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Elections in chile:

a loss for the left?


-- by Rene Rojas, February 3, 2010

Two weeks ago, in a relatively close


run-off election, the ‘center-right’
Alianza por Chile coalition edged the
incumbent ‘center-left’ Concertación
which has ruled Chile since the return
to democracy in 1990. Progressives who fol-
low Latin American politics are lamenting Chris-
tian Democrat Eduardo Frei’s loss, fearing it portends
a swing in favor of the region’s conservative neoliberal
forces. Some have taken this ‘setback’ as an indication
that the tide of reformist governments and rising popular
movements across the region has exhausted itself. This
interpretation is flawed on many counts.

The Concertación, led by the Socialist Party and Chris-


tian Democracy, fielded Frei, a former president and a
dull candidate who failed to mobilize the needed votes
to stem the right-wing opposition’s first presidential vic-
tory in the post-Pinochet era. The winning candidate,
Sebastián Piñera, belonged to the Alianza, which was
formed by Renovación National (RN), representing the
modern and ‘democratic’ entrepreneurial right, and
Union Democrátic In-
dependiente (UDI), with
origins in the ultra-con-
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servative, old oligarchic
massive earth- and pro-Pinochet elite.
quake shatters Piñera is a member of
myth of chilean Chile’s new billionaire
class who benefited
exceptionalism: handsomely from the
1980s privatizations
deep class fault- and the pro-business
lines ExposeD policies that have fol-
lowed uninterrupted.
Though Piñera supported
Solidarity: a socialist, feminist, anti-racist organization

the return to democracy in the country’s 1988 plebiscite, the lead-


ing role of UDI in his coalition, along with his family’s ties to the
military regime, have contributed to fears of a democratic reversal
and the beginnings of a new phase of unbridled capitalism gov-
erned directly by businessmen.

In the end, Piñera, who led all candidates in the first round with
36% of the vote, beat Frei quite handily in the run-off, reaching
almost 52%. Frei, who disappointed throughout, failed to capi-
talize on the unfading popularity of president Bachelet (SP) and
managed to scramble together 48% in the run-off, compared to
the lowly 29% he received in the first round. The candidacy of
‘independent’ Socialist, Marco Enríquez Ominami or MEO, made
these elections more interesting than past ones. MEO broke from
the Concertación ranks and obtained just over 20% in the first
round, having successfully tapped into the current frustration with
Chile’s neoliberal model and the Concertación governments that
have managed it. And, Jorge Arrate, an old-school Socialist (albeit
with strong ties to the Concertación) ran on the Communist-led
ticket, getting a respectable 6.2% of votes cast. As Arrate’s votes
were already committed to Frei, the second round largely became
a contest over MEO’s followers.

But what do these results really mean? A number of incorrect (or


at best incomplete) conclusions, often stemming from question-
able assumptions about the current regime, have been reached.
Treating Piñera’s win as simply a win for the right and a defeat
of the ‘center-left’ fails to clarify what has actually happened in
Chile since 1990 and what direction the country may now move
in. What follows is a short analysis of the elections and Chilean
politics in general which might help correct some of the errone-
ous views that have been offered in the aftermath of the January
18 run-off.

1. The loss of the Concertación should not be viewed in


terms a right wing backlash or reassertion against the re-
gion’s ‘Pink Tide’. The Concertación has very little to do with
the ‘Pink Tide’ phenomenon, both in terms of its social bases,
its domestic policies, and its position on hemispheric affairs. It is
with good reason that the US foreign policy establishment views
the Concertación as the prime exemplar of the ‘good left’ in Latin
America.

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elections in chile:
a loss for the left?

While the Concertación governments have enjoyed majority elec-


toral support since 1990, business has been a key pillar of the gov-
ernments and their stability. In fact, maintaining business confi-
dence is the Concertación’s paramount concern. Moreover, it has
ruled in an openly exclusionary way. This is best illustrated by its
approach to demands of the Mapuche indigenous minority and
their actions in the south of the country. The coalition govern-
ments of the SP-PPD (party for Democracy, a Socialist Party cre-
ation)— CD (Christian Democrat) governments have severely re-
pressed Mapuche communities in their fights to reclaim land from
forestry and energy companies, many of them multinationals. In
fact, the government has deployed its repressive apparatuses un-
der the guise of a Pinochet era anti-terrorist law. And it has done
so quite effectively, imprisoning scores of activists and killing not
a few.

The regime also excludes large chunks of the working class from
even formal incorporation. Recent estimates show that well over
half of Chilean workers are under-employed, informally employed
or generally employed in jobs considered ‘precarious’. The per-
centage of workers in unions and those covered by collectively
bargained contracts have actually shrunk since 1990, from 10%
and 12.5%, to 8.5% and 11%, respectively. This should come as
no surprise as under the current regime, Pinochet’s regressive la-
bor law remains in effect. To this day, industrial unionism is not
allowed (workers can only bargain at the firm level) and the broad
layers of informal and subcontracted workers enjoy no legal pro-
tections. Similarly, the peasants have not only failed to recover the
land which the 1967-1973 land reform process granted them and
which the coercion of the market or the military took away, small-
holders continue to lose their lands to highly capitalized export
farmers and transnational food conglomerates. The recent worries
expressed by Concertacionista Viera-Gallo that Piñera might opt
for repression when dealing with Mapuche grievances is nothing
short of absurd. When adjudicating between claims on natural re-
sources disputed between indigenous communities and large capi-
tal, the Concertación consistently responded with brutal coercion
against the Mapuche!

