A Crisis of Legitimacy: Thoughts on the Chilean Crisis

The other Face of the Chilean economic miracle   

The Chilean historian Gabriel Salazar, explained that after 1973, Chile became the laboratory for the ultraliberal model developed by Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics. This model was developed to counter the socialist policies adopted by most of the third World in the 60’s and 70’s and was based on the idea that pure market based policies and an approach that made private property sacrosanct, would deliver social and economic development for all. The constitution drafted under Pinochet in 1980 enshrines this economic model but its ideologues are not economists, the conservative thinker Samuel Huntington was the inspiration and Jaime Guzman, Pinochet’s ideologue and the man who gave a veneer of ideological legitimacy to the 1973 power grab was the designer. Their view was simple, democracies work when citizens have a strong stake in them, meaning they own property, universal suffrage on the other hand opens political participation to the irrational mob, a crowd of people who own nothing and who have no stake in stability are easily swayed by left wing demagogues.

This is why according to Guzman; the military coup had become a necessity. In order to ensure stability under the new constitution Guzman and his collaborators created a political system that ensures that at each election citizens are given a choice between different flavours of politics but those choices will not be able to affect the fundamentals pillars of society. Here, citizen disengagement and abstention are not a flaw but a feature. Guzman’s vision for a stable democracy was created by locking out social and economic change and by excluding citizens from politics allowing them only a stake in minor changes. This was done by creating life designed senators, a ¾ quorum requirement for any fundamental change to the constitution, and a Constitutional Tribunal (TC) that oversees the operation. In spite of the current harsh views of the Chilean people, Concertación governments (the centre left coalition governments that ruled Chile for most of these 30 years) did try to implement change but over and over again they fell short of the ¾ quorum required and many projects like Bachelet’s Pension solidarity project passed Congress only to be rejected by the TC. The Chilean constitution of today is not Guzman’s 1980 constitution, between the victory of the NO in 1988 and 2005 when Socialist President Lagos put his signature to the last version of the Constitution, theoretically ending the Transition, the document has undergone considerable changes. However the fundamentals remain in place, Guzman’s constitution has been an effective straight jacket for the country.
Chile had stability for 30 years but at the cost of a total loss of legitimacy of the country’s institutions and representative bodies.
The country did develop but it developed in inequality, and in an environment of racial, and social segregation, its citizens became global citizens sharing the global dream of prosperity carried by the international media but also suffering the destruction of local industries and the exploitation of its natural resources to feed international markets. The public health system progressively strangled by the private health system that captures the healthiest and wealthiest fraction of the population is unable to satisfy the needs of an ageing population and the increased costs associated to the obesity crisis. The private pension system was supposed to pay pensions as good as your average income, since it started paying out retired teachers find themselves living on the streets, elderly people commit suicide because they cannot survive on 100 pounds in a country were the minimum wage of 300 pounds keeps you below the poverty line.
I could expand on the brutal inequalities of South America’s only OECD country but the Guardian and the NY times have done a good job of it, so I will instead concentrate on the way inequality affects people. The UNDP-Inequality report (UNDP, 2017) showed that 41% of Chileans reported experiencing ill-treatment during the previous year (for example, having been insulted, looked down upon or treated unfairly). “According to COES data, 45% of lower class people indicated that they are never or almost never treated with respect by the public health services, 44% say the same about the treatment they receive from upper class people and 31% report being treated unfairly or with disrespect by Carabineros (Police). Moreover the same people are caught between the mirage of the consumer society and the reality of their incomes, left wide open to credit operators that make the likes of Wonga look like charity organizations, unable to pay for medical treatment or decent housing: Chile is short of half a million affordable homes, that’s some 4 million people living in conditions in precarious conditions. The indigenous people of Chile, spearheaded by the Mapuche, have been fighting for their basic rights to dignity, recognition and equity and have suffered for years the kind of repression seen in the streets of the country these last days. All of this is what political scientists Sergio Toro Maureira and Macarena Valenzuela Beltrán call “violent normality” a concept inspired on Rob Nixon’s “Slow Violence”, the everyday kind of violence that never makes the news, but eats you

All these tensions, have been accumulating for years, education for instance was at the root of the first social protest movement of the Transition, the Penguin Revolution as it was called was a high school student revolt initiated in 2006, against expensive bus fares, university exam fees and the funding of the public school system, it was followed by many other sector revolts, university students, pensioners, teachers, Mapuche people, plus many strong protest in defence of environmental rights and a very strong feminist movement that paralysed universities for months on end.

