Chile after the plebiscite

Invincible neoliberalism

The social movements and leftist government have suffered a crushing defeat in the face of an anti-political attitude rejecting their direction and capitalising on fears and anxieties.

By Katja Maurer

Two days after the lost plebiscite for a new constitution in Chile, several hundred grammar school students demonstrated in Santiago de Chile. They jumped over the platform barriers of the underground stations and gathered along the Alameda, the big avenue in the heart of Santiago. These grammar school students had triggered the largest wave of protests in Chile's history back in the autumn of 2019 with just such a campaign. Estallido Social, the social explosion, remains the event in recent decades that still reverberates through the land. While playing volleyball and throwing stones, the grammar school students underscored that, with or without a new constitution, there are good reasons to continue working for profound change in Chile. No government, they appeared to be saying, can channel the frustration of the middle class and the anger of the lower class into more tranquil channels.

The anarchist Internet magazine "Lobo Suelto" (The Unleashed Wolf) offered the following reading of events in the wake of the crushing defeat in the plebiscite over a new constitution: "This destitutional movement continues to gather force in the streets and at the polls. The 'rechazo' (rejection) has reached a level of dissent that cannot be understood simply as a rejection of a draft constitution in a sovereign, equal and rights-based country." It is a force that cannot be located anywhere on the political spectrum between "left and right", but rather somewhere between "up and down".

The grammar school students, whose social backgrounds bridge the gap between traditional left-wing milieus and anarchic, upwardly mobile strata mired in poverty, are among those forces who opposed the constitutional compromise negotiated in November 2019 from the very outset. At the time, current president Gabriel Boric had signed the agreement at night, saving the Piñera government from being overthrown, as the protest movement had become so strong that the right-wing government was on the brink of being toppled.

This compromise, negotiated without consulting the forces on the street, appeared to be retroactively legitimised by the fact that the Corona pandemic, which resulted in a lengthy curfew beginning in March 2020, would certainly have ended the social revolt in the streets. Moreover, the social movements and leftist parties achieved overwhelming victories in all the votes leading up to the Constitutional Convention. This contributed to what now in retrospect appears to have been an erroneous perception that they were actually speaking for a large majority of the Chilean population. Confidence in compulsory voting was very high among the members of the Constitutional Convention we spoke to in March of this year. Now, in the wake of the overwhelming defeat, in which only just under 40 per cent voted for the new draft constitution and 60 per cent went to the polls against it, it has become clear that the question of political representation has not been settled at all. And that even the major demonstrations, most recently at which half a million people turned out on 1 September, or the one million women who demonstrated on 8 March 2020, may have been impressive in terms of their size, but were only really pushing their own parochial agenda.

Very revealing details on the voting emerge

The left and left-liberal parties as well as the social movements face a challenge after this defeat that can scarcely be summed up in words. Understandably, the first reactions in the wake of the rejection were to "carry on". Before the vote, the Boric government had already planned to reshuffle the cabinet in line with the result. For the next four years, Chile will be led by a government that, with at least six new ministers, resembles the old centre-left "Concertación" coalition under Presidents Lagos and Bachelet more than it does a departure into a different, less neoliberal era. Finance Minister Mario Marcel, former head of the Chilean Central Bank, will have a much greater say in this new government. He will block anything that could negatively affect business, which is largely based on extractivism. This marks the end of a cycle in Chile that, beginning in 2006 with the student uprising of the penguins ranging all the way to the student, environmental and women's movements, actually appeared to be mobilising a broad majority for a departure from the neoliberal system.

Details on the vote show how serious the defeat is. In contrast to the 55.6 per cent who turned out for the last presidential election, 85 per cent of eligible voters took part in the vote. Voting was compulsory, and failing to vote is subject to heavy fines. Only in eight municipalities out of over 346 did the "Apruebo" win, and even there it was by a very narrow margin in each case. Among women under 34, the "no" vote won with 58 per cent; among all other female age cohorts, the landslide was even more pronounced. They not only rejected the first constitution based on parity, but above all their right to reproductive self-determination.

The same applies to the indigenous peoples of Chile, who would at least have received a plurinational state and collective rights as well as their own civil justice system through the now rejected draft constitution. But in places like Tirua in the province of Biobio, with a population of 70 per cent Mapuche, 77 percent voted "no". Even in the small town of Petorca, whose inhabitants have had to stand by and witness how the local water supply is being channelled to avocado plantations while the inhabitants of the city and small farmers no longer even have running water, the majority voted against the new constitution. Here as well, the new constitution would have provided for the nationalisation and redistribution of the water supply, which had been privatised beginning at the source, in order to guarantee all citizens a basic supply of water.

Even prison inmates rejected the "Apruebo", although their legal status would have been improved in every respect. Initial election analyses show that the poorer the population, the clearer the rejection of the constitution, if one excludes the richest strata once again. At the final rally, in the face of 500,000 demonstrators, the crowd once again sang in triumph: "El pueblo unida jamás será vencido. (The people united will never be defeated.) This notion of the "people" must now be carried to its grave. In absolute numbers, the "apruebo" received 200,000 votes more than were cast in the second round of the presidential election. If there had been no compulsory voting, the "Apruebo" would probably have won.