The Concertación has pursued unadulterated Pinochet era neo-


liberal policies. Privatizations advanced dramatically under Alwyn
and Frei (first two Concertación administrations), services contin-
ue to by decentralized or ‘municipalized’ (and thus severely un-

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Solidarity: a socialist, feminist, anti-racist organization

Workers at Chile’s Chuquicamata copper mine wait during a gen-


eral assembly at the start of a strike in Calama, on January 4.

derfunded), prior privatizations and ‘municipalizations’ (eg Social


Security and education) were not revised, despite their huge social
costs and wide disapproval, and large multinationals continue to
enjoy the most favorable conditions, often at the expense of lo-
cal communities. Besides the situation in Mapuche territory, this
is best exemplified by the Pascua Lama mining project. Annual
growth rates in Chile, which are higher than the regional average,
remain predicated on the export of agricultural and extractive
commodities, namely fruit and copper. There has been a signifi-
cant improvement in terms of poverty reduction and alleviation,
as the Concertación has implemented World Bank-style targeted,
means-tested welfare programs.

While poverty has been reduced, the social problems that afflict
Chilean society are not too far beneath the surface. They are in-
creasingly exposed and everyday move closer to the point of erup-
tion. Chile has become one of the most unequal societies in the
world and large sectors are losing their patience. The explosion
of the students’ movement in 2005-2006 shows this as do other
smaller and more local struggles. Along with the persistent Mapu-
che movement, the huge 2007 wildcat strikes by sub-contracted
miners, and the persistent shanty debtors’ protests, are clear indi-
cators of the potential for large-scale social unrest.

Some, not least of all the formerly ruling politicians themselves,


argue that the Concertación’s hands have been tied by the rules

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elections in chile:
a loss for the left?

left in place by Pinochet and the constraining effects of interna-


tional competition. But there is little truth to the notion that top
Concertación policy makers reluctantly pursued a strict neoliberal
agenda. The fact is that they have championed free-market poli-
cies, even to the point of glorifying Pinochet. Asked about the dic-
tator’s contribution to Chilean development, Alejandro Foxley, a
leading Concertacionista economic manager, and more recently
Bachelet’s Foreign Minister, stated without flinching:

Pinochet carried out a transformation, particularly of the


Chilean economy, which is the most important change
of the century. He deserves credit for anticipating the
globalization process... We have to acknowledge his vi-
sionary capacity for opening our economy to the world,
decentralizing, deregulating, etc. this is a historic contri-
bution that which will endure for many decades in Chile...
Moreover, he passes the test for what it means to make
history, for he ended up changing the lives of all Chileans,
for good, not for bad. This is my opinion and it situates
Pinochet in a high place in Chilean history.

This is not the position of a renegade member of the Concertación.


Foxley, a former critic of neoliberalism, is a leading voice in the
coalition. Such praise of and commitment to Pinochet’s counter-
reforms are defining feature of its program, one which all leading
members share, Christian Democrats and Socialists alike.

The Concertación is one of Washington’s most trusted allies in


South America. Along with Mexico, Columbia, Peru, and (now) the
coup regime in Honduras, Chile is a stalwart friend of the US in
its moves against the countries and regional alliances that seek
continental integration and more independence vis-a-vis Wash-
ington. This unabashed move into the US’s sphere of domination
was deepened under CD-SP leadership. Let’s not forget that former
president and SP member Michelle Bachelet was Defense Minister
under Lagos and helped cement this close relationship from that
position. In fact, Chile has replaced Argentina as the US’s ‘carnal’
ally in the Southern Cone. This all happened under the Concert-
ación.

While publically Chile projects an image of neutrality in disputes


between the region’s radical populist regimes and governments
advancing US interests, Chile’s role under the Concertación has

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Solidarity: a socialist, feminist, anti-racist organization

been far from impartial. In the 2005 Mar de Plata Summit, where
Washington’s proposed FTAA was definitively defeated, the head of
state that most fervently promoted this neocolonization scheme,
after Mexico’s ultra-conservative Vicente Fox, was Ricardo Lagos,
the SP president who preceded Bachelet. Further, Chile’s national
security forces are highly integrated into US projects, both in terms
of military strategy and weapons systems, a development, to re-
peat, that Bachelet facilitated. While foreign policy under Piñera
might be more openly aligned with US strategic interests, it will be
marked by basic continuity.

2. Politically and socially, Chile has changed dramatically


since the end of the military regime. The transition and return
to (low-intensity) democracy shifted the content of class politics,
political fault-lines and terms of debates. It is wrong to view these
elections through pre-1990 lenses that pit right v. (center) left,
dictatorship v. democracy, unbridled exploitation v. social justice.
These old lines of demarcation are today almost irrelevant. A facile
conclusion is to state that Piñera’s election is a defeat of democ-
racy and a return to power by THE right. In fact, in Chile’s elections
since the end of the dictatorship, two right wings have competed,
both promoting a limited form of democracy and neoliberal poli-
cies. Surprisingly, many historic left figures, such as Manuel Ca-
bieses, founder of Punto Final, a newspaper that used to be very
close to the MIR (Revolutionary Left Movement), asked leftists to
hold their noses and vote for Frei, the ‘lesser evil,’ in the run-off, in
a desperate effort to prevent the pro-Pinochet, anti-human rights
monstrous RIGHT from regaining power. While the RN-UDI Alian-
za is right-wing, and is composed largely of Pinochet-era mon-
sters, it is impossible to characterize the Concertación ‘alternative’
as anything but right-wing. This framing of the contest, its rhetoric
and the fear it appeals to have been used to get popular sectors to
vote for and defend the neoliberal policies of the Concertación, the
other Right.

