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What Has Just Happened in Chile?

Note from LeftEast editors: This text, composed cooperatively by four Chilean academics, was read during the opening ceremony of the Sixth International Days of Latin American Problems (VI Jornadas Internacionales de Problemas Latinoamericanos 2019), a biannual conference that in 2019 set out to examine contemporary social, political, cultural and democratic movements in the light of the neoliberal restoration and the alleged end of the ‘progressive cycle in Latin America. The conference took place on the 27-29 November 2019, in the History and Social Science Department of the Faculty of Humanities and Education at the University of Valparaíso, Chile. It so happened that while it was being organised, a new wave of protests erupted around the region, with Chile seeing its most massive protests since the end of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The protests soon faced excessive and unsolicited violence from the police and military forces in the country, which still operates under the Constitution from the time of the dictatorship. Written by Chilean historians Pablo Aravena, Germán Albuquerque, Claudia Rojas and Osvaldo Fernández this text aimed to present the context of the conference and to shed light on the historical and political-economic context of the events that were developing with rapid speed while the conference panels and debates were taking place. The text was translated from the Spanish for LeftEast by Eva Astorga Tapia.

The coup of 11 September 1973 was not an ordinary uprising. It did not aim simply to reconfigure and widen the cluster of political alliances within the opposition to Allende’s government, forcing his resignation. Nor did it appear with the sole and immediate aim of restoring the power and privileges that the Chilean ruling class had lost during the Popular Unity administration. The coup of September 1973 was a full military intervention, planned and embodied by the Armed Forces in cooperation with the Law Enforcement Agencies, aiming at reconfiguring Chilean society upon new social, political and economic conceptions. It was a new foundation.                                                                   

In accordance with this aim, the dictatorship was politically, ideologically, socially and militarily shaped by a broad alliance of anti-communist forces, guided by a full-fledged, repressive and overarching rationale, acting under the principles of the National Security Doctrine and counterinsurgency strategy. Within this framework there took place the broadest and more resounding repressive offensive against the main political icons of the Chilean left, as well as all the different manifestations of the Chilean popular movement.

The Chilean State that came to life as a consequence of the Coup assumed political, military and operational control of the repressive process. To that effect, a particular type of repression was systematically implemented. It did not fit into the traditional mechanisms and repressive means by which the state, the ruling classes and security forces, had tackled the Chilean left and the popular movement during different stages of the country’s history.

This was the context for the detention and disappearance of many people, the executions of detainees, the massive exile of thousands of Chileans, the arrest of political prisoners and the systematic torture of detainees, most of them members of left-wing parties embedded in the organised working class and the trade union, farmers and student movements. The purpose of such measures was to cut the strong bonds historically developed between the organic expressions of the popular movement and left-wing political icons, thus ensuring the isolation of political organisations and their ability to rebuild according to the dynamics of the popular movement. State terrorism was the preferred way to stop any political and social restructuring or resistance movement. The aim of this terror was to dismantle and annihilate the party structures, thus reducing any chance of effective political restructuring. Once those goals were achieved, the socio-political conditions for a capitalist re-foundation and the construction of a new society were guaranteed. In our opinion, this was the principle aim of the repression established during the first years of the dictatorship.

Similarly, we claim that the Armed Forces that prompted the coup and shaped the dictatorship were not alone in this foundational effort. They collaborated with the Supreme Court of Justice, the conservative sphere of Chilean society regarding the landed oligarchy, the bulk of the financial and commercial bourgeoisie and the industrial sectors.

Likewise, major sectors of the middle social layers took part in the coup (even though they later joined the Opposition, mostly during the economic crisis at the beginning of the eighties and in the context of popular movements since 1983): particularly, the sectors linked to institutions such as the College of Law, Medicine, Engineering and Teaching, as well as hauliers and merchants. From a political point of view, the unrestricted support of the entire Chilean right and a major portion of Christian Democracy, then led by ex-president Eduardo Fred Montalva and Patricio Aylwin Azocar, stands out.

