Amid intense protests, open town hall meetings, and neighbourhood assemblies – and just one day after the feminist march of 8 March 2020 – North American historian Peter Winn sat down in Santiago to talk with Mario Garcés Durán, an historian at the University of Santiago and the Director of the Chilean NGO Educación y Comunicaciones (Education and Communication, ECO). Their discussion focused on the emergence of the estallido social, or social uprising, that began in October 2019 and quickly spread throughout the country. The two historians also considered connections between past and present, in particular the legacies of the Popular Unity (UP) revolution (1970–3), in which both were active participants. On 9 March 2020, no one foresaw that everyday life in Chile – and the world – was about to change radically because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But on 18 March, just over one week after their discussion, Chileans began more than eight months under a strict lockdown, and a constitutional plebiscite originally planned for April was postponed. On 25 October 2020, as the pandemic still dragged on, that vote was finally held. After their original March 2020 discussion, the authors added a postscript in early December 2020, reflecting on the results of the historic 25 October vote to rewrite Pinochet’s 1980 constitution.
After the awakening
Peter Winn (PW): Mario, perhaps we might begin with one of the most frequently heard slogans from the social protests that erupted in October of 2019: ‘Chile awoke’. How should we understand this slogan?
Mario Garcés Durán (MG): As the saying goes, everyone is a general after the battle. But what no one predicted, deep down, nor could have predicted in the short term, was an explosion of the magnitude that we had in Chile beginning in October. Therefore, there is an element of surprise that would be interesting to work through precisely because it is so revealing. What citizens have been denouncing is that we are living in a society full of abuse, of exploitation, of marginalisation; and the political class has not wanted to hear anything about these fundamental problems. The State has not proven sensitive to the lived experience of its citizens. The popular unrest did not resonate in the media and went unprocessed by the political class. It has been lived from below as the immediate social experience of the poor, of students, of retired people subsisting on tiny pensions. Basically, what the secondary school students did was light the fuse of a much broader feeling of discontent. This discontent is entrenched in our society, and it has not been recognised and processed by politicians or the media, nor even by the intellectual class. We are living in what might be called a condition of national schizophrenia. One class lives well, looking only to itself, talking only about itself, while the grand majority lives in other areas with different codes, languages and reference points. Well, that was what erupted. I thought at one point of the famous metaphor of Mao Tse Tung. In discussing when the war would begin in China, he said, ‘A single spark can start a prairie fire.’ Here, something like that happened. The whole prairie caught fire.
PW: Why? How are we to understand that a price increase of 30 pesos [about 4 cents or 3 pence] could produce such a huge social uprising (estallido social)?
MG: Well, that is the interesting thing. Chile awoke because the students created an opportunity for public expression. Upon disrupting the orderly routine of urban life, the order of public transportation, upon making the city collapse, they opened up an opportunity, a window. When protesters began to express themselves, the second slogan with mass appeal was, ‘It’s not the 30 pesos, it’s the 30 years.’
PW: What does it mean, ‘It’s the 30 years’?
MG: The 30 years of the Transition. All of the Transition. The entire political class of Chile has taken advantage of the last 30 years. That is what erupted. I insist that it is difficult to follow the phenomenon because it is one that operated underground. In that sense, I would say that social and economic inequality in Chile caused cultural inequality to grow. That included subjective inequality, as well as an inequality of language and aspirations. In other words, we have a society that is constructed, supposedly satisfied and progressing, with all of its strong indicators.
PW: The image of a ‘First World’ society.
MG: Exactly, like the First World. Shortly before everything erupted, President Sebastián Piñera said that Chile was an oasis. The idea was that Chile was far from the world’s great conflicts. It was a peaceful place, a progressive place, one that lived not with the effects of wars or violence or instability; one that was progressing, without episodes of violence and crisis, and with a stable economy. That was the image, a stark contrast with places like the Middle East, the migration crisis in Europe, or the situation in Venezuela. Chile seemed exceptional.
PW: Was the estallido a surprise for you too, then?
MG: Yes, of course. I have felt myself in a very curious position because I never supported the form that the Chilean transition took. I was a critic from the beginning. We published documents in ECO1 in the year 1989–90 in which we pointed out the limitations of the transition. Later, in the 1990s, we continued, especially in ECO, working with social leaders, and we always took a critical view. But it was difficult for us to identify the critical junctures. It was especially difficult to move from this antiquated reverence that we had in Chile for political parties that no longer fulfilled their purpose, in order to begin to believe in our own abilities. It was a long process. On the other hand, as an intellectual, I found myself catalogued as over the hill and out of date, incapable of understanding the new codes of the period. The university itself, in fact, has been part of the process, caught up in the neoliberal modernisation of Chile. So, I was viewed as a bit of a rare bird, always criticising, stuck in another era. I am remembering work we did at ECO, two or three years ago, when we restarted our reflection on social movements. At one point, in a meeting, I upheld the view that in the face of the current political crisis, the only way out would be to reconstitute the political system starting with the demands of social movements.
PW: What a prophet you were!
MG: Yes [laughter]. But I had no certainty that it might really happen. I insist that it was a surprise for me as well.
Social movement or movement of society?
PW: Let’s proceed to that because in your book, Estallido social y una Nueva Constitución para Chile,2 you discuss the concepts of ‘social movement’ and ‘movement of society’. Can you explain the difference for me?