3. The Concertación lost not because the right has enjoyed


any kind of surge in popular support. In fact, the vote to-
tal of the RN-UDI Alianza did not surpass their totals in the 1999
and 2005 run-offs. Indeed, the votes for the ‘right’ have remained
fairly stable since the ‘Yes’ vote (for prolonging Pinochet’s regime)
in the 1988 plebiscite obtained 44%. This does mean that non-
Concertación right has real, substantial, and enduring electoral
support. But is also suggests that the Concertación lost mainly for

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elections in chile:
a loss for the left?

internal reasons, because it has exhausted itself as a political op-


tion (for now). People have not moved increasingly to the right;
they have abandoned the Concertación for failing to deliver on
the expectations of change; they are simply fed-up with its anti-
popular policies, its epidemic corruption, the grotesque bickering
over resources and positions by its unsavory and elitist political
class, and its growing clientelistic practices. Analysts are correct
to point out that the Concertación has squandered the ‘political
capital’ it began its rule with in 1990. They had managed to eke
out victories by exploiting the specter of a restoration of military
rule, fear of which was not unreasonable coming out of a 16 year
brutal dictatorship. Today, however, they are a shaken and weak-
ened, if not spent, force, and this appeal to people’s basic desire
for democracy and human rights has lost its efficacy.

The Concertación just barely squeezed by in the last two elec-


tions. It was only a matter of time before its marketing would
prove ineffective in the content-less popularity contests that elec-
tions have become. Since there has been basic agreement be-
tween both rights in Chilean politics, the elections have been gov-
erned primarily by personalities. In fact, Chile can be said to have
anticipated the US ruling elite’s Obama ploy in 2005 by offering
Michelle Bachelet to a disillusioned public. The Concertación had
nothing to offer programmatically so it came up with a seemingly
down-to-earth single mother (albeit one that hobnobbed with top
US and Chilean brass) that the female electorate could identify
with, and a former political prisoner who might appeal to the
sentiments of the left and democrats in general, to boot. At the
time, the Chilean electorate found her to be more ‘simpática’ than
her opponent and she won in a close race. In fact, her popularity
has only grown since then, despite her disastrous handling of two
key crises—the student movement and the ‘restructuring’ of San-
tiago’s transit system. Yet her high approval ratings (80%) did not
help the Concertación’s fortunes this time around. Between a grey
Frei — whom people associate with the worst of the current po-
litical class and the internal bickering of a Concertación which is
increasingly removed from the everyday lives of Chileans — and
Piñera — someone who seems to have a more dynamic personal-
ity — this time around they found the latter more ‘simpatico.’ Frei
obtained 200,000 fewer votes than previous Concertación candi-
dates summoned in past run-offs. A fraction of a third candidate
Marco Enríquez Ominami’s votes were enough to get Piñera over
the hump.

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Solidarity: a socialist, feminist, anti-racist organization

4. The institutions of the current Chilean regime are de-


signed to be as exclusive as possible. And the Concertación
has hardly tried to correct this in spite of its claims. When discuss-
ing this point, most observers emphasize the most blatant arrange-
ments left in place by Pinochet, like the designated senators which
have historically stacked the Senate in favor of the pro-Pinochet
right. This is certainly a residue that must be eliminated. But far
more effective in reducing real democracy are the binomial elec-
toral rules. This system has allowed a powerful party elite (from
both camps) essentially to decide the makeup of Congress even
before elections or primaries take place. It has given party boss-
es huge amounts of power and has removed popular sectors as
far as possible from real decision-making. It has also effectively
excluded small, third parties from having a voice on the nation-
al scene. To date, this institutional configuration has served both
political blocs quite well. They have been able to govern through
this regime with impressive stability, despite its exclusionary char-
acter. Nevertheless, there are rumblings from down below which
the elites from both sides will take note of. It remains to be seen
whether the disenchantment among workers, students, shanty-
dwellers, the Mapuche, etc. will be able to breakthrough this insti-
tutional stranglehold that both rights currently have on the Chil-
ean political system or whether, following these elections, elites
will find ways to ‘fix’ the institutions and keep them working in
their exclusive favor.

In short, the post-Pinochet regime stands atop an institutional ar-


rangement that is designed to exclude. In fact, the Concertación
has quite comfortably co-existed and even co-ruled with the Alian-
za opposition. And there will be many Concertación forces now
calling for a more formalized power-sharing deal with the Alianza,
a pact resembling the Social Democratic-Christian Democratic
Punto Fijo pact that reigned in Venezuela from 1958 until the rise
of Chavez. One of the effects of such exclusionary political prac-
tices and institutions has been an increasingly alienated electorate,
a development that could only hurt the incumbents and help the
Alianza. Only two thirds of eligible voters registered to vote in the
first round and over one sixth of those didn’t even bother to show
up. Uncharacteristically, abstention actually increased slightly in
the run-off. In the end, Piñera, similar to victorious candidates be-
fore him, won with less than 30% of the eligible voters. Most alien-
ated from the electoral politics are young people, representing
more than half of unregistered voters. And among working class

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elections in chile:
a loss for the left?

youth, things are even worse. The apparent apathy and resignation
that the exclusionary character of the post-1990 regime has bred
is a problem that the radical left will have to address.

