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Chile’s Government Agreed to a Constitutional Assembly. Will it Stop the Protests?

November 15, 2019

Even though Chile's President Piñera agreed to hold a referendum on rewriting the constitution, many parties and protesters rejected the agreement because it was passed behind their backs.

Even though Chile's President Piñera agreed to hold a referendum on rewriting the constitution, many parties and protesters rejected the agreement because it was passed behind their backs.


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Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.

Following a month of massive mobilization, protest, and state repression, the government of Chile under right-wing President Sebastián Piñera agreed to one of the protesters’ main demands, which is to rewrite Chile’s Pinochet-era constitution. According to the agreement, which was signed Thursday night, Chileans would vote on a referendum in next April on whether Chile would convoke a constitutional assembly. A separate question would ask about the process for selecting delegates. Then, in October 2020, they would vote on who would serve on this constitutional assembly. Here’s what some of the protesters had to say about why they took part in the protest this month.

SPEAKER: It’s what we want and what we deserve. Dignity. Enough of so much justice and inequality. Enough of a country that belongs to just a few. And that’s the only answer we have from the state. We wouldn’t be here if they provided us with health, safety, education, good jobs.

GREG WILPERT: The protests were followed by a massive wave of repression which led to as many as 24 dead, 230 blinded by shotgun pellets, 179 cases filed against police and military for torture and sexual assault, and as many as 26,000 arrests according to the Supreme court itself. As many 400 protestors remained detained. Here’s a brief sample of how protesters reacted to the repression.

SPEAKER 2: Could you see how they shot him in the chest? It was right in the chest. That’s how they respond to those who go out to protest by hitting pots and pans–and some young people who throw stones. Do you want to go with him? Come on. Let’s take you in.

SPEAKER 3: They hit me behind their vans to torture me without anyone seeing. And they hit me and hit me again. I thought they were going to kill me.

GREG WILPERT: Joining me now to discuss the most recent developments in Chile is Pablo Vivanco; he’s a Chilean-Canadian freelance journalist based in Toronto and recently returned from a trip to Chile. Thanks for joining us today, Pablo.

PABLO VIVANCO: Thanks, Greg.

GREG WILPERT: As I mentioned, you were in Chile last week. What did you see in terms of turnout? Who was protesting and how state force was deployed against the protesters?

PABLO VIVANCO: Yeah. So I was there for about a week in a number of different places in Chile, all over Santiago, Valparaíso, a nearby port city as well as Temuco, which is a place that kind of the epicenter of the Mapuches community and the Mapuche struggles in the Araucanía region. I’m filming a documentary for Red Fish, and I can tell you that what we saw. I’m Chilean. As you just stated, I’ve been going to Chile all my life since I came here from Canada and it was astounding. Every inch of wall around Santiago and all of the cities is spray painted with a graffiti that speaks to the issues that people are going out to the streets for every night. And they leave school, they leave work and they go to protest.

There’s assemblies happening in workplaces, in neighborhoods, by issues, by issues of interest by affinities that people have to discuss the situation and to discuss the solutions, which most people know what the solution is or at least know where it begins, which is the constitution and changing the constitution which was passed under the Pinochet dictatorship. And it has not been changed since. In terms of the repression, it’s something that we saw very viscerally, particularly in the protest that we were in. We were at a number of protests in and around Plaza Italia, which has been where a lot of these centers… The images that you were showing that’s, that’s where that that was, and the police repression is absolutely brutal. They are going out using not only tear gas, tear gas mixed with pepper spray, firing it pretty indiscriminately, really using a very, very brutal force when taking down protesters, shooting shotgun pellets as you’re showing, as you’ve mentioned, I myself was hit with one in the foot luckily. And you see these canisters, the shell casings all around.

Yeah. Like, I mean it’s something that they are… Chilean police generally, it’s like they almost enjoy these types of situations. And you can really tell that it isn’t just that they’re trying to restore order there, they are actually trying to hurt people and they’re using fairly indiscriminate force. And part of the reason that they can do this is because they know they have a high degree of impunity to do so. They know that their officials, their heads have publicly declared that they’re not going to do anything around these cases. There’s also dozens of already official complaints about torture, rape, all kinds of things. And Chile has lived with a high degree of impunity when it comes to these sorts of levels of police violence and brutality.

GREG WILPERT: Now, one of the protests began an opposition to a hike in the subway fare. As you mentioned, their demands rapidly evolved into a blanket rejection of Chile’s neoliberal economic policies and a demand for a new constitution. Now, what is it about this current constitution exactly that protesters are rejecting?

PABLO VIVANCO: Well, the constitution is a both emblematic of what’s wrong in Chile, but it also lays the foundation for all of the contours for what people are out protesting. You’re right. Like what, what catalyzed everything was a transit fair increase that is a result of a private-public partnership that happened under the return to democratic government. But it also happened simultaneous with an electricity cost hike. The constitution; why is the constitution important? Well, not just because it was passed under dictatorship, but because the constitution itself sets up a political and economic structure where the private sector gets to determine everything.

According to the constitution, it’s the private sector that drives the economy. And wherever the private sector is, the public sector cannot go. Not that it should not go, it could not go. So this has a constitution by at an essence limits what the people can actually will into place. Some people from the previous governments have said–and not without cause–that they’ve been handcuffed by the constitution in terms of what reforms they’re allowed to do. Obviously, if you ask people on the streets, it isn’t just about the constitution, it’s about political will, but certainly the constitution as it was structured purposefully by the dictatorship was to make it so that any future government could not undo the sort of laws and reforms that had been instituted under the dictatorship, which were to privatize everything.