With this fabric of forces and supports, the dictatorship conducted the re-foundation of Chile’s society and economy in a neoliberal matrix. The new economy reinforced its dependent disposition as a raw materials exporter, encouraging foreign investments in forestry, fishery and agro-industry (along with copper). The regime privatised state enterprises and favoured the importation of manufactured goods, suffocating and ending most of the national industry.

The economic changes that had the greatest impact on the population can be found in the service sector. Social welfare was transferred to private bodies (Pension Fund Administrators, PFA’s). The same happened to the health care and educational systems. The immediate result of such processes was the severance of thousands of workers and the deproletarisation of a major portion of urban workers.

But undoubtedly, what consolidated the dictatorship and set the course for the capitalist re-foundation in Chile was the Political Constitution of 1980. Fundamentally and as a legacy, this legislation oriented Chilean society around the market, annihilating all ties of solidarity tie and replacing them with competition between individuals. It established the criteria and the formal framework within which the political system and Chilean society have developed to this day.

Recent research evinces the unrestricted continuity and refinement of the neoliberal model by the so-called democratic governments that have held power since the formal end of the Pinochet regime. Privatising key industries, roads, ports, natural resources, water and lithium, among others, have been their main strategies. Similarly, they reinforced the primary exporting sector and made major changes, deepening the economic legacy of the dictatorship by establishing social expenditure cuts and subsidies for private companies, as well as delivering millions of dollars directly to the private health care (through Auge Plan) and higher education (through State Guarantor Loan) systems each year to date, after the failure of the demands for free education. In response to the student movement of 2011 (a relevant precedent of social unrest that explains the current outburst), private institutions received the greatest benefit: a voucher that private universities have seized. The state transfers huge amounts of money to them so that they provide their services to the student-customer.

The most important political and cultural operations to foster the ideology of consumerism at all cost were established democratically. The citizen gave way to the consumer, destroying the previous bases and conceptions of social rights. The whole political engineering process was developed, as it happened during the dictatorship, by simultaneously repressing and isolating the leading players in social demands, who questioned the loss of social rights and the commercialisation of life, and through state terrorism, as in the repression against Mapuche communities, carried out through crude and bloody hoaxes. But such cultural operations permeated every section of society, including the institutions: during the past few years we have witnessed the unveiling of scandalous corruption cases involving the armed forces, police officers, the judiciary, monopolistic collusions of business groups, etc. Simultaneously, the institution that had played ultimate mediator, the Catholic Church, is experiencing a loss of authority that appears irreversible.

In general, is in this context that the “social outburst” came to life (the Chilean October). It appeared as an underground phenomenon: everyone knew it was going to happen but no one could predict when or how intense would it be. Those angered by decades of neoliberal rule had stored up huge reserves of energy, which ultimately yielded a dose of unrest unbearable to the rulers–proportionate to the repression of a large portion of the Chilean population. We are referring to structural or objective violence, a kind of undetectable violence that has been normalised, being crucial for the system to work: in summary, the material and symbolic precariousness of a majority who has been trampled by neoliberalism, as a prerequisite for the obscene enrichment of some minorities, the usurpation of national wealth and the destruction of the environment.

We can list the reasons for the outburst, but it is more difficult to find out why it happened now and not before (maybe the trigger is hidden among the things we consider to be anecdotal or irrelevant for our analysis). We also need to take into account the extent of the violence on the streets, that has appeared in an unparalleled way and can only been measured, perhaps, by the extent of the structural violence in our society. It might seem strange, but only this violence on the streets has made us realise the intrinsic violence of our society. We are sometimes afraid of ourselves and, as a result of it, we can only expect an almost implausible police brutality.

The institutional response has been a Peace Pact and the promise of a new constitution made by the totally discredited parliament and political parties. The Pact appeared after the Chilean president declared to be at war, after the state of emergency, the curfew, after 24 dead bodies were found, after almost two thousand demonstrators were mutilated (most of them students who have been blinded). The president was urged to seal the pact at least by the high command of the Navy, as he recently confessed during a programme hosted by Senator Jun Ignacio Latorre, who claims high-ranking officers called him to say “time is running out”. Therefore, such pact is illegitimate due to its origin, to say the least, and we still cannot be sure how convenient it was. But, at the very least, it implies a huge risk for those who were left out, for those to keep protesting because this new pact left them out as in a new State of Nature that, predictably, the government wants to tyrannise promptly. After the pact, people on the streets are at greater risk than before. But they cannot be sacrificed nor sacrifice themselves (we would like to believe that this complaint will prevent that somehow).

