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The dictatorship has not ended: Chile’s September riots

Under the current democratic regime, the annual performance of violence in Chile’s marginalised neighbourhoods is often met with indifference. Are these clashes merely a safety valve for public violence, or can Chilean society learn something from them?

Camila Vallejo, former leader of the 2011 student movement. Demotix/prensachile3. All rights reserved. Camila Vallejo, former leader of the 2011 student movement. Demotix/prensachile3. All rights reserved.Every year, 11 September in Chile’s ‘poblaciones’, its marginalised neighbourhoods, is marked by social unrest. On the anniversary of the 1973 coup d’etat,  violent clashes are inevitably staged with the police, who arrive to protect private and public property. Barricades block main streets in the neighbourhoods and hooded people attack police cars and tankettes. And every year, police brutality and public violence result in detentions and injury.

These contemporary expressions of social violence, performed every year, reenact the confrontations of the 1980s between ‘población’ dwellers and the military dictatorship. Back then, ‘población’ dwellers engaged in deadly clashes with the military, deploying stones, sticks, and Molotov cocktails. Those confrontations became regular forms of resistance against authoritarianism, the daily military repression, and human rights abuses.

But under the current democratic regime, such confrontations merely seem to echo those that occurred during the dictatorship. After 25 years of democratic rule, violence in the ‘poblaciones’ is often met with popular indifference. There is an urgent question. Are these clashes simply an empty way of offloading violence, or can Chilean society learn something from them?

I argue that although it appears as an isolated phenomenon, this unrest expresses the full spirit of Chile’s process of politicisation over the last 25 years.

Grassroots politicisation

I describe the process whereby people exercise their power to influence public affairs as ‘politicisation’. While over the last 15 years an increasing share of Chileans have become interested in having a political role, expressions of collective action have detached themselves from political parties. In other words, the politicisation of Chilean society is one that has gradually removed itself from the political parties.

The former student movement leader and Communist party member Camila Vallejo understood that any sign of prioritising party interests over those of the movement would threaten the student assembly’s autonomy, resulting in a loss of leadership. The Communist Cristián Cuevas also needed to distance himself from party politics to successfully lead the 37 days’ strike of subcontracted mining workers in 2007, setting an important precedent for the mining labour movement. Social movements have been led in reaction to the parties’ collusion with private economic interests and consistent efforts to co-opt organisations, reducing politics to an electoral matter only.

Accordingly, all other movements have had to take a particular stand regarding party politics and the government. As one of the most innovative campaigns for social housing, the Movement of Dwellers in the Struggle (MPL) has made this relationship very explicit, claiming that their struggle is ‘without, within, and against’ institutional politics. Divided into a strand more sympathetic to party politics and another rejecting any electoral logic, Democratic Revolution (RD) is another movement that has needed to keep a distance from political parties. In fact, despite becoming country-wide and having parliamentary representation, RD has decided to define itself as a ‘movement,’ explicitly asserting autonomy from electoral games.

This scenario differs radically from the one that Chile experienced before 1989. In those years differentiating grassroots from party politics was not simple, because most people involved in social movements also belonged to political parties. Unlike today, parties were at the core of Chilean politicisation, which ubiquitously permeated all national processes. Parties’ ideological commitment was so strong that their actions only partially had electoral aims. When the Socialist party coordinated urban land take-overs in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it mainly intended to supply the poor with what they had been historically deprived of, namely land. Later, during the dictatorship (1973–1989), parties were not concerned with electoral interests: belonging to a political party became a way of struggling against the military, over human rights, and democracy.

The September riots

Endorsing the idea that Chile has constructed a democracy infused with the spirit of marketing over the last 25 years, in the acclaimed 2012 film No, Gael García Bernal plays the role of a brilliant and creative publicist who successfully designs the campaign that seduced Chileans to vote in favour of democracy in the 1988 referendum. But for many Chileans, Pablo Larraín’s film completely neglects a national political reality. The truth is that the return to democracy was orchestrated much earlier than the referendum. Since the early 1980s, a coalition of centre-left political parties – called 'Concertación' – negotiated a democratic transition with the right wing and the military.

As a result, the early 1990s saw a Chilean society with a highly unsuccessful process of transitional justice due to a constitution created in 1980 that extended dictatorial public policies, and a set of laws that prevented Chile from realising full democracy. This marked a strong de-coupling on the left: much more engaged with grassroots popular organisations, many leftists, the Communist party, and factions of the Socialist party had created a revolutionary project for a new society built upon defeating the dictatorship – and not negotiating with it. Not supported by the rest of the centre-left parties during the 1980s, this revolutionary project became relegated at the expense of arrangements benefiting local elites and transnational corporations. A great deal of Chile’s current regulations favouring economic private interests have their roots in the authoritarian dictatorship.

The figures for growth, consumption, and poverty in the last 25 years may appear promising. But it is undeniable that such developments have not accounted for all of Chile’s voices. It is this neglect, together with historical frustration, that motivates the violent confrontations of the 'poblaciones' every 11 September. One may be inclined to ask: why do people choose violence, stones, and Molotov cocktails instead of words and arguments?

These people feel that they have been denied their voices. Poor neighbourhoods choose to recreate the same clashes that occurred during the dictatorship. They employ violence and an emblematic date to theatrically bring the dictatorship to the present. With no words they manage to convey the powerful idea that in Chile, the dictatorship never ended, because they feel as politically relegated as they did when Pinochet ruled.

The Chilean student movement is one of the most organised, populated, and convincing movements seen in Latin America in the last 20 years. Called the Chilean Winter by the New York Times (recalling the Arab Spring in 2010), this student movement coordinated monthly marches during the second half of 2011. Portrayed by the media as the biggest demonstrations since the return to democracy, the movement managed to gather more than 150,000 people in some protests. Students occupied schools, universities and institutions, undertook hunger strikes, and even dressed like zombies to dance Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ in front of the presidential palace. Sebastián Piñera’s neoliberal government (2010 – 2014) completely neglected the students’ demands, responding by strengthening police repression.

Although Michelle Bachelet’s current centre-left government has addressed the issue, students are still struggling to have the core of their demands heard. Students claim that decisions are being made behind closed doors, and suggest that the drafted educational reform only reflects politicians’ collusion with private economic interests.

The politicisation of social movements in the last few years and the annual clashes in poor neighbourhoods express the reality that since the dictatorship, Chile’s political institutions have allowed themselves to systematically neglect and regularly oppress those voices on the margins of society.

About the author

Simón Escoffier is a DPhil candidate at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford, and a postgraduate research associate at the Oxford Programme for the Future of Cities. As an activist he has been involved in student organisations, groups defending health rights, and other movements defending the right to the city. Simón Escoffier's research is concerned with social movements of the urban poor in Chile and Latin America. Follow him on Twitter @SimEscoff


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