Chile’s Spring/La Primavera de Chile

After a few days in Greensboro, NC for the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Greensboro Massacre, we returned to the mass uprising in Chile. Our arrival captured the moment. First, we were struck by the attempt at normalcy in the Santiago airport: the usual maze of duty-free shops, fancy perfumes, and designer clothes that hardly anyone in Chile can afford; well-dressed Chileans with good luggage traveling somewhere; and now-obsolete billboards hyping the COP25 and APEC meetings that were supposed to boost Chile’s standing on the world stage—cancelled because of the uprising [see previous blog]. They were an ironic commentary on the myth that disguised Chile’s long winter of dictatorship and neoliberal experimentation.

But the reality of Chile’s Spring emerged as we took a taxi from the airport to our hotel in Santiago with our driver’s local radio station playing Víctor Jara’s moving “El Derecho De Vivir En Paz,” which has rapidly become an anthem of the uprising [see earlier blog]. An excruciating traffic jam and political slogans covering EVERYTHING greeted us with the message: “Si no hay justicia para el pueblo, que no haya paz para el gobierno” (If there’s no justice for the people, there will be no peace for the government). Traffic lights in key intersections across the city are disabled. Many metro stations, including key nodes in the system, are closed. Demonstrators build trash fires in the street or on principal highways between major cities as barricades against the police, shutting down main arteries. And the day we arrived truck drivers—again—staged a massive slow-down on the autopista (tollroad), bringing traffic to a crawl on key roads into and out of the city. There are marches every day and night, and the carabineros with their intense tear gas and water cannons and brutality bring a halt to normal nightlife. Our hotel, in the center of the city, was barricaded at night to keep out the gas. Going out to eat was out of the question.

A wave of protagonism (popular process of people collectively analyzing their situation and organizing to change it, and in the process changing themselves) and local collective activity of all kinds seems to have swept the country.

The protests unleashed masses of people to discuss all sorts of ways in which they can build new solidarity and collaboration—auto-gestación (self-organization). Asambleas (popular assemblies) and cabildos [see earlier blog] seem to be everywhere, organized by social movements, popular organizations, students, educators, artists, health workers, community groups in an organic process of discussion, analysis, and grassroots proposals for social transformation. They cover various issues and are organized differently but those we have attended and have heard about are organized horizontally with small-group discussions in which everyone speaks and there is deep listening. People record their ideas on big poster board or paper. A feminist lawyer we met with told us 700 people showed up for a feminist popular assembly in Santiago last week, though she expected 100-200 (more on the feminist movement in a coming blog). We ran into a teacher friend yesterday outside our local farmers market in Cerro Monjas. She was helping to organize the cabildo in a public school next to the market. She told us that this was a follow-up to the one last week in a high school (Liceo Pedro Montt) in a different cerro, with 800 people covering 9 themes.

Friday night, we went with our neighbor to a popular assembly in a small community theater just steps from our building. About 60 people from the cerro, of all ages and occupations, gathered to discuss five questions: How can we integrate children and youth in the movement and current debate? What are your opinions about the current situation? What are the needs and problems that you identify in the cerro? What are the solutions for the pension system? What gives you hope? For two hours, we rotated in small groups between questions and talked and listened and wrote down the ideas on large brown paper (almost every person spoke at least once). We (Pauline and Rico) also were asked to introduce ourselves and explain why we were there, and were welcomed warmly in a spirit of international solidarity and friendship. Although we didn’t understand all that was said, it was clear that there are complex reactions to the present situation: fear of violence and hardship but also hope and joy, as an older woman who had lived through the dictatorship said, “I am memory. Things are superficial, individualist. I am 75, but I have energy. This crisis has two faces, a positive and a negative one. There is pain and suffering, but also strength.”

Focus on what is important. Contribute thoughts/experiences; Listen to understand; Connect ideas; Listen together to patterns, discoveries, and deeper questions

The responses to the question, ¿Qué te da esperanza? (What gives you hope?) seemed to us to capture this moment of humanization and rebuilding solidarity that is so much a part of the Chile Spring. Some examples are: “respecting each other as equals with dignity and rights,” “youth” (multiple times), “community,” “less fear,” “listening and empathy,” “rebuilding the social fabric for the recovery of trust,” and “re-humanized country.” One that particularly stood out for us was “cuando todos estamos unidos en lo mismo, el miedo desaparece y nace la esperanza” (when we are all united for the same thing, fear disappears and hope is born).