5. A critical question: What opportunities, if any, does this


outcome present for the radical left and organized popular
sectors? If the Concertación is not to be counted among the new
Pink governments in Latin America, does its loss signify an open-
ing for the social forces that back Evo Morales in Bolivia and Hugo
Chavez in Venezuela? Better yet, does its failure create opportu-
nities for a truly independent left and the emergence of vibrant,
autonomous struggles from below? Many have suggested just the
opposite, arguing that a return to power by the Right will mean a
closing of spaces for political participation and a further clamping
down on the struggles that are just beginning to gather steam. This
is a pretty dominant view among sections of the left linked to the
Communist Party of Chile. In fact, the 6-7% of the electorate that
voted for the Commu-
nist candidate in the

A student during the


protests known as
the “Penguin Revolu-
tion” of 2006. The sign
mocks Bachelet’s slo-
gan, “I am with you”
on the left -- it says
“You can sell your kid-
ney to pay for your ed-
ucation” on the right.

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Solidarity: a socialist, feminist, anti-racist organization

first round wholeheartedly supported Frei in the run off for this
very reason. In exchange for this support, the Communists and its
allies were ceded three congressional seats by the Concertación.
The logic behind such a deal with Christian Democrat and Social-
ist Party neoliberals is that it keeps the Right at bay while simul-
taneously giving the Left a parliamentary foothold. However, for
the reasons listed above, this position is unconvincing. Having the
Concertación in office does no more to level the political playing
field for the anti-capitalist left. And tying the success of the left to
the fortunes of the neoliberal Concertación seems doomed to fail.

Others saw in the first round candidacy of Marco Enríquez Omin-


ami (MEO) a promising development that can be built upon. MEO,
the biological (but certainly not ideological) son of legendary MIR
founder Miguel Enríquez, broke off from the Concertación and
launched his campaign promising a new and more democratic
way of doing politics. His demagogic campaign was indeed more
dynamic and his new face and style won him an unprecedented
20% of the vote. Yet, while many saw in him a left figure, who not
only was stirring things up in a stagnant and decomposing Con-
certación but was also offering a real left alternative, the fact is that
programmatically MEO offered nothing of substance. If anything,
despite his attacks on business as usual represented by both com-
peting camps, he represented certain continuity with the neolib-
eral model, as his flirting with further privatization of the copper
industry indicates. More realistically, his vote tally is a sign of the
general and directionless frustration with the Concertación rather
than the beginning of a new movement. His campaign should be
seen as a maneuver by a disaffected yet nonetheless establish-
ment Concertacionista intended to improve his bargaining power.
In the end, a third of his supporters voted for Piñera, supplying
the numerical margin which the Alianza right needed to win this
time around. That his campaign mobilized a motley collection of
opportunists and malcontents, and the eclectic nature of his ‘plat-
form’ belies the notion that MEO might somehow head a new left
alternative in Chile.

In my opinion, the Concertación’s defeat does represent an op-


portunity for the anti-capitalist left, even if significant dangers
exist. This is not because a Piñera victory will make things that
much worse for the masses, awakening them and channeling
them into militant action. Not only is such a view morally repug-
nant, it is, in the Chilean case, unrealistic. Material conditions will

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elections in chile:
a loss for the left?

not change significantly as the Alianza will in all likelihood con-


tinue the ‘social-liberal’ policies of its predecessor. The moment
may be favorable for the radical left because the shifts and re-po-
sitioning that take place within the Concertación may weaken the
constraining links that the Socialist Party (and even the Christian
Democrats) has with labor and popular sectors. The Concertación
will do everything in its power to prevent this, yet given the in-
fighting and ‘cannibalism’ among its leaders, it may not be able to.
Still, it will make every effort to pull MEO and his followers back
in and to re-distribute power quotas in order to please the entire
coalition, keep it as intact as possible, and minimize disruption
to the overall political order. If this is achieved, the Concertación
will present itself as a loyal and constructive opposition and en-
ter into a alternating power-sharing arrangement with the Alianza,
further entrenching the elite and undemocratic nature of the post-
Pinochet regime. If this outcome does in fact materialize, Chilean
politics will bear resemblance to Mexico’s following the defeat of
the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled for 70 years
until the new century). Since 2000, the PRI has refashioned itself
and now is poised to recover power from the other dominant and
neoliberal party, the PAN (National Action Party), in 2012. In Chile,
the Concertación, if it rebuilds successfully, will try to come back
in four years, possibly with ‘simpática’ Bachelet as its candidate. If
this occurs as party bosses envision, prospects for the radical left
will remain very difficult.

However, the disruptions that the electoral defeat will inevitably


produce inside the formerly ruling coalition should allow its la-
tent loss of legitimacy to translate into real action and opposition
by workers and popular movements that escape the binding and
demobilizing effects of the Concertación. Many sectors of the So-
cialist Party — Allende’s party — for instance, will finally realize
that substantive change will never come from within the coalition.
We can expect them to return to their ‘roots’ and replant them-
selves in the workers and popular struggles that have until now
been (mostly) effectively ignored by ruling institutions. Having
been convinced of the bankruptcy and futility of the Concertación,
the departure of these groups can have a positive effect on the
reconfiguration of a real left in Chile. This tendency will be more
pronounced to the extent that the CD continues to fragment, pull-
ing factions to the right.
Naturally, such prospects depend primarily on the reemergence
of stronger and larger struggles by independent movements. With

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Solidarity: a socialist, feminist, anti-racist organization

the Concertación monkey of their backs — the threat of a return of


the ‘Right’ having finally materialized — rank and filers, Mapuche
activists, and community organizers have little reason to temper
their demands and actions. In this context, and with the control-
ling nature of the post-Pinochet regime in question, we should see
a multiplication and intensification of struggles from below. These
struggles will be the building blocks that will reconstruct a real
anti-capitalist left in Chile, one that will fight both Rights, the Con-
certación and the Alianza. They will redraw the lines of demarca-
tion of a new class politics and they will rely on their own efforts,
rather than the hollow promises of the ‘center-left’, to restore real
justice and democracy in Chile.

