’s wealthiest communes, voted firmly to approve the initiative. The local administration there is controlled by National Renewal, the party of President Piñera, and local average incomes stand at many times the national average. On the other hand, La Pintana, Chile’s left-wing, third-poorest commune, a symbol of concentrated poverty less than 20 kilometers away from Nuñoa, voted the same way. And each did so by massive margins.

Keeping this in mind, one begins to get a picture of the socio-political diversity existing under the surface of the superficial unity of the yes vote, with poorer districts seeking significant social reforms whilst the richer hope mainly for political reforms modeled on Western Europe or the United States, peeling away the vestiges of Pinochet’s formal authoritarianism. The differences in politics and living standards between these different constituents might obstruct the constitutional reform process.

But there is more. A key demand of the movement in the streets, following Piñera’s announcement of a constitutional referendum, was equal representation between genders in the resulting constitutional convention. Piñera deftly agreed to this, manipulating the proposal to transform the electoral system for the convention into a party-list proportional one, thereby largely guaranteeing the established parties’ control over delegate selection. Further damaging prospects was a decision to impose on the convention a rule requiring a two-thirds majority for approval.

Thus, we are presented with three potential obstacles to a smooth constitutional reform process: significant differences in aspiration derived from social stratification, an electoral system designed to enshrine partisan interests, and an internal voting system that requires a supermajority, itself made harder by the proportional electoral system.

Given these factors, a few predictions can be made. Regardless of the wishes of the working-class majority, the April 11 elections for the constitutional convention will not result in the necessary majority committed to significant social change. If any text is agreed upon, which is far from assured, it is likely to contain little more than superficial guarantees of traditional, “negative liberties” aimed at protecting the population from state repression but achieving little else. The best that can be hoped for are some broad platitudes about social justice, such as those found in the South African or Indian constitutions. However, in the case of both of those countries, these platitudes have done little to engender equality on the ground.

How the movement responds to this impasse is key. A great deal of hope placed in the constitutional process, at least by the parliamentary, partisan left and its supporters. When it becomes clear that the desired social reforms will not be achieved, frustration is liable to grow rapidly. If this translates into increased militancy on the streets, we will probably witness the formal constitutional process increasingly supplanted by extra-parliamentary mass movements. However, if these parliamentary maneuvers come to dominate the public’s attention, it is possible a great deal of the country’s political energies could be funneled into a dead-end process.

The battle for the Presidency

Chileans will also vote in both local and national elections in 2021. Of particular importance will be the presidential contest. Chile operates under a strong presidential system that invests significant power in the executive and, as such, this is the premiere electoral contest in the country. 2021’s is shaping up to be especially hard fought.

The Chilean presidential electoral system is similar to the French. A first round is held featuring all eligible candidates. Usually, these candidates are nominated by broad coalitions of multiple parties. Should no candidate gain over 50 percent, a second round is held. That this should occur seems almost certain. The last time a second round was avoided was in 1993, just the second election since the dictatorship.

Opinion polls suggest that one of the hard-right Independent Democratic Union’s (UDI) two candidates — Joaquín Lavín and Evelyn Matthei — will emerge as the main candidate of the right. Both are currently mayors, former cabinet members, and former presidential candidates for the party. In addition, both Lavin and Matthei were also pro-regime economists during the Pinochet era. These two candidates represent continuity both with the legacy of dictatorship and with the shallow, neoliberal democracy that replaced it.

The situation on the left is much more interesting. The Socialist Party — for decades the largest party on the left — has all but collapsed. Similarly, the Christian Democrats and the Party for Democracy, both former leaders of center/center-left coalitions, have also fallen off the map. And perhaps most surprisingly of all, the Broad Front, which received 20 percent of the vote in 2017 after campaigning on a Podemos-like platform of the alternative left, has been badly punished for their internal divisions over the protests and partial acquiescence to Piñera’s crackdowns and appears noncompetitive in these elections.

In the place of these traditional forces of the left, two outsiders have arisen, Daniel Jadue and Pamela Jiles. Jadue represents the Communist Party and has served as mayor of Recoleta since 2012. In that time, he has made a name for himself by creating a number of community-owned enterprises: pharmacies, opticians, furniture stores, dentists and energy providers, to name a few. Jiles, on the other hand, is a long-time prominent left-wing journalist. Herself a former member of the Communist Party, she is running a populist campaign as part of the Humanist Party, a left-wing pacifist grouping for whom she successfully ran for parliament in 2018.

One of these two will almost certainly face off with the UDI in the second round of the presidential elections. Given the current political climate in Chile and the widespread unpopularity of the right-wing Piñera administration, it appears likely that the candidate from the left, whoever it is, will triumph. As such, we can reasonably predict that by this time next year, Chile’s president will either be a communist or a left-wing populist. We would do well, however, to keep our expectations in check, because parliamentary arithmetic is unlikely to give the far-left a clean mandate to govern. And even if it did, Jadue, the more decidedly left-wing of the two, made clear in a recent interview that he sees a socialist Chile as a project for the “medium to long term.”

