Uprising in 2019 - Carlos Figueroa
Uprising in 2019 - Carlos Figueroa

Patricio Guzman, Socialismo Revolucionario, CWI Chile

Social movement and political left activists in Chile have suffered an undeniable defeat in the referendum on the new constitution with 62% voting against. The result has been like a bucket of cold water, with activists overall feeling a general sense of bewilderment and frustration. Fear won over hope. 

The capitalist class played their cards very well, appealing to backward emotions of xenophobia and racism, as well as fear of losing your house, of unemployment and chaos, in an unprecedented mass media campaign.

At the same time, the vote to approve the new constitution became for many a vote for or against the government of Gabriel Boric, which is already unpopular, with only 30% support.  This is mainly because it has not met the high expectations which existed when Boric and his coalition were elected in March 2022. Boric’s government is weak and has been more concerned to show its ‘maturity’ to the ruling class than to rapidly confront the problems of the mass of the population.

Only towards the end of the campaign did the government end the very poorest being made to pay for their own healthcare and introduce a 40-hour working week. But it is still opposing the right of people to withdraw more money from their pension funds.

But although the new constitution has been rejected, bad healthcare, bad pensions, bad public education and massive obstacles to securing a home will continue, along with the destruction of the environment.

The result of the referendum is reminiscent of when Sebastian Pinera was re-elected for his second presidential mandate in 2018 by a wide margin. Little by little protests developed and became more generalised until, in October 2019, a mass social uprising took place.

In the last three decades Chile has gone through a cultural and social transformation, and the vote in the referendum will not change that. This will boomerang on the ruling capitalist class and the decomposition of the political caste. The country has changed and some things will not march backwards.

The political and social crisis that was opened by the mass revolt in October 2019 has not ended. The demands of the people in this uprising have not been met. The uprising was brutally repressed with systematic abuses of human rights, killings, mutilation of eyes, violence and sexual abuse. Participants in the revolt are still in prison, and there is immunity for crimes committed by state forces.

The demands of millions – especially of youth, women and workers in the streets – compelled the political caste to reach an agreement and open a process of constitutional change, albeit limited – preventing discussion on certain questions and requiring a two-thirds majority, which the Chilean Socialist Party and Frente Amplio blocs refused to change.

The mass revolt of 2019 was never defeated despite facing brutal repression. It entered a downturn following the congressional pact agreed on the 15 November, and then the Covid pandemic arrived.

The biggest problem is that a political alternative has not been built, with strong roots in the working-class neighbourhoods, workplaces and education facilities, with activists able to argue and counter the falsehoods of the ruling class and develop anti-system socialist opinions and programmes. This is the challenge we face.

The campaign to discredit the Constitutional Convention began before it was installed. Fake news, distortions and lies were constantly propagated in the media. However, we should not have expected a ‘clean game’ from a ruling class that has not hesitated to carry out military coups and massacres to defend its interests. On the other hand, the Convention was very weak in making its proposals and advances known. The vote was compulsory, which was a change from previous elections and referenda. The total number of votes was higher than in all previous elections. The votes of those not normally participating was decisive.

For 30 years the right-wing parties opposed replacing the constitution of the dictatorship and any changes which altered the neoliberal character of the state. Yet in their ‘no’ campaign in this referendum they did not defend the 1980 constitution. They called instead  for a new ‘Magna Carta’ which satisfied everyone. The most conservative layers of the right did not, therefore, win everything they wanted.

Lost all legitimacy

The vote was to reject the new constitution and maintain the 1980 constitution of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. This is the legal situation, but it is not politically viable. The Pinochet constitution has completely lost its legitimacy. Even the majority of the right-wing forces and the ex-coalition Concertación, which supported a ‘no’ vote, agree that the constituent process needs to be reinitiated. This could trigger things to move forward again.

It is unclear exactly how they will reinitiate the constituent process. This time the political caste, will undoubtedly try to ensure that it blocs the expression of the popular feeling of the masses. For the working class, the struggle for a new constitution should be at the centre of a struggle to end the constitutional defence of neoliberal capitalism and to open the way towards  a socialist programme rooted in the masses.

One of the biggest failings  of the Convention was not to approve taking back into public ownership copper and other natural resources. This allowed the right wing to sow confusion and doubt about how reforms such as social rights would be financed. Public ownership of these natural resources, which the right opposed, would not only have provided the resources to pay for reforms and implement a new model of social development, it would have unmasked the false ‘patriotism’ of the conservative forces linked with the multinational corporations.

A new social revolt, including many people who voted to reject the new constitution, is very likely at some stage in the near future. There is a global economic and social crisis unfolding. In this context the elite is not capable of satisfying the main needs, demands, and aspirations of the population. Boric and his government is on the back foot now. It will look to save itself by taking in the rest of the Concertacion coalition: that is to say, turn further to the right.

Within the ‘no’ vote there were elements of racism, xenophobia and misogyny, and a fear of the future and change. In the difficult situation which is unfolding, of instability, falling employment and an increase in precarious work, the ingredients for a growth in right-wing populism, as we have seen in Brazil with Bolsonaro and in the USA with Trump, are there. Discontent can translate into a growth of the far right in the short term. This is facilitated by the weakness of Boric and his government. The only way to prevent this danger is the building of an alternative of the left with a strong base in the working class and clear socialist programme.