Protesters on top of the statue at Plaza Dignidad. Nov 13, 2019. Photo: Alex Otero DRCL /

Chileans mobilize in advance of a historic plebiscite

  • October 22, 2020

Anarchism & Autonomy

After seven months in quarantine, protesters have returned to the streets to reawaken the uprising they initiated the previous October.

After a long winter in lockdown, Chile is waking back up. Spring always brings a fresh surge of energy to the country’s many social movements, but in the capital city of Santiago, the recent relaxation of quarantine restrictions coincides not only with the first anniversary of the uprising against neoliberalism that exploded last October 18, but also with the historic plebiscite on replacing the country’s dictatorship-era constitution. The latter was originally set to take place in April, but was postponed to October 25 due to the pandemic.

Although the threat posed by the coronavirus has not fully receded, many Chileans, migrants and Indigenous people are already in motion, gearing up for a new period of struggle that will be defined by the tension between the government’s constitutional process and the popular movement that challenges its legitimacy.

The first of these landmark dates, October 18, drew tens of thousands of Santiaguinos back to Plaza Dignidad (officially Plaza Italia, but rechristened “Dignity Square”), the central gathering place of the uprising’s numerous protests, performances and celebrations. Protesters arrived in response to a variety of calls; some marched with their neighbors, others carried banners representing their social movement organizations, and still others came with posters and art supplies, ready to reclaim the public space. Although there was a joyous element to some of the day’s activities, the mobilization also served as a commemoration of those who had been maimed, killed, or arrested during the struggle.

During the long Sunday afternoon, disturbances were limited to small scuffles among the attendees. However, the evening introduced a familiar level of police repression not only in the Plaza, but also in front of subway stations and in many neighborhoods throughout the capital where residents were carrying out cacerolazos (noise demonstrations) and constructing burning barricades.

The greatest violence of the night took place in La Victoria, a working class neighborhood whose founding was the result of a historical urban land takeover, where clashes between residents and the police resulted in the killing of Anibal Villarroel. The government has stated that Villarroel died in an exchange of gunfire, but the exact circumstances remain unclear and the National Institute for Human Rights is demanding an “exhaustive investigation” in order to establish what really took place. And so, even while the people are still mourning the lives lost in the first wave of protests, the list of the fallen continues to grow.

Pandemic clears the square

President Sebastán Piñera has taken full advantage of the breathing room afforded his administration by the pandemic. In March, when the virus was just taking hold, a costly new fleet of armored police vehicles made their debut. At a time when the population was hoping for heavy investment in public health infrastructure, the government prioritized the replacement of the water cannons and teargas launchers that were damaged or destroyed during the recent social unrest.

The government also undertook the project of turning back the clock on the sections of Santiago most marked by the months of protest. The subway system, once plagued by fare-evasion protests and arson attempts, was eventually restored to full working order, with the final two stations reopening in September. Even Plaza Dignidad was blasted clean of its murals and thick layers of political graffiti. The latter was seen as an affront to the protesters who had made the plaza their second home and a few brave souls promptly broke both quarantine and curfew to repaint some anti-Piñera slogans.

On April 3, the fresh graffiti served as backdrop for a provocative visit from the president himself, who was photographed at the foot of the statue at the center of the plaza. “It was exciting to see Plaza Italia solitary, calm and empty,” he said. Prior to the pandemic, Piñera would never have dared show his face at the site where millions had called for his resignation — and also for his death, it must be said. In the end, the pandemic accomplished what his curfews, rubber bullets and tear gas could not: halt the momentum of a movement that had been primed to explode since the return of democracy.

One month earlier, on March 8, the movement had roared back to life after a brief respite over the summer, mobilizing millions for a historic International Working Women’s Day march. The Chilean feminist movement has long since been at the forefront of the struggle against neoliberalism and state violence, and on that day the typical feminist chants were interwoven with overlapping choruses of a football chant popularized during the revolt: “Piñera, you motherf*cker, you’re a killer, just like Pinochet.”

In Plaza Dignidad, members of the March 8th Feminist Coordinator carried out a headline-grabbing art intervention by declaring in massive white letters that together, they were “HISTÓRICAS”: powerful agents of change in a time of social transformation. Despite multiple attempts at removal, the street mural persisted deep into the winter and served as an enduring symbol of hope to those dreaming of the day they could reclaim the space they had been forced to abandon.