Fortunately, there are political formations in Chile that have this


outlook. The Movimiento de los Pueblos y los Trabajadores (MPT
— the Workers and Peoples Movement) is an effort to regroup and
rebuild revolutionary socialism from below and through the cre-
ation of independent working class power. ‘Facing the alternating
power of elites, it is necessary to build up an alternative from be-
low and in all disputed terrains of the class struggle,’ states activ-
ist/writer Andres Figueroa, a member of the MPT. Cor- r e c t l y

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elections in chile:
a loss for the left?

viewing the Concertación and Alianza as two sides of the same


neoliberal coin, he adds:

It’s true that after a long retreat, organic and political


decomposition, despair and depression, anti-capitalist
socialism just now is beginning to write the prologue to
the reconstruction of its leadership among workers and
popular sectors. This will be done slowly, with audac-
ity, and, at the same time, giving confidence, clarity, and
strength to the future agents of the deep, independent,
and popular change that the vast majority of Chileans
demand. For this reason, its main tasks are participating
in the genuine struggles and movements of the working
class, and dynamically and comprehensively broadening
the anti-capitalist struggles of indigenous communities,
women, environmentalists and the queer community.

To the extent that the post-1990 regime has been shaken and
openings will present themselves for increasing active popular
struggles, and to the extent that the a new generation of anti-capi-
talist activists and movements follow the advice of groups like the
MPT, the prospects for a genuine radical left in Chile may improve.

page 13
massive earthquake shatters
myth of chilean exceptionalism:
deep Class Faultlines Exposed
By Rene Rojas -- March 3, 2010

Only a month and a half after a powerful earthquake laid waste


to Haiti, the most oppressed country in the western hemisphere,
Chile, supposedly Latin America’s ‘most advanced,’ was hit by a
even stronger tremor.

In the early hours of Saturday morning, when the country was


still deep in sleep, a quake measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale, 500
times more potent that the one that ravaged Port-au-Prince, rocked
the central regions of Chile. The seismic movement occurred miles
off the Chile’s coastline and its impact was forcefully felt in an arc
reaching the capital Santiago and beyond to the north, Valdivia,
where the piers were destroyed, to the South, and as far as Buenos
Aires to the east. The seventh (Talca) and eighth (Concepción) re-
gions were particularly hard hit.

After initial reports that seriously underestimated the quake’s dev-


astation, gradually it has become apparent that the country has
suffered an enormous social and infrastructural toll. Moreover, the
quake has starkly revealed the exclusionary side of Chile’s much
touted neoliberal experiment.

Inevitably, as the extent of the destruction is gauged and state’s


response is evaluated, comparisons with Haiti have surfaced. In
most instances, Chile is pointed to as a model in earthquake pre-
paredness and subsequent relief efforts. Even progressive seis-
mologist Roger Bilham, appearing on Democracy Now, referred to
Chile’s handling of the disaster ‘as a tremendous success story.’ He
added that ‘earthquake-resistant construction prevails throughout
Chile’ and that ‘they have an intelligent government that enforces
these regulations.’

Many of the points being made, such as Chile’s more effective


regulation around construction, its stronger and more functional
state, and its overall higher level of development, are certainly val-
id. Yet there are at least three differences we should not lose sight
page 14
Massive Earthquake Shatters Myth of Chilean Exceptionalism:
Deep Class Faultlines Exposed

of: 1) the epicenter of Haiti’s quake was immediately next to its


most populated areas, 2) Chile’s epicenter, besides being further
out, was 22 miles beneath the earth’s surface, whereas as Haiti’s
was only 5 miles below, and 3) though the earthquake hit Chile in
the middle of the night and Haiti’s hit in the late afternoon, Chil-
eans, being accustomed to the drill, ran outside, whereas Haitians,
having never experienced an earthquake and their response being
conditioned by hurricanes, had the unfortunate urge to run inside
their deathtrap homes.

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Solidarity: a socialist, feminist, anti-racist organization

One has to wonder at the outcome if the quake in Chile had been
centered right next to and right beneath Santiago’s or Concep-
ción’s poor neighborhoods. Still, as the disparate death tolls sug-
gest (thus far 3000 deaths and missing persons have been reported
in the wake of the Chilean quake), Chile undoubtedly fared much
better. But beneath the more positive assessment lies a grim real-
ity produced by Chile’s neoliberal model. The extreme free market
policies inherited from and pursued vigorously since the end of
Pinochet’s dictatorship have generated catastrophic vulnerabilities
among Chile’s working class and have needlessly aggravated the
suffering caused by the earthquake.

Erosion of State Capacity

If the country is no doubt in better shape than Haiti, what the Chil-
ean quake also reveals is that amidst Chile’s glorified economic
‘miracle’, there are deep and wide pockets of Haiti-like conditions.
It is estimated that out of a total population of 17 million people,
at least one million families have lost their homes. Half a million
homes have been completely destroyed. Another one to two mil-
lion have been seriously damaged. By comparison, it is estimated
that the Haitian quake left one million people homeless out of a
total population of ten million. To this day in Chile, there is no
plan in place to provide these people with proper housing. The
government simply has no contingency plans in place to respond.
While the state is functional, it has been stripped of its capacity
to act in such circumstances after decades of religiously pursuing
neoliberal policies.

