On April 11, Chile will elect a convention to write a new constitution, which will replace the constitution of 1980, written by the far-right dictator Augusto Pinochet. Left Voice spoke with two candidates running to join the Constitutional Convention, Joseffe Cáceres and Daniel Vargas, both from the Revolutionary Workers’ Party (PTR).
Joseffe Cáceres is a leader of the union of cleaning workers at the Metropolitan University of Educational Sciences near Santiago. She is a member of the national leadership of the PTR and a spokesperson of the women’s group Pan y Rosas (Bread and Roses). She is a candidate in one of the districts on the periphery of Santiago made up of slums. She is 33 years old and a mother. She joined the PTR when she was a young hip-hop activist.
Daniel Vargas is a lawyer who, during Chile’s October 2019 rebellion, became well known for defending people who had been arrested. He was an organizer of the Human Rights Commission of the Emergency and Protection Committee of Antofagasta. This organization coordinated unions, poor residents, student groups, and human rights organizations during the rebellion — it was the principal organizing body of the rebellion in this mining town in northern Chile, one of the main port and industrial centers of the country. He is 34 years old.
One month remains before the Constitutional Convention is elected. How is the situation in Chile?
Daniel Vargas: I think there is a mix of feelings. On the one hand, lots of people hope that the Constitutional Convention will be able to make major changes to the country. The constitution of 1980 represents the legacy of the dictatorship and enshrines precarious living conditions, as well as the privatization of education, health care, pensions, etc. This is why the day the referendum for a new constitution passed turned into a mass celebration.
On the other hand, many people have a deep distrust in the constituent process, which was designed behind our backs by the same parties that for years administered the legacy of the dictatorship. The mobilizations of October 2019 began as a revolt against a price hike for public transportation. The government responded with repression, and this radicalized the movement, transforming it into a nationwide rebellion lasting several months. It reached its peak on November 12, when the main unions called for a general strike. This was the biggest strike since the end of the dictatorship.
The president, the right-wing billionaire Sebastián Piñera, was left on the ropes. In this situation, the main parties signed an “Agreement for Peace and a New Constitution.” This agreement defined the current process. The truth is that the regime aimed to contain the crisis and prevent the mobilizations in the streets from toppling Piñera. Senators and deputies who participated in the agreement have had to acknowledge that at the time the Piñera government was at risk of becoming unsustainable.
Many people see this as an agreement for impunity. We should not forget that since the agreement was signed, police brutality has killed a dozen people, and there are still hundreds of prisoners from the revolt. This generates outrage in broad sectors.
There is also a feeling of uncertainty because of the pandemic. Like most countries, Chile is going through a period of economic and social crisis, as millions of people have lost their jobs. There has been an increase in poverty and in precarious working conditions. It is very probable that the hope being placed in the process will conflict with the limitations of the convention, and with the economic and social situation generally.
How will voting take place?
Joseffe Cáceres: To give you an idea, the day they signed the “Peace Agreement,” there was no celebrating on the streets. The right-wing government, the social democratic opposition, and even the reformist Left sat down to work out an agreement to save the government — not something that generates much confidence. Quickly people began to discover the “fine print.”
I‘ll give you a few examples: the election of delegates to the Constitutional Convention will be according to the same rules as elections to congress. This implies a whole series of advantages for the traditional parties. So of the total financing granted by the state to all the campaigns, 42 percent is going to the Right and 31 percent to the social democratic opposition. The independent campaigns — representing the majority of the candidates — will have less than 3.5 percent. Also, new parties and independents will get less than one second of advertising time on television. Less than one second!
So the Right campaigned to keep Pinochet’s constitution. They lost the vote, with almost 80 percent voting in favor of a new constitution. Only the wealthiest areas in the country voted against. Yet this same Right will now be guaranteed overrepresentation in the convention. There will be a “two-thirds quorum,” meaning that just a third of candidates will be able to block any measure. In other words, every single thing will need to be negotiated with the Right, who have already announced that they will defend the fundamental pillars of the dictatorship’s legacy.
The convention will guarantee impunity for Piñera, and the state apparatus will continue to function under the government’s control. The youth, the vanguard of the social explosion, will not have the right to vote or be elected. For these reasons, different intellectuals, activists of the rebellion, and sectors of the Left have declared that this is not a free and sovereign constituent assembly, as we had demanded.
That’s why we shouldn’t be deceived by the large number of candidates and proposals offered in the campaign. This is the same illusion the owners of Chile have always offered: I’ll allow you to participate, but I will make sure to control the process.
