October 2019 marked a clear shift in the decades of  transition to democracy in Chile. The system of neoliberalism aggressively imposed by Augusto Pinochet, along with the years of modest reforms backed by center-left and right politicians — all of it came crashing down as millions of people took to the streets to protest disinvestment, privatization, severe wealth inequality, and eroding standards of living. The protests continued to swell day after day, week after week. Social movements that had been working on far-ranging issues — from free tuition to abortion to climate justice to pension reform — pulled hundreds of thousands of people into the streets. The labor movement called for a general strike. Increasingly, the public pushed for President Sebastian Piñera’s resignation and a new constitution. 

Protestors were met with brutal state repression. Human Rights Watch documented over 11,500 civilians injured in marches in the six weeks of protests. Two dozen protestors and some innocent bystanders lost their lives, and a shocking 400 people suffered from ocular trauma, mostly resulting from rubber bullets. This last number is particularly striking because it represents 70% of all ocular traumas in the world over the last 21 years. The repression opened old wounds from the trauma of the torture and abuse of the dictatorship — but it also fueled the movement in the streets.

Nearly a month of escalating protests across the country forced the government to negotiate the terms of a new constitution. That process was in large part led by President Gabriel Boric, then a member of the Chamber of Deputies, in what was called Acuerdo por la Paz y una Nueva Constitución (peace agreement). The peace agreement was signed by all political parties — except the Communist Party and Boric’s own Social Convergence — on November 15, 2019. 

Many on the left criticized the agreement, arguing that it stole the leverage of the mass movements in the street in favor of a bureaucratic and institutionalized process. After four weeks of uninterrupted rebellion, the agreement offered a clear and safe way out of the crisis without endangering the market-friendly economic model that has made Chile a Latin American success story. Of course, the markets responded positively to the agreement.

The peace agreement called for a plebiscite in which Chilean citizens would vote on two questions: whether a new constitution should be drafted and whether those who drafted the new constitution would be elected in a  “constitutional convention” or if half of the convention delegates would be already elected Congressional representatives and the other half popularly elected. The plebiscite was originally scheduled for April 2020, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was moved to October 25.  Seventy-eight percent of voters approved drafting a new constitution and 79% supported a constitutional convention. 

In the four months between the negotiated peace agreement and the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chileans continued mobilizing and organizing for change. There were weekly protests, sometimes with hundreds of thousands of people, at Plaza Dignidad in the heart of Santiago. These actions came to a grinding halt in March 2020, when Chile closed its borders due to the pandemic. The Piñera government used the public health emergency to regain control of one of the largest upsurges in Chilean history. Chile’s COVID protocols were among the strictest and longest in the world. For months, older adults were forced into total quarantine, and the rest of the population had to request special permission to leave their dwellings, usually granted only once a week to go grocery shopping. Additionally, the government imposed a nighttime curfew between 10pm and 5am. Even as the uprising for Black Lives exploded in the US and abroad, Chile remained locked down. It’s important not to underestimate the impact of these protocols on the movement that had mere months before rocked the world. 

The pandemic and the delayed plebiscite created the conditions for deescalation, which we believe had long-term impacts on organizing, living and working conditions, and the constitutional process — though it does not fully explain the rejection of the new constitution on September 4, 2022. 


Rejection of the Proposed Constitution 

The rejection of the proposed constitution can be explained in a variety of ways. First and foremost, the right — along with the political and economic elite — discredited the constitutional convention process from day one. They used their huge economic arsenal to spread lies and misinformation through mainstream newspapers and social media as well as within marginalized communities. They acted forcefully and in unity, and they brought many in the center and center-left with them. Residents in the poorest neighborhoods of Santiago overwhelmingly voted against the new constitution. Ciper, a well-regarded independent newspaper, tracked some common themes of misinformation. Among the most cited by residents of poor communities were: state takeover of private homes, state-owned housing, a ban of inheriting private homes or pensions, nationalized pensions, and a divided country due to the constitution’s recognition of plurinationality.

Second, while the right spread misinformation about the proposed constitution, the left did not unify in support of it. Many unions and social movement organizations did not start campaigning for the approval of the new constitution until July 2022 — a mere two months before the plebiscite. Others decided not to campaign at all, taking the position that the new constitution did not go far enough to change the material lives of the vast majority of Chileans. 

The upsurge of 2019 had mobilized millions and the prospect of a new constitution energized voters in anticipation of what could be. But the September 4th plebiscite required a heavier lift with a much tighter timeline. It required convincing people, in the face of systemic misinformation, that the new constitution would fundamentally change their lives. It required one-on-one conversations, political education, and infrastructure that many social movement and labor organizations do not currently have. Certainly, there was organizing, but in a two-month span, it was not long enough or deep enough. Some on the left underestimated how powerful neoliberalism is and how many working people have bought into the system. We would have needed to do far more organizing and political education to reverse fifty years of neoliberalism.

