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Socialism Today 152 - October 2011

Chile’s youth lead rise in militancy

THIS YEAR’S anniversary of 9/11, when General Augusto Pinochet seized power in a military coup in Chile in 1973, has coincided with mass movements of student and workers. Indeed, these have been the biggest protests since the end of Pinochet’s rule.

Of course, most commentators have concentrated on the consequences of the attacks on the twin towers in New York a decade ago. Yet, following the ‘first’ 9/11 thousands were slaughtered, while many more were tortured and suffered horrific repression. The coup was planned from the headquarters of the CIA and the White House, in collusion with the ruling elite and armed forces in Chile. No US presidential apology has ever been made for what was unleashed on the workers, students and ordinary people of Chile. What took place still shapes the lives of the mass of Chilean people, and had consequences for the international working class and all those exploited by capitalism, while the aftermath of the attacks on the twin towers continue to be felt by the workers and poor in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and around the world.

Under the iron heel of Chiles military dictatorship, the neo-liberal policies of privatisation, open markets, deregulation and private pension schemes were tested out. They were then applied by the ruling classes internationally. The Chicago Boys, economic students of Milton Freidman, arrived in the aftermath of Pinochets coup. Military rule, which lasted until 1990, gave way to a series of capitalist coalitions, all with neo-liberal policies which continued where the military regime left off.

The Chilean economy has been held up as a model globally. Economic growth averaging more than 5.5% per annum has been used to justify the extreme policies. That growth has been based on a high and rising price of copper, which accounts for 15% of GDP, and the export of timber, wine and agricultural produce. Last year, Chile joined the list of OECD ‘rich nations’. It has also become one of the three most unequal societies in Latin America. Over 50% of the national income is held by less than 20% of the population.

The mounting anger and frustration finally erupted in the tremendous struggle of hundreds of thousands of youth in recent months, culminating in mass protests on 30 June and 20 August when over 500,000 took to the streets. This movement followed mass protest in the southern region of Magallanes which saw ports and airports blockaded by local people fighting against rising gas prices.

For months, university and secondary students have occupied universities and schools, held massive demonstrations, ‘kiss-ins’ and other forms of protest to demand a free and decent education system. They have confronted vicious repression which saw one 16-year-old killed by state forces. This youth movement enjoyed the overwhelming support of the population – 85% according to one opinion poll.

The inadequacies and inequalities in the predominantly privately-funded education system are widely recognised. The University of Chile, the main ‘public university’, receives only 14% of its funding from the state. The average student leaves university with a debt of $45,000! Two government ministers have made lavish profits by securing contracts to provide equipment and infrastructure to private schools.

Copper workers called a one-day strike. Significantly, this took place on 11 July, the anniversary of the nationalisation of the copper industry by Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government, which preceded Pinochet’s rule. Dockers and other workers declared their support. Students called for nationalisation and organised protests in support of the strike. Yet union leaders dissuaded workers from attending.

Reflecting the mass pressure, however, the CUT union confederation was compelled to call a two-day general strike on 24/25 August. Unfortunately, this opportunity was squandered by CUT leaders. For 20 years the CUT leadership has acted as an appendage of the Concertación, the governing alliance between right-wing Christian Democracy and the formerly social-democratic Socialist Party of Chile. The youth perceive the CUT as just another establishment institution.

To simply call a strike from above is insufficient. With no campaign in the workplaces or local communities to prepare the workers and boost their confidence, and without a clear plan to defend victimised workers, many felt too intimidated to take action. The consequences of neo-liberal policies mean that the preparation of a strike is vitally important. In the private sector many workers do not even have a contract. Working on a daily or hourly basis they can easily lose their jobs.

Even in the public sector, an estimated 50% of workers have no contract. This makes the job of building effective trade unions even more difficult. Teachers, for example, are dubbed ‘professores taxistas’ (taxi teachers). They teach for a few hours in one school then rush off to another for a few more hours and have no contract at all. As a result of these difficulties, and with a leadership that is not prepared to fight, the strike had a limited impact despite enjoying massive sympathy amongst the population. Building workplace committees of struggle and local community assemblies is a crucial task and forms part of rebuilding the workers’ movement.

Concertación governments have defended the interests of the rich and resulted in a growing alienation from the political institutions bequeathed by the dictatorship. All of the main political parties have defended the same or similar policies. The electoral system is designed to maintain the two main political blocks in an almost deadlocked parliamentary system. The so-called ‘binominal’ system – designed by General Jarulselski in Stalinist-era Poland – makes it impossible for any party to get elected if it is outside the two main blocks – the ‘centre-left’ or the far-right.

The once-powerful Communist Party (PCCh) has acted as an ‘adviser’ to the Concertación and has done everything possible to become accepted by it. It was rewarded at the last election with three seats in Congress as part of this neo-liberal coalition. The alienation is reflected in the fact that 75% of young people do not even register to vote.

Dissatisfaction with the Concertación and the absence of any alternative resulted in the victory of the right-wing coalition headed by Sebastián Piñera. Like most of the leading political caste, he is part of a dynasty: his elder brother was a minister under Pinochet, his father was the Chilean ambassador to the UN between 1964-70. The election victory of this arrogant billionaire, however, acted as a whip of counter-revolution and unleashed the accumulating anger and frustration. Seeing a new generation engaged in struggle marks the end of the so-called ‘stability’, which the Chilean ruling class has boasted of since the end of the military dictatorship.

The alienation of young people towards the system and its institutions was reflected in a very pronounced reaction against the idea of political parties. And the role of the PCCh has re-enforced this mood, which was also present in the youth movements in Spain and Greece. This is in spite of the fact that some student leaders are PCCh members.

The PCCh even runs its own private university, so it is no surprise that it has been viewed in a similar light as the establishment parties. Following the peak of the movement, a layer of youth, grouped around a radical organisation, SER (Secretaría de Educación Rebelde), organised occupations of the offices of political parties, including the PCCh. The PCCh denounced them as right-wing agents! SER commentated in a press release that the PCCh denounces what it does not control: "They did this to Che and the MIR [Movimiento Izquierda Revolucionaria] in the past".

This does not mean that the movement is ‘apolitical’. The youth demanded the nationalisation of the copper industry, free and decent education, and opposed the ‘commodification’ of education. However, they reacted against the idea of a political party because they have had no experience of a party which genuinely represents their interests. While this was a complication in the movement it also represents the initial reflex of a new generation which has moved into struggle for the first time.

The need is posed for an organised force, a new political party, which can channel the determination of the youth to fight for change. In the course of further struggles, significant layers can begin to draw this conclusion. Marxists need to assist this process by drawing on past experience and explaining what a genuine party of the workers and youth would fight for and how it would be different to the existing parties that defend the system.

New battles loom in Chile. Remembering the first 9/11 and drawing the lessons from that bloody defeat can assist the new generation to prepare for them. They can also prepare the way to overthrow the capitalist system and usher in a genuine, democratic, socialist alternative.

Tony Saunois

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