Chile: The illusions of constitutional politics

Photograph: Felipe Figueroa/SOPA Images/REX/Shutterstock

Over two days (May 15 and 16), chileans were called upon to vote for representatives for a “Constitutional Convention”. The results were a victory for “the Left”, announcing thereby the end of the Pinochet era constitution of 1980, the neoliberal touchstone for the country’s governments ever since.

For some, it was the triumph of the country’s collective insurrection begun in October of 2019 and only humbled by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Allende is smiling”, we could then read, perhaps confirming the watch words that “Chile will be the tomb of neoliberalism”, as it has hitherto been its laboratory. (Carta Maior 19/05/2021)

To cite but one sympathetic newspaper report, among so many others …

Chile’s established political elite has been roundly rejected at the polls six months ahead of a pivotal presidential election, as the country turned to a progressive new generation to write the next chapter in its history.

Resounding victories for leftist and independent candidates saw right-wing politicians crash to dismal electoral defeats alongside those with links to Chile’s transition to democracy.

The Guardian (18/05/2021)

Or, on a more radical note …

Elections on May 15 and 16 for local and regional offices and for members of the Constitutional Convention have completely changed the national political landscape in Chile. The Right, gathered around president Sebastián Piñera, was dealt a major blow, and the ruling centrist coalition, Concertación, collapsed spectacularly. The Left and social movements swept the contest, winning a series of vital political offices and, perhaps most importantly, majority representation in the assembly responsible for drafting Chile’s new constitution.

The two-day mega election — deciding mayorships, municipal councils, regional governorships, and the composition of the Convention — is a milestone, the impact of which will resonate for decades to come. By winning substantial representation, the Left made good on the promise of radical change announced by the popular revolt that broke out on October 18, 2019. Just as importantly, a clear signal was sent that Chile’s reigning transitional regime — brokered at the end of the dictatorship between the center-left, the Right, and the military — is on life support.

Chile has taken a decisive step toward ending the neoliberal and antidemocratic constitution of 1980. Its next steps must be toward a sweeping structural transformation of society led by the people and the working class. What happens over the next two years as the Constitutional Convention advances will determine the political contours of the future for years and decades to come.

Jacobin (22/05/2021)

If notes of caution are made – pointing to the difficulties and obstacles that still lie ahead in “radically” changing the legal foundations of the society -, the overall sentiment seems to be celebratory. And in some way, understandably so. History, events, processes, can only be read linearly and homogeneously through blinding ideological filters. But our scepticism in regard to the announced victory is read from the ground up, from the fact that so few participated in the vote, from what the “October” insurrection generated – something that can in no way be fitted into a constitution -, and from the fact that constitutions are relevant – if at all -, if they remain beholden or secondary to collective creativity.

We share the thoughts of Raúl Zibechi on the subject …

Chile: the constitutional convention may be the tomb of the revolt

La Jornada (21/05/2021)

The Pinochet right-wing was defeated, as it did not manage to get a third of the seats of the constitutional convention necessary to block changes. This is a defeat that began to take shape around 2000, with the stubborn resistance of the Mapuche people and then the struggles of the high school students. As of October 2019, the Chilean people decided to bury Pinochet’s inheritance with a massive revolt.

The political parties of the old ruling Pact [Concertación] that governed Chile since the end of the dictatorship, also fared badly, obtaining only 25 seats under the slogan Unidad Constituyente, compared to 37 of the right-wing Vamos por Chile. The left got 28 seats in a very good performance. The native peoples were assigned 17 seats, independents got no less than 48 seats and parity was reached between men and women.

We know who lost, but it is not easy to know who won. In the first place, abstention was high, as only 42.5 percent of registered voters cast a ballot, a figure that falls to 21 percent among the Mapuches. It can be argued that the pandemic did not favor the vote, but the truth is that desertion from the polls has been growing in the last decade and a half.

The second issue is that although the Pinochet right does not have veto power, the sum of the latter and the former Concertación does, basically made up of Socialists and Christian Democrats who have supported the extractive neoliberal model. Together they exceed a third of the votes, enough to prevent changes.

Third, the revolt in Chile was not to get a new Constitution, but to put an end to the neoliberal model. Since “political” negotiations opened up that possibility, arguing that with the new Constitution the model will fall, the mobilisation began to unravel.

Although among the 155 members of the constitutional convention there is a strong presence of the left and of social movements, which contributed a considerable part of the independent constituents, the guarantee of change is not in the representatives, but in organisations and collective mobilisations.

