Reflecting on Local Power and Insurrection

We left Chile a couple weeks early because of a health emergency (todo está bien ahora). It was hard to leave, but we will be returning in 2020. We’ve been writing from the front lines since mid-August, informed by our first-hand experiences and the perspectives of our friends and comrades of the generation who fought and risked their lives against the dictatorship and are part of the struggle today, and by comrades in their 20s and 30s who grew up with the high school and university strikes and feminist movements that partially laid the path for today’s historic uprising. Until we return, we will follow the political struggle in Chile from Chicago, but in close touch with our friends there. 

Eradicate the Neoliberal Model in Latin American. Long Live Chile!

So this blog will shift to a new mode. We went to Chile hoping to learn from the education movement and efforts to build local power in Valparaíso, learning from the South for our  movement to transform the political, economic, and social system in the US. We had the great privilege of witnessing, documenting, and in a limited way participating appropriately in, a popular uprising across the country that is still unfolding. What began as a high school student protest against an increase in the metro fare, exploded in a rebellion against all the abuses of the neoliberal capitalist, racist, patriarchal militaristic order. The demands were specific—covering every aspect of life—the essence was social transformation/revolutionary. There is so much for us to study, learn, and analyze about how to prepare for such an uprising. In a more limited way, in the coming weeks we will continue to write about the on-the-ground political struggle as it unfolds, informed by our Chilean comrades. We will also share reflections on what we have learned that is relevant to our, albeit very different, context.

“It’s Not the Metro, It’s Life”

In an earlier blog, we posed a number of questions about “local power” in Valparaíso and some of the (substantial) differences with struggles for local power and the “right to the city” in Chicago. Some key questions for us were to understand what local power means concretely, how do we achieve it, what is the relationship between participatory social movements and the state, and what can we do with local power in the context of neoliberal nation-states and economies. In Chile, the national, centralized (and right-wing) government essentially has an economic and, to a lesser extent, political stranglehold over municipal areas. For example, by law, Valparaíso collects no local revenue for schools and almost no local taxes, so it is financially dependent on and economically dominated by the centralized, national state.

“The Problem is Called Capitalism”

Valparaíso, as we’ve written in these blogs, is an outlier city in Chile with a radical mayor, Jorge Sharp, a former leader of the university student movement. That is why we decided to live in Valparaíso—to work with the city’s education department whose educational vision is tied to the overall sociopolitical and cultural development of the city and the municipal government’s plan for participatory economic and political transformation oriented toward justice and collective well-being. Sharp was also a recognized/public member of one of the left parties comprising the opposition (Frente Amplio—a political coalition of new left parties and social movements officially formed in 2017).

Since the beginning of the estallido (uprising), Valparaíso has been a hotbed of protest, with a march or rally 4-5 times every week (and sometimes multiple rallies in a day). Spirited marches have involved and been organized by feminists, unions, left parties in the opposition, disabled people, youth, the LGBTQ community, indigenous people, pensioners, health care workers, port workers, cerro dwellers, teachers, and more. Beyond protest, there has been a flourishing of self-organized popular assemblies (asambleas, cabildos), children’s activities, cultural and artistic events, communal gatherings and collective meals (ollas comunes). In Valparaíso, we have seen a burst of creative energy, building on existing traditions and opening up spaces for dialogue, participation, and community building (e.g., the un violador en tu camino anthem [a rapist in your path], which has gone global and viral, was created by Las Tesis, a women’s performance collective in Valparaíso). (As we wrote this, Las Tesis was performing a protest in front of the Congress in Valparaíso.)

The power of Valparaíso (one of Chile’s largest and best-known cities) and its history is palpable. It is the birthplace of Salvador Allende—depicted in a striking mural (below) in his high school, painted by students during their six-month occupation of the school in 2011). 

“We Are Present and Future!”

Valparaíso’s young left-wing government is a reminder that another Chile is possible, and in that sense, represents a potential threat to the right-wing Piñera government and neoliberal order, including in the electoral arena. In the 2017 national elections, the Frente Amplio increased their number of deputies (like the House of Representatives) from 3 members to 20 (of 155), and one senator of 43. Their presidential candidate drew 20% of the national vote, just missing participating in the runoff against the current president Piñera. Sharp directly challenged the Piñera regime before, and during, the estallido. He helped make popular “it’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years” and “we are not at war” –mantras of the uprising [see earlier blog]. He denounced the acuerdo for a new constitution because it bypassed the participatory popular assembly process. In that sense, he is a thorn in the side of the government and represents what Chile might be under different leadership.

