Upheaval in Chile

By Gabriel Boric

Written remarks prepared for a public talk at the University of California, Berkeley | Hosted by the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS) | February 10, 2020

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A protest in Santiago, Chile, October 2019. (Photo by Carlos Figueroa.)

It’s incredible how language can limit your expression and even your imagination. As you know, my mother tongue is Spanish, so please excuse me if I have a hard time making myself clear in this talk. I’ll do my best, but I also might need some help to express some ideas.

I would like to thank CLAS and Beatriz Manz for giving me the opportunity to be here in Berkeley. For me it is very important to have the chance to talk to you and get a different perspective on what’s going on in Chile, because being in the center of the effervescence for so many weeks (months now), narrows your view of the problems and opportunities we’re facing.

Before I start I must say that I don’t pretend to be an impartial observer of the situation we’re living in Chile. I’m into politics and a militant of Convergencia Social (the name of our party that has just been legalized), which is part of Frente Amplio, a left wing coalition that in the last presidential election had the 20% of the votes. Therefore, I have a point of view, which of course doesn’t prevent me from questioning my own ideas, an exercise that for me at least is very important in politics and in life. As Albert Camus said, “doubt must follow convictions as a permanent shadow”.

I’m going to center my talk on what I believe are the main causes of the social rebellion in Chile, and leave the future perspectives, proposals and the constitutional challenge to the dialogue, so I can go deeper on those topics.

Neoliberal public policies were introduced after the overthrow of Salvador Allende in 1973. At the end of the 70’s, Chile became the guinea pig of this Chicago-made experiment in the whole world. Of course, these reforms could only have been made in an authoritarian regime, where no discussion was permitted.

These policies have been softened by the transition to democracy, but their essential pillars were preserved. Chile has had a remarkably good record of growth, and while in the 1960-70s it was in the middle of Latin American GDP per capita, it is now the richest Latin American country. The success in growth is incontestable.

But where are the hidden parts of this growth?

I’ve always thought that we should make efforts to link politics with cultural expressions, so I’m going to start this talk with a poem from Enrique Lihn that describes in a heart-rending way an endemic problem that is in the center of the discussion nowadays in our country. It’s called “Punta Arenas Cemetery” (the translation is mine with a friend so my excuses to Enrique Lihn if we didn’t express its power).

CEMETERY IN PUNTA ARENAS

Not even death could make these men alike

who give their names to different gravestones

or shout them into the sun’s wind that rubs them out:

some more dust for a fresh gust of wind.

Here, by the sea that matches the marble,

between this double row of generous cypresses,

peace rules, but a peace struggling to shatter itself,

ripping the burial parchments in a thousand pieces

to poke out the face of an ancient arrogance

and to laugh at the dust.

 

This city was yet to be built

when its first born sons raised another empty city

and, one by one, they settled deep into their place

as if they could still dispute it.

Each one forever on his own, waiting,

the tablecloths laid out, for his sons and grandsons.

As you can see we are talking about inequality. An inequality that doesn’t end, even with death (“not even death could make these men alike” / “the tablecloths laid out, for his sons and grandsons”). Inequality is an experience throughout the life of someone who was born in Chile and is, in my opinion, one of the main causes of the rebellion we are in. And contrary to the voices that claim that no one saw this coming, I must say that there were a lot of warnings (such as the Program of United Nations for Development, the student movement of 2011, the regional protests). The problem is that the elite and mainly the right wing parties and capital owners refused to accept it.

In the official discourse, Chile was the example to follow in Latin America (our President even dared to refer to Chile as “an oasis” of stability in the region). And that speech had great marketing, especially from a very favorable press. Those who had the opportunity to travel abroad would always find themselves talking about how Chile was the safest, politically stable and economically attractive country in South America. But this official discourse hid a reality that couldn’t be kept under the rug for such a long time. That reality is inequality and uncertainty.

Let’s take a closer look at what inequality means in Chile.

“If you work hard your effort will be rewarded in terms of your social position” and “meritocracy” both describe the attitude of Chileans in the last three decades. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this and I believe that this idea of social mobility is the excuse that people in power had to justify inequality.