The fourth question is to look next door. In Latin America there were three new constitutions in a few years: in Colombia, in 1991, in Ecuador, in 2008, and in Bolivia, in 2009. Some contain very interesting articles: nature as a subject of rights, in the Ecuadorian, and the re-founding of the State, in the Bolivian.

In none of the cases though were these aspirations fulfilled, despite the fact that in Bolivia and Ecuador the right-wing was defeated in the streets and five presidents fell as a result of major insurrections.

However, extractive neoliberalism continued to deprive the peoples of common goods, and the specific situation of native peoples and popular sectors only worsened; not because of the constitutions, but because of something deeper: the demobilisation of societies and peoples.

To think that neoliberalism, which is the form that capitalism assumes in this period, can be defeated by means of new magna cartas and with laws that declare rights for the most diverse oppressions, is an illusion that leads to dead ends. It is not a question of ideologies, but of the reading of the recent past and the situation we are going through throughout the world.

In Chile we are not facing a legitimate constituent assembly, but rather “a political game”, as Gabriel Salazar maintains. This game was born from the leaders of the Frente Amplio, the proclaimed “new left”, who made a pact with the right when there were millions in the streets and they will do it again in a venue where there is room for discursive juggling, with total impunity.

The only guarantee that the people have, so that they at least respect us, is organisation and mobilisation. In Chile, there were huge demonstrations for months and more than 200 territorial assemblies were created. The left-wing constituents are now saying that it is not necessary to return to the streets and most of the assemblies were weakened by wagering on the polls, even as they return to their territories.

How will the best articles of the new Constitution become reality -, and some articles will undoubtedly be good? The words of Comandanta Amada resound at the opening of the Second International Meeting of Mujeres que Luchan [Women Who Fight]: “They say that now there are more laws that protect women. But they keep killing us ”.

No law will prevent the armed men (military police and the army), the hard core of patriarchy, from continuing to strike, to lacerate and to murder. The Mapuche Fernando Pairicán recognized that 80 percent of the Mapuches who did not vote did so, in part, due to the force of the autonomist movement that called for abstention.

The hope for a new Chile continues to lie with the Mapuche resistance and in the networks of life that survive in a few territorial assemblies.

Parallel reflections (with english subtitles) …

Since posting this piece, the CrimethInc. collective has published an excellent article on chilean events, under the title of Chile: The Hot Potato Changes Hands – But What Does Electoral Victory for the Left Mean for Autonomous Movements? (28/05/2021)

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4 Responses to Chile: The illusions of constitutional politics

  1. SamFanto says:

    “Allende is smiling” – maybe, but then he dug his own grave. Remember – in January 1971, Allende promoted Pinochet to division general and was named General Commander of the Santiago Army Garrison. On 8 June 1971, following the assassination of Edmundo Perez Zujovic by left-wing radicals, Allende appointed Pinochet a supreme authority of Santiago province, imposing military curfew in the process, which was later lifted. However, on 2 December 1971, following a series of peaceful protests against the economic policies of Allende, the curfew was re-installed, all protests prohibited, with Pinochet leading the crackdown on anti-Allende protests. At the beginning of 1972, he was appointed General Chief of Staff of the Army. With rising domestic strife in Chile, after General Prats resigned his position, Allende appointed Pinochet as commander-in-chief of the Army on 23 August 1973.
    Check out these 2 texts:
    “chile: the Allende years (1970 – 1973)” –
    “Strange Defeat” –,%201973%20-%20Pointblank!.pdf

    Also worth looking at is Allende’s initiative of this : – which used what was then then the cutting edge of cybernetics and telecommunications technology to create a completely centralized, all-seeing, up-to-the-minute-informed, decision-dispensing system to control the workers’ in state run industries, and thereby, supposedly to manage the economy and society.

  2. Julius Gavroche says:

    Thanks very much for this. Quoting the passage that “Allende is smiling” was in no way to praise Allende (nor to condemn him), but to show how the vote for the “Constitutional Convention” and the “Left’s” presumed victory can be so easily declared.

    In solidarity

  3. SamFanto says:

    Sorry – didn’t mean to imply you were praising Allende, which never crossed my mind. I just used that as a way of then saying something about him in order to add to the critique of the Left.

  4. Julius Gavroche says:

    No apologies needed … we just wanted to avoid confusion. And thanks very much again for your message, because the almost martyr status of Allende often leads to blindness or forgetfulness.

    In solidarity

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