This was Chile in October 2019, a place full of social, racial and gender tensions but devoid of the institutional structures that could express them, with no political organisations with the capacity to channel them and shape alternative policies. The Constitution destroyed the political body; it emptied the party system of sense. To survive, political parties became clientelist structures that only come to life at election time and use the promise of public service spoils to mobilise a ghost membership. Worse still, it continued the destruction of the social fabric that the dictatorship worked so hard to achieve. Chile under Pinochet was a place of distrust and fear, you never knew who was an informer, it could be your neighbour, your teacher, your psychologist or even a family member and the consequences could be fatal so people isolated themselves. Thatcher famously said “there is no such thing as society, she was wrong of course, destroying the social fabric of Chile took a repression that killed thousands, tortured, disappeared and exiled many more and even that was not enough. Her political heirs tried to destroy it further by turning people into consumers, pure rational homo economici, they failed as we saw when the dam broke on October 18th October, 2019, a date that we all will remember forever.

The People Rise Up

History tells a story of the people of Chile who have become masters at tolerating injustice, conformism and fatalism and these certainly seem to have become national burdens the Chilean people have stoically lived with. Chileans shut up, put up and carried on but under the surface deep currents of anger and frustration had been swirling for years. 

This resentment found a voice on 18th October when a fare dodging campaign launched by a group of high school students turned into a countrywide movement against the status quo.
Vaulting over the underground gates the students chanted, “Evade like Piñera”, a slogan immediately recognisable to all Chileans, we need to pay attention to the slogans and the symbols that have shaped this mobilisation, they matter. They express the deep fault lines within society, highlighting a sudden return of the repressed to the streets and the depth of the political contest the country is facing. Mr Piñera, the president of the country is reputed to have built his Forbes 100 list fortune in unsavoury circumstances but also to hold an important part of his assets in Fiscal Paradises earning him the reputation of ‘Evader in Chief’. “Evade like Piñera” is a brilliant shortcut to express not just the perceived corruption of the President but the inequality at the heart of the Chilean crisis. Economic inequality obviously but more widely inequality in legislature, inequality in the allocation and accessibility of public services, inequality in the treatment afforded by the better off to the lesser well off.  Mr Piñera, the alleged white collar criminal and tax evader gets to sit in La Moneda, whilst the students protesting unbearably high fares on behalf of the voiceless would be made to face heavy fines and police brutality. This is the short-circuit that sent Chileans onto the streets in their masses.

The first slogan to go viral was “It’s not about 30 pesos, it’s about 30 years”, the protesters  squarely putting the responsibility for the current situation in the lap of the post Pinochet’s democratic transition and the political parties that have managed it. This is a revolt that sees itself as outside of politics and expresses an absolute and visceral rejection of all political parties, held equally responsible for the country’s woes. No political party were able to hoist their flags at the demonstrations; the only flags flying are the Chilean flag, the football club flags because the players of all the main clubs support the protest, the rainbow flag, and the Mapuche flag, which has become a symbol of courage and resistance against oppression for all Chileans.

The people came out on the streets singing Victor Jara’s songs that had not been heard in public since 1973, in a sudden and massive return of the repressed. Another slogan from the streets is “We are busy reknitting the social fabric” and we see today an explosion of solidarity, a breaking down of barriers as neighbours who never spoke more than a few words go out to bang pots together and discuss the constitution around coffee and cake.
“Chile woke up” to use a trending hashtag, the awakening carries many hopes but is also fraught with dangers. So far the human cost of 3 weeks of protest (at the time of writing) has been extremely high; Chilean Carabineros have caused more ocular wounds (197) in this short time than all the police forces of the world in 20 years. Human rights violations have been rife; at least five people have been killed. Why are the police of a supposed democratic country behaving worse than the Turkish police or the Hong Kong Police? The answer comes in two parts.
The Carabineros (Chilean police) never underwent the “Depinochetisation” which should have happened after the return of democracy, therefore it retained a hard right, military and repressive culture, the Head of Carabineros was actually caught on mic saying that he would not stand down officers accused of human rights abuses.  Also Carabineros is an institution in full decomposition, the recent corruption scandals have led to 35 generals being retired over the last two years. The whole top cadre has been eliminated, internal tensions are intense and the current General in charge is a former HR officer widely seen as a corrupt pen pusher who commands no respect from his troops. Carabineros are angry, lack direction, and are applying a training which treats civilian protest as war situations. They have been asked to force people back home, the President hasn’t come out against human rights abuses, they have no reason to change tack, they probably wouldn’t know how. 