The deadly Piñera virus

When the coronavirus first arrived in the country through Chileans returning from summer vacations abroad, the government responded with dynamic quarantines in an attempt to limit the spread. The wealthiest neighborhoods went into lockdown and many professionals started telecommuting. However, this was completely unfeasible for the workers and families who could not afford to miss even a few days of work, let alone weeks, even if it meant crossing into quarantine zones or taking other risks with their health. It took less than a month for hunger protests to break out in all the major cities of Chile.

In El Bosque, an extremely poor district of Santiago, nearly 100 neighbors took to the streets to block traffic and put up burning barricades. Images of desperate protesters clashing with police on the streets of their own neighborhood filled the media and provoked a fresh round of cacerolazos that stood in stark contrast to the apolitical applause for healthcare workers that rang out in more affluent sectors of the city.

The country’s most vulnerable felt completely abandoned by their government, a feeling that was not alleviated by the arrival of small government relief checks and occasional food deliveries. During the hunger protests, one participant held a sign that read, “The Piñera-virus is deadlier than the coronavirus.”

Inevitably, the virus began to circulate in broader swathes of the population. By mid-May, the cases were shooting up and the once-optimistic Minister of Health Jaime Mañalich was forced to publicly concede that the administration’s containment strategy had failed and that he had gravely underestimated how difficult it would be for vulnerable populations to follow the recommended public health practices. A full lockdown of Santiago and the surrounding area had become unavoidable. Enforcement of quarantines was already in the hands of the police and military, both empowered by a state of exception to control movement and restrict public gatherings.

Since March 18, Piñera has relied on these emergency powers to establish a curfew, set up so-called “sanitary cordons” around hotspots and implement a confusing system of permits and checkpoints for quarantine zones, with harsh punishment for violators. It was clear to those already critical of the government’s authoritarian behavior during the uprising that the restrictions were less about public health than about maintaining control of a population simmering with discontent.

The state of exception was extended two times, first in June when the cases were spiking and again in September, when the curve had flattened. The September decision coincided with the launch of the official propaganda campaigns for the plebiscite, a fact that was not lost on political parties on both sides of the debate. An extension of 90 days was approved, ostensibly to protect public health during this important democratic process, while simultaneously ensuring that the state of exception would stay in effect not only for the anniversary of the revolt, but also the plebiscite itself.

This extension generated a sense of unease for protesters, who recalled the plebiscite of 1988 that finally removed General Agosto Pinochet from power and opened the door for a return to democratic rule. Pinochet had gambled on solidifying his power for another eight years, but was narrowly defeated by the campaign for “NO.” That historic vote was carried out under military supervision and administered by a government accused of numerous human rights violations. It also took place in a media environment plagued by misinformation. With the Piñera administration’s latest extension, it appears that history is destined to repeat itself.

No easy answers

Collective action by CF8M in favor of “apruebo.” Banner reads: “We approve – constitutional convention. We jump all the turnstiles,” referencing the student actions that kicked off the protests last year. Photo via CF8M.

The 2020 plebiscite will consist of only two questions. The first simply states, “do you want a new constitution?” and leaves the option of marking either apruebo (I approve) or rechazo (I reject). These phrases have come to serve as the slogans for the two respective campaigns as they seek to win over voters through TV spots and education campaigns as well as traditional marches and rallies.

The Rechazo campaign has been championed by the right, whose arguments paint a picture of a rushed process that promises Chileans the world but will ultimately fail to deliver. Furthermore, they insist that it would be better to reform the current constitution than start over from zero. The franjas (electoral TV spots) evoke an image of a unified Chile with a practical outlook on improving an already decent system. This stands in contrast with the movement on the streets, where homegrown nazis and other extremists have also adhered to the campaign.

The country’s far-right has been on the rise for some time, but until recently, it has been relegated to an extremely marginal position in relation to the social movements — in particular the feminist, Indigenous and migrant movements — it has sought to antagonize. This situation was not improved by the onset of the October uprising, which, through its sheer omnipresence, denied them any chance at a platform. However, when the plebiscite was announced, grassroots neo-fascist formations were quick to recognize the constitutional process to come as a potential path to mainstream political legitimacy.

The campaign for Rechazo allowed them to position themselves as patriotic traditionalists and expand their presence in the streets without sacrificing their extremist views. With the recent intensification of the Mapuche struggle in the south, the public’s appetite for racist violence has increased and organized fascists have seized on that opportunity to carry out street actions on a level that has not been seen in decades.

