Spotlight on Chile

By Dan Morgan


You might remember that there was a time before a pandemic, and that Chile was one of the countries with a fierce social explosion going on. It erupted on 18th October 2019 – years of frustration and anger at inequality and the exposure of corruption in business, politics, the armed forces and justice system boiled over. We had had massive demonstrations previously, for education and pensions for example, but now there were almost continuous mass demonstrations. There was also looting of supermarkets and pharmacies (notorious price fixers) and destruction of many properties in the centre of Santiago.  There was the burning of 20 Metro stations (not properly explained) after mass jumping of turnstiles by students – the trigger for the explosion was a fare increase. By 15th November, roughly the high point, over 2 million were on the streets, in every city and small towns up and down the country – 10% of the population of about 20 million, and the authorities were scared.

A hastily called meeting of nearly all parties – the communists were carefully not invited - led to an agreement to call a referendum about writing a new constitution; despite limitations this was a huge victory. We still have the 1980 one, written to prevent deviations from neoliberal capitalist principles and ratified by an extremely fraudulent referendum in Pinochet’s dictatorship. The worst undemocratic aspects of it have been removed, but when Congress happens to pass a progressive law, the right wing goes to the Constitutional Tribunal and it is declared unconstitutional. The key clause gives ‘freedom for private property’ and that overrides anything else.

The protests continued until the southern hemisphere summer when in February everything stops. They started again with huge International Women’s Day marches on 8th March, then Covid arrived. The handling of this has almost mirrored Britain’s – half-hearted lockdowns, confusing messages, a population that does not trust the government or other authorities. Many, especially young people, do not trust other authorities like scientists either. So we had more than 20,000 ‘excess’ deaths last year – one in a thousand of the population, and another upsurge after Christmas and New Year.

The new constitution will be a blank sheet. This was a major victory. If the convention does not agree a point, there will be no reverting to the 1980 text. The agreement was criticised for several issues. It did not guarantee gender equality nor seats for ethnic minorities – these have been settled subsequently.  The most controversial was that decisions will have to be agreed by two thirds of the delegates. This was decided so that the right wing can block radical change if they can get one third of the delegates.  However, it also works the other way. Given the electoral fragmentation of the left (see below), if the left achieves a third but not a majority, they can block reactionary proposals. Issues not decided by the convention, and not in the new constitution, will be decided later by law, by simple majority in parliament.

As Covid fatigue increased, protests have started again but before that there was the campaign, mainly online, for the referendum on 25th October. Nearly everyone in Chile uses Facebook, it seems, and in the run-up, its pages were red-hot with calls to Approve a new constitution, and for it to be written by specially elected delegates. The alternative to Reject got little public support, and for the body writing it to include half from the present Congress, got even less. The vote was overwhelming – 78% for a new constitution, with slightly fewer voting, 79% went for a totally elected Convention and only 21% for a ‘mixed’ body including 50% of existing parliamentarians. The distribution of the vote was an almost perfect socioeconomic map. In Santiago, the poorer the municipality, the higher the percentage, above 85% in many. The only municipalitiess to reject the idea were the three where all the rich live. The disappointing aspect was that only 51% of the population voted – partly explained by the Covid crisis, of course.

So now we have until 11th January to register candidates for the elected assembly (carefully called a Constitutional Convention so as not to have the same name as Constituent Assemblies in other South American countries). The election will be in April, when we will also elect Regional Governors, Mayors and councilors. This is where it becomes difficult. What is the political background?  The parties that governed Chile since 1990 have been to a large extent rejected - they inherited the neoliberal system from the dictatorship and deepened it. Privatisation continued, including now 70% of the crucial production of copper, electricity generation, highways and water. Subsidised private schools were introduced, so by paying a relatively modest amount parents who could afford it could take their children out of the public system. What is left in the state system are sink schools. Social segregation in education is extreme, and higher education is expensive. Private health insurance covers 18% of the population. The public health service has improved but waiting lists for specialists and operations are long. Labour laws mean that trade unions have a hard time, and private sector unionisation is low. The median wage is equivalent to about £400 a month, and over the years scandalous price-fixing cartels have been exposed for medicines, chicken, toilet paper. The cartels of the three pharmacy chains continues, and that by the three main supermarket chains has not even been exposed, let alone tackled.

Salvador Allende’s Socialist Party, with a proud revolutionary history, emerged from the dictatorship fragmented and small, with leaders mainly returned from ‘golden exile’ in Europe and converted into good social democrats. They eagerly took their place in the first post-dictatorship governments, took well-paid jobs in government or in congress, and did not worry about building a mass membership again. I used to wonder how it was financed – and the same about the PPD, the Party for Democracy, the Radicals and Christian Democrats. My question was answered a few years ago – big business financed not only right wing parties but also their opposition. This happened with not only legal, but also illegal payments which were revealed almost by accident – a huge scandal. A big contributor was Pinochet’s former son-in-law who was virtually given the state Nitrate Mining Company, and now controls most of the strategic lithium deposits. All political parties have been tarred with this brush of corruption. The Communist Party (PCCh) had no involvement in illegal (or legal) business financing but did take part, to good effect, in Michelle Bachelet’s last government (2014-18). So anti-communists of all stripes, never in short supply, smear the PCCh as being the same as the rest. Even the Broad Front, never in government, suffers from a massive ‘anti-party’ online campaign. Many progressives fall for it. Anarchism fits perfectly with capitalist individualism, which of course has been strongly dominant here for nearly 50 years. So anarchistic rejection of parties on a ‘left’ basis, is common. It is easily forgotten that the biggest attacker of politicians was Pinochet.

