The power of the Chilean student movement’s legacy: transforming Chile from below… and it will happen through a feminist democratic revolution

noviembre 19, 2019 por Ivette Hernández

For over one month Chile has seen an ongoing social uprising, with scenes of violence erupting in main cities across the country and brutal police repression against peaceful demonstrators with several allegations of human rights violations, and sadly with at least 23 people dead. At first, the Chilean authorities attempted to get public opinion on their side by condemning scenes of high school students jumping barriers at metro stations in Greater Santiago as violent. Yet public opinion legitimised this form of protest against the metro fare rise, sympathising with secondary student protests, while their chant ‘evadir, no pagar, otra forma de luchar’ (‘to evade and not to pay, another way to fight’) became a catchphrase of social discontent. 

Ivette Hernandez (Insta @ivehersant- source Galeria CIMA @galeriacima)

Overall, the analysis have pointed to ever growing inequalitbeing at the core of what could explain the current climate of social discontent, with various articles addressing the fact that structural inequalities within the Chilean economic model date back to the foundation of the neoliberal democracy under the neoliberal economic policies of the Chicago Boys during the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990). 

Pinochet’s economic foundations of the neoliberal state became his main legacy (besides the years of repression and human rights abuses), and it was this socio-economic and political order that made possible a negotiated transition process into democracy between the dictatorship and opposition political parties, excluding social movements from the process. And there remains a strong argument for questioning the legitimacy of a negotiated transition into democracy that ended up legitimising – throughout the last three decades– the first laboratory of a neoliberal state imposed by the Pinochet dictatorship. Indeed, a current political solution to injustice and inequality requires more than just a package of economic policy reforms. What social movements, feminists, grassroots organisations and mobilised civil society have expressed since the creation of the coalition for Social Unity in September 2019 is that Chile needs radical structural economic and political change to finally overcome the continuation of Pinochet’s legacy of a neoliberal model of democracy. 

The unexpected emergence of large-scale protests across the country has led to a political window through which civil society actors seek to articulate a new political power of we to reclaim their right to transform Chile. This momentum offers the political possibility of broadening and deepening democracy and politics to enable the many to collectively deliberate, from below, a new social contract to transcend neoliberalism in Chile.  

Reclaiming politics as a collective practice

New alternative forms of popular politics and democracy have been at the core of social and political struggles led by grassroots movements in Chile, in particular the ones led by the Chilean student movement since the early 2000s. Just like what happened four weeks ago when secondary students protested against the metro fare rise, back in 2001 high school students in Santiago de Chile opened up, through mass student protests against the rising costs of the student transport pass, the political opportunity to install non-hierarchical and horizontal forms of political and social participation through the creation of the Assembly of Secondary Students. 

©2019 Ivette Hernandez S.  

In 2006, high school mobilisations, known as the Penguins movement because of the students’ white and black uniform, called for education to be a right, not a privilege. Mass high school student-led protests and school occupations spread across the country, and created the conditions for the expansion of horizontal and non-hierarchical assembly structures amongst schools that had mobilised. With their protests, the Penguins not only ended up re-legitimising social mobilisation in a post-authoritarian society, but their legacy also involves the formation of an egalitarian political movement that represented a blow to the old-fashioned structures of social and political participation.

In 2011, mass student demonstrations, mainly led by grown-up disenfranchised Penguins, emerged again to demand free education through a radical reform of the market-oriented education system. The 2011 Chilean student movement incorporated the learning experience from 2006 through a radical imaginary of identity politics as ‘being-in-common’ that is, politics as space of commonalities. Students engaged with the creation of territorial assemblies (or neighbouring assemblies) as a strategy to pursue wider grassroots political alliances and politics of mutual solidarity. Territorial assemblies became spaces of proximity between different struggles, and reframed the demand for free education as a cross-cutting social demand. Through these spaces of proximity the 2011 Chilean student movement expanded the horizons of collective action with others. By doing so, a new radical political imaginary of we emerged to open the cage of the very first laboratory of neoliberalism by understanding that we could also be the first to change this system.  

Now that we are together; now they can see us

Looked at through a historical lens, the Chilean student movement has provided other grassroots movements with political learning experience that can transcend neoliberalism through reclaiming politics as a collective process that goes beyond parliamentary and institutional representative democracy. In May 2018, a feminist wave of campus occupations shook up the country, denouncing widespread allegations of sexual harassment at different campuses and faculties. 

Diego Martinez (Insta @el_diego)

Occupations popped up everywhere, including at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, alma mater of the Chicago Boys, where feminist activists unfolded a banner at the façade of the building with the message: ‘Let’s make the Chicago Boys tremble; long-live the feminist revolution’.  

On March 8th 2019, around one million people marched in Santiago de Chile to support the feminist general strike under the slogan: ‘Ahora que estamos juntas; ahora que si nos ven’ (‘Now that we are together; now they can see us’). In the last few years, and clearly since this historic mobilisation feminist grassroots organisations have taken the forefront in the struggle against inequality in Chile. Today the feminist movement (an intersection of many feminisms in Chile) is the driving force behind mass mobilisations, including the historic demonstration #LaMarchaMasGrande on Friday 24th October, where around 1,800, 000 people marched peacefully through the streets of Santiago de Chile. 

This feminist revolutionary force is also very well symbolised by the large-scale cacerolazos (banging pans protests) across the country. The cacerolazos not only connect Chileans with their history of resistance and mobilisations against the Pinochet dictatorship, but it also shows that the legitimisation of this political and social struggle in Chile involves its feminisation – the revaluing of politics acts usually traditionally carried out by women. Pots and pans are the explicit symbols of the kitchen and of domestic work as the first spaces where capitalism oppresses women. 

Illustration by MargaRH (Insta @marga.rh)

By bringing pots and pans to the streets and squares the feminist movement is opening up the possibility of transforming these spaces into territories of proximity and solidarity under the slogan we are all workers. So squares and neighborhoods have become spaces of building common political horizons to transform Chile from below. Indeed, the cacerolazos have been followed by self-organised cabildos or territorial assemblies across the country where civil society actors meet, talk and deliberate about a diversity of demands, on issues such as housing, health, education, pensions, climate change, and a new constitution. 

The extent to which these forms of grassroots popular democratic politics could seek to transform the state while acknowledging that this democratic revolution is beyond state-structures remains an open question. For the feminist movement, the current situation offers an opportunity to build a new of space of autonomy as a new political imaginary in terms of how to co-exist with one foot in institutions and thousands in the streets, and most importantly, an opportunity of reasserting that Chile’s democratic revolution will be feminist or it shall not be. 

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