Third, Chile’s national identity is deeply rooted in white supremacy. Many Chileans — across the class system — are invested in maintaining the identity and image of Chile as a white country. The new constitution would have fundamentally changed that by naming Chile a plurinational state and formally recognizing indigenous groups. While indigenous peoples, particularly the Mapuche, have been effective in organizing for their self-determination, it is incredibly difficult to push against the logic of white supremacy, as we well know in the US. For their part, a number of Mapuche leaders rejected the proposed constitution, which would not guarantee the return of their land or freedom for political prisoners. 

Two other arguments — articulated by economist  Roberto Pizarro Hofer — are worth considering. First, the mandatory vote (which had been eliminated in Chile in 2013) forced many conservative or apolitical citizens to vote; they overwhelmingly voted to reject the new constitution. It was easier to take the path of least resistance and support the status quo than to take a risk on the uncertainty of the new constitution. Overcoming this uncertainty, as we argued above, would have required a level of organizing that the left did not undertake. In addition, the plebiscite served as a referendum on President Gabriel Boric’s first six months in office. Boric’s current approval rating is only about 35%, roughly equivalent to those who voted to approve the new constitution. Working class people, poor people, and activists all hoped that Boric would quickly implement a transformative agenda. Yet this has been challenging given the divided congress, and many (including Rodrigo) came to believe that Boric represents the interests of neoliberal capital — not the people. 



Our Personal Reflections on the Social Uprising & September 4th Plebiscite

Carolina: I am a child of the dictatorship. My family moved to Los Angeles in 1978, one of the dictatorship’s most brutal years. As unaffiliated socialists, my parents escaped torture, but my mother had been held at gun point multiple times and their apartment in Antofagasta was ransacked. Had the military found the works of Karl Marx and the Communist Party’s ten-year plan, given to my parents for safekeeping, I might not be alive today. 

In October 2019, I watched from afar as millions of Chileans tooks to the streets. Traveling to Chile in January 2020  — and witnessing firsthand the continued brutal repression of protesters and civilians alike — was terrifying. So, when I was asked to help coordinate a delegation of US organizers to Chile (called the Encuentro), I was thrilled to be able to see what progress was being made on the new constitution. Over the course of the week, we had many stimulating conversations, debates, field trips, gatherings, and performances. I came into the Encuentro enthusiastic about the constitutional process. I left the delegation feeling inspired by the activists and the ongoing social movement organizing happening on the ground. 

But I felt dismayed about what would happen in the constitutional process. Activists, community members, marginalized populations, students, and unionists alike told us that they did not feel represented in the constitutional process. How was it possible that such a deeply democratic process had left the people we spoke to feeling so uninspired? Part of this could be explained by the fact that the folks we met with were generally further to the left than most Chileans. Part of it might also have been due to the effects of the pandemic. Many of the Chilean activists we spoke to felt that the social uprising had been a potential revolutionary moment that was stolen from them. Instead of a revolution, they got a bureaucratic process that they didn’t believe would fundamentally change anything. Many said they would not campaign for the approval of the new constitution. It felt like a flashback to 1973: a fragmented left up against a mighty right wing with the full economic and political support of the US government. It was a familiar playbook that did not inspire confidence in me. 

I came back to the US feeling that whatever was produced in the constitutional convention might not pass in the September 4th plebiscite, but I remained hopeful that enough of the left would turn people out to approve — as they had in the second round of the presidential election that elected Gabriel Boric in December 2021. Of course, that did not come to fruition.

The outcome of the plebiscite was demoralizing, infuriating, and frustrating. Yet we have no choice but to continue organizing. It’s useful to use Eve Weinbaum’s framework of “successful failures” to understand what happened in Chile. Weinbaum argues that, too often, we focus on why movement’s fail or why they win; rarely do we think about failure as a building block for something bigger and better. We didn’t win a new constitution for Chile, but thousands of people from all walks of life — inside and outside of social movements — were activated, trained, developed, and mobilized during the social uprising. The uprising and the constitutional process highlighted deep inequalities, sparking a cultural and narrative shift about Chilean society. While we recover from the most recent loss, we should not lose hope that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. As our Puerto Rican comrades say, Pa’lante siempre Pa’lante


Rodrigo: If I had to choose a date in history that defines my life, I'd say it’s September 11th, 1973. I wasn’t alive yet, but this date is the reason I was born in exile in England. It’s the reason I grew up with stories of rebellion and torture. September 11th, 1973 is when a CIA-funded military dictatorship overthrew the democratically-elected socialist government of Salvador Allende. I'm the son of militants of the Movimiento de Izquerda Revolucionaria, or the Revolutionary Leftist Movement, a group of leftists who believed in arming the people to defend the revolution. For thinking this way, my father spent years in concentration camps being tortured by Chilean secret police trained at the School of the Americas; my mother had to escape to the Colombian embassy in the back of a family member’s cop car. My grandparents and older brother — who was not even one year old — were picked up and tortured just for being associated with my mother. I’m a product of my parents’ revolutionary politics; the brutal oppression they faced is also inscribed in my DNA.

When the October 18th, 2019 social uprising started, I was on a European tour with my Hip Hop group, Rebel Diaz. We were stuck on our phones watching the rebellion — and the subsequent repression — unfold in real time. We started hearing reports of protestors getting their eyes shot out, of the military in the streets shooting people down in cold blood as if it were the 1970s all over again. 

