The Course of Chile’s Revolt, Seen from the Streets: Interview with Victoria Garcés López

Amidst the catastrophes of 2020, events in Chile are among the precious few institutional openings for the left globally. On October 25th, the population overwhelming voted in favor of replacing the country’s current constitution, which dates from the years of Augusto Pinochet’s US-backed military dictatorship. This break with the country’s unreformed authoritarian legacy was provoked by massive popular contestation in the streets since late 2019, which has been met with vicious levels of police violence. Chile is now in the run-up to elections which will determine the composition of the convention which will write the new constitution. The opportunity to channel the radical strength of the protest movement into a new institutional framework for the country will be invigoratingly politicizing, but also fraught with strategic danger.

For more analysis of the context of the Chilean revolt, CounterPunch’s Matthew Collado spoke with Victoria Garcés López. Garcés López is a public school teacher, a trade union militant, and a leftist and feminist activist based in the capital Santiago. In this wide-ranging interview she describes her own politicization and activism, Chile’s recent history leading to the revolt, its composition, and the perilous process ahead to build democratic foundations for Chile. Garcés López provides an illuminating portrait of this moment of transition, as seen and felt in the streets. The interview has been translated from Spanish and edited for clarity.

MC Talk a bit about yourself and your political background.

VGL I was born in Santiago, but I grew up and studied in La Serena, and when I finished my studies. Since graduation I’ve returned to Santiago, where I teach mathematics in state public school but also in a free popular school called Escuela Pública Comunitaria (EPC) in Barrio Franklin, and work on critical pedagogy in the Movimiento por la Unidad Docente (MUD), an educator’s movement organization.

Regarding my political training, I must say that it has been fundamentally a consequence of the upbringing of my parents, and in particular of lasting conversations with my father. They lived through the 1973 military coup as 14 year olds, where at least my father was already active on the organized left. Everything he and subsequently my mother and their comrades read and went through together was transferred to me orally growing up.

Then, when I chose to be a teacher and I was studying at the University of La Serena, student mobilizations began in 2011 for free and non-profit education. It was there, where we effectively took over, struck and froze the campus for 7 months, that my political training at a more concrete level, the results of my own experiences, began.

It is strange to mention all this, since most of the comrades with whom I interact have been primarily politicized by reading the great revolutionary authors of the left. On the other hand, my political formation has been largely a consequence of oral transmission and experience.

MC After the student movement of 2011 what have you been involved with politically?

VGL Since 2015 I have been a member of MUD, a national movement coming out of the fight for public education that aims for the standardization of working conditions between the different school systems that exist in Chile, and that focuses on generating a general labor front across the education sector, attempting to reassemble the historic strength of the movement. I have been active with MUD in the political training schools and workshops on labor law it runs for teachers.

Throughout 2018, when I had already been teaching for some years, I witnessed the strong global revival of feminist movements, which provoked me to try to understand and develop an additional political training that I had not heard from my family or had direct experiences with — issues like street harassment, domestic work, sexual abuse, femicides, etc. Although I had not seen or thought about these issues with the same terminology, I look back and of course realize that these were always a part of my life, and of all the women around me. This illustrates the importance of naming and articulating things to recognize them clearly.

That year I had the opportunity to start work at the EPC free school, where together with comrades I carried out training on the theme of “Visibility of patriarchy in our daily lives”, valuable learning and practice. Being part of the EPC gave me the opportunity to travel and meet comrades, among others those involved with free schools in other countries who we stay in close contact with. I think that staying organized is the best space for political training.

MC While there have been several waves of protests in the last decade, Chile has gone through its most militant mass movement since the 1970s in the last year and a half, culminating in the constitutional referendum in October 2020. Both superficially and in the longer term, what triggered this rebellion in 2019?

VGL Undoubtedly, as you put it, there have been several waves of protests since the 2000s. We have gone through the “Mochilazo” in 2001, in 2006 the “Penguin Revolution”, in 2011 mobilizations against profit in education, in 2015 the “Teacher Spring”, different environmental struggles, the movement for pension reform, and in 2019 the “Estallido Social” or the “popular revolt” as many protagonists call it. What happened on October 18, 2019 is an accumulation of historical unrest in our country.

