Understanding the Chilean Elections: Part I, Setting the Stage

Contrary to the occasional superficial report in the English-language media, the Chilean political and economic system is in a profound, long-term crisis of legitimacy that was in no way changed by the widely boycotted 2014 presidential election. Part I of a 2-part series.

Submitted by Elise Hendrick on October 6, 2015

Si la presidenta no te cuenta la pulenta, lo hago yo
Chile está en venta desde que la Concerta ganó el NO
Aylwin, Lagos y también Frei dieron paso a Bachelet
Donde el mercado se hace rey y el subcontrato se hace ley
Mi canto no es de mala fe, tengo evidencia suficiente
Pa’ condenar a muerte a veinte dirigentes malolientes
Solamente basta con mirar las calles desde el Transantiago
4 millones de detalles cotidianos
Me confirman que la ciudadanía está pintada
Elección tras elección, la votación no cambia nada.

If President Bachelet won’t tell you what’s up, I’ll have a go:
Chile’s been for sale ever since the Concertación won one for NO.
Aylwin, Lagos, and then Frei made way for Bachelet,
where the market is king and outsourcing’s the big thing.
I’m not singing in bad faith. I’ve got sufficient evidence
to condemn to death twenty foul-smelling leaders.
All you need to do is look through the windows of Santiago’s buses,
4 million pieces of evidence every day,
confirming that the people are are the ones that always take hits,
we’ve had vote after vote, and the elections never change shit.
Infórmate, Subverso

(On 28 May 2015, 150,000 people turned out in Santiago to protest the attempted murder by military police of student protester Rodrigo Avilés and to demand free, public, secular education - photo by Élise Hendrick)

The international coverage of the recent Chilean elections, particularly in the English-language media, has been in keeping with the standards of depth and quality that have consistently been observed by the English-language press in its reporting on the current cycle of mass popular mobilisations that began roughly in 2011. That is to say that it has not been very good.

Guardian readers, for example, were presented with the image of a democratic process leading to a popular, implicitly left, victory in the form of the first round re-election of ex-president Michelle Bachelet Jeria and the entry into the National Congress of former university student union leader Camila Vallejo Dowling. The groundwork for this superficial and misleading picture has been laid over the past two years by articles that equate Vallejo (and, occasionally, her fellow élite university students Giorgio Jackson and Camilo Ballesteros) to the student movement as a whole, as if they (or their organisations) had in fact initiated the student mobilisations (they didn’t) and were the undisputed leaders of the movement (they never were). The much larger contingent, the secondary students, grouped in the horizontally organised ACES (Asamblea Coordinadora de Estudiantes Secundarios – Secondary Students’ Coordinating Assembly), have been as thoroughly ignored by the foreign press as they have been by the Chilean government and the dominant media oligopoly there. Similarly, one would search in vain for any mention, let alone detailed reporting or analysis, on the other major popular movements that have mobilised in recent years, which all share with the majority of the student movement the desire to sweep away the repressive, neoliberal institutional legacy of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet Ugarte and refound Chilean society on a new, egalitarian basis. The Chilean political and economic system is in a profound crisis of legitimacy – one utterly unaffected by the recent election, which was boycotted by 51% of the electorate – but readers of English-language media won’t hear about it.

In the following, I will attempt to supply some of the historical and social context that is as essential to an understanding of the current crisis in Chile as it is absent in international media reporting on the country.

The current crisis, it bears noting at the outset, is largely, but not entirely the legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship (faithfully administered by the reigning duopoly ever since the ‘return to democracy’ in 1990). Whilst the hyper-neoliberal social and economic system, the current constitution, and the virulently antidemocratic electoral system are certainly his (or, more precisely, his scrivener Jaime Guzmán’s) doing, some of the most important causes of Chile’s political malaise go back farther, to the very foundation of the Republic in 1810. Put briefly, one of the central aspects of this (and previous) crises in Chile is a political system that massively overrepresents the economic élite in Santiago at the expense of the rest of the country, and the working class as a whole.

