The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Chile is writing a new chapter in its history

A proposed constitution upholding fundamental rights and dignity continues the unfinished business of the Revolution.

“Until Dignity Becomes Customary,” a mural by Juana Perez and Daniela Johnson, four blocks from Plaza Dignidad in Barrio Lastarria in Santiago on Jan. 17, 2020. (Nicholas C. Scott)
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After a marathon session of voting that extended well into the night, Chile’s constitutional convention adopted a series of “fundamental rights” into the text of the proposed constitution on April 19. These social rights include, among others, the right to health care and social security, the right to unionize, strike and collectively bargain and “the right to a dignified and adequate home.” Janis Meneses Palma, the co-coordinator of the fundamental rights commission, argued that the vote represents “a significant advance in the demands of multiple generations.” Indeed, the vote marks the first time positive social rights will be included in the Chilean constitution.

Nearly 50 years after the military violently overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, today’s constitutional convention has resumed the unfinished business of the Chilean Revolution. The invocation of “dignity” is important and it signals that the vote in the convention forms part of a much longer history of Chileans’ struggle to achieve a dignified life. Tracing this history not only helps us better understand the multigenerational demands referenced by Meneses, but it also highlights that after 42 years of neoliberal governance, the Chilean people have pledged to revive the power of the state as the guarantor of a dignified life.

Elected in 1970, Allende promised a socialist revolution anchored in the country’s pluralist political system — his government would use the mechanisms of Chilean democracy to place the country on the road to socialism. By the end of 1971, the signs were promising: The government had successfully nationalized the country’s mining industries by a unanimous vote in congress, and the governing coalition had won several off-year elections.

As historian Peter Winn uncovered, the government’s Keynesian economic policies had also produced tangible everyday benefits for the people, such as allowing for a majority of Chileans to purchase bedsheets for the first time in their lives.

In July 1972, Allende spoke to a gathering of Chilean youths in downtown Santiago to mark the anniversary of the vote to nationalize the country’s mineral wealth to serve its socialist goals. “We did not buy our dignity,” declared Allende, “we have conquered it through popular struggle.” He continued, “we live in dignity now and we will continue to live it. We will not bend, and we will not break.”

As Allende delivered his speech in the center of Santiago, the workers and residents of the city’s industrial belts began organizing themselves in new and creative ways. Rather than organizing solely as shop floor unions, structured by trade or industry, the workers began organizing territorially. Operating under the name of the Cordones Industriales, these grass-roots organizations sought to coordinate a pan-industrial breakthrough that would overcome growing opposition and allow the government to continue the country’s socialist transition.

The Cordones became the government’s first line of defense later that year when the country’s business elite transformed an isolated trucker’s strike in the south of Chile into a nationwide lockout that became known as the bosses’ strike. The workers of Santiago’s Cordones seized their factories, reorganized production and developed new forms of distribution that allowed the government to maintain an adequate supply of basic necessities.

The history of one such organization, known as Cordón Industrial Vicuña Mackenna, is illustrative of the Cordones’ importance in the struggle for dignity. Located in southeast Santiago, the Vicuña Mackenna industrial zone contained some of Santiago’s largest, oldest and most important industries, such as the Sumar Textile Company, the glassworks company Cristalerías Chile and the metalworks factory Elecmetal, which had introduced the first electric furnace in Latin America.

Workers from 12 companies actively participated in the direct actions of the Cordón, and the organization controlled nearly 2.5 square miles that it referred to as “the workers territory.”

During the height of the October Crisis, Cordón Vicuña Mackenna published a manifesto in which it argued that it was a “crime that a minority continues using the basic riches of Chile to maintain their privileges instead of providing a dignified life to all Chileans.”

The authors of the manifesto, who referred to themselves as the Worker’s Command of Vicuña Mackenna, proactively included the phrase “a dignified life,” which they identified as the primary goal of popular struggle. They did so to reflect the solidarity between the territory’s workers and urban poor. Known as pobladores, Santiago’s urban poor had struggled since the late 1950s to win the right to “a dignified home” that would be protected from government eviction. One of the defining features of Cordón Vicuña Mackenna was the high level of coordination and collaboration between the territory’s workers and pobladores.

The Cordones successfully defended the government during the bosses’ strike. But they were unable to prevent the military coup on Sept. 11, 1973, that included the bombing of the presidential palace and which ended the revolution. The territory of Vicuña Mackenna saw some of the fiercest fighting, with Miguel Salazar, a local textile worker, describing the “battle” against the military insurrectionists and civilian shock troops as “hell on earth.”

By the late 1970s, the territory became a key site of resistance to the civilian-military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, which was centered in downtown Santiago and enjoyed strongholds in the city’s far-eastern municipalities. The language of dignity reverberated as the workers and residents of Vicuña Mackenna united in their opposition to the dictatorship.

Take, for example, the case of Manuel Bustos, a textile worker at the Sumar cotton plant who became president of the National Union Coordinator — the central workers’ organization during the dictatorship. When the coordinator was officially founded in 1978, one of its first public statements echoed the Cordón’s 1972 manifesto by declaring its intention to “struggle for the reconquest of freedom” and for “a dignified life.” The coordinator operated in direct opposition to the dictatorship. As a result, security forces arrested, jailed and even forcibly exiled Bustos at various points during the 1980s.

In 1980, the dictatorship sought to institutionalize its vision for Chilean society through a new constitution. After the coup, the military had suspended the country’s 1925 constitution and governed by decree. Speaking in opposition to the proposed constitution, Bustos and the coordinator called on “all Chileans,” including “workers, rural laborers [campesinos], urban poor [pobladores], and students,” to “reject the attempt to legalize the dictatorship.” Bustos concluded his speech by declaring the constitution to be “an affront to our dignity as a free and sovereign people.”

While the military nevertheless adopted the proposed constitution, the text opened the door for defeating the dictatorship. It included a provision that in eight years there would be a public referendum on whether Pinochet would serve another term. In 1988, the campaign to oust him won, and provisions were set in motion for Chile to hold its first presidential election in 29 years. Although free and fair elections returned, Chilean democracy continued operating under the structures of the dictatorship’s constitution for several decades.

Then, between October 2019 and March 2020, Chileans took to the streets demanding an end to the political-economic model put in place by the dictatorship. The cry of “Dignidad!” rang out during the estallido social (social upheaval), which witnessed the largest protest in Chilean history Oct. 25 when an estimated 1 million people in Santiago marched to Plaza Italia — which the protesters renamed Plaza Dignidad. The uprising succeeded in pressuring the government to hold a referendum on whether to rewrite the constitution, with the approval vote capturing 78 percent of the vote.

In early 2020, I spoke with members of this movement at Plaza Dignidad. They told me that their movement was not simply about the proposed price increase for public transportation, which had ostensibly sparked the protest, but rather, as one person told me, it was a protest against the past 30 years: “no son treinta pesos, son treinta años(it’s not 30 pesos, its 30 years).

This September, Chileans will return to the polls to decide whether to adopt the text of the new constitution currently being negotiated. While the outcome is unknown, the inclusion of social rights represents a new stage in the struggle for a dignified life, one that fulfills Allende’s final words of “having faith in Chile and its destiny … to build a better society.”

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