That fall, my friend, Vee Bravo, invited me to Chile to document the Primera Linea (front line) protestors. This initial trip would turn into a full-on production, eventually becoming the documentary PRIMERA. I got to see firsthand how millions of Chileans fought for justice and dignity. I got to witness and meet everyday people struggling not only for their future but that of their kids, their parents, and their grandparents. 

But the peace agreement signed on November 15 took the energy from the streets and put it toward a proposed constitution that did not go far enough to redistribute resources or power. The constitution would have kept in place a neoliberal, capitalist model that benefited the political and economic elite. This form of capitalism may be plurinational, ecological, Black, gay, trans, and inclusive — yet the goal is still to make profit. The constitution wasn’t going to give the Mapuche their land back. It wasn’t going to free the political prisoners of the social uprising, without whose actions there would not have been a vote for a new constitution. The proposed constitution failed because it did not fulfill the mandate of the people in the streets. All of Chile was on fire and the streets pointed in a direction of revolution, not reform. 


Revolution, Reform, or Something in Between?

The two of us come at politics from different perspectives, orientations, and political tendencies. Carolina more or less considers herself a practical radical; her perspective is informed by her work in the labor movement. Rodrigo defines himself as part of the Hip Hop generation that has grown up under the neoliberal project. He believes in self-determination and autonomy for all people. We also do not entirely agree on the reasons for the failure of the proposed constitution. Rodrigo sees the constitution as failing because it did not go far enough to challenge capitalism; he also believes that the Apruebo campaign didn’t connect with the people, hosting star-studded events rather than organizing directly in the community. Carolina believes that the constitution went beyond where ordinary people were at — and that labor and social movements either underestimated the power of the right or simply did not have the capacity to organize the majority of Chileans on what would have been a transformative document. 

As we were discussing this special issue, we thought the age-old question of reform vs. revolution was an interesting one to consider in relation to what’s happened in Chile over the last three years. Was the social uprising a revolutionary moment? Did left politicians and the political elite undermine the mass movements in the streets by negotiating the peace agreement? Or was the peace agreement a useful tool for pushing forward a concrete and winnable constitutional process (though it didn’t win in the end)? Was the focus on a new constitution inherently reformist? Is incrementalism a doomed strategy? What would have happened if social movements were left alone without political intervention? Most of these questions remain unanswered, but they are important to consider as we work to imagine a new Chile. 

In pulling together this special issue of The Forge, we wanted to present the reader with a variety of left perspectives on the social uprising, the constitutional process, and the September 4th plebiscite. Some essays and interviews come at these questions from the perspective of revolution, some come at it from the perspective of reform, and others are somewhere in the middle. We hope these different perspectives advance our collective thinking, vision, imagination, and lessons we learn from Chile. 


Encuentro Internacional de Pueblos En Lucha 

This issue came out of a delegation of 43 organizers from The Action Lab, The Center for Popular Democracy, SEIU Local 26, Black Visions as well as other groups in New York, Minnesota, Texas, and Puerto Rico. We called the delegation the Encuentro Internacional de Pueblos en Lucha, or the International Gathering of People in Struggle. During the Encuentro, we connected with many of the people whose contributions make up this issue, including leaders from the student, labor, Mapuche, and feminist movements. We visited communities in resistance, like Lo Hermida and La Victoria; we went to the torture center turned peace park La Villa Grimaldi. We took a tour of the protestors’ ground zero at La Plaza Dignidad and watched high school students resist the toxic water spitting tanks, called Guanacos, on the March 29th Day of the Young Combatant. The Encuentro left us confident that the real change in Chile was still happening in the streets and on the front lines. Although the road ahead is a challenging one, we’re proud to share the reflections of many of the participants in the Encuentro. 


Inside the Issue 

CAROLINA BANK MUÑOZ & CAMILO SANTIBÁÑEZ share lessons from the social uprising and constitutional process; ANA TIJOUX shares her top ten songs of the uprising; VICTOR CHANFREAU reflects on the student movement's role in the uprising; NICOLE KRAMM talks with SEN. FABIOLA CAMPILLAI ROJAS about ocular trauma during the uprising; CAMILO SANTIBÁÑEZ interviews ELISA GIUSTINIANOVICH about her experiences as an activist and Constitutional Convention delegateKANDACE MONTGOMERY talks with MERY CORTEZ about her son's murder during the Social Uprising; JAIME HUENCHULLAN & JAKELINE CURAQUEO on the Mapuche struggle for freedom; SANDRA NEIDA, NATALIA DUQUE & JUAN VERGARA on their work as leaders of unions at Walmart plus what the constitution would have meant for organized labor; ANTONIO PÁEZ on the Starbucks worker union in Chile; GONZALO DÍAZ of the port workers union on organized labor and the constitutional process; DASIC FERNÁNDEZ on his revolutionary artwork


Many thanks to Vicente Duran for transcribing and translating the contributions to this issue. 


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