More generally, the governments that assumed the transition to democracy, both those that define themselves as the center or those on the right, have deepened Chile’s neoliberal model that was established under the dictatorship. Overall, these governments have presided over a transfer of resources and economic possibilities for growth to private entities, with concomitant precariousness of public services. The conditions of public schools and hospitals are abysmal compared to their private counterparts, driving up demand and prices for the latter. Chile also has a significant lack of access to housing. Those living in informal situations above all have been fighting for decades for access to decent accommodation. At the same time it has been under these governments that our natural resources have continued to be privatized, placing them in foreign pockets.

Another major issue is that of the privatized pension scheme, the Aseguradoras de Fondos de Pensiones, also created during the dictatorship. Mandatorily deductions are taken from all salaries, but the large private firms who manage the pension funds use them to invest speculatively for private gain. That is, they use our money to generate profits, and rather often to take losses, resulting in poor performance of investment, with a large margin of profit directed to administrative costs of the private companies who themselves administer the fund. This is widely regarded as robbery.

Thus, I could list quite a few deeper causes of this outbreak, so many that it was in the end only an increase in Santiago’s subway fare by a few pesos and that fact managed to be the last straw. Yet this trigger occurred only in the capital on October 18th. In the rest of the country, what happened? As people began to protest the increase in the subway ticket in Santiago, Sebastián Piñera, the president of Chile gave a press conference stating the country would be left in the hands of the armed forces, essentially a declaration of war on the population. The military took to the streets in all parts of the country and a curfew was established, one which still remains.

All this occurred in a country where there are still those disappeared and unaccounted for from the period of the dictatorship, and where many of the political and military leaders of that period are still free, or if imprisoned, in luxury conditions. Deploying the military touched a very sensitive nerve in Chilean society. I myself am the daughter of former political prisoners and seeing the milicos in the streets was enough to feel fear, but all the more so outrage to go out and fight as a counterforce. Piñera will never be forgiven for sending the armed forces into the streets.

As the popular revolt was detonated in October, people started to take to the streets every day. It was impressive to see that people did not get tired, and I thought, “this until we win or die”. But we didn’t have an organization. This has been a central problem, since we are fighting against an entire model with only songs and daily visceral rage, while that model attacks us from all sides and with all kinds of weapons.

MC What are the important organized political forces of the left in Chile today, in terms of political parties and unions? What were their relationships with the protests?

VGL I must make it explicit that the true left in Chile is not represented mainly in parliament or the institutions. The left in Chile in terms of political parties is very weakened, since there is a crisis of representation around the party form itself. It is mostly rejected as the population sees parties as having only contributed to the injustice in, and sale of, the country.

The Communist Party is one of the parties that is within the institutions, with representation in parliament. Although it was not the vanguard of the protests, they had the respectability not to sign “The Agreement for Peace and the New Constitution”, a pact signed by the various institutionalized parties on November 15 2019 to negotiate a private political resolution to the crisis as it was unfolding. This was agreed at the same time as the levels of police repression were at their highest levels, without giving any solution to the demands of the masses. The Frente Amplio [Broad Front], founded recently as a large-tent left alternative managed to make themselves more compromised, by one of its component parties signing this establishment pact together along with the right.

The parties that are outside the institutional framework are very small, with few militants and little strength to be represented in the system that currently exists. These forces played leading roles in the protests and it can be seen in the calls and banners in the streets. These independent leftists and small groups served an important role in popular agitation and propaganda, but unfortunately not in organization.

Regarding unions, I believe that the majority of us were in the streets, federations of workers, student organizations, etc. Nearly all of organized labor was represented. We went out to the streets every day to carry out the occupation of the former Plaza Italia, baptized by the people as Plaza Dignidad.

MC Economic precariousness faced particularly by young people has clearly contributed to a significant youth component in the movement, but Chile also has an older cadre of veterans of the fight against the dictatorship. What generational policies are at stake in Chile?

