Chile Votes to End Pinochet’s Constitution

October 25th in Santiago de Chile, at the Plaza de la: "Our legacy will be to end his"

Translated from Convergences Revolutionnaires, a publication of Etincelle in France

Chile has just experienced a referendum on a new constitution in the context of a deep social, political, and health crisis. Until the referendum of October 25, the constitution in Chile was one put in place under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, a dictator from 1973 until 1990. One year and a week after the social explosion of October 18, 2019, this electoral moment was perceived by large segments of the population as a political test. Would the youth, who often preferred direct action, join the electoral game? Would the population, struck by the crisis, seize this opportunity to express itself? Would the social base of the regime rising from the dictatorship mobilize? These were some of the questions that enlivened debates well beyond the urban centers.

Social Collapse

With a nearly 14 percent drop in economic activity in the first half of 2020, Chile has experienced a social collapse, with unemployment increasing from seven percent to eleven percent in just a few weeks, according to official statistics. This data greatly underestimates the real state of the labor force – due to the large size of the informal sector – which is why trade union organizations estimate unemployment to be around 20 percent, with peaks in working-class neighborhoods where unemployment is above one-third of the population. Subway stations are full of beggars. The pandemic has officially claimed 14,000 people (out of a total population of 18 million), but in the opinion of all the medical and neighborhood associations, these figures are an underestimate. The real figures are up to five times higher, particularly ravaging poor neighborhoods and areas heavily populated by the Mapuche native population in the south of the country. Piñera, the Chilean president, and the Chilean bourgeoisie, were betting on this misery. They were hoping it would lead to abstention among this population, as well as a stronger mobilization of their traditional base.

Repression Sets the Stage

During the COVID-19 crisis the government took advantage of a pause in labor mobilizations to tighten its grip, targeting militant circles and protests by Mapuche populations in the south of the country where they are attempting land occupations and sometimes sabotaging the large steel mills that are destroying their forests.

But the arrests since October 2019, the detention of several thousand demonstrators – often very young people – and the intense repression of the first fights between young people from the shantytowns of Santiago at the beginning of this month, weren’t able to prevent a quiet but determined mobilization around the elections. The fact that one of the demonstrators at a small rally (barely a thousand from a very radicalized milieu) was purposely thrown from the Pio Nono bridge over the Mapocho river in Santiago by a riot cop (carabinero) only fueled more anger. The traditional provocations of the Chilean security forces, such as the burning of two churches, yielded the same result. In one of them, San Francisco de Borja, a military police officer, was arrested in the middle of his act of arson, and a discreet investigation was started, according to the daily, La Tercera.

To Vote or Not to Vote?

On the eve of October 25, the date of the plebiscite [referendum], revolutionary circles were consumed by two questions, and a tactical debate on positioning. The inaction of the trade union centers (especially the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), influenced by the Communist Party) and the left gave off a vague impression of passivity, despite clashes with the police. Revolutionary militants (Marxist or libertarian) saw a cleavage between radicalized youth from working and poor areas on the one hand, and the rest of the opposition in the neighborhoods and unionists in the workplace on the other. “We’d rather organize than vote!” was the phrase that all the activists heard over and over when they met people under twenty. Meanwhile, the country had been becoming restless again over the past month or so. Was this divide going to discourage and prevent people from participating in the plebiscite? Was the regrouping of generations of activists going to fail?

The second question concerned the mobilization of the middle class in its quest for political stability. Indeed, the upper class deployed vast means to promote the Pinochet Constitution. They did this via the press and especially social networks, to the point of instilling doubt and heralding a return of the Party of Order.

Finally, there was the question of what position to take in the face of the vote. The vote had two components: a vote for or against a new constitution and a second very important one on the manner of the composition of the Constituent Assembly (the choice was between a possibility involving a mixture of current and newly elected officials or creating a new body of elected officials resulting from a vote in April 2021). The majority of Trotskyist groups and collectives were in favor of participation in the vote, even though all of them pointed out in their publications and interventions the pitfalls of the electoral path. Yes, in the absence of working-class activity, these groups favored the path of this democratic experiment, but would the movement escape from the trap of last year’s revolt? Among those layers that were advocating direct action it was difficult to be heard when explaining this approach, with its complex tensions and nuances between groups. It was also difficult to present this point of view among sectors sensitive to the hope of a democratic transition, who had illusions in the transformation it could bring about. One fact that marked and encouraged left-wing militant circles to vote was the electoral defeat of the putschists in Bolivia on October 18. It was possible to make the reactionary forces retreat on the electoral level!

Result of October 25: 79 Percent Against the Regime in Place

The results of the vote among of the Chilean community abroad were revealed first. Unsurprisingly, in Europe, where left-wing political immigration circles are hegemonic, the result was more than 90 percent for the constitutional change. In Berlin, Madrid, Stockholm, and Paris, the participation was exceptional. In France, the vote took place in Neuilly-sur-Seine, and nearly two-thirds of Chileans or Franco-Chileans turned out. They often had very strong illusions about the sovereign character of this future Constituent Assembly.

In Chile, in Santiago, the day was marked initially by very violent clashes between young people of the Primera Linea, as they call themselves, and the riot police. For nearly four hours, the youth of the Primera Linea stood up to liberate the Plaza de la Dignidad (formerly the Plaza Italia) to allow rallies at the end of the day to read the results. One hour before the closing of the vote, the youths pierced the carabinieri’s barriers at three points and neutralized the guanakos (water-launched vehicles), forcing the police forces to retreat to the municipality of Providencia and redeploy to protect the rich neighborhoods. A huge black banner, showing the colorless Chilean flag, was unfurled. It read, “Our legacy will be to end his” (in reference to the former dictator who wrote the current constitution).

On that Sunday, October 25, even before the announcement of the final results, the atmosphere was electric. The result of the two votes in the plebiscite for a new constitution and an elected Constituent Assembly exceeded 79 percent, a real blow to power. The president’s calls for national unity did not convince anyone (even on the right wing), and Piñera’s announcement that the vote was his idea made people laugh. Tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in the Plaza de la Dignidad and throughout the country. The party started with fireworks, and the comrades in Santiago described a New Year’s Eve atmosphere.This vote opens perspectives as well as challenges, because as many popular activists say: “making Pinochet’s legacy disappear is good, but ballots don’t feed us.”