MG: Sure. This is a topic that I began to think about recently, in the final days of December, and even during the January vacation. I asked myself several times, ‘What is this? How would one put a name on what is happening?’ And it was exceedingly difficult to do, in fact. At one point, my first intuition, more than a hypothesis, was to say that we are in the middle of a democratic revolution. But it seemed like a lot to say, because we could not yet predict if this would last, what form it would take outside of Santiago, who would participate, anything like that. It was a very academic view of things. For now, let’s say we are in the process of a democratic reactivation. Something is happening with democracy in Chile; it seems more active. Around December, I said, ‘Well, if this is not a democratic revolution, it sure seems like one.’ And therefore, I started to admit that something very interesting was happening, and that it involved very specific social movements that I have known, like feminism, environmentalism, the Mapuche movement, even the student movement – and in part, the workers’ movement too, but in a weaker way, in my opinion. But soon I also began to realise that other actors are also implicated, that this was not just the working-class youth of the 1980s that protested in the poorer neighbourhoods. It was more like our local version of football hooligans. You could just walk down to the ex-Plaza Italia, now the Plaza de la Dignidad, and see that. There I ran into an angry crowd of football fans, protesting with surprising energy and passion together with rival fans from other clubs.
PW: That was a surprise?
MG: Yes. The traditional fans of Colo-Colo and Universidad de Chile, the two most important football teams in the country, have always been enemies. They have even killed each other on occasion. Now, they were protesting together at Plaza de la Dignidad, even dividing up the days, so that one day, Colo-Colo can lead the charge, and another day, La [Universidad de] Chile. Later, what came to be called the primera línea [frontline] at Plaza de la Dignidad started to take shape. Those were the youth who created a barrier in front of the police to prevent them from breaking up the demonstrations. Initially, these masked and hooded youth, the encapuchados, were present in many demonstrations. As it turns out, in this context, the group began to grow, so that it became more than just the encapuchados, but also the football fans. Then, the kids from SENAME [Servicio Nacional de Menores]3 joined them. They are the kids in the state-run foster home system. Then, young people from the urban shantytowns started to participate. At its peak, that primera línea included 2,000 or 3,000 youths directly confronting the police. It was no longer a squad of 10 or 15 encapuchados that would break away from the demonstrations to quixotically confront police repression. It had become something much bigger.
PW: They were protecting each other.
MG: Exactly. Well, here things get complicated from the analytical point of view. On the one hand, we see the diversity of the participants, and on the other hand, we observe participants’ consensual rejection of the political system and the political parties.
PW: Let’s talk about that because, in my opinion, it seems as if the hardest thing to explain, given the history of Chile, the history of the political parties and social organisations, is that, here we are perhaps seeing the biggest social movement from below in Chile’s history. But it is a movement without parties, without organisations, without leaders. How do we explain that? And what are its dimensions?
MG: First, it must have dimensions that we have not yet quantified. This process is not over. But in my opinion, this phenomenon has a national character – which is to say, we are looking at a very broad movement with collectives, spontaneous groups and some diverse associations. What they all have in common is their distance from the parties and the political system. And that is what makes me think that we are probably looking at a movement of society. But now, what does that mean? I believe that historically, Chile has had tremendous difficulty coordinating civil society and the State, or as we say in Chile, ‘the social’ with ‘the political’. The social and the political have often failed to come to terms with each other, which is why we live in a permanent dialectic. If we think about the Popular Unity years later in this conversation, what I want to reinterpret a bit is your thesis about the revolution ‘from above’ and the revolution ‘from below’, thinking about it as an opposition or a tension between the social and the political. My reformulation would be that the social is that which comes ‘from below’ while the political would be that which comes from ‘from above’. But let’s leave that for later.
Thirty years of distance
PW: When we talked about the movement in those first months, I didn’t know how to define it. The only group that had much strength was the Mesa de Unidad Social [Council of Social Unity].4 Tell us a little about the organisation within the estallido social.
MG: The thing about Unidad Social, re-emphasising an earlier idea, it seems to me that the subject of the relationship between the social base and the parties was already a problem by the end of the Popular Unity period. There is no doubt that the crisis of the Popular Unity was, likewise, a crisis of representation.
MG: In Chile, the traditional idea of a party was that it should embody a project for social change. The idea that it should effectively represent the social world in politics was a powerful one. It began to take root at the beginning of the [twentieth] century, and it became more consolidated beginning in the 1930s, through the democratisation of the State – that is, the State channelled the world of the popular sectors through the parties, the parties became their expression. In our culture, the party embodied the idea of transformation. So, popular politics presupposed the party. It implied the party. Without a party, popular politics did not exist. Well, that paradigm, in my judgement, breaks down at the end of the UP, because of the UP itself, and of course, the dictatorship finished demolishing it by removing the parties’ possibility of acting within the State. The Chilean party system disappeared, as [Chilean sociologist] Manuel Antonio Garretón has observed. That experience broke the back of the Chilean political system, and I suspect that it is gone for good.
In the 1980s, during the struggle against the dictatorship, when social protests started, the parties looked for a way to occupy that role once again. The left did so from a revolutionary perspective – following ideas from MIR [Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria] about popular warfare, or the Front [Frente Patriótico Manuel Rodríguez, FPMR], driven by the Communist Party, with the idea of popular rebellion. When both of these classic revolutionary strategies, embodied in the parties, collapsed and failed, the centrist parties moved in, looking for a way to re-create that old role but in a more traditional way, saying, ‘mobilise, but we will reform the State, and we will take charge of your demands before the State’. And, of course, the transition was configured accordingly, within the State and within the parties and therefore subordinating all the energy that came from the social world and all the valuable experience that social organisations had gained during the dictatorship. All of that social, civil strength inevitably generated under the dictatorship would be subordinated and domesticated.
PW: And demobilised.
