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

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) regions were particularly hard hit.

Damage from earthquake

After initial reports that seriously underestimated the quake’s devastation, 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 preparedness and subsequent relief efforts. Even progressive seismologist 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 valid. Yet there are at least three differences we should not lose sight 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, Chileans, 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.

One has to wonder at the outcome if the quake in Chile had been centered right next to and right beneath Santiago’s or Concepción’s poor neighborhoods. Still, as the disparate death tolls suggest (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 reality 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 Chilean 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 million 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 solidarity of the business world’. Since then, relief plans have focused on private donations by way of Sabado Gigante host Don Francisco’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 discussions about whether to declare the affected zones as disaster areas eligible for state resources. Further, the top brass of the armed forces is claiming that it took days to receive orders to mobilize for 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 warning, much less help evacuating. When the Tsanamis hit a few hours after the quake, they washed away entire fishing and beach communities 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 damage 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 middle 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.

Santiago building boom

So far, reports are that they fared well. In his NYT op-ed, ‘Santiago Stands Firm’, architecture professor Sebastián Gray gave the country the highest marks suggesting that our ‘height of civilization’ explains 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 leveled many older structures.’ In his view, the ‘few modern structures [and highway overpasses] that crumbled’ were ‘spectacular exceptions’, that is, the few bad yet unrepresentative rotten apples.

I suspect, however, that this is not quite accurate. One of these brand new buildings toppled over completely in Concepción, killing 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 compressed into ‘S’s’ like putty.

I’m willing to bet this is the case with a number of these new buildings. 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 included 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 withstand 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 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 devastation of hospitals explains why, after days of denial and then ambivalence, the Chilean government is finally pleading for international aid in the form of field hospitals.

Of course, the most vulnerable of the population will probably receive 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 workers, and in the informal market. They basically live in the shadows. Many had settled in the old quarters of Santiago center. These contain 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 accurate 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 following the quake.

Like a small tsunami, these people, Chile’s working class, are doing what is necessary 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 accompanied by the obligatory accounts of looters taking advantage of the situation to pillage TVs and appliances. The right-wing (UDI) mayor of Concepción made hysterical declarations about independent 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, perhaps, have the right to feed their children, but when the rabble tries to enjoy the comforts of modern technology, they are crossing 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.

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 powered 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 minister, 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 decided to send in the armed forces. Troops have been deployed to Concepcion, 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.

What the episode makes clear is who calls the shots in Chile. Attention 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 actions was that it immediately stepped up to make sure that the private 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 overwhelmed 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-markets (WalMart types) to take advantage of this opportunity to acquire 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 factors: 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 particular 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 unacceptable 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.

Repression of 'looters'

Helped by the sensationalist harangues of Concepcion’s mayor, Bachelet and Perez Yoma at that point acceded to business’ demand 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 detaining and pointing their guns at workers are reminiscent of the 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+ residents 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 supermarket chains fulfilling their part of the alleged deal.

The repressive logic of the militarization has even hampered rescue 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 saving lives! Yet, as the high numbers of detainees on Tuesday suggests, the looters did not back down without first making their point. When the state’s hardware prevented them from ‘redistributing’ 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 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.

(For more pictures of the looting, repression check out here and here.

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 excluded from/by the current development model. What you see in the faces of the thousands of people looting is desperation to secure 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 calamities evoke; workers in Concepción, and throughout Chile, experience 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 neoliberalism has produced for large swaths of the working class in Chile.

Whereas popular attempts by Haitians to cover their basic necessities (which were also met with guns) represented a collective sense of abandonment and were organized to address needs communally, in Chile the looting reflects an paroxysmal reaction by desperate 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 distribution 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. 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 movements and popular organizations that we can expect to be reactivated and to make coherent and defensible demands on the state. Instead, we might see the initial building blocks of new movements as people organize to address their basic needs and to respond 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 independent class politics as they directly experience the state’s 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 routines are disrupted, they will be thrust into new struggles and be open to new analyses. Already there are signs that people are turning 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 Mexico City earthquake, when people, left to fend for themselves, organized relief and reconstruction efforts on a community and neighborhood 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.

Elections in Chile: A Loss for the Left?