Nearly all discussion so far has been about guaranteeing rights in the new constitution. Very good, but rights proclaimed in a constitution do not necessarily translate into real life. More important will be the mechanisms to achieve real, or at least improved, democracy. A communist deputy has written a ‘decalogue’ of proposals, including a change to a single chamber congress and a semi-parliamentary system, away from the present one modelled in the USA, where the president is almost like a king.

So now we have to elect candidates to write a new constitution, with a probably united right-wing coalition, a discredited centre-left bloc (or maybe two) and many people on the anti-party left calling for independent candidates. Some independents, outside party lists, might be elected where there are strong social movements, or if they are well-known personally. But I expect few will be, and their effect will be to split the votes for real change. There are decent politicians in all the parties that oppose the right wing, and many good laws have been passed, especially in Bachelet’s second term (2014-18) but that is no longer enough. People want real change. The pressing need is for an anti-neoliberal list for the elections, as broad as possible, including many independents. The Communist Party is engaged in building such an alliance. For some months it has had an alliance with the Regional Green Social Federation (one of their deputies has fought well against the TPP-11 pacific trade agreement), some Humanists and other groupings. Now this has been joined by the Broad Front, or at least the anti-neoliberal sections of this. One important asset is Daniel Jadue. This Communist mayor of Recoleta, a poor Santiago municipality, is now well-known for both his ground-breaking initiatives in his municipality and his intelligent, articulate appearances on television. He was the first to open a municipal pharmacy, breaking the 3-chain oligopoly and dramatically lowering prices. Then more libraries, a bookshop (none existed in the municipality) and lately municipal housing for rent, a complete novelty in Chile. Despite anti-communism, he has the highest poll rating of the possible candidates to be the next President. It is to be hoped that his popularity, combined with local work on the ground, in social movements, will give the anti-neoliberal list good results for mayors and councillors as well as in the convention to write the new constitution.


The Chilean economy contracted by 6% in 2020, its biggest fall since 1982.

By the winter the real unemployment rate had reached 31%.

People drew money out of their pension funds to live on and now 2.7 million workers have no pension fund left.

Chile, along with Brazil and Mexico, is one of the most unequal countries in the Western Hemisphere. 27.8% of income goes to 1% of the population.

During the pandemic the wealthy have thrived:

  • The Luksic family, who make their money from copper, saw their wealth almost double since the start of the pandemic – from $10,800m to $19.800m.
  • Julio Ponce, Pinochet’s former son-in-law and highly corrupt, also saw his wealth double from $1,700m to $3,500m. He controls lithium production, privatised under Pinochet.
  • President Piñera’s family wealth grew from $2,600m to $2,900m
  • Roberto Angelini’s company was found guilty of bribing parliamentarians, while his wealth increased from $1,300m to $1,700.

During the pandemic excess deaths in poor municipalities have been much higher than in rich ones, varying from 49% above the norm in Alto Hospicio to only 9% in Providencia – both in Santiago.

(From figures reported by Daniel Matmala, La Tercera 3/1/20)       


In my region, Araucania, the poorest in the country, the situation is particularly complicated. This part of Chile was independent, populated by indigenous Mapuche communities, until a genocidal war of ‘pacification’ which ended in 1883. The Mapuche were left with 5% of their land and reduced to poverty. Where previously they had all the land to graze their animals and grow wheat and oats. they were reduced to poverty.  Then mainly European colonisers took even some of their remaning land, by legal fraud or brute force. Agrarian reform under Allende restored over 100,000 hectares, but almost all were taken away again under Pinochet. So the struggle to recover land is a big issue. There is a state body which buys land for distribution to Mapuche but the funds are very limited. Since 1999, in one part of the region there has been a low-level armed struggle of sabotage against the huge forestry companies (and some other usurper landowners) who gained enormous tracts of land after the counter agrarian reform in the dictatorship. Instead of seeking a political solution, successive governments have militarised the conflict. There have been killings in cold blood and a major frame-up operation aimed at Mapuche leaders. Several of them have spent years in ‘preventive detention’ only to be found not guilty. Police special forces who killed a leader in cold blood two years ago have just been convicted. A few of their superiors, and a lawyer who made them lie about the circumstances have also been found guilty of  a cover up, but these are exceptions. The use of force has not won widespread support however, and provokes fear and hostility in the non-Mapuche population. In the zone where the armed struggle occurs, the vote for a new constitution was won by only 60%, as against 75% in ‘peaceful’ areas of the region. The most intransigent Mapuche do not vote in elections held by the Chilean state, which they regard as illegitimate.

After hard negotiations, there will be 17 seats for indigenous peoples in the Constituent Convention (of the 155 total), of which 7 will be for Mapuche representatives. There should have been 24, to be proportionate, but it was a battle to get any. At least one recognised leader, the Machi (traditional healer and spiritual guide) Francisca Linconao, a former framed prisoner, will be a candidate.

People want real change. the pressing need is for an anti-neoliberal list for the elections, as broad as possible, including many independents.