MG: And, demobilised, exactly. So, this statist and party-centred transition emerged, wherein society plays no significant or relevant role. What this crisis has revealed is that society has tired of this state-centric strategy that excludes society and rewards those who exercise political power with privileges. As such, this protest is a protest against the State. It is a protest against the institutional form of the State. But that protest today, against the State, against the institutions, has not been channelled through the parties, but rather against them. So, it needs to generate its own forms of expression. In that sense, I would say that this is a movement of society because it is the society itself, as a separate entity from the State structures, that has begun to generate new forms of reorganisation.
PW: We’re talking about the cabildos [town halls] and local assemblies then?
MG: Exactly. The social movements are the form this takes in some cases, but in other situations, as for example in the cabildos and the assemblies, the people have united on their own initiative, without mediation. In this context, you were asking about Unidad Social, which represents the older structure, a union-based structure, in some ways. It was founded in a close relationship with the political parties. The old structures have weakened considerably. For example, today’s CUT [Central Unitaria de Trabajadores, United Workers’ Federation] is not the same CUT we had in the 1960s and 1970s.5 There are no labour organisations that have that power because the rate of unionisation in Chile is now extremely low, between 12 and 13 per cent of the workforce. Thus, the trade union movement itself has grown weak. It has many legal obstacles to overcome. The federations and confederations have weakened, too. Moreover, they have always been, and still are, enmeshed in the political parties. Their representational capacity has diminished.
PW: Was there ever a time when the problem of direct democracy was considered, that problem of how you scale up to the national level? Without parties, without organisations, then there are not actors who are able to negotiate with the State, right?
MG: Exactly. That role could have been assumed by Unidad Social, but it was incapable of doing so. First, because it did not speak for any majority. Second, because it sustained basic policy disagreements and the only parties with which it did associate were the Communists and the Socialists. Those parties have got lost in this crisis too; they too have lost their sense of direction. I listened to Carlos Montes, an old senator from today’s Socialist Party, some time around the end of December . He was asked about the political situation of the country, and if he had anticipated what was happening. He said he had met with a wide range of socialist intellectuals, and the word that ran through that meeting was ‘perplexity’. They are perplexed. The parties are tied to the power structure. They have become a part of that power structure. So, a return to their social base would be difficult, and that constitutes an extremely complex problem, because they have no way to say they represent anyone. Now, I was thinking that this would take a long time, in the sense that representation inevitably brings us back to the topic of control, of power and to the current distance that exists between the parties and the social bloc.
PW: That is a key point, 30 years of ‘distancing’ between the political class and its base.
MG: Of course. We are not going to generate the leadership or the types of representation that are going to betray us later on. My impression is that many, especially women, have been longing for greater capacity to self-organise, to conceive of themselves as political agents. They want to see a massification of this movement, and a recognition of the value of these new expressions of direct democracy like the assemblies and other associations. It seems to me that, of course, this will protract the political solution, and there probably will be no short-term political solution. But at the same time, we have to learn from this, and learning takes time. In that sense I was also thinking that this creates for us, as historians, a problem of differentiated temporalities. We have to learn to distinguish between a social temporality and a political temporality. The social temporality plays out over time, while the political temporality requires short-term decisions, in time for the next election or the next conjuncture, which in this case, will be a change in the constitution.
PW: Let’s talk about that, then, because the process of constitutional change has emerged as one way to overcome the crisis of representation.
MG: Certainly, the topic of constitutional change has been on the table since the era of the dictatorship. In the early programmes of what was the prehistory of the Concertación, the Alianza Democrática6 talked about a constituent assembly and a new constitution. The road to social mobilisation got complicated in 1985 when the first Acuerdo Nacional [roughly, National Accord] was created, beginning a dialogue between the right and the left. And there was an initial pronouncement made under the auspices of Archbishop Fresno of Santiago – that is to say, the Catholic Church – in which for the first time, the programme of the Alianza Democrática excluded the idea of a constitutional assembly. The range of profound transformations became more moderate and limited, which is what later emerged in the plebiscite of 1988. After that, the topic of the constitution was abandoned and the Concertación always looked for ways to reform the existing constitution, without proposing the creation of a new one. The topic of the constitution would remain in the declarations of some parties, but it was always a low priority.
PW: It became rhetorical.
MG: Rhetorical, yes. And in some political groups, scholars – myself among them – insisted that this was a condition for change to occur. In fact, during the student mobilisation of 2011, I realised that the student movement had no solution without a new constitution for one simple reason: because the power of the Executive under the current constitution is excessive. It is the only branch of government that can present legislation that involves the national budget. Therefore, in 2011, if President Piñera did not send a proposal to reform the educational system, there would be no free education. After Piñera, President Bachelet managed a partial reform, but in reality, the problem was that any legislative initiative had to originate in the executive branch.
I believe that this created a nationwide consciousness among subalterns, among the marginalised, among the citizenry, that they were not part of the political system, that without a new constitution, there would be no change. During the current crisis, the political class has perceived this and that is why it has proposed the idea of a new constitution but one that will be set up in terms that assure it maintains control over the change. And that is the problem that emerged on 15 November of 2019 [when legislators, with the exception of the Communist Party, announced their political solution as an ‘Accord for Social Peace and the New Constitution’]. There was agreement and it seemed like a victory in the sense that the political class understood that there has to be a constitutional change, but they immediately created a control mechanism.
PW: So that the political class will control the changes.
MG: Exactly, and so that they block any profound changes.
PW: That, and besides, it proposes a very long, extended process. It is difficult to imagine that a social uprising is going to wait two years for a new constitution.
