Learning from Chile

Chile’s march to a progressive constitution and egalitarian transformation has stalled. What can movements in the Global South learn?

Protests in Plaza Baquedano, Santiago, Chile, 2019. Image credit Carlos Figueroa via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0 Deed.

In his 2021 book Time for Socialism French economist Thomas Piketty urgently made the call for “participatory socialism.” He envisioned it as a system that would preside over a fairer distribution of the world’s wealth, amassed over centuries through “unbridled exploitation of human and natural resources.” However, he indicated that this would not be a top-down transformation led by a vanguard proletariat. Instead, he insisted that “real change can only come from the reappropriation by citizens of socioeconomic issues and indicators.” The Chilean left has tried for more than 50 years to achieve this deep socialist transformation, but the effort has stalled at every consequential stage.

These repeated false starts and failures have left progressive forces around the world wondering what would be the best path, if any, to socialist change. After decades of guerrilla warfare, Latin America chose the ballot box. However, after the initial electoral victories of the “pink tide” in the early 2000s, right-wing governments re-emerged through elections (as in Uruguay and Ecuador) and constitutional coups or electoral coups (as in Brazil, Bolivia, and now Peru). In Africa, no left-wing government (except in Mauritius) has come to power through the ballot box since the 1980s structural adjustment programs (SAPs). Rather, military coups, such as those that occurred in Mali (2021), Burkina Faso (2022), and Niger (2023), arguably carry people’s hopes for more equitable societies. What can Chile’s efforts teach leftist parties and movements seeking socialist transformation? 

In the 1970s, guerrilla warfare was a popular option for the left to accede to power in South America. However, in Chile, the Unidad Popular (Popular Unity), a coalition of left-oriented political parties and social movements, elected Salvador Allende, a physician and politician from the Socialist Party of Chile, as president. He was the first democratically elected Marxist leader in the Western hemisphere. Allende’s government wanted mineral and other resources to serve the working poor: land was to be redistributed among those who cultivated it; education, health, and other services were to be affordable and managed by the state; indigenous people, especially the Mapuche, who had fought for long decades against the expropriation of their lands, were to govern their own communities.

On September 11, 1973, Augusto Pinochet brutally overthrew Allende through a military coup d’état in which Henry Kissinger, then US secretary of state, played a decisive role. After 17 years of active popular resistance, Chile returned to free elections in 1990. However, Pinochet remained the head of the army and a senator for life. Some of his collaborators stayed in their positions and the political-legal framework of the 1980 Constitution was preserved. Despite the alternation of center-left and center-right parties in power between 1990 and 2019, and despite a relatively stable and prosperous economy at the macroeconomic level, no profound structural changes took place.

The 2019 “Estallido Social” or “Social Uprising”

In October 2019, an uprising took place in the context of severe inequalities, high levels of privatization, and erosion of public institutions. The protesters’ demands included: a quality public healthcare system, a state-run and affordable pension system, free education at all levels, and access to water. Chileans wanted affordable housing, public safety, an end to police brutality, and improved rights for LGBTQI+ communities and women. The uprising gained momentum, spread, and escaped state control.

The ruling right-wing National Renewal Party and its leader, Sebastián Piñera (Chile’s fifth-richest man, who died on February 6, 2024, in a helicopter crash), and the conservative political class suggested rewriting the 1980 Constitution as an antidote to the uprising, diverting attention to social peace, rather than engaging civil society in its pressing demands. All parties except the Communist Party accepted the proposal on November 15, 2019.

For the Chilean left, the time was propitious to rekindle the longed-for socialist transformation. It was also a chance to finally change the 1980 Constitution, which had been drafted by the University of Chicago-educated neoclassical economists The Chicago Boys, led by Milton Friedman. The constitution had granted a huge role to the private sector in health care, education, housing, and banking. To solidify the system, strict rules with supermajorities in Congress made it difficult to amend the constitution. The status quo was guaranteed by law enforcement agencies and the armed forces.

According to Chilean economic indicators published by Statista’s Research Department on August 8, 2023, “the top 1% of the population owns 49.6% of the country’s wealth, 10% owns 80.2%, the middle 40% owns 20.1% and the bottom 50% owns 0.6%.” On average, the richest 1% owned almost 3 million USD each. Pinochet’s rule halted Chile’s socialist experiment. However, its ideals were kept alive. First, the level of mobilization and political activism against Pinochet intensified, but was focused more on ousting the dictatorship. Political activism intensified with the resurgence of the right during Piñera’s two terms in office, and later with the emergence of José Antonio Kast, a far-right Christian politician. Second, the issue of the disappeared and tortured under Pinochet had not been resolved. Third, the arts and popular culture became active micro-sites of resistance. Fourth, the indigenous movements that had long struggled for land, especially the Mapuche, were emboldened by the successes of similar movements in Bolivia, Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru. Fifth, the Communist Party and the unions rejuvenated and boasted a few electoral victories. Sixth, rights-based movements multiplied and fought for their goals. Seventh, social media played an important role. These factors, together with a generalized discontent, led to the 2019 social uprising.

The collapse of the 2022 Constitution

The way the constitution was rewritten (automatic participation of indigenous communities, parity for women, elected rather than appointed members of the assembly) was, by itself, a novelty for Chilean politics. Leftists savored the prospect of an imminent democratic and socialist nation-state. Although the 2020 National Plebiscite for a New Constitution was the largest voluntary vote in Chilean history and yielded 78% in favor of the process, the proposed constitution, this time with mandatory voting, was defeated (62% no and 38% yes).

The following reasons explain its rejection. First, the campaign to discredit the constitutional convention and the related disinformation campaign financed by the Chilean oligarchic media reached deep across all levels of society. The constitutional process occurred in a post-COVID context of uncertainty where work had become precarious. 

