Interview with a Chilean activist

Following massive protests in 2011 and 2019, 78% have Chileans have voted to remove Pinochet’s constitution


Interview with Rafaela Apel Marcel in Los Molles, Chile

Hi Rafaela. Could you start by telling us who you are and where you are currently politically active?

Hi Phil. I am a Chilean-German and am 38 year old. I was born in Germany, grew up in Chile, then moved to Germany as a teenager. Now I’m in Chile again with my own teenage daughter.

Currently, I’m part of a small collective called “Cabildo Ciudadano” (Citizen Assembly) in Los Molles, a small village at the central coast where I live. The collective was originally created to organize just that, citizen assemblies, in order to start writing a new constitution, as what we are “just” citizens and not experts. But the news that yet another huge and ugly construction project was underway, buildings with hundreds of apartments to be placed just in front of the beach and just over the wetlands around the water channel between the mountain and the sea, forced the collective to focus on stopping this.

It is not just that the wetlands that will be destroyed with all their amazing flora and fauna. Hundreds of new apartments with all those summer visitors will also worsen the problem of water supply, drainage and electricity in the village. All those housing companies care about is money and they go on with their construction in spite of repeated protests and partial legal achievements of the citizen organizations in Los Molles.

You grew up as the daughter of Chilean political prisoners who fled to Germany. A couple of years ago, you returned to Chile. Why did you return, and was Chile what you expected it to be?

Yes, my parents were Communist Party members in the time of Allende and fled to Germany from the subsequent military dictatorship. They met for the first time in the city of Frankfurt-Main, where they remained politically active in solidarity with the Chilean people.

I was born in Frankfurt and my parents returned to Chile with me in the mid 80’s as Pinochet’s government started to give signs of decay. So I grew up in Chile and returned to Germany with my parents when I was a teenager. The first time they fled from the dictatorship, the second time they moved to Germany seeking better job opportunities.

Now, after 20 years living in Germany, explaining why I returned to Chile is a bit difficult. I think there are many reasons. My parents moved to Chile first, and being close to my parents is surely one reason. Generally, I think I put on my thinking cap and decided that the advantages of living in a country with this overwhelming nature and warm people outweighed the economic difficulties I partly knew that I would have. After all, living by the ocean and/or the mountains and having many friends also means a better quality of life.

On the other hand, after 20 years of living in Germany, I became very accustomed to having a living wage and the basic services ensured for me and my daughter. I now realize that I idealized a bit the things that I missed from Chile. I knew, of course, that life was harder in Chile than in one of the most prosperous countries of Europe, and I thought I was ready to face that fact. But coming back has actually been much more difficult than I expected.

Living in a rural area, the chances of getting a job contract in my profession are very low. Also, only now am I getting a sense of the living conditions in which most Chileans live and I am starting to really internalize the anger and impotence people feel here, even though I still don’t count as one of the poorest.

It’s like absolutely no service is functioning well while you work too hard long hours for what does not even amount to a living wage, all the while the wealthy are hoarding unimaginable sums of money, not only through exploitation, but also from stealing directly from people’s resources. Here you get a permanent sense of injustice. It’s like every day, one way or the other, you get a reminder that capitalism is an unjust society.

How much of the old Pinochet régime remains?

The constitution of 1980, written under Pinochet, is the most significant element remaining from the military dictatorship, because it preserved and guaranteed its ideological bases beyond its own temporal span.

In 1980 the AFP system was established which is a pension system run by investment funds and which came as a market friendly alternative to the redistributive and solidary character of the previous one. The AFP system requires high contributions and at the same time provides miserable pensions. It consists of personal and forced savings in individual accounts, which are not ultimately a solidarity fund.

Alejandra Matus, Chilean journalist and writer dedicated to the spread of information about human right abuses under Pinochet’s regime, explains in her book “Myths and Truths of the AFP” how that system makes it impossible to get decent pensions. Citizens have protested nationwide with the movement called “No+AFP” (AFP no more).

In 1981 Pinochet privatized the institutions of higher education which were previously free of charge. Neither the 2011 massive student protests nor the new leftist political organizations that emanated from them have been able to substantially change that.

This same year the “Isapres” were created, which are health insurance institutions run by the private sector to finance health care, which the majority of Chileans can’t access because of its high charges. For the rest of the people there is the state run FONASA which collects 7% of employees’ monthly income.