MG: Exactly, and that is the other thing: that the members of the political class want to control the functioning of this constitutional assembly, but they want to also prescribe the norms for that assembly – for example, that the accords have to have a quorum of two-thirds. As such, it is not the assembly itself that determines its own rules, but rather, old parliamentarians who do not want change. Members of the political class want to define how changes are made, but they also impose a calendar of two years, which allows them to manage the political time and establish more control. These are cold compresses designed to assure the business elites that the changes will not be profound. What seemed at the moment like a large majority in favour of a constitutional change started to divide up until quickly, and there emerged a faction who said, ‘No, we can make all the changes we need without a new constitution.’ Because of that, a situation of rejection began to consolidate itself, and added to that you have a government in power that pays no attention to social demands, which just strengthens the mobilisations and when confronted with mobilisation, the government represses. As such, along with the repression, a certain instability or ungovernability has begun to take hold. Within the government, that ungovernability has started to be used as an excuse not to pursue change, but what stands out most is the government effort to control the streets. This all is loaded with traps.
The persistence of protest
PW: OK, let’s skip to December of 2019. Chile was approaching summer, and the whole world was sure that nothing was going to happen. What happened that summer?
MG: Well, that was very impressive because, you are right, everyone thought that, since January and February are typically vacation months, that would be that. People would leave the city, go to the beach or to the south, and because of this, nothing more would happen. Curiously, the protest continued throughout the summer, perhaps at a lower intensity in some places, like Plaza Italia, now rebaptised as Plaza de la Dignidad. And yet, the idea of gathering there every Friday continued through January and February.
PW: That’s something.
MG: Yes, the Plaza was never left abandoned on a Friday. That is very interesting. But over the summer we started to see what we discussed earlier – the diversity of participants involved in the protest. On one hand, the students returned. They had begun the movement, but they had slipped to a secondary role. The students returned to the political scene in the summer because they questioned the national system of entrance exams that we have in Chile, the Prueba de Selección Universitaria [University Selection Exam, PSU]. It really is an awful system. There is consensus about this among university rectors and professors themselves. All agreed two years ago that it has to be modified because it measures acquired knowledge skills, thus clearly demonstrating only the level of inequality in the Chilean educational system. The people who come from wealthy families and private schools score well, and those who come from the poor neighbourhoods and the public educational system score badly. Over 70 per cent of those who come from poor schools don’t even score the minimum needed to apply. In Santiago, there are entire municipalities that can’t manage to place even one student within the university system. So, the students began a movement to boycott the PSU. They kept society watching because they were in the news every day with their demonstrations.
Moreover, demonstrations began to happen in the football stadiums, among the fans. In the stadium of Colo-Colo, one of the most popular clubs in the country, 20,000 or 30,000 fans started to chant enthusiastically, ‘Piñera is an assassin, just like Pinochet’, and that spilled over into the International Song Festival at Viña del Mar in February 2020. The police responded and, in the repression, at the end of January, two fans died. One was run over by a police car at the Colo-Colo stadium exit, and another in a demonstration in Padre Hurtado, a municipality just west of Santiago. Then, the students and the football fans became the sworn enemies of the regime, or part of this war that Piñera declared on the people of Chile in October of 2019. That made for a summer of unrest. The entire summer there were demonstrations. Perhaps the intensity diminished somewhat, but what was notable is they included a group that we have not yet talked too much about: young people. In all of the new social movements, young people have been the central figures; including youth from the urban periphery, football fans, feminist youth, environmentalist youth and young students. In short, youth has been the common denominator.
PW: Yes, this has been generational.
MG: Yes, exactly, there is a generational component, without a doubt. I live in a middle-class neighbourhood near Plaza Ñuñoa. It was a place where, like Plaza Italia, the plaza was full every day. I went three or four times with my partner, and we felt old. There were no more than a handful of people older than 50 or 60. The rest were young people, even adolescents of 14 or 15 years old, and up to about 30 years old, perhaps. And because of that, in the Plaza there was lots of music, lots of artwork, every form of expression.
PW: With that, we come to what happened yesterday, 8 March 2020 [International Women’s Day]. The march organised by the Coordinadora Feminista 8M [Feminist Coordinating Committee, 8M] brought out 2 million demonstrators into the streets of Santiago, according to the organisers. I remember you were saying that if that was not the biggest demonstration ever, it was one of the biggest. How can we explain the size? And how can we understand what you have written about this protest as ‘foretold’?
MG: ‘Chronicle of an upheaval foretold’, yes. First, I think the impact of feminism in Chilean society has a history, and it became clearly visible about three years ago. The first demonstrations were on the university campus, when women started to denounce abuses, or sexual harassment, and to demand that the university establish a protocol for accountability. This had some impact, especially among the middle class. It led to especially strong denunciations at the Law School of the Universidad de Chile, and a wave of feminist tomas [occupations] began. Sixteen universities were occupied.
PW: You are referring to what is known as ‘El mayo feminista’ [Feminist May], right?
MG: Yes, the Feminist May in May of 2018. The feminists also took to the streets, as an outgrowth of the student movement in 2011. There were thousands, and it was then that this movement started to take shape. There was public expression and also something surprising in the sense that the women, and especially the young women, took a leading role in the different forms of expression as they had evolved since 2011. They turned to performance, artistic expression, batucada [drum corps], the aesthetics of demonstration and again they did all of this without a connection to parties and without partisan flags.
PW: And everyone was singing ‘Un violador en tu camino’ (‘A Rapist in Your Path’), a participatory performance by Las Tesis [a feminist collective from Valparaíso, whose song ‘A Rapist in Your Path’ premiered on 25 November 2019, for the International Day against Gender Violence].
