An improvised barricade on the streets of Santiago, October 20. Photo: Carlos Wagner

The popular assemblies at the heart of the Chilean uprising

  • December 11, 2019

Anarchism & Autonomy

Chile has a long history of radical neighborhood organizing — a tradition that is now put at the service of drafting a new constitution for a country in turmoil.

More than fifty days have passed since the Chilean uprising burst into existence. For those living it on the ground, it feels like much longer. The movement has already gone through several upheavals, alternately evolving and disintegrating in response to the changing terrain of struggle. The Piñera administration and its sympathizers have called — without success — for a return to normality. In response, the people have unequivocally stated that “normality” was the problem. Throughout the capital city of Santiago, graffiti reads: “I prefer the chaos.”

In a time when even the most peaceful of marches are broken up with tear gas and water cannons, protesters have learned to take care of each other, forming a rough new community in the face of repression. This recently discovered practice of solidarity has taken many forms, from volunteer medical brigades to people’s kitchens to better-coordinated acts of property destruction.

A young protester who had been processed through Chile’s notorious Child Protection System stated that he never wanted the marches to end, because “one feels accompanied, one feels that for the first time, [other people] share this rage that I feel everyday.” But this is only one example of how the rebellion and the government’s violent response have brought Chileans together. On the job, non-unionized workers have responded with frustration and even collective action to their bosses’ demands to return to normal hours. Chat groups previously employed to share work news and gossip have given way to political debates and, in some cases, to talk of unionizing. Even some of Santiago’s private universities, long-known for abstaining from Chile’s numerous student mobilizations, have begun to self-organize and go on strike.

In the intimacy of the capital’s many residential neighborhoods, the people who first left their homes to join in the cacerolazos (public noise demonstrations) have since found other reasons to gather: raising their own popular assemblies and townhalls as a first step towards imagining a new Chile, one built around the well-being of its people rather than the profits of a few.

The Chilean uprising, still proudly leaderless, has provided a path to social activism for those who had previously stood on the sidelines.

The “biggest marches in history”

For many Santiaguinos, October 18 marked the beginning of a new reality, one which required adapting to the emerging culture of rebellion. At first, the city was paralyzed by the substantial damage done to the subway system and the near-constant mobilizations that often included lighting fires and constructing barricades. In the evenings, the curfew enacted under the state of emergency ensured that only protesters, the police and the army would roam the streets.

A number of schools asked parents to keep their children at home, while others were closed by the students themselves, who began a massive campaign of occupations. Many adults were allowed to leave early or work from home in order to care for their children or avoid dangerous commutes. A mounting wave of general strikes kept other workers in the streets, contributing to traffic disruptions as well as economic ones.

For better or worse, the population of this busy metropolis was forced into a new, slower rhythm.

While this slowdown represented a further descent into financial peril for many workers, it also freed them from the stifling routine of cramming themselves into the subway in the morning only to spend all day on the job. The lack of reliable transit meant that many were forced to walk, increasing the probability of running into friends and neighbors along the way. The popularity and frequency of mobilizations also created a space for these chance encounters.

Street scenes from the firs “Biggest March in History,” October 25. Piñera applauded this “peaceful” march, but the reality was that a good deal of clashes with the police occurred and the people didn’t want peace, they wanted the president to resign. Photo by Bárbara Berríos C.

The first of a series of what have been affectionately deemed the “biggest marches in history” took place on Friday, October 25 and attracted not only the usual activists, but also groups of family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers. In this way, time away from work and school was converted into time to build and reinforce social bonds.

As the Piñera administration continued to talk of peace and reconciliation, the police violence increased exponentially. The military had abandoned the streets with the end of the state of emergency on Sunday, October 27, but the riot police remained and were deployed in force. To this date, the result is thousands of arrests and over 3,000 people hospitalized. The latter statistic includes over 350 cases of ocular damage caused by police shooting protesters in the face with crowd-control rounds. In addition to these shocking figures, hundreds of complaints of torture, sexual torture and other human rights violations have been filed.

Rather than keeping people at home, this level of repression in addition to the negative effect it had on people’s freedom of movement enraged the public and made them far more sympathetic to those engaged in street-fighting and property damage.

One clear example of this is the valorization of the Primera Línea or First Line, the loose grouping of students, anarchists, football hooligans, and young people otherwise left behind by society who protect the main body of protesters with improvised shields. Because they cover their faces and aggressively engage with police, they are the perfect scapegoat for politicians who wish to criminalize all forms of disruptive protest.

At the onset of the rebellion, Piñera proposed the Ley de Seguridad (Security Law) which would hand out heavy sentences to any protesters found constructing barricades, striking without permission, or even covering their faces. This law recently passed the first chamber of congress with the support of numerous left and far-left deputies — a powerful reminder to the people still mobilized in the streets that the ruling class will protect itself first, no matter their party or political label.

Popular assemblies, old and new

Chile has a long history of land and neighborhood-based resistance. In addition to the struggles of the country’s Indigenous people for territory, autonomy and stewardship of natural resources, a powerful tradition of land takeovers has persisted since the mid 1950’s.