Living in the here and now

So what happened? A glance at the municipality of Los Molles, 300 kilometres north of Santiago, can explain this in exemplary fashion. The municipality has 3,000 inhabitants in the off-season and ten times that number in the summer. The former fishing village now lives from tourism and marijuana cultivation. In 2013, during the first presidency of Sebastian Pinera, fishing rights were privatised to protect the interests of seven privileged families in Chile. Since then, fishermen in the village can merely go out one mile and fish only for their own tables at home. Since then, the former fishermen have diversified their business. They lease their beach lots to small kiosks. They collect rent for parking spaces located in a protected wetland area to tourists. The environmentalists have the majority of the village against them, who can now survive on tourism and want even better lives through it.

While the question of environmental protection is still being wrestled with and perhaps a process of consciousness-raising is taking place, illegal drug trafficking is meanwhile destroying the social fabric of the small town through violence and rampant machismo. Those who manage to find a summer job in the illegal hemp plantations during the season of ripening up to harvest and guard the crop with machine guns earn quick money, enough to buy a pick-up truck afterwards. In Los Molles, where the MODATIMA environmental movement, a medico partner, used to be strong, it will be tough going for activists following the defeat of the plebiscite. Already in the run-up to the plebiscite, the house of the spokesperson for MODATIMA feminists, Lorena Donaire, was put to the torch by arsonists.

The precarity in which the lower to middle strata live is a fragile edifice of legal and less than legal work, of pitufos (jobs obtained through contacts) and loans. The major changes portended by the new constitution unsettled these strata. Especially new voters, who were not part of the political milieus with their own media networks, who consume privatised television channels that belong to the richest families, bubbling over with cheap and tawdry programmes. It was in these media that the Chilean right wing launched its counter-campaign with blatant lies at the beginning of the Constitutional Convention in June 2021, at a time when it did not even have a blocking minority. The online portal CIPER conducted a survey on the reasons for the rechazo in Santiago's poor neighbourhoods just a few days after the plebiscite. The results show that the media campaigns of the right-wingers pushed the right buttons. People feared losing their homes, their pensions. And they did not want a plurinational state. If any notion of social housing or a solidarity-based pension system can be reinterpreted as an end to the tiniest private property, then a constitutional reform that seriously desires a "social human rights state" is a difficult undertaking. The poorest strata rejected any form of change.

For Karina Nohales, one of the spokespersons for the feminist movement Coordinadora Feminista, a big mistake by the Constitutional Convention was not to have thought through the final plebiscite early on, thereby leaving the field to right-wing forces for months. In fact, the Convention became bogged down in hour-long debates trying to find a consensus for the new constitution, in which all the deputies and the groups behind them sought to align with their respective specific demands. The result was one of the most progressive feminist, ecological and postcolonial constitutions in the world. But it has now failed.

Tough debates on the net

In the debates that are currently taking place everywhere on the net, harsh tones are being struck. There is talk of complacency and narcissism on the part of the social movements. Such polemics are undeserved. But the question is whether the universal subject really exists, even if, as the Argentine feminist Rita Segato proclaimed in Teatro Caupolican in Santiago a few days before the vote, this is now and will remain the female subject. And if the notion of a very strong leftist project, as in Chile, cannot obtain a majority, what does this mean for those who have been pursuing this with so much dedication and vigour so far?

Until now, many have been able to relate to "anti-politics", the demonisation of all politics as politics from above, as a form of protest. Now this sentiment has been harnessed and mobilised for the Rechazo. The question is: How left-wing is a blanket rejection of political parties really? And: does this sentiment also perhaps even embody more a form of right-wing populism? The latter, as we know from experience, is interested neither in political exigencies nor in the challenges of reality. This, too, is a form of "anti-politics".

While the social movements are now licking their wounds and their future is uncertain, the Boric government is going about its new business of governing. Senior members of the government say behind closed doors that they will be focusing on social measures and a smart regulatory policy to curb crime. The most important thing, in their view, is to prevent the election of the right-wing populist Kast next time round. Leftist critics of the constitutional process interpret the vote as sign of a new class struggle. They argue that the poorest fifth of the electorate voted most resolutely of all against the draft constitution. They argue that the drafting of the new constitution had turned into a sort of playground for the left-wing middle-class and, on closer inspection, did not constitute any real break with neoliberalism. Such arguments are to be heard inter alia from the historian Sergio Grez. To what extent such views base their refrain of class struggle on something other than left-wing populism, however, remains their secret. Developments in Chile surrounding the constitutional process raise many questions. It is instructive for all those committed to fundamental changes in the world and think they have found the formula in feminism or the environmental movement. The big picture, however, which simply shares its story, communicating its messages to anyone and everyone, a message spanning generations and their struggles, is still bitterly missing. Is something like this even possible?

Katja Maurer was head of public relations at medico international for 18 years. Today she is responsible for the medico language, the newsletter and blogs regularly on the medico website.

With the "Adiós Neoliberalismo" campaign, medico has supported the social movements that had joined together to form their own campaign team for the "Apruebo". Our work in Chile will continue.

Published: 26. September 2022

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