Billionaire Sebastián Piñera
Chile’s new president, billionaire Sebastián Piñera

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 follow Latin American politics are lamenting Christian 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 Christian 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 victory 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 Independiente (UDI), with origins in the ultra-conservative, old oligarchic and pro-Pinochet elite. Piñera is a member of Chile’s new billionaire class who benefited handsomely from the 1980s privatizations and the pro-business policies that have followed uninterrupted. Though Piñera supported the return to democracy in the country’s 1988 plebiscite, the leading 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 governed 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 capitalize 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 questionable 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 erroneous 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 region’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.

While the Concertación governments have enjoyed majority electoral support since 1990, business has been a key pillar of the governments and their stability. In fact, maintaining business confidence 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 governments of the SP-PPD (party for Democracy, a Socialist Party creation)— CD (Christian Democrat) governments have severely repressed 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 under 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 percentage 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 labor 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 protections. 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 resources disputed between indigenous communities and large capital, the Concertación consistently responded with brutal coercion against the Mapuche!

The Concertación has pursued unadulterated Pinochet era neoliberal policies. Privatizations advanced dramatically under Alwyn and Frei (first two Concertación administrations), services continue to by decentralized or ‘municipalized’ (and thus severely underfunded), 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 local 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 significant 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 increasingly exposed and everyday move closer to the point of eruption. 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 Mapuche movement, the huge 2007 wildcat strikes by sub-contracted miners, and the persistent shanty debtors’ protests, are clear indicators of the potential for large-scale social unrest.

Mapuche Demonstration

Some, not least of all the formerly ruling politicians themselves, argue that the Concertación’s hands have been tied by the rules left in place by Pinochet and the constraining effects of international 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 policies, even to the point of glorifying Pinochet. Asked about the dictator’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 visionary capacity for opening our economy to the world, decentralizing, deregulating, etc. this is a historic contribution 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 counterreforms 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 Washington. 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 Concertación.

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 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 repeat, 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 democracy 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 policies. Surprisingly, many historic left figures, such as Manuel Cabieses, 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 Alianza is right-wing, and is composed largely of Pinochet-era monsters, 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 total 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 internal reasons, because it has exhausted itself as a political option (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 weakened, 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 elections. It was only a matter of time before its marketing would prove ineffective in the content-less popularity contests that elections have become. Since there has been basic agreement between both rights in Chilean politics, the elections have been governed 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 Santiago’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 political 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 personality — this time around they found the latter more ‘simpatico.’ Frei obtained 200,000 fewer votes than previous Concertación candidates summoned in past run-offs. A fraction of a third candidate Marco Enríquez Ominami’s votes were enough to get Piñera over the hump.

Student University Occupation

4. The institutions of the current Chilean regime are designed to be as exclusive as possible. And the Concertación has hardly tried to correct this in spite of its claims. When discussing this point, most observers emphasize the most blatant arrangements 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 electoral 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 bosses 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 national 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 character. 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 institutional stranglehold that both rights currently have on the Chilean 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 arrangement that is designed to exclude. In fact, the Concertación has quite comfortably co-existed and even co-ruled with the Alianza 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 practices 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 before him, won with less than 30% of the eligible voters. Most alienated from the electoral politics are young people, representing more than half of unregistered voters. And among working class 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 opening for the social forces that back Evo Morales in Bolivia and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela? Better yet, does its failure create opportunities 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 Communist candidate in the 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 Socialist Party neoliberals is that it keeps the Right at bay while simultaneously 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 Ominami (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 Concertación 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 competing camps, he represented certain continuity with the neoliberal 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 establishment 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 ‘platform’ belies the notion that MEO might somehow head a new left alternative in Chile.

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In my opinion, the Concertación’s defeat does represent an opportunity 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 repugnant, it is, in the Chilean case, unrealistic. Material conditions will not change significantly as the Alianza will in all likelihood continue the ‘social-liberal’ policies of its predecessor. The moment may be favorable for the radical left because the shifts and re-positioning 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 infighting 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 enter 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 latent 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 Socialist 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 themselves 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, pulling factions to the right.

Naturally, such prospects depend primarily on the reemergence of stronger and larger struggles by independent movements. With 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 controlling 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 Concertación and the Alianza. They will redraw the lines of demarcation 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 creation of independent working class power. ‘Facing the alternating power of elites, it is necessary to build up an alternative from below and in all disputed terrains of the class struggle,’ states activist/writer Andres Figueroa, a member of the MPT. Correctly 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 audacity, 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-capitalist activists and movements follow the advice of groups like the MPT, the prospects for a genuine radical left in Chile may improve.