MG: I believe that the performance of Las Tesis called attention to the oppression and victimisation of women, but at the same time, it denounced the fact that the rapist, the perpetrator of the violence, ‘is you’, meaning men, and in particular, the State. It’s there that they jumped to the notion of the patriarchal State. Las Tesis is working on several different levels. I think their feminism has a clear Latin American character. The mobilisations in Argentina in favour of abortion rights, and the mobilisations in Brazil against President Jair Bolsonaro – all of those had an impact in Chile, and networks of exchange began to emerge. In my opinion, it was at this stage that a new kind of feminism appeared with strong theoretical and political force in the sense that there was a new focus, a new language, being expressed. This was no longer just about equality, but about patriarchy, power, aesthetics, relationships, economic matters and the exploitation of the body. It was about the place of women in society. That is to say, there was a set of categories and proposals, with its own discourse and language, that has had an impact on society. Curiously, this came to light in a middle-class movement, and there was a critique in 2018, a question of whether or not this could permeate popular society. My impression was that popular sectors, especially older women, were overjoyed. The movement had accurately expressed their feelings. That was a remarkably interesting example of social solidarity.
PW: And why were there so few men at the march?
MG: There were disagreements within the feminist movement. In the call to action, there were strong separatist tendencies, that the men should stay at home, that they should take care of the kids, to facilitate the possibility of expression for the women. They were not exactly invited. Therefore, those of us who did participate in the march that Sunday had to keep a low profile. We had to walk along the edges because the truth was, this was the women’s march. I believe that separatism was necessary. It strengthened the movement; it strengthened its logic of identity. But of course, it’s not as effective in terms of getting everyone involved in national politics. For national proposals, you need alliances.
PW: Let’s back up. How would you differentiate between what was happening yesterday with what was happening with the anti-Allende organisation, Poder Femenino [Feminine Power], during the Popular Unity period?
MG: Well, here we can both participate because you also know that story well. I believe that the Chilean left, the classic Marxist left, was very centred on the working class and on the notion of exploitation, and by extension on the lives of rural peasants as well, but it never clearly defined a space for women.
PW: Of course, because that interpretation says that there only has to be analysis of class, and not gender.
MG: Yes, exactly right, there was no analysis of gender. It was not considered as a category, only class was. And that was so radical that I always tell my students that the hymn of the CUT begins by saying to the effect of Aquí va la clase obrera, hacia el triunfo, querida compañera [The working class marches on to triumph, dear compañera], and it ends by saying, y en el día que me muera, mi lugar lo tomas tú [and on the day that I die, you will take my place]. Which is all to say that women’s place is secondary, and the protagonists of history are working-class men. I think the UP had a hard time understanding the problem with this, even though it had a popular base of women who supported Allende.
Dialogues between past and present: From the Popular Unity to the estallido social
PW: We move now into the second phase of this interview, which will be less of an interview and more of a conversation about the Popular Unity experience, 50 years after its election in 1970. We have talked a lot about the protests of recent months. But we both also remember what the demonstrations and marches during the Popular Unity era were like. How might we distinguish between the demonstrations of the Popular Unity period and the protests of today?
MG: There is one part of the phenomenon that has to do with the presence of society but, in particular, the presence of ‘the popular’, of popular civil society. The UP had a popular component, but social class was at the centre of its political project. It was rooted in the urban and rural working classes, and in the city, among the pobladores [urban poor]. In that sense, this movement today, the estallido social, has been much more heterogeneous, and it has clear linkages with the middle class that perhaps was present in the UP, but not in the same way we see today. In today’s citizen movement the middle class is much more present, which is interesting because that was precisely the factor of greatest weakness for the UP; it was where the right managed to generate a type of anti-UP, anti-socialist social movement, and I think, today we are in that sense in a slightly different place. But the taking over of the streets for me, after the students’ marches in 2011, brought back memories of the Popular Unity. The prophecy of Allende (in his final speech), when he said, ‘sooner or later, the broad avenues will once again open up’, maybe we could connect this with the UP. I was reading a text by Steve Stern about transition and memory. He writes that when Allende said, ‘the people make history’, in some ways he was resolving his own tensions and internal contradictions, the contradictions of being a man of the State, but he had an enormous loyalty to the people and in that critical moment, at the end of his life, he refers to the people as the protagonists.
PW: Yes, but he does not ask the people to come out and defend him. On the contrary.
PW: At the end of the day, he was a Marxist, but not a Leninist. I believe that Allende was very conscious of what happened to José Balmaceda. He once told me that Balmaceda was his favourite President. He did not want to start a civil war, either. Part of him was talking as a Marxist, about an international process. And there was another part of Allende that was the very Chilean president, one who was steeped with the history of Chile, in this case, the Chile of Balmaceda. That is why I have always said that in Chile for Allende, looking back to Balmaceda, political suicide had a particular meaning. I had a rather long interview with Allende, a year before his death. For Allende, the first objective was to avoid the massacre of the people, and second, to make it impossible for Pinochet to take power legitimately. He knew that the only way to do that was to sacrifice his own life. But I am more known as the historian of ‘los de abajo’ [those from below]. I understand that you have been thinking along those lines, about the relationship between ‘the below’ and ‘the above’, not only looking back at the UP but also looking at the present. Can you explain to me your ideas about that?
MG: Yes, I think that your proposal that in Chile a revolution from above and a revolution from below occurred simultaneously remains quite relevant. I believe that is a very useful framework for what we might call ‘Chile, the Society’ and ‘Chile, the State’. It’s an important metaphor, in the sense that in reality that tension between the State and the society has been a permanent fixture in Chile, and it was particularly evident in popular society of the twentieth century. If in fact the State became democratic, it also insisted on putting limits on the popular classes, and departing from that analysis, I would say that the UP exemplified this tension between society and politics, between civil society and the State, and what we could also call the tension between the movement from below and the movement from above. This tension is recurrent in Chile, and the problem cannot be resolved only within the State. Put another way, it needed to be resolved within the State by giving space to the social world, by opening up more space to those from below.
