Three million workers, youth and students, took to the streets throughout Chile on 12 November, in yet another mass protest and strike, sparked initially by a price hike in metro fares in the capital, Santiago, in October.
After nearly one month of protests and brutal state repression, this magnificent movement has refused to accept concession after concession by the regime of President Sebastián Piñera. Prior to the strike, Piñera undertook yet another u-turn and announced that the constitution would be revised and submitted to a referendum.
He also said this process would be ‘led’ by the Congress. This is the same Congress that is controlled by the hated political parties. The 12 November protest and strike overwhelmingly rejected this proposal and saw it as the fraud that it is. “Out with Piñera – for a constituent assembly”, was the demand raised by hundreds of thousands who marched in baking heat in Santiago.
Health workers, teachers, transport workers and others, all arrived at the march to join students and others in a sea of people determined to bring down the government and bury its neoliberal policies. Dockers joined the strike. Copper miners in the north of Chile set up barricades and did battle with the police. The mass action had, in many respects, more the character of a huge angry protest than a general strike.
The authority of the Piñera government floats like a corpse on this sea of mass protests, involving all sections of Chilean society. All those on the march were conscious that this is a rebellion.
Central Santiago was filled with workers and oppressed. Young workers from Starbucks marched with banners proudly proclaiming, “We are students but we are also workers” and “Your coffee is worth more than I earn in one hour”!
A mass delegation of women workers from JUNJE (which looks after small children) arrived with their demands for decent wages and more resources. Others carried placards proclaiming, “Chile will bury neoliberalism”. Thousands carried the flag of the Mapuche people, which has now become the flag of resistance of both Mapuche and non-Mapuche alike.
Following the mass protests throughout the country, many cities turned into war zones, as the riot police attacked. As the night wore on, youth continued to battle with the police. In Santiago, banks and supermarkets were torched. In the north of the country, a police station that was notorious as a torture centre under the Pinochet dictatorship, was set alight.
Piñera was compelled to call a press conference at 10pm. People expected the declaration of a state of emergency and the deployment of the army, again. However, Piñera appealed for ‘peace’ and ‘dialogue’. Significantly, he called up police reserves, saying the police could not cope.
Despite Piñera threatening to use the draconian repressive powers to arrest social leaders not condemning the violence, he and the government are now seen as even weaker.
Piñera’s brutal repression has had the opposite effect than the president expected – the whip of counterrevolution. At least 20 people have died at the hands of the state. More than 200, mainly young people, have lost an eye, due to injuries from gunshots by riot police and soldiers, who deliberately fire at the faces of protestors.
Pictures of the victims are posted onto the walls of central Santiago. All of the buildings in central Santiago are covered with political slogans demanding the end of Piñera and a constituent assembly. Others denounce the police as ‘asesinos’ (murderers).
The hatred of this regime is palpable. “Piñera resign or die”, is a slogan which has been painted on a wall. Offices of the Socialist Party (a social democratic party) are covered with slogans, such as ‘traitors’ and ‘corrupt’, and it is denounced as a ‘narco-party’, as sections of its leadership were involved in drug trafficking.
On the march and in the protests, you can smell the whiff of the revolutionary movement that erupted under the left wing government of Salvador Allende, between 1970-73. These traditions are beginning to be revived. A giant figure depicting the left wing protest folk singer, Victor Jara, who was murdered by the Pinochet regime, was paraded through the streets of Santiago.
Pharmacies and supermarkets have been targeted and attacked. The big shopping chains are regarded as thieves and robbers by many protesters. Some of the youth have taken medicines and food and distributed them to the poor and those in need.
This movement has been marked by a spontaneous eruption against the neoliberal policies that have been imposed by successive governments in Chile for the last 30 years. It has also been marked by an absence of organisation. However, this is beginning to change. In the local areas, assemblies of local inhabitants – ‘Cabildos’ – are being initiated. These are not committees of elected delegates but meetings of the local community that are open to all. These are the first steps in rebuilding the workers’ movement.
There is an understandable hatred of the political parties which have betrayed the workers and defended the ruling capitalist class. However, the absence of an organised leadership of this mass movement means that the building of a mass political force of the working class is an urgent task, if it is to be taken forward. Nonetheless, the rage is such that the protests may continue for a longer time, despite the absence of leadership.
Unidad Social – a coalition of the pensioners’ movement, dock workers, teachers, some copper workers’ unions and other unions, student federations and social movements in the local areas – announced, on 12 November, that it is considering calling an indefinite general strike. This must now be prepared for with the formation of democratically-elected committees of struggle in all workplaces and in the local communities. These need to link together on a local, city wide, regional and national level.
Such committees of struggle can prepare for an indefinite general strike. They can be the body to convene a real constituent assembly, to break with capitalism and to establish a government of workers and all those exploited by capitalism.
Socialismo Revolucionario, the Chilean section of the CWI, is fighting for the adoption of such a programme, and for the building of a mass party of the Chilean working class.
Tony Saunois, reporting from Santiago, Chile