At the foundation of the Republic, two centuries ago, the ‘Regions’ as the entire country except for the capital, Santiago, is collectively described (newscasts and weather reports refer to ‘Santiago y Regiones’, as if they represented two roughly equal territorial units; this is, of course, false – Santiago’s status infinitely superior to ‘Regions’), had developed a longstanding tradition of direct, locally accountable, deliberative decision-making in the form of local assemblies.

In a country as spread out and diverse as Chile, this was a natural development. Even today, with modern roads and vehicles, it takes thirty hours to reach Santiago from the northern border in the seemingly endless Atacama Desert, and at least five more to reach the River Bío-Bío, which was the southern border at the time. It is hard to imagine the slog it must have been back then, on horseback, with unsealed dirt tracks for roads.

As such, the ‘Regions’ were fairly well cut off from Santiago, and that suited them just fine. The natural resources being concentrated in the ‘Regions’, the people there produced enough to live on, and often exported a surplus to Perú in the north. They didn’t really need Santiago.

But Santiago needed them. Santiago was (and still is) the home of the merchant class, who, then as now, felt a greater connection to their European (and today US) business associates than to the people in the ‘Regions’ who actually produced the wealth that the santiaguino élite got rich by flogging. Without control over ‘Regions’, the merchants of the capital and their British associates would have had no source of income. naturally, thus, they had a compelling interest in establishing a strong central government that subordinated the rest of the country to their needs.

When, after a popular rebellion forced the first ‘Supreme Director’ (read: dictator) Bernardo O’Higgins Riquelme to abdicate his office, this conflict became acute. The ‘Regions’ began forming assemblies with a view to establishing a constitution that reflected their participatory political traditions. They sent delegates with revocable mandates, who were accountable to the local assemblies, to Santiago to debate and draft this constitution. The public, both men and women, were free to come and watch the deliberations, thus ensuring the maximum degree of accountability for the delegates.

Seeing their cash cow in danger, the Santiago mercantile class immediately began doing everything in their power to subvert the constitutional process. The delegates, who often had to travel for days to reach the capital, were denied decent lodgings. To demoralise them and disrupt their relationships with the public, the merchants subjected them to a campaign of public ridicule and humiliation. To ensure that the assembly couldn’t get anything done, they engaged in what today would be called ‘trolling’: heckling speakers from the gallery, derailing debates by bringing up irrelevant matters, and doing everything else they could think of to ensure that the process was as slow, painful, and pointless as possible.

When that didn’t work, the mercantile élite tried to impose their will by military force, but this, too, resulted in defeat at the hands of General Ramón Freire, who sided with the democrats from ‘Regions’. So, the merchants’ general, Prieto, offered his surrender and invited General Freire to discuss a truce. Freire came unarmed, and Prieto and his men took the opportunity to ambush him and hold him hostage. Hearing of this, Freire’s forces dealt Prieto and his merchant backers yet another defeat, after which Prieto again offered his surrender. The two generals agreed to mutual disarmament. After this gentleman’s agreement was reached, Freire immediately ordered his troops to lay down their arms.

Prieto didn’t.

In his polemic En el nombre del poder popular constituyente (‘In the Name of the People’s Constitution-Giving Power’), Chilean social historian Gabriel Salazar describes Freire’s willingness to go unarmed to the negotiations and take Prieto at has word as evidence that Freire was a caballero, a true gentleman. One imagines that the people who were counting on Freire’s good judgement at the time might have found the good Chilean word weón (dickhead) rather more appropriate.

And thus was born the Republic. This would not be the last time a mass movement in Chile demanded democracy and regional autonomy, only to be crushed by force and guile. The Regional tradition of assemblies (asambleísmo) remains alive today, as does the Chilean élite’s fear of it.