In fact, president Bachelet’s first appeal to the Chilean people was


to ‘be positive’. More recently, president-elect Piñera has pulled a
wholly inadequate plan out of his ass. According to reports, his
‘Levantemos Chile’ or ‘Lets Pick Chile Up’ plan relies ‘on the soli-
darity of the business world’. Since then, relief plans have focused
on private donations by way of Sabado Gigante host Don Fran-
cisco’s well known telethons and the charity of Chile’s new crop of
millionaires. So much for the Chilean state’s much touted seismic
preparedness. That the state was caught off guard and in a state of
paralysis was demonstrated by the initial almost laughable discus-
sions about whether to declare the affected zones as disaster ar-
eas eligible for state resources. Further, the top brass of the armed
forces is claiming that it took days to receive orders to mobilize for

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Massive Earthquake Shatters Myth of Chilean Exceptionalism:
Deep Class Faultlines Exposed

relief.

The stripping of the social functions of the state is apparent in the


failures of the Tsunami detection and alert systems. Though the
navy is now claiming that it did indeed activate its alarm system,
the fact is that residents of coastal towns received no official warn-
ing, much less help evacuating. When the Tsanamis hit a few hours
after the quake, they washed away entire fishing and beach com-
munities like Constitución, Curanipe, Pelluhue, and Dichato, and
even partially obliterated industrial ports like Talcahuano, where
the wharfs have been destroyed and 80% of the 180,000 residents
have been left homeless. The people of these towns managed to
save themselves only by following their instincts to head for the
nearby hills. Even then, thousands remain unaccounted for. In
small town of Constitución alone, at least 350 were swallowed by
the sea. Thousands of artisanal fishermen have lost their means of
subsistence with no safety net to fall back on.

The loss of the state’s regulatory capacity is evident in the dam-


age to newly built middle class high-rise condominiums. Over the
past ten years, Chile experienced its own housing boom. Many of
the newly constructed buildings were 15-25 story condominiums
aimed at young professionals. A walk across Nuñoa (a trendy mid-
dle class neighborhood in central Santiago), for instance, makes
you feel like you’re in the middle of an inverted Tetris game. They
have sprouted like mushrooms. These building are allegedly built
to withstand powerful quakes, even exceeding strict construction
codes.

So far, reports are that they fared well. In his NYT op-ed, ‘Santiago
Stands Firm’, architecture professor Sebastián Gray gave the coun-
try the highest marks suggesting that our ‘height of civilization’ ex-
plains why ‘of the thousands of contemporary mid- to high-rises in
Santiago and Concepción, most were able to withstand the quake
with only cosmetic damage, if any. Thank the stringent building
codes and responsible building practices that have existed here
since the devastating earthquakes of 1939 and 1960, which lev-
eled many older structures.’ In his view, the ‘few modern structures
[and highway overpasses] that crumbled’ were ‘spectacular excep-
tions’, that is, the few bad yet unrepresentative rotten apples.

I suspect, however, that this is not quite accurate. One of these

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Solidarity: a socialist, feminist, anti-racist organization

brand new buildings toppled over completely in Concepción, kill-


ing dozens of residents. The bodies of sixty to 100 people are said
to be buried in the rubble; the figure would have been higher, but
it had only recently opened and had not reached full occupancy.
This building was billed as the height of ‘structural quality and
safety’; on February 27 it snapped in two like a matchstick.

A similar two year old building in the Maipu district of the capital
collapsed. Another, built by the same company responsible for the
Concepción deathtrap, has been quietly vacated by officials in the
Nuñoa district. Reports are emerging of other hushed evacuations.
The cosmetic damage reported by Gray seems to be widespread
and irreparable structural disrepair. In Nuñoa, at least one resident
reported that the foundational underground beams had been com-
pressed into ‘S’s’ like putty.

I’m willing to bet this is the case with a number of these new build-
ings. It’s unconceivable that the construction companies did not
cut corners in this unbridled race to erect these buildings. And one
can only speculate the degree to which the endemic corruption
that characterizes the ruling Concertación political coalition in-
cluded inspectors and regulators who took bribes to look the other
way. It is a well known fact that infrastructure concessions were
granted in ways that benefited state brokers who cut profitable
deals with contractors. These arrangements favor the pockets of
officials over the safety of consumers.

The day after the earthquake, a progressive bishop from Rancagua,


a city just south of Santiago, was the lone voice denouncing these
corrupt practices: ‘for a few pesos, men have evaded the law and
have built buildings in a seismic zone that are not made to with-
stand earthquakes.’ So far, this phenomenon has received little
media attention, though, as if anticipating what might come, the
housing minister warned that the government would not hesitate
to prosecute companies that violated building codes. I won’t at all
be surprised if in the coming weeks scandals start to emerge. It
seems ‘the degree of relaxation of the proud building standards
of this country’ lamented by Gray, far from being exceptional, is
widespread indeed.

In addition, entire sections of hospitals have collapsed.

Talca’s public hospital is illustrative. In of the neediest cities, the

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Massive Earthquake Shatters Myth of Chilean Exceptionalism:
Deep Class Faultlines Exposed

hospital has been forced to operate outdoors. Already suffering


a systemic crisis, hospitals such as these—the very ones that the
poor depend on—have been put out of commission in spite of
having been built in theory to withstand severe quakes. The dev-
astation of hospitals explains why, after days of denial and then
ambivalence, the Chilean government is finally pleading for inter-
national aid in the form of field hospitals.

