Chile: On the Front Lines against Neoliberalism

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An Interview with Dauno Totoro of the Revolutionary Workers Party (PTR)

Dauno Tótoro is a history teacher and leader of the Partido de los Trabajadores  Revolucionarios (PTR) who ran for Congress in 2017 for District 10 of the Metropolitan Region of Santiago. He is currently being sued by Piñera’s government under charges of “inciting subversion of the public order” for calling for Piñera’s resignation at a public assembly. A vast number of artists, human rights activists, and politicians have repudiated this political persecution and expressed solidarity with Tótoro.

How did this protest movement begin and develop?

In mid-October, President Sebastián Piñera’s government announced an increase in subway fares, and this was met with widespread protests. The first to respond were high school students who decided to evade payment on a massive scale: The scenes of students jumping and destroying subway turnstiles aroused the sympathy of millions.

On October 18, there were massive mobilizations against not only the fare increase but also against the repression, since the government responded with police brutality to the high school students’ mobilizations. On October 19, Piñera responded by invoking the “state security law” from the time of the dictatorship: the working class, middle class, and the residents of the poor neighborhoods of Santiago exploded in fury.

First in Santiago and then all over the country, people organized massive demonstrations, pickets, barricades, and cacerolazos (pot-banging protests). What started as a youth revolt turned into a national uprising against Piñera and the regime inherited from the Pinochet dictatorship. The government realized that if it ignored popular demands, the uprising might be unstoppable, so Piñera rescinded the transit fare increase. Typical of the Chilean regime, which has always responded with police brutality to popular demands, the government also decreed a “curfew”—something that had not been done since the dictatorship.

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The curfew, far from intimidating us, gave us more courage, and we challenged it with barricades and cacerolazos all over the country. As the anger increased, buses were burned, hundreds of large stores were looted, and police stations and other public buildings were set ablaze. We felt the power we have when we take the street despite the repression. When Piñera said to the media that “we’re at war,” hundreds of thousands took to the streets again, including not only high school students, university students, and unorganized people, but also the Chilean working class and its unions, with the miners and the dockworkers at the forefront. The dockworkers shut down 90 percent of the ports of Chile on October 20, and miners paralyzed La Escondida, the world’s largest private copper mine.

What was the role of the union leadership in the protests?

In response to the enormous popular pressure and the pressure from their own ranks, the union bureaucracy of the Central Unica de Trabajadores (CUT) called a general strike, but one without street mobilizations. Even so, on the first day of the general strike, hundreds of thousands of people mobilized throughout Chile, including workers, youth, residents of the poor neighborhoods, women, and indigenous communities. These mobilizations were massive even though the night before Piñera had announced a slew of concessions with the so-called social agenda. These were crumbs in the context of the economic situation that millions of Chileans experience after decades of neoliberalism run amok.

On Friday, October 25, the largest demonstration in Chile since the end of the dictatorship took place. We were more than one million people in Santiago, and there were mass marches throughout the country, with protesters demanding “Out with Piñera” and denouncing the repression. The first thirteen days of protests were truly revolutionary days. The masses challenged the government and the repressive forces in a way not seen in Chile since the 1970s.

On October 26, Piñera tried to establish a “dialogue” with the protesters, welcoming its peaceful character and making new promises—more social concessions, shaking up his cabinet, and suspending the curfew. The government’s discourse was aimed at dividing the movement between “peaceful” and “violent” protesters. Behind the scenes, a plan to save Piñera’s neck was already underway.

Beyond the fare increase, what is really behind this revolutionary upsurge? Why are the Chilean people rebelling?

Well, you should know that Chile is the great laboratory where neoliberalism was first implemented at the international level—even earlier than in the UK and the United States. To impose the neoliberal model, a brutal dictatorship was necessary, one that never completely left. In Chile everything is private: health, education, the pension system, everything! Young people in the United States will understand because here the youth, just like those in the United States, have to go into debt for decades to be able to go to university. And the children of working-class people cannot go into debt, so they are excluded from the university, and the only thing they have left is precarious, irregular work. The working conditions for hundreds of thousands of young people in precarious jobs are horrendous. The military dictatorship swept away the unions, and “democracy” never fully restored the right to unionize. The level of unionization is very low, and the contracts are very precarious. In Chile, as in many parts of the world, irregular work predominates. The Mapuche indigenous people were dispossessed of their lands and forests and are harassed all the time by the military. Chile is one of the economies where social inequality is most pronounced: 50 percent of the poorest households have only 2.1 percent of Chile’s total net wealth, and 26.5 percent of that wealth is concentrated among the richest 1 percent.