Why was Carabineros, never reformed? The constitution protects the institution like it protects the other branches of the armed forces from civilian meddling. That is also true for the other corps, which explains why when on the evening of October 12th, when the President asked the troops to get back on the streets after severe episodes of arson and looting, the generals refused to leave their regiments. Not out of respect for civilian lives or democracy but because the President would not give them full powers and full immunity against prosecution. Yes, that’s how little the Chilean armed forces have changed since 1973.

A new Constitution

It is interesting to note that the demand for a new constitution and a constitutive assembly came quite early, from the first days of the protest really and this is what really differentiates the Chilean revolt from, for example, the French Gilets Jaunes. The uprising remains mostly spontaneous with people organising through social media and WhatsApp groups, the organisation happens mostly around schools, universities and neighbourhoods, some locations serve as magnets, but it remains informal; however, the multiple demands around health, pensions, minimum wage, education reform, the privatisation of water, utility prizes etc. have coalesced around one main demand, a new constitution to be prepared by a constitutive assembly. This rather extraordinary crystallisation owes much to the NO+ AFP movement to reform the pension fund system and to the pressure of the Chilean Podemos; Frente Amplio who started citizen’s assemblies all over the country to discuss a new constitution. After Piñera came to power the idea was shelved but the movement and the FA have spent years educating the public about the need for constitutional change.
A constitution prepared by Congress would have no legitimacy, what Chile is facing today is a crisis of institutional legitimacy. Any repapering will throw the country into a deeper, more protracted crisis. Among other things, calm will not return until solid guarantees are given that the police force, Carabineros, will be disbanded and replaced by a non-military institution under appropriate civilian control. Trust was badly damaged by the corruption scandals; the recent wave of brutality has broken what was left confirming in the eyes of the majority the long-standing complaints from the Mapuche communities and the environmental and political activists. At the start of the crisis the public might have accepted a Congress led reform of the constitution, now a wide consensus is forming around the inevitability of a calling a Constituent assembly and all the left and centre parties signed a letter of support for this formula, even the president’s party is making noises in that direction although they would prefer a mixed system with congressional input.

I finished editing this article at midnight yesterday November 14, on a note saying “The President is increasingly isolated” and woke up to the news that all parties in Congress with the exception of the Communists had reached an historic agreement to redraft the constitution from scratch at 3 AM, Santiago time. Chileans will vote in a Plebiscite in April 2020, to choose the type of assembly that will draft the document:

A: Constitutive Assembly; Citizens chosen by their peers for this specific purpose, with assembly members will be banned from standing for election for the next year

B: Constitutive assembly; MP’s plus citizens elected by their peers (same as above)

There will also be a Closing Plebiscite to approve the new Constitution. 

The government capitulated, this shows the impact of the demonstrations and also the ideological change that has been happening inside of the right wing parties, some RN MP’s played a key, they started weeks ago saying that the status quo was no longer acceptable and calling to support fundamental change. The opposition having moved as a bloc to the concepts until now defended by the left, stayed firm in its demand and leveraged the power of the protest to force the government to accept the concepts of an inaugural plebiscite and of a Constitutive assembly. 

Much is still in the air and the people will not easily go home, this does not solve urgent pension and salary demands or the police brutality issue, the international community can play our part in helping to support those seeking constitutional reform, so their voices will not be quashed yet again. We also need to demand justice for the people killed and injured by the police forces and demand that the government be held legally responsible.

We are not going home yet, join us in protesting outside the Chilean Embassy in London, for more information please follow these accounts:

 and if you can help the struggle financially, you can make a donation here:

The below organisations help victims of police brutality and people falsely imprisoned.

Universidad de Chile Students First aid service 

‘Londres 38’ a historic Chilean Human Rights group running a support service for the victims of Human Rights abuses

A fund aiming to raise £5,000 to provide shelter, medical and legal aid for the 2019 Chilean protesters

These are exciting, but dangerous times for the Chilean people, your solidarity means a lot to us.

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