Since 1939 abortion under certain conditions was legal, safe and free, but in 1989 Pinochet criminalized the interruption of pregnancy under any circumstance. By the end of 2017 abortion was decriminalized, but only on three grounds: rape, risk of the mother’s life and unviable pregnancy.

Finally, the Chilean police institution with its military character and constant human right abuses is another thing remaining from Pinochet’s era.

How has Chile been affected by the “pink tide” in Latin America?

In Chile there was no “pink tide”, meaning the wave of somewhat progressive governments like Venezuela. With all the difficulties and failures of those governments, the fact that a huge amount of people, at least for a while, were participating in government decisions in a democratic way, makes them totally different from what happened in Chile under Bachelet’s presidency.

Her so-called “center left” government was the continuation of a coalition named “Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia” (Coalition of Parties for Democracy), a conglomerate of center left and center right parties that took power after the 1988 national plebiscite in which the majority of Chileans rejected Pinochet’s rule. Their objective was to reinstate democracy in Chile, and it is true that mass incarceration and the torture under Pinochet stopped, but they essentially continued Pinochet’s legacy and the whole project of establishing neoliberalism in Chile.

What the governments of the Concertación actually did was to administer, under the flag of democracy, the neoliberal project of the so-called “Chicago Boys”, a group of Chilean economists working with Pinochet who sought to drastically implement deregulation, privatization, and other free market policies.

Bachlet’s second term followed the massive student protests of 2011 and promised a series of changes, among which was the drafting of a new constitution and “free education”. But her government did little. Indeed, an example of their strategy to administer democracy under the motto “changing everything to change nothing” is the way in which they handled the 2011 student movement. Instead of providing free and quality education for all, the government limited itself to granting individual students a kind of loan for education, for which poor students had to apply.

So, after bureaucratic inspection, some poor students “won” their entry into university, which is obviously far from the student movement’s demand of education as a basic right. Out of the profound critique and the comprehensive proposals student leaders laid on the table, the government made nothing more than to grant a miserable coupon.

Bachelet suppressed further student protests and continued the repression of indigenous communities in southern Chile using Pinochet’s anti-terrorist law. In addition, the largest labor union federation (CUT) associated and collaborated with Bachelet’s coalition, with the Chilean Communist Party itself joining the government.

Looking from abroad this could be seen as a “progressive” government, given that the left is somehow in it, and indeed many people abroad thought that Bachelet was making significant changes, but the reality looks very different.

Can you tell us something about the recent protests in Chile which started as a protest against transport prices?

As young students heard the news that a subway journey would cost 30 pesos more, instead of responding with the typical submissive reaction they knew from their parents, they opted for civil disobedience and mass fare-dodging. They refused to continue seeing their parents pay more and more transportation fees while they didn’t even earn enough to pay other basic needs like education itself or health care, or sometimes even food. The minimum wage is at $320.000 pesos (360 Euros) although the prices of basic needs are partly comparable to European ones. Thus, having more than one job and going into debt is sometimes the only way to survive.

So student protests were seen by the wider population as totally justified and protesters went to the streets to support the children, among which were also their teachers. The protest rapidly transformed in a nationwide uprising, which was heavily repressed by Piñera’s government with some dozen deaths, thousands of young people arrested, some of which are still today in “preventive arrest” without a trial; people who lost their vision in one or both eyes as a result of pellets shot by police directly in their faces; scenes of torture in police and even in metro stations, etc.

One of the most significant slogans of the protest was “It is not about 30 pesos, it is about 30 years”, alluding to the decades of the so called “transition to democracy”, in which the savage neoliberalism implanted by the dictatorship was strengthened by both conservative and so called “progressive” or “center left” governments AFTER the official end of dictatorship in 1990.

Chile is currently voting for a new constitution. Why?

At least since the 2011 massive student protests, there is a broad awareness among citizens about the need to change Pinochet’s constitution. Throughout the constitution, in every crucial issue the freedom of the market is favored over everything else — it is designed to make socialization of basic human needs impossible.

So every time social movements gain enough support to advance the cause of winning universal access to a service, the government in place brings the amendment proposal to the constitutional court, to which the court systematically responds by declaring the proposed amendment “unconstitutional”. For this reason, the drafting of a new constitution became a key demand during the 2019 unrest.