VGL I think there was a generational meeting of the left in the streets, without a doubt the generation of the 80s joined, but mostly there were people from our generation. What we’ve witnessed a lot is the allusion to the movement against the dictatorship through slogans, such as “We are going to overthrow the Pinochet constitution”, “In Chile neoliberalism was born and will die”. I think that these slogans manage to show the dialogue of the struggles against the dictatorship with the struggles that we are currently having in this transition to democracy that is not over yet.

I also think that the fact of the military being deployed on to the streets somehow made us able to dialogue with previous generations, since we had often been told by them that, regarding the experience of the military dictatorship, “you did not experience it, so you cannot judge”. Well, now even with eyes and other body parts mutilated by bullets we were giving our opinions in the streets. The young, who did not grow up directly under the fear generated by the dictatorship, faced the military very bravely. Unfortunately, they were often armed only with stones and shields, facing organized armed forces with full arsenals. And as Daniel Viglietti says in one of his songsPapel contra balas / No puede servir / Canción desarmada / No enfrenta a un fusil” [“Paper against bullets / Can’t be used / An unarmed song / Can’t confront a rifle.”]

MC Powerful Chilean performances of “Un violador en tu camino“, in protest of patriarchal social complacency of violence against women, went viral all over the world as the protests unfolded. What can you say about the intersection of the vibrant Chilean feminist movement and the social upheaval in general?

VGL Without a doubt it has been quite an important intersection, and the feminist movement in Chile has grown strongly in recent years. I think the popular revolt had its share of the feminist revolt as well. The concentration of vocal feminists also influenced many people to go out into the streets as well.

Un violador en tu camino” has deeply anti-patriarchal lyrics criticizing much of what was also highlighted by the popular revolt. One of the great organizations which has strongly pushed the movement forward is the Coordinadora Feminista 8 de Marzo, which just organized a mass meeting, the 3rd “Plurinational Encounter of those who Fight”. Its latest iteration of a series of congresses which brought together more than 3000 women in the offices of the University of Santiago de Chile in their last in-person meeting. More than an intersection, I believe that class feminism by itself defines the popular revolt, as it fights against the precaritization of life, which has so many dimensions.

MC Dominant Chilean culture has long marginalized the country’s indigenous ancestry. How were the Mapuche and other indigenous movements related to the revolt?

VGL Well, in the photographic record of the protests you can clearly see how the Mapuche flag began to appear in the hands of Chileans who do not self-identify as indigenous peoples. That marked an advance, since a shared identification was generated with the Mapuche nation that at least I had not seen before. In fact, one of the most famous images of the revolt is a person above the statue of General Baquedano in Plaza Dignidad waving the Mapuche flag, and I think that relationship is interesting. At the same time, I do clearly understand that the Mapuche nation will continue to fight for self-determination and to recover their lands, and will continue to do so with or without the broader revolt.

An important related question is how the constitutional process which was opened by the successful referendum on October 25, 2020 required that there be reserved seats within the constitutional convention for indigenous peoples, ensuring that Machi Francisca Linconao, for example, is a candidate for the constitutional convention. What was not achieved were seats reserved for the Afro-descendant peoples of Chile, legally recognized a couple of years ago, reflecting a strong racism that exists in this country.

MC Obviously, the United States was centrally involved in dark chapters of Chile’s recent past. What about the Chilean elite’s relationship with the United States today?

VGL The first thing that comes to mind is when Sebastián Piñera displayed a close-up of the US flag, indicating that our Chilean flag could be seen inside it, when visiting Trump in the White House. I think that image says a lot, since the President of Chile heads the Chilean elite; he is one of the richest people in the country, ranking fifth according to Forbes. Now, in concrete terms, I have no information regarding direct Yankee interventionism within Chile at present, but it may be assumed, considering other US policies of interventionism in Latin American. The Covid19 pandemic also made this relationship quite clearly seen, right? Piñera, along with Trump and Bolsonaro, was one of the most irresponsible elite presidents in his response to the crisis. Like Trump, the disastrous consequences of his actions and discourse regarding the crisis still remain; from denialism, to late measures, to vulgar nonsense about the severity of the pandemic.

MC What dangers and opportunities do you foresee during the next constitutional process?

