A recent national strike in Chile called for deep changes to the country’s constitution that would allow reforms to education, healthcare, labor laws and the economy.
The National Strike of 24th-25th August was celebrated as a great success by the President of the Chilean Workers United Central (CUT) trade union federation, Arturo Martinez. In a statement Mr Martinez said “we salute the hundreds of thousands of Chileans who have mobilized across the country to show their will and their hope to build a new, different Chile.” The National Strike was called to push for deep changes to Chile’s Constitution which would allow reforms to education, healthcare, labor laws and the economy.
The strike affected over 90 towns and cities the length of the country, with demonstrations, road blockades, human chains, concerts and cultural activities, public meetings and the famous ‘cacerolazos’ – the banging of pots and pans to show discontent which were a feature of the struggle against Pinochet.
As in those dark years the Chilean government has met social mobilization with brutality and slander. The Minister of Interior has threatened to re-introduce martial law, and the government and its supporters have abused the leaders of the demonstrations, repeatedly calling the demonstrators subversives and accusing them of fomenting disorder. Some government supporters have been even less measured, showing how near to the surface the Pinochet legacy of the Chilean right is. One functionary tweeted that Camila Vallejos, the leader of the students’ union ought to be killed, the Intendant of the 8th Region (a member of Opus Dei) even ridiculously declared that the demonstrations were the result of too many children being born out of wedlock.
During the strike police resorted to the old tactics of repression. In Macul, Santiago, a 16 year-old boy, Manuel Gutierrez was shot in the chest. With two friends he had gone out to observe the bonfires and barricades built in his neighborhood. A police truck drove by, the window opened, three shots were heard and Manuel fell to the ground crying “I’m hit!” He later died in hospital from the wound to his chest. His family has called for justice but the Carabineros are denying any participation and hence refusing an investigation. Human rights groups have condemned this move to cover up the crime. In another area of the city police tear-gassed a postal workers union branch office full of local people, forcing them to flee and putting one old lady in hospital.
In another case, Cristian Andrade Cardenas, a student in the port city of Valparaiso, was brutally tortured by police. Seized off the street by a squad of 10 Carabineros, he was forced into a police bus where the police began to beat him severely, jumping on his face, arms and torso, beating him with batons and punching him repeatedly. They then squeezed lemon juice into the open cuts on his face before forcing him to inhale tear gas. They also threatened to rape his mother. He was released after being forced to sign a false declaration stating that he had assaulted a police officer. At the same time, demonstrators in the city discovered suspected a police infiltrator amongst them when he began throwing stones at police. When the crowd tried to detain him, the man fled and took refuge with police guarding the Chilean Congress. The incident was filmed and the opposition are asking the police to help identify the man.
In the same city another student was threatened by police simply for carrying the flag of the Chilean Communist Party, which has once more, as in the years of the dictatorship, borne the brunt of the ire and desperation of an establishment that has lost control. In parliament, right wing deputies Cristián Monckeberg and Víctor Pérez, accused the Communist Party of inciting public disorder, an accusation that could see the Party’s deputies barred under a law dating back to the Pinochet era. Meanwhile, in Santiago police special forces raided the house of a Communist Mayor in the neighborhood of Pedro Aguirre Cerda at 1.30am. According to Mayor Claudina Nuñez, her door was broken down, her nephew was beaten, and when neighbors came out to protest they were also attacked, including a 78 year-old woman who was beaten to the ground and knocked unconscious. The incident was filmed.
These abuses are reminders that the legacy of the dictatorship were never properly dealt with by the governments of the Concertacion. This Christian Democrat and Socialist Party coalition accepted Pinochet’s 1980 Constitution (the rejection of which had until the late 1980s been a central demand of the opposition) in return for a severely limited democracy. This, among other features, included impunity for human rights abuses committed under the dictatorship. Indeed there are 800 cases open against agents of the dictatorship, but so far only 71 have resulted in a sentence, meaning that most of the crimes of that period still go unpunished.
This was the message of human rights groups when recently greeting the results of the second Valech Report which cataloged thousands of new cases of abuses, accepting 9,800 of them, including 30 new cases of people disappeared or executed. Lorena Pizarro, the President of the Association of Relatives of the Disappeared said that the measure recognizes “victims but not perpetrators” and that despite the compensation provided by the state, justice would be the only true compensation for the victims. One wonders how many more victims might come forward if the country’s institutions were not so heavily permeated by the dictatorship’s noxious legacy.
The recent demonstrations have shown how the legacy of the Pinochet era remains especially strongly entrenched in the police and the armed forces. Following the return to a very limited democracy in 1990, there was no purge of Pinochet supporters, or of those who had committed human rights abuses from either of these institutions. The officers now at the top of both were trained and forged in the years of the dictatorship, and their attitudes towards social protest conditioned in a period when violence was routinely applied against the defenseless population. Despite measures taken to reform training programs under the Concertacion governments, unfortunately the police remain an instrument of repression, conditioned to see demonstrators as subversives rather than citizens exercising their right to protest. This view is clearly shared by the current government, much as it tries to hide its connections to the past.
The Piñera government currently has a 21% approval rating, and has been severely criticized for its failure to look after the victims of the 2010 earthquake which has plunged at least half a million Chileans into poverty and homelessness. It has also failed to consider long-standing concerns such as the list of points presented to the government by the CUT in June 2010. This intransigent position and the ever more obvious injustices of Chilean society, have exacerbated the social tensions caused by the government’s continual rejection of negotiations with the social movements. This opposition has now galvanized around the reform of the country’s severely restrictive Constitution, a position that has terrified the current government, which is scrabbling around for a response. The government initially cataloged the strike as a complete failure, and yet has now agreed to meet with representatives of the protest movement in order to negotiate. However, whilst welcoming this change in position, the opposition understandably remains skeptical as to the government’s good faith.
It is hard to see how the ‘Chilean model’ can survive the present situation. The governing coalition includes the UDI, the party of Pinochetismo, and an ardent defender of the socio-economic legacy of the dictatorship. Even the more moderate elements of the government are aware that their economic position is completely dependent on the maintenance of an exporting economy with weak labor organization. This economic model is only sustainable under a limited democracy. This limits the government’s scope for flexibility in dealing with an opposition united around the desire for profound changes to the legal and institutional framework that underpins this economic model.
Worryingly for the government and for supporters of Pinochet’s model, even the more centrist parties historically linked to the Concertacion are now beginning to jump ship, opening talks with the leaders of the opposition. This shows just how far the opposition have advanced in creating a common perception that the entire social, economic and constitutional structure must be reformed in order to create a new Chile governed by democracy and social justice.