Americans Can Learn About How to Make Social Change From Chile

By Marc Cooper (November 21, 2019)

As most of you know, as a young man I worked for President Salvador Allende as a translator so I could literally write a book on this month’s dramatic developments ( I already wrote one on Chile ). But I’ll keep this relatively short. In any case, this Al Jazeera piece is an excellent primer for beginners.

“Chile Has Awakened” is one of the slogans resounding in the streets this past month. For 40 plus years Chileans have been inundated with government propaganda, from Pinochet and then by his civilian successors, that Chile was special, that it was an oasis, that it was a miracle, that it was a global model, and so on and so on. Chileans have tired of the BS as their average salary is stuck at around $100 a week while the prices rival those of the U.S. The outcome: the most unequal economy among developed countries!

In 1980, dictator Pinochet imposed an abortion of a “constitution” that restricts many civil rights (like collective bargaining) and other anti-democratic measures. After Pinochet was forced from power a succession of “center-left” administrations tinkered with the constitution and, worse, accepted their roles as managers of an economic system forced on Chileans at the point of bayonets covered in blood.

The current administration led by right wing billionaire Sebastian Piñera (his second time in power), as expected, conducted no reforms. Ironic it is that the military-written constitution just died as it should have two decades ago during the first post-Pinochet civilian government — one that lacked the cojones to make the changes. I suspect that Piñera will also be forced to reform some of the more odious aspects of the economic model, probably in the area of education, pensions and labor law — all of them currently horrific for the average person.

Why will these changes be made under a right wing regime? Simple. Millions of Chileans escalated protests over metro fares a month ago into something resembling a wholesale uprising topped off by a general strike earlier this week. It’s a civic rebellion that garnered support from a whopping 80 percent of the population.

The ballon had finally burst and on Thursday night, really at 3 am Friday morning, a cross-ideological agreement was reached among the political class to capitulate to protest demands and to green light a two-step constitutional plebiscite and eventual re-write.

That’s a pretty stunning victory and, frankly, the major political parties of the opposition– including an emasculated Socialist Party (of which I was a member)– can claim no credit for this turn of events. The street protests were spontaneous and leaderless but somehow could bring a million people into the streets of Santiago.

There are lessons here for Americans who whine a lot but to whom it has never occurred that street protest and, yes, peaceful disruption and/or civil disobedience are indeed legitimate tools of any citizenry.

If you have followed the Chile story, you also know that not all the protests were peaceful. The initial repression was fierce. Tanks and troops in the streets, and one of Latin America’s most brutal police forces, the Carabiñeros were fully unleashed. Rubber bullets and even live ammo were fired point blank through the tear gas barrages and the cops stooped to targeting the eyes (!) of dozens of protesters. Two dozen people were killed. Hundreds injured. About 7,000 arrested.

The Chileans, especially the youth, fought back. They threw rocks at the cops, built barricades, lit bonfires, and smashed windows. Others took to looting. How amusing it has been to watch more comfortable and conservative Chileans express horror at these outbursts of street violence and called upon the govt to smash the “delinquents.” These are in great part the same sectors who sat silently as Pinochet murdered and tortured thousands and saddled Chile with two generations
of economic aggravation. No violence there, you see.

My point: with enough hard work, organizing and risk taking in the street you can stare down whomever is in power. Chileans know what real dictatorship feels like and they lost their fear a long time ago. When one “democratic” admin after another punted on deep reform needed and so many dreams were deferred, they awoke and vigorously took their destiny into their own hands. And they have won an important political and social victory. They did it in spite of a supposedly democratic political class, not with it.

Americans ought to try the same one day. They might be surprised by what they could accomplish.