This was very deliberately done. You know, lots of people who investigated the matter… I’m sure you know that Chile was the Petri dish for like any paid for neoliberalism around the world. It’s where Milton Friedman’s Chicago boys went in and instituted at the barrel of a gun, the reforms, the things that they wanted to see and then the things that they exported to the region and other parts of the world. But those things have remained in place, and they remained in place through the constitution, which again was purposefully done. The architect of the constitution, Jaime Guzman, declared very proudly that the purpose of the constitution was precisely to limit what future governments could or could not do when it comes to the economy.

GREG WILPERT: Now, it seems that the agreement that was reached between representatives of the protesters and the Piñera government, that is to rewrite Chile’s constitution, it sounds like a major success, but to some such as Chile’s Communist Party and the Humanist Party, which is very important, and which is part of the broad front, which is the new kind of left coalition in Chile. They objected to the agreement now among others. Now why is that? What are they objecting to?

PABLO VIVANCO: Well, it should be clarified that it wasn’t representatives of the people protesting; what the agreement that was passed at the early hours and with without really any public consultation was an agreement between folks that parties that are in Congress. Now, first thing that has to be recognized is that Chile has a parliament that is made up of people that receive less than 50 percent of the vote, like less than 50 percent of the population has turned out in the last two elections since Chile eliminated mandatory voting. Less than 50 percent of the population has voted. Now, of the parties that are represented in there, you’re talking about the traditional right-wing parties, mostly pro penal outfits and then the center, center left parties, which have been governing basically since the early nineties they came to an agreement around a process to rewrite the constitution.

Now it’s got some things definitely that a lot of folks want to see, for example, that there will be a plebiscite before the process and at the end of the process. Now the, the things chart troubling about the agreement from those groups that decided to participate cause the, the parties that you mentioned are also represented in parliament and they weren’t part of this process. Even the broad front, the broad front, some of it’s, some of its groupings did not participate. And in the case of someone like Gabriel Boric, he participated in this and signed onto it by his own individual will, like he did not even consult the political faction within the broad front that he’s part of.

So there’s a lot of controversy around that cause especially what you see on the streets of Chile isn’t being driven by political parties. It’s being driven by people who have had enough, who’ve been frustrated by 30 years of not being heard and seeing their lives become progressively worse. So, that’s what, that’s what you’re seeing right now. That’s what you see in these images, that’s not the political parties, the folks that have now come to this agreement. Now the other important thing which is troubling with this is that according to this agreement, this will have to be passed by two-thirds, which again, this is something that is concerning to a lot of people because for folks out on the streets, this means that the one-third, so a minority, could essentially block anything from moving forward.

Now, the other thing which very immediately draws a concern is the timelines for this. So the first timeline is an April, the next time it is in October. So on some level, a lot of folks see this as an attempt to try to quell things, to have things returned to normalcy after a month of commotion, a month of protest every day, a month of almost every sector of Chilean society being saying in unison that things need to change dramatically, and now a desperate attempt to try to return things to normalcy and without really kind of guarantees. Cause at the end of the day the folks who made this agreement are the same people that have driven all the policies that people are going out and protesting.

GREG WILPERT: So do you expect that the protest was end now or do you think they might still continue because of those shortcomings that you’re talking about?

PABLO VIVANCO: I think certainly that there will be lots of people that will continue protesting. There’ll be lots of people that will not be satisfied with what’s happened with, with and with particularly how this has happened. You’ve probably seen this out there. Aside from the parties that you’ve mentioned out on the streets, like getting in, I’ve already seen things kind of circulating social media where a lot of this has been driven. And I’m not saying it’s, it’s stayed within social media. I’m saying that social media has played a role in terms of bringing people out into the streets. But that is really the power of this. So the folks that have been on the streets, those, those folks aren’t going to listen to their — they’re not listening to the political parties. They don’t want to listen to the political.

GREG WILPERT: So finally, grassroots groups began forming in citizen assemblies throughout Chile, the course of, I mean leading up to these protests and I mean before that, but they especially started meeting also during these protests. Give us an idea as to what these were about and what they look like and whether and how they, those might continue now that to an agreement to at least between parties has been reached with respect to the forming of a new constitution.

PABLO VIVANCO: Well, lots of people want a bottom-up process. They want a process that’s taking place in the communities, that’s taking place among social movements. They don’t want this to be driven by state institutions or political parties. So we went out there, we saw certain community level assemblies where people are talking about the problems in the society, the problems as a whole, not just potholes and the things that are missing in my community and they’re trying to come together. They’re trying to build a space where they can kind of continue to work together on these things. That’s what we saw.

And it’s not just taking place in community. Like I said, there are these cabildos, those are assemblies taking place of workplaces. Even government ministry where places or by interest, folks that are cultural workers or people that are interested in environmental issues, climate change. So all of these things are kind of happening simultaneous with the protest. I believe that those things will continue and that, I think, ultimately one of the spaces that’s going to drive this moment moving forward.

GREG WILPERT: Very interesting development, I must say. But we’ll see where this leads. We’re going to have to leave it there for now. I’m speaking to Pablo Vivanco, Chilean-Canadian freelance journalist. Thanks again, Pablo, for having joined us today. And thank you for joining The Real News Network.

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