On November 15 of the same year, the leadership of all political parties, except for the Communist Party, signed the “Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution” – completely behind the backs of the people and even of their own party bases. This Agreement established obstacles for the Constitutional Convention.

The most criticized restriction has been the rule that established a quorum of ⅔ of the convention’s delegates for an article to be approved. For the opposition, this rule would make significant changes impossible, since just ⅓ of the delegates would be sufficient to have veto power, that is, to stop the approval of any discussed article. But there were also other restrictions, like the prohibition of revising international treaties or the character of the Republic, mainly undermining the Convention’s autonomy and sovereignty.

The referendum consisted of two questions: Do you want a new constitution? Agree/Disagree – and – Which type of organ should write the new constitution? Mixed Convention or Constitutional Convention.

78% of the voters were in favor of getting rid of Pinochet’s constitution and in favour of people’s ability to directly choose the totality of the constituent members in a “Constitutional Convention”, over the proposal of a “Mixed Convention” with a fifty-fifty share of popularly elected members and current members of the congress.

The constitutional elections in Chile have seen massive wins for independents. Who are these independents and what do they stand for?

I think the vote for independent candidates is a direct reflection of the general crisis of the political system, a crisis whose effects we have seen worldwide every now and then since 2011, with protests and occupations demanding, or better said, trying to establish more effective forms of participation in political decision making.

We have also seen this in the emergence of new political parties both to the left and to the right of the “two party system”, as in many countries around the world with that kind of low intensity democracy. It especially reflects the popular rejection of traditional political parties. People seem to reject both the parties of the opposed political wing (there were right wing independent candidates as well) and their own traditional leaders, opting for candidates with a political trajectory that is closer to social movements or at least for candidates with a “clean” political curriculum, free from corruption.

As for the massive vote for leftist candidates, I think the 2019 revolt has everything to do with it. “Chile despertó” (Chile has awakened), another frequently heard protest slogan, means that workers are becoming more and more aware of how economic and political elites are enriching themselves to the detriment of the people, which also translates into a growing awareness of who are their main adversaries in the political arena. Also, the many effects of the health crisis caused by Covid-19 in Chile intensified social injustices to the point of exemplifying them, this way contributing to said awareness.

On the other hand, the difficulty of collecting thousands of signatures in order to put an independent candidate on the ballot meant that many independent leftist candidates opted to go to elections with the patronage of a political party. Some went with the Frente Amplio, others with the Communist Party, others chose to unite within an independent list, a tactic that in the end had very good results.

So, the point is that the massive vote for leftist candidates doesn’t necessarily mean a blind trust from the part of the voters of the leftist opposition parties, nor does it mean that their vote was nothing more than a “populist” vote, as some critics within the left are suggesting.

On the contrary, the fact that the independent lists got more votes than the Frente Amplio and the Communist party together, proves that voters are not blindly following any established political force. From the other point of view: this is the time for the Frente Amplio to prove that they side with the people.

The Communist Party, for its part, is now gradually recovering from a drop in credibility, mainly because of the good management of one of its members, Daniel Jadue, as mayor of Recoleta, a district of Santiago. Both Gabriel Boric from the Frente Amplio and Daniel Jadue (who, by the way, is of Palestinian descent) are looking forward to present their candidacy to the presidency.

It looks like the right wing will not win the one-third of the vote needed to stop constitutional changes. What will this mean in practise?

It was a two-day election. On Saturday, very few people went to the ballot boxes apart from the people living in districts that traditionally vote for the right wing, with a turnout of just around 30-35%. The reason was partly that many people feared that the ballot boxes could be manipulated overnight and preferred to wait until Sunday to cast their votes.

But on Sunday morning, the low turnout continued. Political television programmes started analysing the reasons for the low turnout and you could read the left wing on social media already starting to blame each other for the impending defeat.

Fabiola Campillai, one of the many people who were shot in the eyes and blinded during the 2019 protests, appeared on television seemingly disappointed by the low turnout. After all, what was the point of voting to change the constitution and then letting the right wing write the same one with a few cosmetic changes? Were protesters imprisoned, injured and tortured for nothing?

I think this was the turning point, because many people suddenly feared a right wing victory and ran to the ballot boxes a few hours before closing, with many people from poorer districts even denouncing the low availability of public transportation to get to them.