But the problem of the UP, in my opinion, was the UP’s diagnosis that the democratic development of the Chilean State was exceptional and that it was well above average when compared to other Latin American states. Because of that, the change had to be made in the socio-economic base. This is a sort of Marxist analysis that says that economic changes are the ones that, in the end, produce transformations because they affect superstructures. That notion was very strong. Even Allende, trying to make himself stand out as different, would say, ‘I am going to carry out the economic transformation that the Frente Popular [Popular Front of 1938–1941] never did.’ But the point is that the UP began the socio-economic transformation while its opponents gained power within the State, and from there, the opposition rejected the socio-economic transformations. The UP’s problem was not just the socio-economic transformation; they needed to transform the State as well. They needed to defeat the democratic illusion with which the State had been created, the notion that it was democratic enough. But no, it really was not democratic enough, to the point that during the conflict, the bourgeoisie and the middle class acquired more power in the State, in parliament, in the Contraloría [comptroller’s office], in the courts and finally in the army, and the navy – in the armed forces as whole. From there, they destroyed the old State.
Looking back on the UP after 50 years, in light of today’s experience, wherein the conflict is much more intense, we can see that the UP never finished resolving the problem of the State. In particular, the idea of replacing the bicameral congress with a unicameral assembly came too late. It had been a part of the UP programme, but it was low on the list of priorities. After the left won a majority in the municipal elections of April 1971, the UP could have pushed to implement the unicameral assembly, and it was a strategic error not to have pursued that. Without it, there was no way to defend the people’s achievements within the State. The State would subsequently be appropriated by the bourgeoisie, then destroyed by the same bourgeoisie and replaced with a State that openly opposed society, and in particular, the popular classes.
PW: But in that case, the UP’s error was its interpretation of the situation. That is, it thought that in April of 1971 its victory in the municipal elections, which was quite narrow, was the first step towards electoral domination or an electoral majority that would, within a few months’ time, produce a majority in a plebiscite vote that could alter the structure of the State.
MG: Certainly, but history shows that was an error.
PW: But at that moment, it did not seem like an error, even within the Christian Democratic Party. Radomiro Tomic [Christian Democratic presidential candidate in 1970] was thinking this would be the future and thought he had to negotiate with the UP. We could say that the error of the UP was not having accepted Tomic’s offer of an alliance with ‘all of the lefts’ – which meant the Christian left and the Marxist left – even though there was no proof that Tomic could have convinced his party to do it.
But we are getting off topic. Returning to what we were discussing before, we were talking about the issue of what really constitutes democracy in terms of today’s movements, the idea of the cabildos, the assemblies, etc. How do these ideas of democracy compare with the democracy of Ex-Yarur [the first company socialised by its own workers during the UP and the first to introduce worker participation in the management of their workplace], for example, or the democracy of Nueva Habana [a self-governing shantytown encampment founded in Santiago and associated with the work of the MIR within the broader pobladores’ movement]?7
MG: Here is where I maintain that the UP had a political weakness. Its incapacity to change the State impeded its ability to value these democratic experiences in the grassroots. I remember well an interview with the people of Nueva Habana, who, many years later, told me, ‘I don’t know if the MIR knew everything that we did here, because in its early years, the MIR was very focused on organising among the pobladores, but because of its doctrinal definitions, the MIR later started to focus more on the working class. And as a result, it paid less attention to the movements in the población [roughly, urban shantytowns].’
And on the other hand, this person [the long-time resident of Nueva Habana] told me: ‘What we did we did because there was no repression, because we had the freedom to do it. We were inventing everything as we went along; for example, how to provide childcare, so that women could work, how to create greater awareness among the people, how to expand opportunities for cultural expression, how our assemblies would work.’ On another occasion this same resident even told me, ‘The issue of leadership and militias, yes, those were issues for the leader, El Mickey [Alejandro Villalobos, leader of MIR in la Nueva Habana in the 1970s], but they were not the fundamental issue. Our principal concerns were social, cultural and economic. That is what we cared about and what we spent our time working on.’ Another example is the case of the worker takeover of the Yarur textile factory in Santiago, which you know much better. The workers took control over production, the technology, all the details, including who to sell to, how much to sell, what and when – these are the basic questions of the economy that the workers began to make for themselves.
PW: Yes, but within the existing structures, which they accepted. Today there is no structural legacy.
PW: So, then, that is exactly the problem we already talked about: How do we move from the local level to the national level? There was some of that during the Popular Unity, but there were political parties with influence and experience.
MG: Yes, of course, but there again we see the issue that is in crisis today. In that period [the UP era], the party seemed to have all the answers, but in truth, it did not.
PW: You are right about that.