The convention has 17 seats reserved for Chile’s indigenous peoples, whose demands and struggles were an important aspect of the October rebellion. Is the convention a step forward for them?
Joseffe Cáceres: The flag of the Mapuche people was one of the main emblems of the rebellion. The Chilean state has historically criminalized the struggles of indigenous peoples. This represents the xenophobia of the ruling elite. But when millions of Chileans took to the streets spontaneously, they waved the Mapuche flag — a flag of a people who fought back against the Chilean state for centuries.
I cannot imagine that these 17 seats will be enough to placate this struggle, which has only intensified since the October rebellion. The south of Chile, which is the area with the greatest concentration of indigenous peoples, is currently in a state of extreme tension. After the rebellion, many Mapuche communities intensified their land occupations, confronting large landowners and logging companies that have stolen their lands. In this context, racist murders against Mapuche continue, alongside raids against communities and further militarization of the area. The government is currently debating whether to decree a state of siege, which would mean a new kind of repression.
There is a lot at stake, because the ancestral and territorial demands of the Mapuche people are in direct conflict with the property claims of the big logging companies in the south. Pinochet gave huge subsidies to these companies to exploit the forests at the expense of indigenous communities. Today logging is in the hands of Chile’s biggest corporations.
That is why it is virtually impossible for this convention to resolve the demands of indigenous peoples peacefully, including the return of stolen lands, and end to militarization, the release of political prisoners, and the right to self-determination. For us, the only way to win these demands is to coordinate joint struggles of indigenous communities together with the working class and the millions of people who support the Mapuche cause.
For 30 years, Chile has been administered by two political blocs: the Right, represented by the current president Sebastián Piñera; and the Center Left, whose most well-known figure internationally is the former president Michelle Bachelet. How are these two forces presenting themselves in these elections?
Daniel Vargas: The Right is running for the Constitutional Convention with a single slate, including the racist far-right party of José Antonio Kast. (Kast is trying to become a kind of Chilean Trump, but he is not very popular.) This is Piñera’s coalition, and he is one of the most hated presidents in the history of Chile. His hands are stained with blood. The Right is campaigning for the defense of private property, the free market, and fiscal austerity. In other words, they seek to maintain the legacy of the dictatorship.
The Center Left is made up of the former Concertación coalition. These parties are running as the slate Constituent Unity. Besides Bachlet’s Socialist Party, one of the main pillars of this coalition is the Christian Democracy party, which initially supported the military coup of 1973. It then led the so-called “transition to democracy,” following the plans of U.S. imperialism for the region. Today the party’s chairman says that his main international model is Angela Merkel, and they will campaign to support governability and responsibility.
One of the main slogans of the rebellion was “It’s not about 30 pesos, it’s about 30 years” [i.e., not about a fare hike of 30 pesos, but about 30 years of neoliberalism]. Of those 30 years, the center-left Concertación coalition was governing for more than 20 of them. These governments defended the fundamental economic pillars of the dictatorship, with Chile as a paradise for neoliberalism. But they were also responsible for innovations in this field. For example, they created the private student loan system that today keeps hundreds of thousands of young people in debt for life just for attending college.
What about Chile’s reformist Left, including the Communist Party and the Frente Amplio (Broad Front)?
Daniel Vargas: The Frente Amplio was a signatory to the “Peace Agreement” that allowed Piñera to remain in power, while millions of people were shouting on the streets: “Piñera must resign!” For a couple of years, the Frente Amplio represented the “new Left,” aligned with projects like Podemos in the Spanish State. This did not last long, however, because the party was delegitimized during the rebellion and suffered an important internal crisis. Of the 20 deputies they got elected at the last election, only 12 are aligned with the Frente Amplio today. A number of the parties and organizations have since broken with the front.
The Communist Party took part in the negotiations to sign this agreement, but it ultimately withdrew. Despite publicly criticizing the agreement, the Communist Party did not call for mobilizations. The CP plays a leading role in the main trade union federation, the CUT. Just days before the agreement was signed, the CUT had called a general strike. Yet even though masses of people wanted to continue the struggle and recognized that a trap was being laid, the union bureaucracy led by the CP decided to sit down with the government to negotiate. They never called a strike again.