Prior to the first agrarian reforms carried out under the Alessandri and Frei administrations (1958-70) and expanded on under Allende’s Popular Unity government (1970-73), the urban poor had already moved to take matters into their own hands. In late 1957, a group of people from a poverty stricken zone of central Santiago packed up their scant possessions and carried out a massive takeover of state-owned land in the southern part of the city. Far from a spontaneous act, this type of seizure required both advanced planning and a high degree of self-organization on the part of participants who pooled resources and used collective decision-making to establish their new community.This settlement came to be known as La Victoria and was the first — but certainly not the last — urban land seizure to result in a unique, politicized community.

Members of the Popular Assembly of Villa Olímpica. This neighborhood had an established assembly prior to the rebellion and has successfully networked with many others in the same district. Photo by Felipe Torralbo

Throughout the dictatorship and up to today, neighborhoods originating from land takeovers have maintained their traditions of autonomy and resistance, often marking the boundaries of their territory with burning barricades in times of conflict to warn off government forces. While typically characterized by the media as crime-ridden and lawless, these communities are also home to numerous self-managed projects related to culture, health, education and local resource distribution that strengthen relationships between residents and promote a culture of working-class activism.

All of the above is coordinated by “territorial assemblies,” a form of egalitarian social organization where every neighbor has a say. Many assemblies have inherited a specific orientation from the groups that aided in their founding — such as the Communist Party or Revolutionary Left Movement — but participants are not required to adhere to any political line beyond what is collectively decided and the emphasis is on direct democracy rather than leadership from above.

Since the objective is to build a popular voice for the community, territorial assemblies are not limited to just one issue or demand. Rather, they adapt to the needs and priorities of their base and are capable of responding to the smallest of local issues as well as carrying out national campaigns related to housing, urban development and quality of life issues.

Like the country’s many other labor and social organizations, pre-existing territorial assemblies were able to hit the ground running when the rebellion exploded. In fact, they provided the ideal space for neighbors to seek out support and organize resistance. No Santaguino was surprised to see the capital’s most politicized neighborhoods rise up in a time of conflict; they had done so under the dictatorship in much more dangerous conditions. The surprise came when new assemblies began to emerge in neighborhoods with little to no history of them — or neighborhoods where such efforts had been previously tried and failed. By the end of October, dozens of new formations had sprung into existence, multiplying and expanding with every passing day. As politicians and pundits complained that the rebellion lacked leadership, the people had already begun to build their own democratic structures.

One factor in the popularization of assemblies was that many people were frightened by both the intensity of the protests and the violence of government repression. Constant news coverage of arson, looting and police brutality only served to exacerbate this stress, as did the presence of the military in the streets — a sight that was traumatic for those who had witnessed the same under the dictatorship.

The cacerolazos provided the first antidote to people’s anxiety and isolation, drawing neighbors from their homes into the streets to defy the curfew and vent their frustrations by making as much noise as possible. Under the state of emergency, every evening brought a fresh opportunity to cacerolear and it did not take long for participants to begin incorporating other activities like shared meals and group discussions.

Eventually, complete strangers began to recognize each other as belonging to the same community and holding similar hopes and fears for the country.

Meanwhile, apprehensions around potential looting or arson meant that nearly all major grocery chains were closed or operating with extremely limited hours. However, many local convenience stores and ferías (street markets) stayed open despite occasional outbreaks of looting, making them heroes to Chileans in need of food and other basic supplies. Alienated city-dwellers were once again reminded of the value of these local institutions and the personal relationships formed with those who work there. As certain supplies became more difficult to acquire, neighbors took the initiative to coordinate local resource-sharing initiatives to assure that no one lacked food or medicine. There were even reports of looters redistributing their purloined goods to families in need. In a thousand different ways, communities fragmented by neoliberal individualism were being knit back together.

Territorial assemblies thus became the natural expression of people’s need for material support as well as their desire for a space to collectively process their new reality and formulate their demands. Throughout the country, there was one undeniable priority: the constitution must be re-written.

Towards a new constitution?

Drafted in 1980 by a hand-picked commission of Pinochet supporters, the Chilean constitution concentrated power in a strong executive and provided the legal framework for the implementation of extreme neoliberal policies.

Subsequent administrations have worked to amend the document, including significant changes in 1989 and again in 2005. However, these changes never approached the core economic policies that enabled the privatization of almost every aspect of life in the country to the benefit of the ruling class. As a result, the demand for a completely new constitution has arisen again and again, with the current movement launching it to a position of prominence. It remains a wildly popular proposal — attracting adherents from all but the right-wing fringe — but the controversy lies in selecting which process will bring about this new constitution.

In early November, Piñera indicated he was willing to support a process in which members of congress would draft a new constitution with citizen input. In the foreign press, this was reported as a huge concession, but most Chileans remained deeply skeptical of the government’s intentions.

The proposed process is outlined in the constitution itself and allows modifications to both individual articles and laws deriving from the document. However, the threshold for actually adopting these changes is set so high — a two-third congressional majority for articles, and three-fifth for laws — as to make it next to impossible. Furthermore, protestors were hungry for democracy and in no mood to submit to a process in which they were relegated to the role of “consultant.”