The asambleas and cabildos are spaces of popular political education. For example, in our asamblea, people discussed how the privatized pension system, the AFP,  “creates pervasive poverty” and is insecure because the funds are controlled and invested by privately-run banks.  At the same time, the asamblea was a face-to-face conversation among neighbors who say that the hardships of daily life and the individualism of neoliberalism have cut them off from each other. The cabildos and asambleas are an emerging process of human re-connection, bringing to life the central idea that we transform ourselves and our social relations in the process of transforming our world. It is a profound honor to witness this. 

The proposals from Friday night’s asamblea were both demands on the state for fundamental change in policy and social structure and proposals for community self-organization: end the impoverishment of retirees by abolishing the privatization of pensions and ensure every retiree has a dignified income and break the isolation and disposability Chilean society inflicts on older people by creating places in the community where they can share their knowledge and educate others. As someone wrote, “Abrir espacios para entrega de sabiduría de adultos mayor” (open up spaces for others to learn from the wisdom of the elders).  Then yesterday, in nearby Cerro Monjas, a massive popular assembly lasted 4 hours with 9 themes. And so it goes day after day. Today was a feminist march. Tuesday a general strike by miners, port workers, transit workers, etc.

But we do not want to minimize the sacrifices people are making or the on-going terror of the state. A friend in our hotel in Santiago said the asamblea he attended in his neighborhood created three on-going committees: communications, organization and structure, and mental health. The anxiety and fear created by the violence of the military and police, and the state of emergency, are profound for young people experiencing it and for older people for whom it reawakens the terror of the dictatorship. A friend recounted a story that her co-worker told her. She said that when she was a little girl during the dictatorship, she had nightmares about being taken away by the military and her parents saving her—and now, she has nightmares about the military taking away her parents and her saving them. We are seeing the memory of the dictatorship painted on walls that we wrote about before the uprising [see earlier blog] coming to life now. 

According to the November 11 report from the Instituto Nacional de Derechos Humanos (National Institute of Human Rights), 5,629 people have been detained, including 634 children and adolescents; 2,009 hospitalized with injuries; and in a particularly vicious tactic, the carabineros are aiming rubber-coated bullets at people’s eyes, with 197 people shot in the eyes, including young people blinded. The Dept. of Human Rights, Biodiversity, and Environmental Medicine of the Medical College of Chile protested that on November 8 carabineros entered Fricke Hospital in Viña del Mar and fired pellets and tear gas into the emergency room where about 100 people were. These are the desperate reactions of the state to Chile’s reawakening.

The connection of Chile’s Spring to the vision of a world of justice, peace, and dignity that brought Salvador Allende to power in 1970 is captured powerfully in this video of the mass marches all over Chile, with voiceover of Allende’s last radio communication to the people right before the presidential palace was bombed: “…Go forward knowing that, much sooner than later, the great avenues will open again through which free people will pass to construct a better society.” Today those avenues are filled with marching people, and the parks, schools, community spaces, and small theaters are filled with popular assemblies reconnecting neighbors, building connections, analyzing social problems, and charting their ideas for a new Chile.

Chile woke up (¡Chile despertó!), but this is an uprising, an insurrection—not a revolution, and it is important to be sober about the future. The activists and organizers, the workers and elders, the youth and teachers with whom we have talked and gotten to know, have all said that the future is uncertain. Different people have sketched out different scenarios and possibilities, and not all are hopeful. The politicians and generals and national and international capitalists will not cede their power and profits easily, and the possibility of some kind of military-civilian permanent state of quasi-emergency, with increased restrictions and surveillance, has been raised by some we’ve talked to. There are positive projections too. Throughout Chile, there is the demand for a constituent assembly leading to a new constitution (replacing the 1980 constitution set up under the dictatorship, that is still in place). This could result in structural changes for a more democratic and just Chile.

Banner for a Constituent Assembly in Cerro Monjas

But a vision of fundamental social transformation, and the path toward it, are still unformed. The key question remains: How can the incredible energy, unleashed across age, sectors, and locales within the country, coalesce in a sustained, grounded process (local and national) that will not only be the death of neoliberalism but the birth of a new social order? 

Neoliberalism was born and will die in Chile

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