Of course, the most vulnerable of the population will probably re-


ceive the least assistance from the state. Peruvian immigrants in
Santiago, for instance, have been particularly hard hit. In recent
years, tens of thousands of Peruvians have migrated to Chile to
work as construction workers, restaurant workers, domestic work-
ers, and in the informal market. They basically live in the shadows.
Many had settled in the old quarters of Santiago center. These con-
tain the buildings most affected in the capital. I’ve gotten sporadic
reports of old brick and adobe buildings collapsing on families. As
these people live semi-clandestine lives in Chile, getting an accu-
rate account of the damage they’ve suffered will be difficult. Worse
still, they do not have the influence to get the help they need at a
time like this.

Proto-Class War?

There are interesting reports of looting coming out of Chile fol-


lowing the quake [see video: http://cnn.com/video/?/video/
world/2010/02/28/st.claire.chile.aftermath.cnn]. Like a small tsu-
nami, these people, Chile’s working class, are doing what is nec-
essary to obtain the milk, food, diapers, water, medicine, and gas
-- the fuel everyone relies on for cooking and heating -- they need
to survive.

And of course, they are being


met with repression. Reports
of people taking these basic
necessities have been ac-
companied by the obligatory
accounts of looters taking
advantage of the situation to
pillage TVs and appliances.
The right-wing (UDI) mayor
of Concepción made hys-
terical declarations about in-

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Solidarity: a socialist, feminist, anti-racist organization

dependent shop keepers defending their modest patrimony with


shotguns from tumultuous bands of thugs. Another mayor of the
region has exhorted cops to shoot to kill. Reminiscent of Katrina,
there seems to be a campaign to create a certain political climate.
(The underlying message seems to be that poor mothers may, per-
haps, have the right to feed their children, but when the rabble
tries to enjoy the comforts of modern technology, they are cross-
ing the line.)

It’s not clear how much if any popular organization there is in


these attempts to obtain food and confront the police. Though
some reported that the looters were ‘more organized’ (than what?),
most of it appears pretty spontaneous.

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Massive Earthquake Shatters Myth of Chilean Exceptionalism:
Deep Class Faultlines Exposed

What is clear is that the state is responding with a heavy hand.


Even before the troops were deployed, the police, programmed
from years of putting down street demonstrations, responded to
the crowds by firing tear gas canisters and aiming their high pow-
ered water tanks at the looters. Further, and most interesting, it
seems that the state decided on this response after meeting with
the top supermarket and retail executives. These industry heads
demanded and got a meeting with Bachelet and her interior minis-
ter, Perez Yoma, a powerful Concertacion cacique, when they saw
that people were taking matters into their own hands.

Besides Carabineros, Chile’s national police force, Bachelet decid-


ed to send in the armed forces. Troops have been deployed to Con-
cepcion, Temuco and other affected cities and towns as I write this.
Another outcome of the meeting was a curfew that first imposed in
Concepción from 9pm to 6am, and later extended to other towns
and longer hours. Naturally, these measures will be presented as
an effort to guarantee the delivery of goods in an orderly fashion.
The government has already announced distribution of a basket
of basic goods for those that behave.

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Solidarity: a socialist, feminist, anti-racist organization

What the episode makes clear is who calls the shots in Chile. At-
tention to this issue did not emerge until business forcefully raised
its concerns. The state will now take minor steps to distribute
some goods to the affected poor. But the main message of its ac-
tions was that it immediately stepped up to make sure that the pri-
vate property of the huge retailers, and their fundamental power
to shape the distribution of commodities, would not be threatened
even when the goods will probably go bad or be thrown away.

Bringing in the Military

Apparently, the story is more complicated than cops being over-


whelmed and then the army being sent at the behest of business
leaders, though this is certainly part of it.

Sunday morning, as people woke up in Concepción only one day


after the quake, they immediately headed to the new mega-mar-
kets (WalMart types) to take advantage of this opportunity to ac-
quire the goods they usually have trouble acquiring. At that time,
the Carabineros, the national police force, ALLOWED women to go
and get what was needed. I imagine this was the result of two fac-
tors: a) their fear of the enraged poor, b) their own popular origins,
and c) their sympathetic inability to turn away masses of mothers
at a moment like this.

Two things happened at this point. First, things did get out of hand.
They were unable to do this in an orderly fashion. When people
heard what was happening, they rushed over. Young men in par-
ticular started ‘riling things up’, liberally taking and distributing all
kinds of goods to those gathered. Second, and more importantly,
the retail and supermarket executivess got wind of this unaccept-
able reality--cops ALLOWING workers to take was they needed!--
and it was at this point that they held their meeting with Bachelet,
a meeting that is no longer being reported in the news.

Helped by the sensationalist harangues of Concepcion’s mayor,


Bachelet and Perez Yoma at that point acceded to business’ de-
mand to send in the army. At this point, most of the affected towns
of the South have been heavily militarized. There are now 11,000
troops in Concepción alone! Their treatment of local residents
has been extremely violent and arbitrary. Scenes of soldiers de-
taining and pointing their guns at workers are reminiscent of the

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Massive Earthquake Shatters Myth of Chilean Exceptionalism:
Deep Class Faultlines Exposed

military’s behavior after the 1973 coup. Yet this time, the Socialist
Party is squarely behind the repression. Bachelet and other heads
of the SP have thrown their full weight behind these measures;
indeed, they ordered them!

The New York Times reporting on this is confused (what’s new?).

‘But law enforcement authorities, heeding the cries of


residents that they lacked food and water, eventually
settled on a system that allowed staples to be taken but
not televisions and other electronic goods. Ms. Bachelet
announced that the government had reached a deal with
supermarket chains to give away food to needy residents.
Her aides also called on residents not to hoard gas or food,
both of which were being bought up in huge amounts by
residents fearful of shortages.’