“It’s Not 30 Pesos, It’s 30 Years—Enough Abuse!”
“Valparaíso is Not At War”

In Chile, the national and regional (like US states) government—not the municipality—controls security. During the estallido, Sharp strongly supported the people in the streets demanding  justice and sharply condemned the police and military who violently suppressed the demonstrations. He called out the shooting of youths’ eyes in this press conference, and directly said, “el gobierno mintió” [the government lied]. At the same time, he took a strong public stand against the wave of arsons in the outer hills of the city and the trashing of local businesses [saqueos]. The saqueos have continued, politically disconnected from the protests, with the carabineros apparently standing by. Sharp called out the national government and accused it of leaving the city with no police presence against the saqueos. Over 400 local businesses have been affected and thousands of jobs lost with devastating consequences to the local economy. He accused the national and regional state governments of “abandoning” Valparaíso while they gassed and water-cannoned Chileans protesting for justice. In our words, the national state sabotaged Valparaíso, its progressive agenda, and its 300,000 working class porteños [Valpo residents].

Fire in the hills over Valparaíso

On Friday, November 22, Sharp announced he is preparing a lawsuit against the State of Chile for damages in Valparaíso. He said that the commune suffers “consequences of a strategy of public order and human security that proved its complete failure….People who demonstrate peacefully are repressed harshly, but damage, looting and fire against the city do not stop.” 

In Chile, the state can use the police and military, on the one hand, to repress political dissent, and on the other, to allow saqueos that may be initiated by state agents, disaffected youth, or organized crime groups (we’ve heard reasoned arguments from knowledgeable insiders for all these possibilities). Mayors do not control the police. They cannot call the police onto the street or off. Throughout, Sharp demanded that he be consulted about “security” plans for the city but has been ignored. As we noted earlier, the politics of trashing and burning is complicated, and rage against injustice is not always politically focused. Some targets are clearly political: the office of El Mercurio the right wing newspaper instrumental in the 1973 coup and the maintenance of the fascist and neoliberal order, banks, and the Lider (Walmart) and Unimart (with around 300 locations in Chile) supermarket chains with their exploitation and abuse of consumers [see earlier blog]. 

El Mercurio Building in Valparaíso
Unimarc Supermercado, Valparaíso

But local businesses have also been burned and trashed. However, as far as we know no small stores in the cerros or local businesses in el Plan (downtown) displaying signs such as “we are your neighbors” and “we support the protest” have been touched. The Mapuche pharmacy on a main business street has not been touched although small stores near it have. Moreover, it is not clear who is behind the saqueos. So there are a lot of questions about how to look at this issue. 

“We are Family—Don’t Sack Us”
“Friends, We Support the Demands, NO More Inequality. Just like you, we work honestly. Don’t destroy our source of work. Support and defend small businesses.”

It’s also important to put the sacking of small businesses in the context of the political economy of Valparaíso. Small, locally owned businesses are critical to the lifeblood of the city, both in terms of providing jobs and providing what people need for daily existence, and are potentially part of the alliance of social forces against neoliberalism. And, they are important for tourism. In the absence of a strong industrial base and the siphoning off of port revenue by the central state, Valparaíso has had to rely on tourism as a key source of economic development, which, with progressive local political power, can be used to improve the lives of working class people. In 2003, UNESCO designated Valparaíso as a “world heritage site.” This week, for example, the city finally re-opens (after a 10-year period) the Mercado Puerto, which will help jump start the economy, serving both tourism and a source of employment for local artisans, chefs, workers, small businesses, and as a cultural and community activity space. 

While calling on the police is problematic from an abolitionist standpoint, the situation in Valparaíso demonstrates the complexity of policing in a context of local power when there are forces organized to sabotage it and the people are not organized to defend against their disruptions. The Valparaíso situation also raises the question: What are the possibilities and limitations of local power with respect to policing, not only in a period of uprising, but also in the process of trying to build toward local power based on a progressive grassroots agenda. There is a lot to understand from this situation. 

“The People Don’t Sack the People.”

4 thoughts on “Reflecting on Local Power and Insurrection

  1. Thanks for these wonderful reports and your ongoing commitment to social and economic justice and bringing out the best in people. safe travels always.


  2. Your blogs have been wonderful, so clear and informative. I am looking forward to reading more and to hearing your thoughts on the current situation in Chicago and in the U.S.


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