But while we try to create some kind of genealogy of the current crisis we cannot ignore what undoubtedly was a precedent or a turning point: the new feminist movement, which appeared in Chile in 2018 as is known as “Feminist May”. It is a global movement whose scale no one could foresee.

The appearance of this movement is a rebound of the feminist historicity during the twentieth century, that is to say, the return of generations of women and feminists, utopia and the willing to build a democratic society, whose cornerstone should be the inclusion of women in the social, political, economic and cultural spheres. Their historicity was silenced, manipulated and made invisible. It is not a coincidence that the feminist movement of 2018 was not aware, for example, of the Movement for the Emancipation of Chilean Women (MEMCH) during the thirties and forties. The studies on the extent of the influence that women-led movements and the feminist movement in particular have had in Chilean history, as well as the strategies implemented to achieve a visionary and emancipatory programme are insufficient, probably due to the prevalence of a sort of amnesia about the role of the feminist struggle in the political history of Chile.

Its main demands were developed by female university students and they later spread to practically the whole population. According to the statistics at that time, 71% of the citizenry supported them. More than 25 universities, both public and private, were on strike between April and June 2018. The first feminist demands dealt with “abuse” in general, embodied in interpersonal relations. Specifically, their concerns were sexual abuse; gender-based violence; the need for sex education and the responsible exercise of sexuality; social relationships focused on gender issues; gender perspective on applicant and graduate’s profiles and respect for sexual diversity; universal hygienic services; usage of inclusive language and acceptance of transgender and non-binary people’s names; feminist bibliography in every subject; the establishment of gender offices at the universities; a teaching staff consisting of at least 20% of women in each department; the organisation of educational days focused on gender issues and human rights; among others.

It was an unparalleled uprising; it was described by some as the first great feminist revolution in the country. Today female activism of 2018 keeps going and proliferates. For example, in March 2019, many organisations successfully called for the Feminist Strike. What started as specific gender demands transformed into demands related to salary inequitiesn the need for non-sexist sex education and the importance of questioning the patriarchal and neoliberal systems, evincing that establishing gender policies is not enough to integrate women into society and into the current order of things, but it requires a profound transformation as it is demanded by the social movement. In many assemblies, demonstrations and public acts the motto of “change life” and “dignity must be a habit” have been heard.

The analysis of Silvia Federici – proclaimed Doctor Honoris Causa of this University last year- on the current state of women around the world, emphasises the way in which globalisation has directly affected their rights and the material condition of social reproduction. These ground-breaking feminist movements are fighting for sustaining their communities, demanding from the State a bigger investment to reproduce the work force, as well as safekeeping the natural resources in opposition to the capitalist overexploitation. Yesterday and today’s feminists have structured the rebelliousness that we have inherited along with its numerous conquests and the features of its leadership, all of which is valued nowadays, while new problems and struggles arise. Thus, in the words of Sofía Brito, leader of “Feminist May”: “without Feminism politics will no longer exist, only repetitions, reiterations with an innovative packaging, deconstructed, but at the end, they are just more of the same”.

Certainly, it is not a coincidence that the movements of 2011, 2018 and 2019 have started in universities, especially in the public ones, where the contradictions between institutional and state regulations and the requirements of neoliberalism are much more dramatically experienced.

Until the arrival of the military dictatorship, Chilean universities were mostly state, public and free institutions, because, according to the principles of “the State as educator”, education was a duty of the State and a right of the citizens. The brutal implementation of the neoliberal principles established during the dictatorship set the subsidiarity of the State as the main regulator of the civil service as a whole. Thus, as we have explained, forecasting, health and education started to be controlled by the market. Then, the PFA’s, the Isapres and for-profit private universities appeared in the fields of forecasting, health and higher education, respectively.