In an attempt to put an end to the unrest, congressional representatives of nearly every political party — from the far right to the far left — released a document on November 15, outlining their plan for drafting a new constitution. The so-called Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution offered expanded options for citizen participation and a commitment from all signees that they would vote in favor of any concrete proposal resulting from the process, thereby circumventing the challenge posed by the two-third and three-fifth majority requirements.

Furthermore, it marked April 2020 for a plebiscite in which citizens will be asked if they are in favor or against a new constitution and whether they prefer a constituent — composed of representatives elected by the people — or a mixed constituent assembly — composed of 50 percent elected representatives and 50 percent sitting members of congress. This vote would be used to determine the character of the body that would be responsible for drafting the final document which in turn would be voted on at a second referendum in October.

At almost any other point in time, such an agreement would have been welcomed as a great step forward, but October 18 has irrevocably changed the political landscape. The people had put the demand for a new constitution on the table and yet their voice was completely absent from the proposed process. Instead, the political elites went “behind the backs of the people” — as it was generally perceived — to find a speedy, government-friendly solution.

The act of sitting down to negotiate with absolutely no social movement representation while human rights violations were still taking place was interpreted as a great betrayal. The Frente Amplio (Broad Front) coalition of left-wing parties paid the highest political price, suffering the resignation of several of their constituent parties and hemorrhaging members from all sides. The following Friday, demonstrators returned to the streets in yet another massive mobilization, this time specifically in reaction to the recent Agreement.

The lessons learned

Even though the gamble to “restore the social peace” had essentially achieved the opposite effect, the process of re-writing the constitution had been put into motion and there was no going back. The initial referendum was less than six months away and it was left to the country’s swelling networks of assemblies to develop and implement their own vision as quickly as possible.

Public event hosted by Asamblea Barrio Huemul. The workshop was led by two lawyers who helped educate attendees about the constitution itself and constituent assemblies in general. Neighbors were able to ask questions and engage in discussion. These types of events are very common, since people want to be informed about the process they are expected to take part in. Photo by Romina Akemi

Fortunately, that work had been underway since the earliest days of the uprising and some conclusions had already been drawn: It was agreed that a constituent assembly was necessary and even desirable, but that the proposals had to be generated by the people themselves in all their diversity. To that end, interest groups such as high school students, feminists, migrants and Indigenous people all called for additional assemblies where they could collectively determine their political priorities and expectations for representation.

In urban areas with a tradition of political activity, it was possible to draw hundreds of people to both meetings and public events. These assemblies were able to form commissions and initiate deeper political reflection before the fires had even cooled. However, since many territorial assemblies emerged from relative obscurity, other networks formed at a slower pace and were often built on foot, as representatives took the time to visit neighboring assemblies — often as small as 10-15 people — and introduce themselves. These processes were often sped along by motivated leftists who wished to promote a particular political line while building their own party’s influence

Perhaps the most influential network was the project of Unidad Social (Social Unity, US), a recently-formed coalition of the country’s most powerful labor unions and social movement organizations. They used their broad base of members to introduce and distribute a framework for citizen participation in the constituent assembly that many neighborhood assemblies chose to follow. While far from receiving universal approval, US had gained traction as a potential coordinating force for the rebellion through the diversity of its member organizations and its power to hammer the government with general strikes. It held significant influence among pre-existing territorial assemblies and was even able to raise some of its own as affiliates. In this context, US called for a series of open townhalls using their discussion methodology to generate a list of concerns and proposals to inform the drafting of a future constitution.

Neighborhood organizations were the bodies best suited to organize and promote these events. While some autonomous assemblies remained critical of US and its reactionary old left leadership, Chile’s biggest labor confederation, most acknowledged the utility of the proposed discussion questions and incorporated them into their own methodologies. The questions themselves ranged from “What is the origin of the current conflict?” to “Is a constituent assembly necessary to change Chile?”

The current political moment in Chile is characterized by these parallel and occasionally intersecting paths towards a constituent assembly, all taking place in the context of ongoing mobilizations and government repression.

As the period of townhalls draws to a close, Social Unity has signaled its willingness to negotiate its demobilization with the government in exchange for certain guarantees. While far from a settled matter, the possibility alone has expanded internal fault lines and generated fear of another betrayal. In some sectors, people are feeling the weight of these tensions added to the exhaustion of staying mobilized for such a long period of time.

In times like these, it is easy to imagine the once-vibrant October rebellion collapsing under the weight of its own expectations and its dreams being shackled to an undemocratic process carried out by a government with the blood of its own people on its hands.

However, far from the elite neighborhoods where the ruling class lives a life apart, neighbors continue to meet a couple times a week to drink tea, share a few packs of cookies and discuss the future of the country. Come what may, the people have discovered each other in this rebellion and the lessons learned in this period — both good and bad — will not be easily forgotten. After all, Chileans know that a people without a memory are a people without a future.

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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Magazine — Issue 11