Pressure from the streets

The elections along with the existing tensions surrounding the constitutional referendum are likely to further aggravate tensions in the streets. If the constitutional process fails to deliver substantial social, economic and political changes, widespread popular anger is likely. Similarly, the possibility of a presidential run-off between a far-left and a hard-right candidate will have a polarizing effect on the population. Neither candidate is likely to capture a majority similar to the overwhelming vote in support of the constitutional referendum, nor see support as widespread as the initial protests.

Instead, the election will likely be divided along entrenched socio-economic and political lines with progressive, working-class neighborhoods breaking for the left and more affluent or conservative areas — even those which backed the protests or the new constitution — turning to the right. The far-right, though minoritarian, has made its voice heard through a number of violent demonstrations against the new constitution over the previous year. Expect an uptick in these, particularly if Jadue continues to lead the polls.

For the time being, the streets will remain relatively quiet due to the introduction of new lockdown measures after the identification of the new, more contagious UK strain of the coronavirus in Chile and a continued rise in the number of infections.

However, there are a few key dates that will give us a sense of things to come. The first is March 8, International Women’s Day. Over the past years, March 8 has emerged as a day of mass, militant mobilization in Chile. The demonstrations of 2020 were one of the largest in Chilean history, drawing as much as 10 percent of Chile’s female population to the streets of Santiago alone. The recent triumph of feminist movements in Argentina in legalizing abortion is likely to further inspire their Chilean sisters.

Later that month, March 29 marks the Day of the Young Combatant, which commemorates the assassination of three young revolutionaries during Pinochet’s dictatorship. Celebrations are traditionally centered in some of Chile’s poorest neighborhoods and regularly feature clashes between young militants and the police along with widespread looting and rioting. This day will give us a feel for the relative strength and revolutionary militancy of poor and working-class youth, many of whom formed the core of the critical “front-line” protesters during the 2019-2020 revolts.

Finally, May 1 will give us an idea of the momentum of the unions and traditional social movements as well as the strength of the anarchist and revolutionary groups and collective. In the case of the former, it will reveal whether they have already grown frustrated with the constitutional project as well as how confident the communists feel regarding the upcoming elections. The latter will put great weight on whether they can turn out large numbers ready to battle police and push the autonomous movement of 2019-2020 into 2021.

This will be key to the development of events in 2021. Support for political parties collapsed at the height of the revolt and an increasingly large proportion of Chileans seek a revolutionary, anti-state solution to their problems, whether that has taken the form of grassroots mutual aid during the pandemic or political organizing in community assemblies during the protests. This allowed autonomous revolutionaries to dictate the pace and nature of the movement in 2019-2020, undermining Piñera’s efforts to develop peace accords and isolate the most radical elements within the movements.

The push towards more revolutionary outcomes to the political crisis will require this trend to continue. The end of the Piñera administration will make widespread revolutionary unrest on the short-term somewhat less likely. However, the nature of the coming government will be shaped by the streets, particularly if the left, as expected, wins. Meanwhile, if that government will be unable to deliver significant social, political and economic transformations, and if the constitutional deliberations will prove to be a dead-end endeavor, the Chilean state might find itself back on the edge of collapse. Long term trends seem to point in this direction.

Lessons to be learned in 2021

Overall, 2021 will mark a critical year in Chilean history. That much is certain. It will see the election of its constitutional convention and the running of its most contested modern presidential race. It will see massive demonstrations and massive repression, massive hopes and massive fears. Most of all, it will see whether the cycle of revolt which formally began in 2019, but with roots as far back as 2006, continues, or whether it climaxes with a series of institutional reforms and limited welfare measures.

This will also be of critical interest to radicals everywhere. Chile has long been understood by the capitalist west as both a bridge to Latin America as a whole and as a Petri dish. It is in Chile where the neoliberal coup was pioneered, where Allende was murdered and Pinochet installed. It was Chile which first bore witness to the massive waves of privatizations that define neoliberalism. It was Chile which, just days before the revolt began in 2019, was being described as an “oasis” for capitalism, a place of stability and right-headedness where countless multi-national corporations had their Latin American headquarters. The country is seen as structurally critical for the capitalist project in Latin America, its route into the continent and its great experiment of what that continent’s future might hold. We should take the same, if opposed, perspective.

Similarly, there is much to be learned internationally from what happens in the year ahead. What change can come from elections? From constitutional reform? What are the benefits and the limits of the street demonstration? What does anti-capitalism mean practically in the 21st century? How can it be implemented and who should lead the way?

These questions and more will be addressed, if only partially and silently, in the year ahead, such as can only occur in situations of radical and rapid change and social instability. 2021 is such a situation in Chile. We should all be paying close attention.

Charlie Ebert

Charlie Ebert is a mobile militant and writer currently based in Santiago, Chile. His written work focuses on international radical movements and revolutionary theory.

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