In the field of higher education, such policy started with the direct intervention of armed forces in the universities. The dictatorship appointed rectors and started to control all of the different Chilean universities. Most of the teaching staff was expelled, repressed, persecuted and forced to go into exile. Later, they began to dismantle and fragment the University of Chile, which became a local institution restricted to the metropolitan area. In a third stage, they tried to remove from the university programme all the subjects related to humanities, as philosophy, history, sociology, etc. In a fourth stage, they rapidly reduced the fiscal contribution that in the last years of the dictatorship was cut down by 50%, leaving a vacuum in the budget of the universities, which had to be filled by the families of the students. This process culminated with the Concentración governments, who eliminated the remaining 50%, and what once was the State Public Chilean University stopped being a free university to become a for-profit institution as well.

That was the origin of most of the problems of our universities. The students became indebted for life, victims of financial repression for being late on their payments, expelled by universities because they were not able to pay; monetary contributions were decided based on what was considered more profitable, adjunct professors (the so-called taxi professors: external professionals) appeared; professionals who were involved in teaching and researching became merely trainers. On the other hand, research was not part of the academic unit through provision funds anymore, it got centralised at national level, outside the university sphere and regulated by annual tenders where the selection criteria were not in the best interest of the academic units nor the universities, most of the time. Finally, their outreach to the community was based on marketing.

On the other hand, the relationship between lecturer and student transformed into something ruled by money, where the student became a customer and the education a consumer product: if you want it you have to pay for it, and the price is high. Money invaded completely the educational field and started to control it. Chilean universities became merely companies selling their products to their undergraduate and graduate clients-students. Diplomas and specialisation courses are designed based on the possible profit. Continuing education and training; outreach activities to those who have not had access to higher education; improvement programmes; everything is ruled by profits and gains. The mark of neoliberalism will not be easily erased from Chilean higher education, because quality has been replaced by quantity. If a pedagogical practice ruled by quality criteria implies only a few students per teacher, the law of markets established quantitative economic criteria, which implies many students per teacher, highlighting the most negative effects of such practice, that is to say, that lectures are mostly expository. As a consequence, we cannot possibly speak about quality in Chilean education while the pedagogical practices are ruled by quantitative criteria. Students must listen, not research.

But the law of the markets is not the only trademark of Chilean universities, they also suffer from a lack of democracy as a mark left by the military dictatorship. Out of the three elements that university life is made of, only the lecturers, with great difficulty, have been able to participate in university management, since students and executives have been left out and unable to participate by law.  Another cause of this lack of university democracy is related to the way university problems are solved. The democratic criteria that both the reformation of 1968 and the Allende administration had established in universities, which pursued a balance between individual decisions and collegial bodies, were abolished to institute a complete top-down management style.

This transformation of higher education attracted national and foreign investors to the profitable business of universities. The institutions started to be traded, listed, sold and bought. Businessmen, university consortia, renowned national politicians started to profit from higher education. It was not quality what mattered but the profitability of the business.

The student movement of 2011 (who took over from the “penguin rebellion”) became the first onslaught against profit.  Although it was not able to eradicate it, it triggered a certain mindset shift, a change in the common sense criteria typical of that time. That is to say, the idea that anyone who wants to be educated must pay for it. That popular idea that both the dictatorship and the Concentración administrations had embedded in Chilean society started to disappear from the Chilean common sense. Despite what this movement had achieved the profit still dominates. The next administrations from 2011 until now have not been able to eradicate it or they have even accentuated and transformed it, and they keep acting as if the Chilean higher education was a consumer product and not a responsibility of the State.

The perception of Chile as an exception –an oasis, according to the unfortunate metaphor used by President Sebastián Piñera- on the Latin American landscape has been with us for centuries. National historiography has questioned such statement by showing that our history has much more violence that we would be willing to acknowledge.  Nevertheless, on a comparative basis, such rarity has its foundation on coups, civil wars, massacres, institutional crisis, etc. Chile stands out among countries where such things have happened. Therefore, we should consider if October’s social outburst is a new sign of that rarity, or if it is in tune with what is happening along the continent.