It’s an interesting exercise to evaluate the problem of inequality in Chile in the light of Rawls’ Second Principle of Justice. John Rawls argues that social and economic inequalities are only justified when they are meant to benefit the underprivileged. This principle has become a relevant problem for the Left, since it has been used as moral justification for choosing economic growth as a political priority and focalization of the public budget as a solution to poverty. In the last months, we have seen a strengthening of the menace of a conservative regression, orchestrated by the powerful elites such as the big companies, and seconded by their servile media system. They are even trying to convince us that inequality in Chile is decreasing, and therefore we shouldn’t be thinking of that social problem as a political priority, but focus on economic growth (as the former Minister of Economy José Ramón Valente said yesterday in an interview with a local paper, “The system was doing fine”).

What do the data say?

According to the recent report made by the United Nations Development Programme, inequality, as an essentially relative measurement, can be reduced, even if the absolute distance between different home incomes augments. An example can help us better grasp this notion. According to Chile’s official records (the Casen survey) in the year 2000, the first decile had an average per capita income of $20,040 (in 2015 money). Per capita income of the highest decile was $801,000. Between 2000 and 2015 the income for the first decile grew in 145%, while the 10th decile grew in 30%. In strict terms, the inequality gap shrank. However, in absolute terms, the first decile only gained $29,000, while the 10th decile gained $239,000. Almost nine times more.

This example indicates one of the problems that we will have to face. The Chilean people have objectively improved their material quality of life in comparison with the preceding generation (decrease in poverty, access to education, child mortality, nutrition, among other key variables that have improved in the last decades), and while the Right claims that status quo is the best formula to keep progressing, the parties that were part of the defunct coalition Nueva Mayoría think that fixing the excesses is enough, and that there is no need to transform the essence (the discussion about changing the pension system is very illustrative of this point). We want to change the essence. Our problem as a political actor is that, this estallido (social upheaval) caught us too green.

What about uncertainty?

As the sociologist Juan Pablo Luna said in an interview a few weeks ago, “the elite is living the uncertainty that most Chileans have to face in their everyday life.”

On average Chilean families have a rate of 75% debt over their incomes and, as in the United States, most of what we think should be provided as social rights are, in fact, privatized. That means that in order to access a good education and health, you have to pay. Not to mention the pension system, and how expensive it is now to own a house.

To summarize, this means that in Chile, people who own only their own labor are afraid to get ill, to get old and to have children. And, of course, that is the vast majority of the population. That’s why social protests have had such massive support. People are demanding dignity, which despite of the growth of the last decades, they don’t perceive that they have.

And dignity doesn’t only refer to material situation, but also as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP, or PNUD in Spanish) last report of 2017 “Unequals” said, it has concrete expression in different treatment according to social position, gender and race.

But how could people stand this situation for three decades? (“It’s not only 30 pesos, but 30 years” is one of the main slogans that you will hear in Chile these days.) The Argentinian president Alberto Fernández has stated on several occasions these past months that the only miracle about Chile is the long time it took for people to wake up.

The reason for this treacherous tranquility may be found in the individualism that characterized “the Chilean way” to development. When did this break up?

Just before the riots started, and right after, we had several statements from authorities that heated the water in a pressure cooker. Let me give you some examples:

Juan Andrés Fontaine (Minister of Economy when announcing a rise on subway tickets in rush hour): “The one who gets up early will be helped, so that someone who leaves earlier and takes the subway at 7 in the morning has the possibility of a lower rate than today.”

Felipe Larraín (Minister of Finances announcing a rise in the cost of some products and the decrease on others): “For the romantics (…) that the flowers have had a decrease in their price. So those who want to give flowers this month, the flowers have fallen 3.6%.”

Luis Castillo (Subsecretary of Health explaining delay in health offices): “Patients always want to go to an office early, some of them, because they are not only going to see the doctor, but it is a social element, of social gathering.”

Jose Ramón Valente (Minister of Economy talking about himself): “People have me stereotyped like a cuico [slang for upper class Chilean] and it’s not like that. When I was 15 years old, I took a bus down Vicuña Mackenna Avenue to Otto Kraus to get toys to sell at the Santa Lucia Christmas Fair. I was 30 years old the first time I travelled to Europe.” He also recommended investors invest outside the country.