Things are also far from clean-cut for the Apruebo campaign, which, despite having massive popular momentum, leaves many feeling conflicted. That said, there is little disagreement to be found on the institutional level, where leftist political parties and social organizations have declared their full-throated support for “Apruebo + Constitutional Convention.” The latter is one of two possible answers to the second and final question up for vote: “What body should write the new constitution?” The Constitutional Convention would be composed of elected representatives (and is therefore considered the more democractic option) whereas the alternative, a Mixed Constitutional Convention, would be composed of equal parts elected representatives and sitting legislators. Therein lies the tension, because the Chile that “woke up” one year earlier has little reason to trust in the institutional left after its many missteps and betrayals.

The plebiscite itself was the result of one such betrayal, when parties of both the left and right wings sat down together last November to pen an agreement designed to calm the raging protests. The outrage that came in response to this action had nothing to do with the fact that it had sketched out a path to a new constitution, rather that the people wanted the process to be organized from the bottom up, that it be a truly popular initiative with meaningful representation of Indigenous peoples and other historically excluded groups.

By stepping in to impose their own structure, the parties had overrun the efforts to generate a popular, plurinational constituent assembly being carried out by the country’s exploding networks of neighborhood assemblies. Besides the resignations of Piñera and his cabinet, this was the single most unifying demand that arose in the context of the uprising. As if the substitution of an institutional process for a popular one was not bad enough, leftist politicians went on to support policies that singled out protesters who committed “crimes against the public order” for harsh punishments, essentially justifying the further criminalization of the ongoing protests.

The leftist parties were immediately confronted with the consequences of their actions, as their members resigned in droves and some groupings collapsed altogether. The current plebiscite represents an opportunity for redemption for these disgraced politicians and parties, one in which they are seeking to rebrand themselves as leaders of the movement that had always remained stubbornly autonomous.

The independent social organizations born from, or strengthened by the uprising are left to wonder: is a liberatory outcome even possible when the very process is a product of the constitution they wish to replace? And what are the consequences of participating in a supposedly democratic process overseen by a government with the blood of its own people on its hands? These questions have been hotly debated since the earliest days of the revolt and there are no easy answers to be found, even now that the fateful day is almost upon us.

Chile at a historic crossroads

With the arrival of October, protesters have begun returning to Plaza Dignidad to jump-start the tradition of Friday evening demonstrations. The police have responded with the same level of repression they became infamous for during the uprising, going so far as to shove 16-year-old protester Anthony Araya from a nearby bridge into the shallow bed of the Mapocho River. After several failed attempts by the police to dismiss it as an accident, video footage demonstrated their culpability.

The sight of Araya — now in stable condition — lying face down in the same river where the bodies of political dissidents were once thrown during the dictatorship exacerbated the collective trauma felt by those who, during the revolt, witnessed or were subject to violent repression in the form of arrest, imprisonment, maiming, torture, rape and even death at the hands of the police or military. This latest outrage only fanned the flames of the mounting mobilizations. On October 6, organized high school students marked one year since the first mass fare evasion by unfurling a banner in a busy subway station which read, “What the students started, the people will finish.”

With this plebiscite Chile has arrived at a historic crossroads, but the possibility of a new constitution was only one of many dreams made real by the force of the revolt. Assuming a victory for Apruebo, 2021 will be consumed by the process of drafting a new charter. While many remain wary of playing by the discredited government’s rules, many more are willing to gamble on what victories they might achieve in the process.

It is possible that this national exercise in democracy can be a true referendum on whether Chile should attempt to arrest its descent into further inequality by reexamining the economic policies inherited from the dictatorship. It is also possible that participation in the process will drain the life from the popular movement and send Chile back to sleep. However, Chilean dissidents have long known that other types of power exist beyond legislatures and ballot boxes.

Fifty years ago this September, Chile’s working classes were celebrating the triumph of Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government. It was a time of deep divisions, political instability and immense hope. As politicians waged war in the houses of government, the people were learning what it could feel like to determine the conditions of their own lives.

This same feeling was present in the October uprising and now, like then, people are hungry for a form of democracy far deeper than what is on offer from the current neoliberal regime. Chile will change, undoubtedly, but the plebiscite — with all its historical potency — is too small a vehicle for what has been awakened.

Only time will tell if that change comes from above or below and how consequential it will actually be for the people who need it most. As the clock counts down to October 25, the one thing that can be said with confidence is that protesters are already fulfilling the promise made in the long months of lockdown: Viviremos, volveremos y venceremos. We will survive, we will return and we will win.

Bree Busk

Bree Busk is an American anarchist living and working in Santiago, Chile. She currently practices her politics through her neighborhood assembly and the Brigada Laura Rodig (CF8M), a feminist art and propaganda group that intervenes in public space through direct action.

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