In addition, the democratic transition in 1986 was negotiated with the military. This meant that the 1976 military coup that ousted Allende’s government and the following genocide went unpunished. The military that carried out the coup stayed in office, and to some extent they are the same ones who are repressing us today. What some younger people in the United States might not know is that the genocide of the dictatorship was perpetrated with the collaboration of the U.S. government and the CIA. So apart from the economic conditions imposed by neoliberalism, the Chilean regime is deeply authoritarian. All you have to do is see the images of the repression that we suffered in recent weeks. According to the Red Cross, 2,209 people were victims of direct repression during the protests. According to the figures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, as well as grassroots human rights organizations, there were dozens of police killings and hundreds of cases of sexual abuse of women by military forces. The government has recognized only twenty-five deaths during the protests, but human rights organizations maintain that at least forty-two people were murdered by the police during the protests. Human rights activists are also saying that at least fifteen women were disappeared at the hands of the police.

So, as the demonstrators say regarding the fare increase, “It’s not about thirty pesos, it’s about thirty years.” Behind the popular anger is the hatred of a “model” in which the rich live like monarchs, the poor live in misery, and the military brutalizes us every time we demonstrate.

What was the plan to save Piñera?

The revolutionary days of the last few weeks could have toppled Piñera. To prevent this, the president implemented a two-pronged strategy: on the one hand, repressing and criminalizing the sectors that remained mobilized and continued calling for his resignation; on the other hand, giving crumbs to the people, a few small concessions to the working class that will change little.

Piñera announced a change in his cabinet after the massive demonstration of October 25, trying to diminish the social eruption. He removed the hated Andrés Chadwick, the minister of the interior who was directly responsible for the repression, but he kept ministers who are very hated by the population like Minister of Education Marcela Cubillos. After Piñera’s announcement, social media were filled with mockery of the cabinet change because the same dinosaurs would continue to rule the country.

During the first days of the popular rebellion, Piñera’s presidency was sustained in the repression. But after the announcement of the change of cabinet, all the parties of the regime decided to keep Piñera in power and initiate what they call a new “social dialogue.”

The parties of the Chilean regime are the Christian Democratic Party (DC), the Party for Democracy (PPD), the Social Democratic Radical Party (PRSD), and the Socialist Party (PS). These parties were part of the former coalition known as the Concertación, and they are currently part of the conglomerate called Nueva Mayoría, which includes the Communist Party and the Frente Amplio, among others. DC, PRSD, and the PS agreed to keep Piñera as president, and they channeled the discontent in the streets into negotiations with the government.

This hypocritical chorus of “social dialogue” has also been endorsed by big businessmen such as Alfonso Swett, co-owner of Hush Puppies and Funsport, and the current president of the Ultraport group, Richard Von Appen.

These are not the only sectors to have fallen into the trap of “social dialogue,” which has also found an echo in some left organizations, including the Communist Party and the Frente Amplio.

How did the Left in Chile respond to the moment?

The largest, most important left-wing organizations in Chile are the Frente Amplio and the Communist Party. The Frente Amplio is a new political coalition that groups together a number of organizations, ranging from left-wing groups to the Liberal Party, which had officials serving in Piñera’s first government. It was launched by the main leaders of the 2011 student movement, Giorgio Jackson and Gabriel Boric. Today, as part of the Social Unity Roundtable, together with the Communist Party, it endorses this policy of negotiations. It has already agreed to a meeting called by the government.

One of the problems with the “social dialogue” is that the participating organizations agreed to remove the demand for Piñera’s resignation. This is a betrayal of the people who continue to mobilize in the streets demanding this very thing.

Although they have actively participated in the protests and mobilized their supporters, they’ve refused to develop any kind of grassroots organization, coordinating committees, or assemblies. This is one of our most important political battles. We’ve been developing self-organization here in Santiago with unions and activists. In the northern city of Antofagasta, we helped establish an Emergency Committee with the participation of the teachers’ union along with other unions, as well as high school and university students. It’s a model: a grassroots coordinating group that helps deepen and strengthen the roots of the movement in the schools and workplaces. The committee organized an assembly of two hundred high school students and issued a national call for high schools to be occupied as spaces for organizing the struggle.

The same happened in the coastal city of Valparaiso, where we’ve been advocating, along with dozens of activists, for the creation of a regional coordinating assembly. Earlier this week, the assembly issued a communiqué calling for a work stoppage until Piñera is gone, as a starting point.

The Frente Amplio and the Communist Party are posing as the Left at the same time that they are agreeing to participate in negotiations with Piñera. And they’re also calling for a “constitutional accusation” (a sort of impeachment) against Piñera. In other words, they’re trying to control the rebellion by channeling it into a constitutional solution. They want to make the people believe it’s possible to remove Piñera through a parliamentary vote.

The strategy of the Communist Party and the Frente Amplio is based on their confidence in an institutional strategy and in the mechanisms of the regime to introduce social change. Both organizations are taking the path of reform over that of developing the revolutionary aspects of the movement. The extra-parliamentary social protests escape their control; they cannot lead them, so they try to capitalize on the protests within the political regime, the halls of Congress, and among lawmakers. By doing this, they are playing into Piñera’s hands.

When Karla Rubilar, Secretary General of Government, condemned the violence, they all followed suit immediately: CP leaders Camila Vallejo and Daniel Jadue, as well as the main leaders of the Frente Amplio, including Beatriz Sánchez, who was its presidential candidate, along with Jackson and Boric.

This makes our fight for bodies of self-organization in the schools and workplaces very important; without them, it’s difficult for the movement to see that there are political parties—including the CP and Frente Amplio—that are now maneuvering right in order to make sure nothing comes of our mobilizations. Their demands are sterile. Nothing they raise would be binding. They’ll just draw up some document that two years from now can be used for some legislation that will do nothing to resolve the central demands of these mobilizations.

What is the current state of the movement?

Although the massive demonstrations decreased, Chile continues to be in a situation of permanent mobilization. Last week, for example, high school students returned to the streets, denouncing the repression. Many students went to the mobilizations in defiance of the prohibition to leave their schools, imposed by the scholar authorities, and confronting police repression in the streets. In the poor neighborhoods of Santiago and in several other cities, such as Antofagasta and Valparaiso, sectors of the poorest population continue to mobilize.

Meanwhile, Piñera announced new repressive measures.

While he is trying to impose a discourse of “normality,” giving minor concessions to the millions who have taken to the streets, he has recharged his criminalizing discourse against the demonstrators. On November 6, he had a meeting with the National Security Council (COSENA) to unleash even more repression against the popular unrest.

How does the PTR propose that the movement advance?

We’ve been raising the need for a constituent assembly as an emergency solution to the political and social crisis. But we call for one that is free and sovereign, based on the power of the mobilizations, and founded on the ruins of the government and the current political regime. We have no interest in a rigged constituent assembly, established through the regime’s “institutionality,” as has been proposed not only by the CP and the Frente Amplio but also by the Supreme Court.

What we propose is to open up the possibility to challenge everything. For the movement to advance in a revolutionary sense, the Piñera government must fall. We believe that popular mobilization should impose a constituent assembly that is democratic, with one delegate for every 20,000 voters. Restoring pensions, making education free, addressing wages and debt—none of these demands can be met unless we go after the profits of the capitalists. Today, a handful of families—the Lucsiks, Mattas, Angelinis, and others—hold enormous power and capital. They are as intertwined with the right-wing political parties of the regime as they are with the former Concertación. We have to go after the banks, the forestry companies, and the mining companies, and we must advance demands that confront the real power. That’s why we propose this constituent assembly to discuss and challenge the regime in its entirety, the regime inherited from the military dictatorship, and move forward to tear it down—not fix it up, and not come up with some institutional solution to a conflict that will not end under those circumstances.

Finally, do you want to say something to our readers in the United States?

I want to send a very warm greeting to the socialists in the United States. We were deeply moved to learn that a couple of weeks ago in New York there was a mobilization against police brutality and for a fare-free subway. During this mobilization, the youth used the method of jumping turnstiles as a form of protest. We also know that many young people in the heart of the imperialist beast sympathize with socialism and support our struggle. I believe that youth revolts are contagious. I also believe that we have a very important ally in the U.S.: the youth and the working class who want to change everything and who can no longer stand this system of exploitation and hunger. If in the United States youth and the working class embrace a socialist and anti-imperialist perspective, we in Chile will be in a better position to fight our government, which ultimately follows the dictates of Washington.

Interview: Jimena Vergara

About author

Jimena Vergara

Jimena Vergara

Jimena is an author of the collection "Mexico en Llamas" and lives and works in New York City.