Their unusual combination of disruptiveness, numbers, equality, consensus, efficacy, heterogeneity, and cross-class support have made Chile’s recent protests an insurrection of truly historic significance. The resulting constitutional reform process offers Chilean society the chance to transition away from power as the capacity to influence elite decision-making and towards power as a genuine realisation of its own interests, writes Cesár Guzmán Concha (University of Geneva).
The protests that broke out in Chile in October 2019 constitute a spontaneous, large-scale insurrection that is cross-class in character but that also retains a strong working-class component linked to socioeconomic demands.
The term insurrection is appropriate because these events are charged with historicity, changing long-term trends and giving birth to new historical periods. They produce – or have the potential to produce – serious consequences. The capacity of the ongoing Chilean insurrection to produce such consequences stems from a set of seven crucial characteristics.
Disruption has been a key feature from the very beginning, when students started a fare-evasion protest against a four per cent hike in metro fares. Several stations were mobbed, and a number of supermarkets and warehouses were looted. These events occurred at the same time as protests were spreading across Santiago.
The magnitude, scale, simultaneity, and recurrence of these protests created a state of breakdown: classes were cancelled at schools and universities, public transport went into shutdown, businesses and services worked irregular hours, TV channels ran continuous new coverage.
The degree of breakdown in Chile has been comparable to the impact of a natural disaster. Nobody could deny that they were witnessing a historical moment. The presence on the streets of armoured cars and soldiers wielding heavy weaponry reinforced this perception and further escalated the conflict. But despite growing repression, the protests went on.
More and more people are taking to the streets each day, with multiple protest events often taking place simultaneously. Confident in their own capabilities, the insurgents decided to break all records by calling for the “largest demonstration in Chilean history” (on 25 October). Massive demonstrations along the same lines have since taken place all over the country almost every week.
These protests are motivated by the widespread perception of gross inequality and the abuse of privilege. People’s claims are based on deep egalitarian, democratic, and universalist feelings. A clear distinction between them (politicians and business interests) and us (the people, the poor, the unprotected) has been created. Although this seems to connect Chile’s insurrection with wider populist trends, in reality the popular narrative converges with a tradition of progressive ideas developed by earlier social and political movements.
Several surveys concur in their finding that Chilean citizens endorse the insurrection by wide margins (e.g. COES, Criteria Research, Cadem). Some 85 per cent support the protests while only 10 per cent support the government. Not even the 2011 student protests achieved such high levels of support, nor did they lead to such drastic disapproval of the government.
This indicates that support for popular demands cuts across socioeconomic groups, educational levels, and the political spectrum. A broad consensus on the need for substantial reforms has emerged.
5. Efficacy and empowerment
Unlike in previous protests, people now seem convinced of their capacity to change a status quo that they no longer find tolerable. The sense of efficacy attached to unconventional modes of participation has surged dramatically, which could explain the massive numbers of demonstrators and their tirelessly combative disposition.
Some 80 per cent declare a willingness to vote in the forthcoming constitutional referendum, expected in April 2020, which is in stark contrast to the general trend of declining turnout in presidential elections (a mere 48% in 2017).
Protests, disobedience, and violence have taken place in multiple locations across the country, which speaks to the social and socioeconomic heterogeneity of the insurrection. But unlike in the student protests of 2006 and 2011, lower-income and working-class neighbourhoods show high levels of mobilisation.
The looting on and around 18 October occurred mostly in the outskirts of major cities, but there is evidence that these acts were not organised by radical militants. Rather, they represented a relatively spontaneous reaction from impoverished city dwellers who decided to take advantage of the situation after years of state negligence, abuses by private companies, and intimidation by security forces.
7. Awareness amongst the upper classes
Massive protests even reached upper and upper-middle-class areas like Las Condes and Providencia. Since these protests took place during the state of emergency, the military and police were deployed to repress them.
It remains unclear whether this was a case of inter-class solidarity or an indication that a sense of economic insecurity had reached even the highest social strata. But this was a truly unique, unprecedented, and crucial development, as it revealed that broad popular demands were also supported by a sizeable segment of the upper classes.
The impact of the Chilean insurrection
After long negotiations between the government and opposition parties in parliament, agreement on a process of constitutional reform was reached. The agreement foresees a referendum to decide both whether constitutional change is necessary at all and also to select the mechanism by which a new constitution would be written (a fully elected assembly or a convention populated half by members of parliament and half by newly elected representatives).
Some parliamentary parties – mainly the Communist Party and minor left-wing parties – did not endorse the agreement, while the Social Unity platform of civil society organisations also rejected it. Critics have focused on barriers to the participation of civil society organisations in the constitutional process, as well as the two-thirds quorum required to achieve agreement on new norms.
But despite its limitations, this agreement represents the first time since 1990 that right-wing parties have accepted the need for constitutional change and agreed on a pathway towards a new magna carta. Essentially, the insurrection forced the right and the government to negotiate and make concessions that they had fiercely resisted for decades.
Revealed realities and repressive responses
The breakdown produced by the October insurrection has revealed the absurdity, arbitrariness, and violence of previously accepted structures of domination. Yet the government made the reestablishment of public order its main criterion in judging its own reaction to the crisis, which in turn led to outright repression.
The National Human Rights Institute (INDH) has reported widespread violations of human rights, especially by the police, including thousands of detentions, the wounding of almost 3,000 civilians (mostly by bullets and pellets), over 223 demonstrators with eye injuries (up to 21 November), several cases of sexual abuse against detainees, and a number of deaths that have been denounced by the public prosecutor. Countless acts of police brutality have also been broadcast on social networks by everyday citizens, and organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have expressed their concerns.
After six weeks of protests, the government has failed to deliver political responses, while the indiscriminate use of repression testifies to President Piñera’s weakness. Presidential authority relies heavily on the coercive power of the state, as his position remains secure only for as long as the military and the police side with the government.
From influence to power
The ruling elite has traditionally embraced the idea that order (social peace) meant achieving the submission of the majority. The October insurrection may have started to change this assumption. Indeed, some members of the elite are beginning to accept the need for deeper reforms, with some renowned economists recently declaring the Chilean neoliberal experiment dead and singling out the “narrow-minded thinking of the elite” as the main cause of the current crisis.
From a systemic perspective, the insurrection can be seen as an attempt by the popular classes to rebalance the system in their favour, correcting at last its innate neoliberal and authoritarian biases. To fulfil its potential, this popular insurrection must be able to transform its energies into a new institutional architecture. The current generation of Chileans can seize this chance to write a new constitution and shape the country’s future socioeconomic policies, an opportunity denied to their predecessors throughout Chile’s republican history.
But to do that the rebels will need to create broad coalitions, build cohesion, and work diligently on both the institutional and the civil-society fronts. There exists the possibility to transition away from the notion of power as the capacity to influence the decisions of others and towards the idea of power as the capacity to realise their own interests. The constitutional referendum in 2020 and subsequent elections in 2021 will show far the forces of change have really come.
• The views expressed here are of the authors rather than the Centre or the LSE
• This article reproduces some ideas previously published in Spanish by the Heinrich Boell Foundation, Santiago
• Header image: Carlos Figueroa, CC BY-SA 4.0
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