Nicolás Monckeberg (Minister of Housing arguing against tax on housing): “It is a transversal debate, especially in a country where the vast majority are owners, we do not have much more, because it is our heritage… the house, two apartments.”

Gerardo Varela (Minister of Education about some petitions he had received): “It is common to hear groups protesting, demanding that the State take care of problems that belong to all of us. Every day I receive complaints from people who want the Ministry to fix the roof of a leaking school, or a classroom that has a bad floor, and I wonder, why don’t they make a bingo?”

Cecilia Morel (President’s wife trying to explain to a friend of her what was going on in the first days after October 18th): “They advanced the curfew because it was known that the strategy is to break the entire supply chain, food, even in some areas water, pharmacies, they tried to burn a hospital and tried to take the airport, that is, we are absolutely overwhelmed, it’s like a foreign invasion, alien, I don’t know how to say it, and we don’t have the tools to fight them.”

All these statements show in a pretty clear way the profound disconnect between authorities and common people. Of course, this is not an exclusive heritage of right wing party members. When Giorgio Jackson and myself presented a bill to reduce parliament salary, which at that time was almost 40 times the minimum wage, we received criticism from across the political spectrum. For example, a Socialist deputy said that “we deserved that salary (about US$11,500) because we worked hard” (as if the rest of the people didn’t), and other one said that we presented it because “we didn’t have ex-wives who we had to pay pension to.”

In Chile, since the return of democracy, professional politicians have been progressively moving away from citizens, building an abyss that now I bet they regret. I have a clear recollection of one time when I was president of  the Federation of Students of Universidad de Chile in the middle of a huge student movement in 2011-2012; we went to Congress and we met the deputies of the Education Committee. They told us, “Hey, thanks for putting this issue on the table, we’ll take it from here, we are the ones with the know-how.” In a traditional politics approach, they were right, because on the other side, there was no real community, each citizen had to scratch with his own nails in order to get a better future and social movements used to deny politics itself. But that has changed.

We understood then that mobilization was necessary to push further, but social movements, without a political expression, would become a simple petition exercise towards the government. That’s what we were thinking when we founded the Frente Amplio. This rebellion, though, has presented new ways of expression that are questioning everything.

The “awakening” speaks of an accumulated rage and frustration that allows us to steer to a better future not working alone, but through collective action and encounter. The problem is that there is a deep distrust in institutions and a crisis about the idea of representation. Compromising is perceived as treason, and even dialogue with the ones you disagree with is seen as a betrayal. That, in my opinion, is one of the most difficult challenges we’re facing: to be able to change institutions in order to defend them, and to recover trust on each other. As the great teacher José Zalaquett used to say, quoting Gustav Mahler, “tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”

All that I’ve told you has been reinforced by a massive rebellion against the repressive response and human rights violations that the government and police forces have been doing to face the protests. This is very important because until now, we have had already four reports that certify humans rights violations (from the National Institute of Humans Right, Amnesty International, Humans Right Watch and the Inter-American Commission of Humans Right), and even though we have tried to stop them in different ways, they are still happening. During the protests, several people have died (currently 31), and thousands have been injured (3,583 as of the end of December, and almost 400 with different types of eye damages). This situation is really serious and I would like to ask all of you to pay attention to how it develops.

In the middle of democracy-building and the reconstruction of politics itself in Chile, we are searching for answers for the future’s challenges. This is also about an historical change, because we have to look for those answers not in the past, but rather in the uncertainties, in the tensions generated by the failure of the neoliberal strategy to development.

To finish, I would like to interpolate all of you using a broadly known quote by Antonio Gramsci: “Educate yourselves because we’ll need all our intelligence. Stir yourselves because we’ll need all our enthusiasm. Organize yourselves because we’ll need all our strength.” We want to accomplish profound transformations in our country and help it become a worthier place for all Chileans, not only for us, the privileged.

Boric HeadshotGABRIEL BORIC is a representative from the XII Region in Chile (Magallanes and Chilean Antarctica). He was elected to Congress in 2013, when he was 27 years old, and reelected in 2017. He served as president of the Student Federation at the Universidad de Chile (FECH), and is now a member of the newly-formed political party Convergencia Social. He spoke for CLAS on February 20, 2020. 

 

(Photo by Nico Novoa-Marchat, http://www.sdpaudiovisual.com)

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