Some election result facts:

  • The Constitutional Convention will be made up of 155 Convention members, 81 women and 74 men;
  • The ruling party concentrated 63% of campaign financing for Constituents, but only obtained 24% of the seats;
  • Piñera’s government lost key governorships and mayorships;
  • Rodrigo Mundaca, historical social fighter for water rights, won the governorship of Valparaíso in the first round;
  • The Christian Democratic Party won only 2 seats in the Convention;
  • The corrective mechanism of Parity in the Convention was applied more to integrate men than to integrate women;
  • There will be at least 6 LGBTIQ constituents;
  • The far-right Republican Party failed;
  • An ancestral authority of the Mapuche People, Machi Francisca Linconao, will be writing the new Constitution of Chile.

Nobody expected these results. The right wing parties together didn’t even reach the ⅓ of the votes needed to be able to veto the approval of any discussed article of the new constitution. That’s one of the most surprising results of the election. Also, it is now more than evident that the ruling coalition has lost its electoral base, a condition that is making them consider withdrawing their candidacies.

Together with the right wing, the candidates of former president Bachelet’s ex-coalition mentioned above, the now non-existent Concertación, were the big losers of the election. So here we have two main political pillars of the prevailing regime losing their electoral base completely.

Now, with this unexpected change of circumstances, some are saying that it wouldn’t be tactically wise for leftist movements to bring down the rule of the 2/3 , because then it would be easy for the right wing together with the renegades of the Concertación to obtain a relative majority without there being a veto power to stop them. Instead, the left should expand the repertoire of participation by incorporating and recognizing decisive, participatory, consultative and binding mechanisms towards citizens.

What is the state of the Chilean left? How well prepared are they to benefit from the changing mood?

I think the future of the leftist forces is directly linked to their ability to correspond to the popular aspirations manifested in the 2019 unrest. What this election definitely demonstrated is that the destituent power of the revolt is very well alive and kicking and that the overwhelming majority of the population wants radical changes. The left will have to avoid hesitating when it comes to putting up a fight for those changes, and to avoid giving in to the pressures of both the right wing and the ex-Concertación.

Regarding the Constitutional Convention, the terms established by the Peace Agreement do not make this task very easy. In general, the fact that there is no common radical (constitutional) program behind which leftist forces would unify, results in immediatism, electoralism and subordination to the politics of the transition. But the “Chile that has awakened” is going to punish opportunistic politics from leftist parties as well. Leftist forces will need to push for a break with the Peace Agreement’s restrictions, opening up the constitutional debate towards popular and left organizations and also to the general public.

In spite of the sudden delayed participation in the election, the ultimately low turnout (about 42,5%) requires further analysis. The votes of confidence for the new constitution and the convention are fragile votes, and their steadiness will depend a lot on how the convention unfolds and on the new mayors’ performance. In Chilean society, there is a deep skepticism expressed in the high abstention of particularly young voters, who voted in the plebiscite for a new constitution written by popularly elected constituents but did not mobilize to elect its representatives.

As I said earlier, now is the time for the left to show which side they are on and to act. Whether the left is well prepared for this task remains to be seen.

A final question: we are seeing great upheavals in Palestine, say, or in Colombia. To what extent is this reflected in Chilean politics?

In Chile, there is a huge community of Palestinians, the largest outside the Middle East. Palestinian migration to Chile goes back to the 19th century. They were initially met with ostracism, but were able to establish themselves over time as successful merchants and entrepreneurs.

The Palestinian community in Chile today represents a wealthy and educated elite that is able to influence politics and state foreign policies, regularly bringing the Palestinian Cause into the agenda using their institutional positions. Palestinian descendants are active for the rights of Palestinians and the liberation of Palestine. I think this is also the reason why the Palestinian Cause is very well understood by the Chilean left.

With the growing number of migrants from other Latin American countries and with the waves of mass anti-neoliberal protests throughout the world that started a decade ago, there is a growing consciousness among the Chilean left of the need to put an eye on popular movements in other countries and of the importance of internationalism to push for radical transformations.

However, there is still a lack of international networks. One major difficulty is to concentrate on a complex national reality and, at the same time, understand and get involved in a different, also complex context.

What’s happening in Palestine or Colombia is met with interest in Chile as well. Popular outbreaks or advances for the left, especially in the continent, make the Chilean left hopeful and people are increasingly able to draw parallels between the movements happening abroad and their own.