About a century later, in 1918, the conflict once again became acute. Workers and students organised a national uprising, demanding a new constitution that democratised the political system and guaranteed labour rights, giving president Arturo Alessandri Palma a one-week deadline to initiate the process officially. Alessandri fled the country, and a military junta took over in his stead, which unsuccessfully tried to put down the rebellion. In the end, Alessandri and the generals agreed to the formation of a constitutional assembly as demanded by the workers and students, and the president returned to Santiago. Once there, he formed two committees, one of which was responsible for organising the constitutional assembly process. It met once, and did essentially nothing. The second committee, made up of members hand-picked by Alessandri and his mates, then proceeded to write the new constitution without public input. As always, the army was on hand to ensure that the rabble stayed in line.

The Alessandri constitution lasted about 50 years, until, in 1973, the army colluded with the US government and the Chilean oligarchy to crush the latest manifestation of popular assertiveness, the government of Salvador Allende Gossens and the grassroots Poder Popular (People’s Power) movement that formed to deepen and defend the revolutionary process heralded by Allende’s election. That government, which remains the most popular ever seen before or since, was replaced by a military junta headed by General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte.

After seven years spent crushing the popular movements and parties affiliated with the elected Allende government by torture and mass murder, Pinochet decided it was time to give his tyranny a patina of legality, and to enshrine the aggressively neoliberal economic system he had established. So, he had a new constitution drafted by his minions, principally right-wing lawyer Jaime Guzmán. Since an illegitimate constitution is not complete without a bogus democratic process to prop it up, Pinochet called a plebiscite, in which the people (except those in exile, who still have no right to vote in Chile) were to ratify it. No opposition was tolerated during what passed for a campaign. The whole process was accompanied by brutal repression to ensure that voters followed their consciences. Even so, a third of the voters voted to reject the Pinochet constitution. That constitution, with minor, cosmetic amendments, remains in force to this day.

Far from cementing Pinochet’s rule, however, the 1980 constitution was more or less the last time the dictator could rest assured that his power was not subject to challenge.

The 1980s saw the thawing out of Chilean politics. Regular protests and riots challenged the dictatorship’s rule and showed that the military police (Carabineros), whose leadership had been part of the dictatorship since its inception, did not reign supreme on the streets.

Even worse for Pinochet, his relationship with the US government was increasingly lukewarm. The secret US policy planning record of the time, compiled by Peter Kornbluh in The Pinochet Files, reveals that US officials felt that the US was overidentified with the Pinochet dictatorship. a repeated complaint in this regard was that the international community held Washington responsible for every atrocity that came to light in Chile. What’s the point of having a puppet if people aren’t even polite enough to pretend they don’t see the strings?

Nor were US officials particularly chuffed with Pinochet’s decision to set off a car bomb in the middle of DC to eliminate two of his political opponents. Pinochet was becoming an embarrassment.

Moreover, Pinochet had already served his purpose. The ‘virus’ of independent, democratic development had been eradicated. Chile was more open to foreign capital than it had been even before Allende.

And so, between the mass revolt at home and diminishing US support, Pinochet found himself on increasingly shaky ground. At the end of the tumultuous 1980s, Pinochet called a plebiscite in which voters would be asked to give him another 17 years as dictator, or to send him packing. For the first time since 1973, the opposition was allowed to campaign openly. From CIA memos published by Peter Kornbluh, we know that Pinochet was by no means interested in respecting the result of the vote if he could find a way to get out of it. US intelligence officials became aware that he had a contingency plan either to suspend the vote or manipulate the counting if he appeared to be losing. According to the memo, Pinochet’s CIA handler let him know that if he tried anything of the sort, he’d be on his own.

In 1988, Pinochet stood for his very first election. He lost by an 11 % margin.

Not fancying the prospects of facing a mass revolt without US backing, Pinochet handed over the presidency to Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin Azocar of the Concertación de Partidos por el NO (Coalition of Parties for the NO Vote, later Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia).

There was much rejoicing. At long last, democracy had returned and the people would get back to the work they’d been doing before they were so rudely interrupted in 1973.

Or so they thought.