MG: The thing I’m most nostalgic about when it comes to UP, to put it that way, is that without a doubt it constituted the most democratic period in the history of Chile, the period of greatest mobilisation, the period of the greatest transformations and the one during which the people, society, were most present. But the question that has haunted me for a long time is, why wasn’t the Popular Unity capable of – I don’t want to say ‘consolidate’ because that word carries a lot of baggage from that era – but, why did the UP not grant legitimacy or support to many of those transformations that were being developed in the poorer neighbourhoods and in the factories, those initiatives that were prime examples of an active pobladores’ movement? There we see an experience of democracy, of direct action, that was so significant. And yet, Chile never thought at that time about modifying municipal structures, or allowing for territorial self-government. The notion of territory or space was not part of leftist thinking because the left was so focused on the category of class which comes from the productive process, not from the area of sociability, of daily living, and I think is an inexcusable shortcoming. In fact, in the current moment, what is being affirmed in the territorial assemblies is that the local territory is the place where sovereignty should be exercised. Sovereignty emerges out of the territory, and this especially true in the case of Latin America and Chile, where so many poor people don’t belong to the classic productive apparatus but are more than simply marginal. These groups are the majority, sometimes, among our populations. The notion of class is constituted more in terms of a given territory than in a given factory. It is in the población, not in the labour union. Therefore, the UP was lacking in its social and political theory to be able to process this kind of experience. That is the sadness I have about the UP, that perhaps there was a moment in which it could have advanced much farther, though who knows if we could have avoided the coup … Perhaps revolutions do not occur just in a given moment, and are not just about taking power. Revolutions are much longer processes.
PW: That’s very true.
MG: The notion of time in the UP was restricted and limited. It was a short-term event, while the time of Chilean politicians are always oriented around electoral timelines. They are not social timelines, and so again, we come back to the issue of temporalities. Today, the temporalities are evident, and when looking at the social and the political, they are visibly different from one another.
PW: You are right about that. At the same time, Allende trusted his own capabilities too much, and he trusted the capabilities of Carlos Prats more than he should have.8 In Chile during those days, there were certain situations and class struggles that no politician, regardless of his political skills, could control.
MG: Exactly, but getting back to the Popular Unity project as such and the experience of those years, you studied the Yarur textile factory, the ‘first territory free of exploitation’ during the UP. You were able to see the world of the Chilean workers of that period. How do you see it now?
PW: Yes, there was the feeling of a movement advancing forward, that everything was possible, thanks to the revolution, but I remember a conversation after the coup. One of the Communist leaders told me that if he thought Allende was going to push the country towards a civil war, he never would have voted for him. So, I believe that we are talking about revolutionaries on the one hand, and on the other, Chileans who had recently moved to the left, only to suddenly find themselves in a situation that they could never have imagined. Within that unfamiliar situation, they were, to paraphrase E.P. Thompson, attempting to trace out a path for their own lives but they were unable to create their own conditions.
MG: Certainly, but in that sense, and precisely drawing upon the work of Thompson, I believe that the UP, whether in the case of the nationalised companies or those formed around the idea of social property, the squatters’ settlements or even the universities, opened up a door. The UP opened up the historic possibility for constructing society in a way that emerged out of the grassroots itself. I believe that this was the most revolutionary thing about the UP, that it was not just the nationalisation of the copper, the banks or foreign trade, but the fact that the revolution created a space of opportunities, to use the language of collective action theory. This space of political opportunity for the popular sectors to take their future into their own hands. When considering today’s citizens’ movement, this movement of civil society that rejects the State and the parties, I believe the question is the same one: we want to take the future of our society into our own hands. That is, if there is democracy, it is because we can decide our own future. And we can decide it socially. In all the assemblies that I have attended, that is the fundamental question. That is the fundamental inspiration: here we are going to have a debate about a human rights programme, we are going to have a debate about a programme for economic development, we are going to have a debate about feminism, we are going to have a debate about the First Nations and we want what we are thinking to be taken into account. When the accord of 15 November 2019 came about in the Chilean Congress, this process had not been considered. That exacerbated the general sense of discontent, and because of that, the mobilisations continued.
This idea of the grassroots taking the lead was very present in the UP also. I remember a press conference given by Miguel Enríquez [a MIR leader in the 1970s], after what happened in Lo Hermida, where a government-sponsored repressive force had been unleashed against the pobladores, one of the few times that happened during the UP.9 In response to reporters’ questions about his criticism of the UP, Miguel said, ‘We are not against the Popular Unity. What we believe is that these people can effectively decide for themselves; they can deliberate in their assemblies and their decisions should be respected.’10 In those words there was a revolutionary idea that connected with this popular Chilean tradition of wanting to take our future into our own hands. But of course, as it turned out, that was not the view that predominated in the end.
PW: When I was doing the research for my book,11 I remember a conversation with some leaders of the student movement of 2011. I asked them, ‘What is the legacy of the UP for you?’ I wanted to know if it was relevant for them. Their response was, ‘You can’t do anything without the people.’ This line of thinking has some continuity with the past.
MG: That’s right. In this sense, when one looks at Allende’s speeches and his public actions, it becomes clear that he lived this constant tension between being a man of the State, trained in the institutions of the State, but one who knew that his electoral victory, as well as the possibility of transformation, depended on the support and development of the people themselves. Now, that was a tension that he never resolved. He was a man trapped in a tragedy.
PW: Yes, it’s resolved only in his death. His sacrifice, he always spoke of his sacrifice, was not just a sacrifice for the people, but also a way of resolving his contradictions with regard to the people.
MG: Exactly, it was resolved in his death, and that is what made him a great figure. In that sense, I have thought about the notions of contingency, about what we left unresolved under the UP. And we have not resolved it because the UP experience has continued to be a way of critiquing the Chilean left. It stays with us like a nightmare. Karl Marx spoke of that in ‘The eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’,12 when he talked about the dead pursuing us like a nightmare. Of course, in our case, it will continue to haunt us so long as we fail to come up with a critical reading of the results of the UP, falling back instead on the question of why the UP was defeated. We only ask about the cause of its defeat. And our answers are simplistic: because the UP did not have control of the structures. Because it did not have military logistics. This is not enough, though. Of course, there was a problem with the military, but that does not resolve the underlying political problem. It seems to me that with the movement we are seeing now, there are lines of continuity and there are old problems of Chilean society that have surfaced again. But as long as we fail to face those problems, we will not have a left, and that is another problem.