VGL Well, first of all, I think we must declare that the constitutional process that is being carried out is not the process which has been popularly demanded. The people demanded a constituent assembly written by itself to eradicate the constitution of the dictatorship, but the bloc in power generated the aforementioned pact in the midst of the revolt, seeking to defuse the power of popular anger. Thus began an institutional process that turns a deaf ear to what the people have been shouting in the streets.

One of the problems is the way in which the different political forces are represented within this constitutional convention, since the operational form is the same as that which currently exists in parliament. This leaves little possibility of integration to small parties or independent entities. One of the dangers is that the population, distrusting and bored with the political parties of the bloc in power, will begin to nominate lists of independent candidates. But when it comes to forming the convention, it will be very difficult for these independents to be integrated. On the other hand, various politicians from the center and right are detaching themselves from their parties, pretending that they are independent, confusing a population that since 1973 has been constantly depoliticized.

The main opportunity for comrades who have contributed greatly to the movement and who could be good elements for the constitutional convention is to put themselves forwards as independents, but on a shared list with a political party, to maximize possibilities of integrating into an effective radical bloc. But due to the limited trust held in the parties, what has happened mostly is that various lists of unaffiliated independents have been proposed, further disintegrating the forces of the left.

On the other hand, there are the sectors that do not want to participate at all in the institutions and that even called for abstention in the referendum for the drafting of a new constitution, raising slogans such as “I do not vote, I organize”, creating a dichotomy between the institutions and the popular organization, which at least seems worrying to me. There is another sector, which includes myself, that believes that it has to dispute all spaces (institutional, popular, union, etc.) and overflow the process so that this convention is pressured to ensure a constitution that is really written by the people.

MC How did the handling of Covid19 in Chile affect the revolt?

VGL March 2020 arrived and the feminist movement was waiting for the 8 of March to have its milestone protest I mentioned before. We expected 2 million sisters and comrades to demonstrate, a historic achievement. At that time, Covid19 was still something in Europe, but quickly the first cases began to be reported, and with them, delayed closures by the state. It took more than a month to establish quarantine and the authorities did so haphazardly, leaving some regions and municipalities with freedom of movement and others under lockdown. Given the need for movement across these zones for all sectors of the population, the system of controls has made no sense. In Chile, the economic stability of the country was privileged over the lives of the people, which generated greater discontent.

It should be said that since October 18, 2019 we have been held under curfew every night, it has remained unlifted, with the excuse that it is required to avoid the crowding in the evening. This is patently not true, and the authorities are not interested in people’s health — the subway is still full in the mornings and afternoons, with no space between commuters, but we cannot visit outdoor parks. Pesos are worth more than our lives.

MC Is there anything else you would like to say?

VGL It is important to mention that there are still more than 2000 political prisoners in Chile’s prisons as a result of the popular revolt, and a significant number of them are adolescents and young people. Some have been released, never having been charged, after over a year. Arrests are habitually made on flimsy, unsupported evidence. In contrast to this, ultra-right groups have been organizing that have demonstrated in the streets protected by carabineros, seek financing through videos on the Internet, walking around armed and firing weapons in the heart of Santiago with total impunity; those people are currently free.

Indignation has been growing as the police have recently killed people in broad daylight who never even involved in political demonstrations. I can describe to you cases of a street artist who was asked for his document of identity and shot dead when unable to produce it, or of a young couple who were walking down the street on a quarantine day without authorization, for which they were detained in a police station — hours later the young woman’s companion was informed that he had “committed suicide” inside the police station. Today we learned that two police officers dumped a man almost dead outside a medical clinic, who then ended up dying inside. The rage of the people increases day by day, but so do their fears.

I believe that we need to organize that anger so that this does not continue, otherwise all the prisoners, mutilated and dead who have left us in recent years, without the ability to respond, will once again be numbers and anecdotes of history. The class struggle is more active than ever and we must understand it, remain aware of popular anger, and manage to organize it effectively.

Victoria Garcés López is a public school teacher and activist based in Santiago Chile.

Matthew Collado is a teacher and socialist who has spent three years living in Morocco.