Second, the disinformation campaign in Chile belongs to a larger movement of conservatives across the Western Hemisphere whose ideas—anti-globalism, anti-wokism, return to traditional family values, anti-feminism and anti-LGBTQI+ ideology, and anti-communism—have gained immense popularity through various channels including evangelical churches. They aim at resisting what José Antonio Kast called “the ideology and the violence of the few.” From February 21 to 24, 2024, the US-based, pro-Trump Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) invited right-wing leaders Javier Milei and Nayib Bukele, respectively of Argentina and El Salvador, to speak at their convention near Washington, DC. They had held similar meetings in Brazil and Mexico.

Third, political mobilization by leftist organizations and parties lacked purpose and intensity at the grassroots level. They did not reach out to lower classes to explain and discuss the ins and outs of the constitutional proposal, which reduced their electoral base in the plebiscite.

Fourth, plurinationalism, which aims to provide indigenous peoples with legal and constitutional instruments to manage their own affairs, was presented by the private and right-wing oligarchic media as a threat to the country’s unity, as it would grant unfair privileges to specific groups. In reality, the construction of the Chilean nation occurred through a process of white nationalism, invisibilization, and exclusion of Afro-Chileans and indigenous people. Plurinationalism has been practiced in Ecuador and Bolivia, respectively, since 2008 and 2009, and has increased the political power and visibility of indigenous communities.

The sectors of the population for whom the constitution was drafted rejected it, although polls on specific aspects of the constitution provide a different picture. The Feedback Research survey conducted on September 6-7, 2022, asked voters, “Regardless of how you voted on September 4, what do you think of the following proposals contained in the draft of the new constitution?” According to the results, 83% of the people declared themselves in favor of the project of free higher education; 81% agreed that water should not be privatized; 61% approved of the idea of “creating a state pension and social security system.” If 55% of the people rejected the “creation of a plurinational state,” 67% were in favor of the “constitutional recognition of native peoples.” Voters could possibly have been more receptive if the project had been presented differently, and if the process had been accompanied by concrete and timely measures on the part of Gabriel Boric’s government, especially to support those who suffered the most from the pandemic.

Some other reasons explain the failure of the process. First, the new president, Gabriel Boric, elected only on December 19, 2021, did not depart from governing habits rooted in securitization and militarization. As a consequence, they lost the support of large sectors of the left. Second, although Boric entered politics as a student leader, he quickly criminalized the student movement and disregarded it. Third, the large gap between the actual vote and people’s political awareness, as exemplified by the survey mentioned above, demonstrates that voting itself is problematic. Fourth, social movements and political parties were unable to establish lasting spaces of education, organization, solidarity, and collaboration with rural, indigenous workers and the “precariat” in the sector of services. As a result, voters’ lack of knowledge and miseducation became crucial as voting was compulsory.

The failure of the Second Plebiscite and its implications

To draft the second constitution, the Congress, dominated by right-wing parties, elected a council of experts, headed by a Pinochet supporter, Hernán Larraín, and a constitutional council, elected by the people, with parity between men and women, but without any seats reserved for indigenous communities. On December 17, 2023, voters rejected this right-wing constitution, with 55.8% against and 44.2% in favor. As the government decided not to attempt a third revision, the maintenance of the Pinochet constitution represented a major setback for the left. Leftists around the world have paid close attention to the political process in Chile, to see if its success would consolidate the democratic electoral model as a plausible path to socialism. Even though most of the objective conditions for socialist change in Chile seemed to be in place, once more, the transition did not occur. 

Many points arise from this debacle: First, how possible is it today for a liberal democracy to deliver and secure the longevity of a socialist transformation in the Global South through elections? Second, about 78% of the population wanted a new constitution, voters elected a convention to draft it, but 62% of the population rejected it. This obvious disconnect raises a fundamental question: Does voting actually reflect people’s true interests? Third, as socialist and communist parties find it difficult to mobilize, does ideology no longer play a role in the effort to transition to socialism?

Fourth, elected officials do not resemble the people they represent. Sixty percent of those elected at the first electoral convention were lawyers and professionals, despite the decision not to choose among elected officials. Karl Marx believed the proletariat should seize power and govern. That way to socialism was abandoned long ago in Chile, but progress to socialism has stalled. The workforce itself had changed from Allende’s time, and it was again recomposed by the pandemic.

Fifth, funding is the engine of electoral democracy, and the left does not have a lot of it, which makes the competition apparently unequal. Sixth, in Chile and other Latin American countries, in addition to an entrenched bourgeoisie, the militarized police, and the army, the left must deal with a growing, well-publicized, and highly funded evangelical movement and its ideology.

The failure to pass a new progressive constitution took its toll on the progressive movement, with the disappointment that four years were lost. Based on the Chilean experiment, the advent of a socialist state, as Piketty envisioned it, seems barely plausible. Because of the asymmetry of financial and economic power, and the enormous gaps in property ownership and wealth between common people and the higher classes and elites, no socialist transformation can emerge in Chile without a profound overhaul of current electoral systems and structures. Perhaps, the future of the left in the Global South, including Chile, lies in regions of autonomy as practiced by the Zapatistas, far from the grand narrative of a socialist nation-state.

About the Author

Ignacia Cortés Rojas is an assistant professor at the Institute of Aesthetics at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. She investigates the intersections between popular art and social manifestations in Latin America.

Simon Adetona Akindes is a professor of politics in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Law at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside and the director of the Center for International Studies. His research interests include civil-military relations, social and political movements, democratization, music and politics, and sports and politics in Africa and Latin America.

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