The Communist Party has criticized the Frente Amplio harshly for the latter’s role in the rebellion. But now they are campaigning on a joint slate. Their programs are not very different. They want the new constitution to incorporate social rights such as health care, education, pensions, etc. They want this to be financed by the redistribution of wealth. But they want such measures to be taken in isolation, relying on the letter of the constitution and the institutions of the regime. And in that way, it will be impossible to resolve structural issues such as precarious working conditions, poverty, and the country’s dependence on multinational corporations and monopolies. The big capitalists will resist fundamental measures, and only the struggle of the working class and the poor masses can confront them. This is one of the lessons learned from the experience of “progressive” governments in Latin America [the so-called “Pink Tide”].
The Trotskyists of the PTR are also running in the elections. What are your main proposals?
Joseffe Cáceres: We have slates in eight districts, and more than 70 candidates in different cities across the country. Our candidates are workers, young people, and women who actively participated in the rebellion. The list includes Dauno Totoro, who was persecuted by the government for saying what thousands of people were saying: we have to get rid of the government through a general strike in order to establish a free and sovereign constituent assembly. Also Suely Arancibia, who was part of the First Line, the group of militant youth who took the lead in defending the mobilizations from police repression. Our candidates were organizers of the Emergency and Protection Committee in Antofagasta, including the teachers Galia Aguilera and Patricia Aguilera, the workers’ leader Lester Calderón, and Daniel here. That committee coordinated unions, neighborhood organizations, human rights groups, healthcare activists, and Front Line fighters. Our candidates include healthcare workers’ leaders from different cities.
We want to put an end to the neoliberal plunder of the last 30 years. These have been decades of looting, not only of natural resources but also of our rights, our working conditions, and even our lives. We are running in these elections to raise the banners of the October rebellion high: the struggle to get rid of this government with a general strike and a free and sovereign constituent assembly. In other words, we want to put an end to the legacy of the dictatorship via mass mobilizations. This is the only way to take fundamental measures, such as the nationalization of natural resources like copper and the strategic sectors of the economy that are in the hands of imperialist and national monopolies. This is the only way to really solve the urgent problems of the people, such as quality education and public health care, and end to the private pension system, and a minimum wage in line with the cost of feeding a family.
There is money for all this. The price of copper is at a historic high. Big capitalists have increased their wealth severalfold during the pandemic. Meanwhile, unemployment, poverty, and precarity increase.
There are many people who are mobilizing for demands like this. Because many people were opposed to the “Peace Agreement” and have fought the bureaucrats’ truce with the government. And many see how the big capitalists continue to make profits at the expense of our lives and health.
How has the election campaign been going?
Joseffe Cáceres: Our campaign is intense. Workers, students, precariously employed young people, activists, and professionals are organizing around the ideas of our campaign. So far, about 500 volunteers have joined the campaign. Most of them are workers in health care, education, and industry. This is in addition to the hundreds of the PTR’s militants across the country, who are organizing the campaign day by day.
Besides handing out hundreds of thousands of leaflets on the streets, we are also organizing open meetings. We did a meeting of healthcare workers where more than 100 people from different hospitals got together. There they voted to support our candidates and to use the elections to campaign to defend the public healthcare system against privatization and to improve working conditions in hospitals.
The media have profiled our candidates, such as an extensive interview CNN Chile did with Ignacio Cortés. He is not only the youngest candidate anywhere in the country for the Constitutional Convention, but he was president of the students’ union in a technical school and now has a precarious job at the Antofagasta Hospital. The press have also profiled our candidates who are LGBTQ+ and teachers.
Some socialists argue that the demand for a constituent assembly was always a trap to divert the movement and that revolutionaries should have argued against it.[[Examples of socialists who oppose the demand for a constituent assembly include the Spartacist League and the International Marxist Tendency of Alan Woods.]] How do you as revolutionary socialists relate to an institution of bourgeois democracy like the Constitutional Convention, which the ruling class hopes will reestablish the legitimacy of its regime?
Daniel Vargas: We were among the thousands of activists across the country who opposed the “Peace Agreement” and systematically denounced the pitfalls of the Constitutional Convention. We do this with the conviction that only the mobilization of the working class and the poor masses can put an end to the legacy of the dictatorship. We saw the enormous power of the class struggle, which proved to the whole world that neoliberalism in Chile never benefited us — it only helped a handful of billionaires.
But at the same time, there are millions of people who are putting their hope in this process. We must accompany this experience so that a revolutionary program can become a material force, not just words. To accomplish this, we use all the tools that can amplify our voice, including elections.
We managed to register as a political party in Chile’s principal cities. We are the only group on the revolutionary socialist Left that has managed to win a party status like this. We put this tool at the disposal of everyone who wants to fight for a revolutionary, working-class program and denounce all the traps that are designed to stop our mobilizations.
Interview and translation: Nathaniel Flakin