The ‘settlement’ allowing staples to be taken was the on the ground


reality before the meeting. Since then, it’s hard to imagine that the
supermarket chains agreed to give away food. By Sunday night,
there were 1300-1500 troops on the streets of Concepcion. 2000+
were deployed to the region. By this Monday morning 160+ resi-
dents of Concepcion had been arrested for looting. The following
day, up to 100 more were arrested. It’s hard to imagine that you
would need such a militarization and that so many people would
have to be forcefully apprehended if the big supermarkets were
giving away food. In fact, I have found no reports of these super-
market chains fulfilling their part of the alleged deal.

The repressive logic of the militarization has even hampered res-


cue efforts. As the NYT reported, ‘firefighters in Concepcion were
about to lower a rescuer deep into the rubble when the scent of
tear gas fired at looters across the street forced them to interrupt
their efforts.’ Warding off looters obviously took priority over sav-
ing lives! Yet, as the high numbers of detainees on Tuesday sug-
gests, the looters did not back down without first making their
point. When the state’s hardware prevented them from ‘redistrib-
uting’ goods from the megastores, they first set them ablaze before
relinquishing the streets.

Part of the motivation of some of the looters was a shapeless class


rage aimed precisely at emptying these stores. People know that
they, their families and their neighbors don’t have access to this

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Solidarity: a socialist, feminist, anti-racist organization

stuff, so the idea for a minority of the looters is to take everything


(or at least leave nothing), even if they can’t directly consume it
all. Better to have the stuff in their control, in their neighborhoods,
rather than on the shelves of closed supermarkets.

Targeting the Point of Consumption

The earthquake exposed a basic reality of today’s Chile. There are


the millions of working people who have been systematically ex-
cluded from/by the current development model. What you see in
the faces of the thousands of people looting is desperation to se-
cure the goods needed for daily survival. Vast chunks of Chile’s
working class live day to day in the most precarious conditions.
“People have gone days without eating,” said Orlando Salazar, one
of the looters at the supermarket. “The only option is to come here
and get stuff for ourselves.” He said this only 24 hours after the
quake.

His exaggeration reflected more than the hyperbole that these ca-
lamities evoke; workers in Concepción, and throughout Chile, ex-
perience chronic deprivation. Ironically, the quake offered them
the opportunity to obtain the food, water, etc., which under normal
circumstances they are not sure to come by. The quake has thus
revealed the daily and basic material uncertainty that neoliberal-
ism has produced for large swaths of the working class in Chile.

Whereas popular attempts by Haitians to cover their basic necessi-


ties (which were also met with guns) represented a collective sense
of abandonment and were organized to address needs commu-
nally, in Chile the looting reflects an paroxysmal reaction by des-
perate workers grabbing a small piece of what one of the world’s
most unequal societies denies them on a daily basis. Moreover, as
these workers who survive in the informal economy have at best a
precarious foothold in formal labor markets, their grievances are
far more likely to explode against sites of consumption and dis-
tribution rather than at the point of production. At the same time,
the neoliberal state will increasingly respond to the exacerbation
of social problems through the barrel of the gun.

A return to class politics?

A final question involves what political developments we might


expect following the earthquake. Here are very brief comments.

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Massive Earthquake Shatters Myth of Chilean Exceptionalism:
Deep Class Faultlines Exposed

For one, I think that the disaster will tend to bolster the current
regime in Chile. The two competing alliances will confront this
situation with common language and policies. This is clear in their
shared desire for and appreciation of the militarized response.
This will tend to reinforce their power-sharing arrangements and
lock in their hold on governing institutions.

On the other side of the political ledger, unfortunately, things are


not too encouraging. Unlike in Haiti, there are no strong move-
ments and popular organizations that we can expect to be reacti-
vated and to make coherent and defensible demands on the state.
Instead, we might see the initial building blocks of new move-
ments as people organize to address their basic needs and to re-
spond to the state’s inefficacy and/or class bias in reconstruction
efforts. Unfortunately the radical left is so weakened, that they will
be unable to play a very important and constructive role when and
if these fights emerge. Given this layout of political forces, it’s hard
to imagine that the very real class rage that exists in Chile will be
channeled into a coherent and purposeful radical class agenda.

But, on a more promising note, people may be more open to in-


dependent class politics as they directly experience the state’s

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Solidarity: a socialist, feminist, anti-racist organization

blatant anti-popular and exclusionary response to the earthquake.


The repression of ordinary folks trying to feed their families alone
is definitely going to piss more than a few off. As their daily rou-
tines are disrupted, they will be thrust into new struggles and be
open to new analyses. Already there are signs that people are turn-
ing to self-organization. As one Santiago resident warned: ‘Soon,
people are going to start organizing and demanding that [officials]
fulfill the many promises they have made on television and radio’.

There could be a repeat of the popular response to the 1985 Mexi-


co City earthquake, when people, left to fend for themselves, orga-
nized relief and reconstruction efforts on a community and neigh-
borhood basis. This self-activity of workers and the urban poor
was one of the factors that fed into the mass mobilizations and
insurgent movements that exploded during the ensuing decade. If
the small and till now marginal left can step in and provide a bit of
direction to incipient post-earthquake organizing efforts in Chile,
there may be promising baby steps in the right direction.

page 26
elections in chile:
a loss for the left?

Rene Rojas is an activist in New York City.


These articles first appeared on the Solidarity website:
www.solidarity-us.org

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