PW: Today, what are the most important problems that you see?
MG: I believe that the most important problem is precisely the one we have been talking about: the importance of civil society becoming a political protagonist, an agent of political action. That broadens the political endeavour as such, creating a capacity to deal with communal problems, redefining what the political problems are. This power should be autonomous from the political party system, and it should also have a certain amount of autonomy from the State. I also feel that a reform of the State will be necessary, so that the State recognises those autonomous processes in civil society as legitimate. Then, I imagine democratic local governments. I imagine ways for workers to have a voice in the industries that employ them. And, for that, we need to rethink about all of the legislation regarding labour and unionisation so that workers can organise once again. I imagine effective co-government in the universities. At the end of the day, I imagine the different ways that democracy can acquire a social expression that is not a mere institutional formality, one that constitutes an experience of life in society, one that can be officially recognised and valued by society itself. I think we need co-government in the universities, and we need local democratic governments that do more than just elect representatives and mayors, but actually recognise spaces for social organisations in civil society.
PW: Are the cabildos and assemblies the organisations in civil society that stand the best chance of making this happen?
MG: They are opening up that space, but it is a space that has yet to be constructed. I have felt conflicted participating in the assemblies in the sense that sometimes I see these problems arise, these ideas building up, but there is a learning curve because we still don’t know much about the process. How can we take the decision-making power down to the territory? We have to get into the municipal structures. And they are the same municipal structures that the dictatorship left us. The system needs to be completely overhauled. And we will have to redefine how territorial society participates in local government. The other thing I would add is that, related to the 50th anniversary, there are initiatives in the works, even some coordinating work. There will be seminars, some conferences, that all seem interesting because of the way that the UP was demonised, even Satanised, by the dictatorship. For so many years, the period had no ability to defend itself, to the point that the UP is remembered by many in our country as a synonym for disaster, crisis and chaos. All of this linguistic cultural construction left by the dictatorship still weighs heavily on society. Because of that, the possibilities for opening up a space wherein we can give a name to what we went through, recognise its value, analyse its limits, well, that will present the opportunity for Chilean society to reconcile itself with its own past. Whatever the Chilean State does will involve rethinking the recent historical past, and the period before the coup.
PW: Yes, I agree. For me, also, the UP should be viewed as a positive experience. There is something to be said about the case of the workers at Yarur who were capable of imagining a better world and choosing to act within the possibilities that they had.
MG: That’s right. Let’s leave it there for now.
MG: The plebiscite planned for 19 April 2020 had to be postponed until 25 October 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the beginning of March, nobody imagined the enormous impact that the coronavirus would have. Very soon, on 18 March, a national state of emergency was declared, and a curfew that is still with us today was first instituted. It has been a difficult year, not only due to the public health crisis, but also because of the economic crisis that inevitably set in as a consequence of social confinement and the obligatory quarantine. People started to get hungry in poor neighbourhoods, and the government was forced to improve its weak initial response to the emergency. In many of these poor neighbourhoods, solidarity efforts emerged, including hundreds of ollas comunes (soup kitchens) with the slogan ‘El pueblo ayuda al pueblo’ (The common people help each other).
With some uncertainty about whether the plebiscite would be postponed again, a vote on whether or not to rewrite Pinochet’s 1980 constitution finally took place on 25 October 2020. The outcome was resounding: 78.27 per cent of voters approved rewriting the constitution that was inherited from the dictatorship, and 78.99 per cent approved the proposal that a new constitution be drawn up by a constitutional convention, all of whose members the citizenry would elect. This was certainly an historic moment, one that will open up a new phase in the history of Chile and in the history of popular struggle. Symbolically, we have closed the door on the dictatorship and its legacies, and we have begun a new era, filled with fresh challenges, to democratise Chilean society.
However, looking beyond the understandable celebrations that took over Chilean streets and plazas on the night of 25 October, citizens have no illusions about what comes next. The Accord for Social Peace and the New Constitution that was reached on 15 November 2019 – and which made this plebiscite possible, also included control mechanisms that give the existing political class great power to guide the constitutional process, and more specifically, control over the exercise of popular sovereignty.
PW: I agree, Mario. Despite the landslide victory of the Chilean people in the plebiscite, the road to a new constitution will be a long and winding one, filled with many types of choices. In particular, there is the danger that the same political class that was rejected in the plebiscite will be in the best position to control the Constitutional Convention by electing its own members to that body in May 2021.
The biggest danger is that the right is better organised to control that vote than the left, and that with so many candidates vying for so few seats, only the ones with name recognition will win. Moreover, the rule that everything requires a two-thirds majority is a recipe for minimising change. The most probable outcome is a constitution that one analyst has called ‘a Christmas tree’, with ‘a gift’ for each group so that they will vote to approve it. However, in the end, the Constitutional Tribunal could be left with the power to adjudicate the many contradictory principles that the Constitutional Convention has proposed. So, a lot depends on popular sectors’ ability to fight against this potential political co-optation, and on the election of leaders from the grassroots who are willing to fulfil the dreams and expectations of popular groups at the Constitutional Convention.
MG: Certainly. Moving towards an effective constitutional process, making it a genuine and democratic expression of popular sovereignty, is a huge challenge, and one that will require significant effort on many different levels and around many different issues. It seems essential to recognise at least three of these different areas around which struggle will occur: (a) the contents of the new Constitution itself; (b) the mechanisms that ensure broad citizen participation; and (c) continued mass mobilisation, particularly, among the organisations that are capable of keeping the short- and long-term demands of social movements and the citizenry alive. It was, after all, a massive social movement of citizens that ignited the estallido social in 2019.