The outburst that started last October in Chile, the tame country that enjoyed the benefits of an apparent and wide economic prosperity, has defied neoliberalism just where it seemed to be most deeply entrenched. The fact that it happened in Chile shows the intensity of a backlash that with nuances has appeared at continental-and even global- level. However, such backlash is a response to a neoliberal offensive that was quietly being launched but, unfortunately, did not go unnoticed.

A historical perspective suggests that Latin American countries experience critical junctures in a more or less simultaneous way. For example, we can consider the birth of these nations, whose independence was achieved, in most of the cases, after two decades. In the twentieth century, the economic crisis of 1929 triggered the emergence of populism and the decline of the oligarchical regime. Later, between the fifties and sixties, and in a period of five years, long-lasting tyrannies fell down in Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba and Dominican Republic.  Then we witnessed the arrival of left and right wing military dictatorships, the transactions in the eighties, etc. Therefore, it would not be strange if we were approaching one of those hinges in history, at the beginning of a new epoch.

If we take into account twentieth century history, we can also observe cycles that appeared to be leading our countries in a specific direction. During the first decade emerged what is known as Pink Tide, the hegemony of left-wing or centre-left governments in a considerable group of nations (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Venezuela, Uruguay, Ecuador, Bolivia, Cuba, etc.). Afterwards, it came a conservative tide, observable during the second decade, where right-wing or centre-right governments dominated many nations; meanwhile, the Bolivarian Republics formed an axis. Recently the conservative restoration has gained new strength that, with Bolsonaro in Brazil and the recent coup in Bolivia, foreshadows a shift to a reinvigorated far-right, in addition to the religious fundamentalism.

We have thus arrived to the current crisis, fraught with uncertainties, were the main feature is the repudiation of neoliberalism, both the already established one (Chile, Colombia) and the one who seeks (or sought) to appear revitalised (Ecuador, Argentina, Haiti, Paraguay). It is, in any case, a heterogeneous and diffuse manifestation that, although it emerges in response to specific economic measures, conceals whether it is defying the entire system or promoting an alternative model.

In terms of traditional politics, there is a relative balance. On the left side, apart from the stoic Cuban stability, Nicaragua and Venezuela seem to have left their darkest days behind, although they are still far from safety. Centre-left players support with enthusiasm López Obrador in México, the president-elect Alberto Fernández in Argentina and the recently released Lula in Brazil; but they regret the victory of Lacalle Pou in Uruguay, that brings the long-lasting reign of Frente Amplio to an end.  On the right side, despite the fact that some rulers face protests and riots, expectations are high regarding what Bolsonaro, Áñez and Vizcarra can do in Brazil, Bolivia and Peru, respectively (the government of Lenín Moreno in Ecuador is still an unclear case).

Aside from national peculiarities, Latin America faces many common problems, some long-standing and others of relatively recent common origin. Within the first group we can mention corruption, aggravated by the fact that heads of state have been directly involved during the past few years; militarism or the power that the armed forces still have; the interference of the United States, fuelled by Donald Trump and blatantly conveyed by the OAS; the exclusion of indigenous communities. Among the second class, we count paramilitary groups, including drug trafficking; tidal migration triggered by poverty; the centralisation of mass media at the service of hegemonic powers. Similarly, the continent is threatened by climate change, religious extremism, international economic agreements and globalisation. We should also point out the new forms of military (and foreign) intervention: coups are subtler nowadays so they can go unnoticed…

To return to Chile: October’s outburst partially matches the phenomena that have emerged in other regions of Latin America, especially as regards capitalism and its adjustments. But we infer that it responds to a long accumulation of inequality, abuse and exclusion that synchronised with the slow reconstruction of the social fabric that Pinochet’s dictatorship had destroyed.

Pablo Aravena and Germán Albuquerque teach in the History and Social Science Department at the University of Valparaíso:,

Osvaldo Fernández teaches in the Philosophy Department at the University of Valparaíso:

Claudia Rojas teaches in the Social Work Department of the Metropolitan Technological University: