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For an Independent Working-Class Voice on Chile’s Newly Proposed Constitution

Left Voice’s sister organization in Chile, the PTR, is opening the pages of its newspaper for a “collective exchange” on the country’s new constitution being proposed for a September nationwide referendum. The aim is to reconstitute the working-class struggle for popular demands that emerged from the uprising in October 2019.

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Protesters in Santiago, Chile. Some are holding a big PTR banner.

Last December, Chile elected Gabriel Boric, a left-wing candidate, as its new president — rejecting the country’s version of Donald Trump. Boric had gotten support from a broad coalition that reached from the center-Right to the Communist Party, but also great swaths of the masses who were hoping for an end to neoliberalism. But he and his party had been instrumental in pacifying the popular rebellion in Chile that began in October 2019, that brought people into the streets throughout the country to protest ever-worsening income and social inequalities, and that nearly toppled his predecessor, Sebastían Piñera. In declaring victory, Boric promised “moderation.”

In the period between the uprising and Boric’s election, Chileans voted overwhelmingly to draft a new constitution to replace the one that had been implemented by dictator Augusto Pinochet after his 1973 coup, repeatedly revised, and was inherited by the post-coup governments beginning in 1990. A Constitutional Convention was elected in April 2021 and in early July, its draft of a new constitution was presented to Boric. A referendum to approve it will be held on September 4.

The Partido de Trabajadores Revolucionarios (PTR), Left Voice’s sister organization in Chile, issued the following call in the pages of its digital newspaper La Izquierda Diario, inviting “all sectors in Chile that aim to engage with the rejection of the Right but at the same time do not trust the Constitutional Convention” to engage in a “broad process of public debate that can express an independent voice from the working class and impoverished communities. 

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A little more than four months after Boric’s government took office, the illusions spawned in broad sectors of the Chilean population by his election collided with reality. We live in a convulsive international situation, with inflation and economic crisis hitting working families hard. Faced with the rising cost of living, the government is delivering a meager winter bonus while billions go into the pockets of speculators, bankers, and businessmen. Meanwhile, the government is deepening its repressive agenda with the passage of the Framework Law on cybersecurity and Critical Information Infrastructure — part of the security agenda of the preceding Piñera government.1Translator’s note: During Piñera’s last days as president, his government introduced this bill to the National Congress for discussion. Ostensibly, it aims to create an “institutional framework to strengthen cybersecurity, expand and reinforce preventive work, create a public culture of digital security, address contingencies in the public and private sectors, and safeguard the security of people in the cyberspace,” as OneTrust Data Guidance describes. But many people see it as a way to expand the online reach of Chile’s security apparatus.

This is the context in which the referendum on a new constitution takes place. It is what public debate has focused on, and the political parties have all been lining up on one side or another. 

Chile’s entire Right wants to reject the new constitution, as do some in the Christian Democratic Party (PDC).2Translator’s note: The PDC backed Boric over right-wing candidate Kast in the presidential election, and has traditionally situated itself politically as a sort of bridge between “democratic socialism” and laissez-faire capitalism, which Catholic social teaching describes as “social capitalism.” Keep in mind that, thanks to its repudiation by a large part of the Chilean population, the Right was nearly knocked completely to the ground, at a moment when Piñera was on the verge of being ousted, but the Boric government yielded to him on every part of the political agenda — breathing new life into the Right so it could return to the discussions on security, repression, and public order.

The main business associations — with Juan Sutil, president of the Confederation of Production and Commerce, in the lead — also favor a “no” vote. They speak of “rejecting [the constitution] in order to reform it” — crude blackmail aimed at hiding their defense of the constitution inherited from the military dictatorship. In essence, they want a “no” vote to keep their profits intact; the recent statement by the huge Credicorp Capital financial holding company that rising share prices for Aguas Andinas, Forestal Arauco, and CMPC flow from “no” gaining in polls backs this up.3Translator’s note: Aguas Andinas is Chile’s largest water utility. Forestal Arauco manufactures and exports different types of wood pulp and serves the forestry industry worldwide. CMPC is the world’s biggest pulp and paper company. Large international financial agencies such as Fitch Group and JP Morgan, along with imperialist media outlets such as The Economist, have also declared their support for rejecting the new constitution — or at least have been warning of their “uncertainties” about it.

What of the movement to “Approve”? We know it includes not just the “people” and the “social movements,” as many have tried to paint it. The most important parties of the former Concertación — the Party for Democracy (PPD), the PDC, and the Socialist Party — have joined in,4Translator’s note: The Concertación is the coalition that held the Chilean presidency from the time military rule ended until Piñera won in 2010. along with some of the bosses and international financial agencies. Their main concern is for Chile to restore “governability” and political stability, which are indispensable to safeguard capitalist business.

These people are actually calling for “approve to reform.” They want to continue the backroom “Constituent Kitchen Cabinet” process initiated to get to the “Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution5Translator’s note: In November 2019, with his government teetering, Piñera invited a number of the traditional parties of the left and center to meet as part of a “kitchen cabinet” to hammer out an agreement for “social peace” that would demobilize the masses and clear the streets. and later in the Convention itself, so that the new Constitution can be modified in Parliament, restoring powers to the Senate or limiting the rights of Indigenous peoples. The government has also taken part and is beginning to prepare a common negotiating position on points to be reformed if “Approval” prevails, as Boric’s statements show. In any case, it will be the current Congress that will implement the new text should the new Constitution be approved, and Congress will enact laws based on the general statements of the text. All parties, including the Frente Amplio6Translator’s note: The Frente Amplio (Broad Front) is a coalition of “left” parties and movements that participated in the secret meetings with the Piñera government in November 2019 aimed at striking an accord that would demobilize the popular uprising. and the Communist Party, are converging around the idea of reaching “great agreements” in Congress to moderate even more this task or any reforms once the document is approved.

We want to confront the “no” of the Right and big business, as well as the trap being set by the “I am in favor so we can reform it” crowd, all while putting no trust whatsoever in this Constitutional Convention or its new constitution meeting the demands we have struggled for in the streets for years.

This policy of a Constitutional Convention out of touch with popular needs and the demands of October 2019 has been key to helping restore the strength of the Right and Far Right — which has gone from being on life support to once again getting its own reactionary demands on the agenda. Millions of workers, young people, and women have been disillusioned and today are taking up the Right’s talking points.

This path was also opened for the Right wing by those who initially called on people to “surround the Convention” and declared that they would not “sit in session while there were still political prisoners.”7Translator’s note: The references are to the Communist Party, which called on people to surround the first meeting of the Convention with a mass demonstration as a way to stymie the “defenders” of the Pinochet constitution; and to the demands that those arrested during the October 2019 uprising and still imprisoned be released before the process of drafting a new constitution could begin.  This includes the Constituent Social Movements and the Communist Party itself, but once they were seated in the Convention, they dropped those slogans and dedicated themselves to parliamentarism and institutionalism instead of using their positions to strengthen an extra-parliamentary mobilization to confront the most reactionary and conservative sectors. And then there’s the CUT trade union confederation’s bureaucracy, which took the same parliamentary approach while never lifting a finger to mobilize seriously against the precarious conditions workers face. The bureaucracy has integrated itself more and more with the government, content with a “historic” minimum wage increase that has already been eaten up by inflation.8Translator’s note: In May, Boric’s government enacted a two-step increase in Chile’s monthly minimum wage from the rough equivalents of US$368 to US$398, with another increase to US$420 on August 1.

A large part of the population has expectations of being able to do away with Pinochet’s constitution once and for all. But there’s a significant part of the working class — including some who even participated in the uprising — that has become disillusioned along the way. It has been nearly three years since we mobilized, and nothing has changed. On the contrary, the economic situation is worse, the Constitutional Convention was subordinated to the powers-that-be, and the new draft constitution has ended up not addressing the structural problems of neoliberal Chile. We have not won the demands we fought for in October 2019: decent wages and pensions, without precariousness; an end to waiting lists for free and quality healthcare; free public education for all and putting an end to student debt programs such as the CAE; and an end to the AFP pension reform and decent retirements for our grandparents. We achieved neither freedom for the prisoners from the revolt, nor the imprisonment of Piñera and the murderers who have acted with impunity.

The text proposed by the Convention does recognize a series of rights9Translator’s note: In 1980, the Pinochet regime rigged a referendum to approve the constitution the dictatorship had written — the very constitution that has been in place since the dictatorship fell. It enshrined a neoliberal, free market economic model as the law of the land. Despite having been amended more than 40 times in the last 30 years, the constitution notably excludes a host of rights that are included (even if only formally) in most constitutions of other Latin American countries. These include social rights to healthcare, education, pensions, and so on; women’s rights; Indigenous rights; water rights; and so on. It cemented what have been called “authoritarian enclaves” that have made it impossible to alter key aspects of the political and economic model, and in particular have skewed political representation in the Congress — including with designated (unelected) members of the Senate. that were denied for decades by corporate politicians — a victory won in blood and fire as a result of the rebellion, and only because we took that struggle to the streets. This raises expectations that the new Constitution will put an end to the most irritating aspects of the dictatorship’s legacy, although this clashes with a complex economic situation of inflation, higher unemployment, and wages that are being pulverized as the cost of living continues to rise.

Neither the Convention nor the Boric government have taken any structural measures to keep working people from having to pay the costs of the crisis. It is of little use that the Constitution speaks of decent housing while the housing deficit continues to grow with precariousness and overcrowding, or that the rights of Indigenous peoples are recognized while not a hair is touched on the heads of the big forestry companies that are responsible for the theft of land from their communities and the destruction of the environment.

The new Constitution’s main problem is that it leaves in place important pillars inherited from the dictatorship that have persisted for 30 years, and provides no concrete ways to finance the fundamental rights it proposes. It does not even touch the plundering of natural resources such as copper and lithium, it does not put an end to the AFP pension reform and their theft from workers’ pockets, and it maintains a political system based on presidential authoritarianism and an oligarchic upper house of Congress.

We must not forget that the Constitutional Convention was born of that very “Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution” that was signed behind closed doors and behind the backs of the people by the traditional parties and the Frente Amplio as a way to save Piñera’s skin, demobilize the popular rebellion, and clear the streets in November 2019. A constituent process was agreed upon to restore the governability that had been lost as a result of the popular mobilizations — but it was not a true Free and Sovereign Constituent Assembly. The Constitutional Convention, far from being a conquest of the rebellion, was one of the key mechanisms to deactivate the mobilization. Neither the Convention nor the constituents were tools to strengthen the independent organization of the working class and poor communities. In fact, the opposite happened.

This is the framework within which we must regroup and organize all who agree that the deepest drivers of the rebellion have neither been nor will be resolved by the institutionalism of this regime, but that we will win our rights by striking at the interests of the big capitalists. We will not win by endorsing a pact behind the backs of the people, negotiated between the traditional parties and this government.

We have to ensure not only that our popular demands and our rights are recognized in the new Constitution, but also that they become fact and not simply wasted paper — and that begins with fighting to ensure that the costs of the economic crisis are not paid by working people. That means we must go after Chile’s wealthiest, who enriched themselves over the past 30 years while denying people what they need, plundering the environment, turning healthcare and education into businesses, and dispossessing the Indigenous Mapuche communities.

We call on social and political organizations and individuals who share our deep criticism of this constituent process — including those who give the new Constitution critical support and those who have decided to vote against it — to develop a political and programmatic position of our own. This position must confront the Right wing consistently, taking on its campaign for a rejection that favors only big business. It must confront the “institutional” traps of the Approvalists whose aim is to create a new deception, just like the “transition” after Piñera, based on change that actually changes nothing (a new version of “happiness on the horizon”). This position must be independent of the government and the former Concertación and must restore the October 2019 agenda and the struggle for our demands, strengthening organization and unity in the streets.

We’re betting on the workers, with their own position and an independent voice that proposes solutions to the structural problems. Fighting for basic measures to confront inflation and recession, such as price controls, wages and pensions no less than 650,000 pesos, a halt to layoffs, and an end to the AFP and starvation wages. Linking these demands to overall solutions such as the nationalization of natural resources — copper in particular — under the management of workers and communities to finance the urgent social needs of Chile’s great majority. Struggling for the restitution of lands to the Mapuche people, usurped by the big forestry companies, and the right to self-determination of the native peoples, among other measures.

It is time to jumpstart and develop the struggle of the working class and the people and draw on the strength of self-organization, taking as examples the hundreds of experiences that were born in the heat of the popular rebellion — such as the popular and territorial assemblies and the Emergency and Protection Committee in Antofagasta. We need to do this again. We need to fight to recover what we lost from having the delay of this Constitutional Convention imposed on us — a measure taken only to demobilize the masses. We cannot wait for the new Constitution to resolve our demands. If we do, the rulers will demobilize us again, and postpone our demands.

In the face of the current economic crisis, it is more urgent than ever to strengthen the organization of workers and the people and promote a program politically independent of big business and the politicians in their service, so it is the big capitalists who pay for the crisis as we struggle for a workers’ government.

First published in Spanish on July 20 in La Izquierda Diario Chile.

Translation and introduction by Scott Cooper

Notes

Notes
1 Translator’s note: During Piñera’s last days as president, his government introduced this bill to the National Congress for discussion. Ostensibly, it aims to create an “institutional framework to strengthen cybersecurity, expand and reinforce preventive work, create a public culture of digital security, address contingencies in the public and private sectors, and safeguard the security of people in the cyberspace,” as OneTrust Data Guidance describes. But many people see it as a way to expand the online reach of Chile’s security apparatus.
2 Translator’s note: The PDC backed Boric over right-wing candidate Kast in the presidential election, and has traditionally situated itself politically as a sort of bridge between “democratic socialism” and laissez-faire capitalism, which Catholic social teaching describes as “social capitalism.”
3 Translator’s note: Aguas Andinas is Chile’s largest water utility. Forestal Arauco manufactures and exports different types of wood pulp and serves the forestry industry worldwide. CMPC is the world’s biggest pulp and paper company.
4 Translator’s note: The Concertación is the coalition that held the Chilean presidency from the time military rule ended until Piñera won in 2010.
5 Translator’s note: In November 2019, with his government teetering, Piñera invited a number of the traditional parties of the left and center to meet as part of a “kitchen cabinet” to hammer out an agreement for “social peace” that would demobilize the masses and clear the streets.
6 Translator’s note: The Frente Amplio (Broad Front) is a coalition of “left” parties and movements that participated in the secret meetings with the Piñera government in November 2019 aimed at striking an accord that would demobilize the popular uprising.
7 Translator’s note: The references are to the Communist Party, which called on people to surround the first meeting of the Convention with a mass demonstration as a way to stymie the “defenders” of the Pinochet constitution; and to the demands that those arrested during the October 2019 uprising and still imprisoned be released before the process of drafting a new constitution could begin.
8 Translator’s note: In May, Boric’s government enacted a two-step increase in Chile’s monthly minimum wage from the rough equivalents of US$368 to US$398, with another increase to US$420 on August 1.
9 Translator’s note: In 1980, the Pinochet regime rigged a referendum to approve the constitution the dictatorship had written — the very constitution that has been in place since the dictatorship fell. It enshrined a neoliberal, free market economic model as the law of the land. Despite having been amended more than 40 times in the last 30 years, the constitution notably excludes a host of rights that are included (even if only formally) in most constitutions of other Latin American countries. These include social rights to healthcare, education, pensions, and so on; women’s rights; Indigenous rights; water rights; and so on. It cemented what have been called “authoritarian enclaves” that have made it impossible to alter key aspects of the political and economic model, and in particular have skewed political representation in the Congress — including with designated (unelected) members of the Senate.
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