- Interview by
- Daniel Denvir
When most outsiders think of Chile, the first thing that comes to mind are of the scars left by the civilian-military dictatorship. And with good reason: The legacy of Pinochet’s genocidal regime is everywhere — in personal and collective memories, in the country’s privatized institutions like education, and in its profoundly neoliberal constitution, which keeps the Chilean political system shackled to its brutal past and makes left politics exceedingly difficult.
Nevertheless, the legacy of the revolution led by the supporters of Salvador Allende’s socialist government endures, too. Despite opposition from a broad sector of anti-constitutional military leaders and the Chilean oligarchy, popular resistance never died out or gave in — even in the face of the intervention by US president Richard Nixon’s government, which played a key role in the military coup of September 11, 1973.
Daniel Denvir interviewed Daniel Jadue, the mayor of Recoleta, a district located in the Metropolitan Region of Greater Santiago, for the Dig (you can listen to the full-length Spanish-language episode here). Jadue’s administration is building a laboratory for communism of today and of the future, opening a people’s pharmacy and optometrist, along with a beautiful people’s bookstore. Just before this interview was published, Recoleta announced the opening of a people’s record store. All these essential services are provided at low prices, confronting a free market that supposedly self-regulates but which in Chile has only demonstrated how an unregulated market fosters a savage and untamed capitalism.
Jadue is a militant in the Communist Party of Chile and one of the most important figures on the Latin American left. We all have a lot to learn from what is happening in Recoleta, especially since one of the most persistent criticisms of actually existing socialisms has been their supposed administrative failures; their inefficiency in actually serving “the people.” With his successful measures, Jadue defies not just the historical stereotypes and realities but the entire neoliberal order.
In this conversation, Dan talks about the fight in his district and the current political situation in Chile more broadly, including the role of the student movements, the conflict between the Chilean state and the Mapuche people, the powerful feminist movement, the defeat of the center-left New Majority coalition in 2017, the weighty legacy of Pinochet, the current conservative government of Sebastián Piñera, and more.
You can hear the Dig and all of the Jacobin podcasts by subscribing at Jacobin Radio.
Can you give listeners outside Chile some background on Recoleta and what your Communist administration is doing there?
Recoleta is a municipality which started out on the city’s periphery and made its name as the center of the informal city, just across the river from the traditional urban core of Santiago. Recoleta has always played host to all sorts of unseemly activities which are so indispensable to a city’s smooth operation, the sorts of activities that more delicate sectors of the urban populace prefer not to look at: the market, the military barracks, the national cemetery, brothels, and convents. Our community has traditionally been home to large portions of the city’s informal sector. It’s been that way since its founding. As it grows and evolves, it remains a place that hosts society’s most vulnerable.
During periods of increasing migration, Recoleta has historically accommodated immigrant populations newly arriving in Chile: Italian, Spanish, Arab, and Palestinian peoples historically, and more recently Chinese, Koreans, Peruvians, Bolivians, Venezuelans, and Colombians.
We are a very diverse and multicultural community. The goal of our Communist administration is to fundamentally transform the state. As it currently exists, it functions purely as a vehicle for class domination. Its structures are completely impervious to the expectations and needs of its citizenry.
In Recoleta, we want to form an open-door state, wherein all that matters are its citizens. The state, quite simply, is its citizens. We are nothing more than humble employees of the citizenry, those who truly constitute the state. Therefore, whenever our citizens come to us with a problem, we do everything in our power to solve it. For us in Recoleta, this has meant changing the culture of local government.
Recoleta used to be a municipality that was well-known for its corruption. It was financially disorganized and economically abandoned on the periphery of the city. Today, due to the growth of Santiago’s urban core, parts of Recoleta that used to be peripheral are now quite central. And now, fortunately for us in the community, the press coverage of our municipality is always positive.
We should explain the somewhat strange organization of the state in Chile. In the Santiago metropolitan region, governance is divided among lots of smaller municipal districts which are called “comunas.”
These administrative subdivisions exist in Chile as part of an extremely centralized state apparatus. The central government spends 80 percent of annual national budgetary resources. Today, Chile is comprised of fifteen regions, all completely subordinated to the central state.
Under the regional level, you have the provinces, which are a bit smaller than the regions. And then below the provincial level there are the “comunas” [the entirety of Greater Santiago is not itself a municipality and there is no mayor of the entirety of the city of Santiago; rather, Santiago is made up of thirty-seven distinct municipal administrations called comunas, or communes]. This political subdivision forms the administrative basis for state management of local and city governments. These smaller municipalities have as few as 1,000 inhabitants, and up to as many as 700,000–800,000.
Recoleta is at an intermediate level, with a population of nearly 162,000 residents. It borders the city center of Santiago.
This facilitates a marked class segregation between different municipalities across the metropolitan region. It also, however, gives municipal governments the opportunity to be laboratories for change. Like what you are doing.
This is the first opportunity we’ve truly been afforded to turn a municipality into a laboratory for change. Genuinely confronting the country’s development model requires political conviction. But such conviction wasn’t previously widespread. Nowadays, however, the Chilean Communist Party is starting to grow again, recovering from the annihilation it underwent over the course of the military dictatorship that the United States installed, encouraged, and defended.
The party spent many years fighting just to survive, as it was the party hit hardest by the dictatorship. But in recent years, the Communist Party has been undergoing a resurgence. The accomplishments of local Communist governments have given citizens a renewed hope in the party — not just in Recoleta, but also in Diego de Almagro, La Ligua, Los Vilos, Canela, Quilicura, and Cerro Navia.
Many municipalities have seen local Communist governments deliver real improvements to their community’s quality of life. This has helped plant the seed in the popular imagination that perhaps the Communists ought to be given the opportunity to govern again.
The central state keeps 80 percent of the government’s budgetary resources, while the regional governments receive only 8 percent — leaving a mere 12 percent for the country’s 345 municipal governments. This results in a tremendous asymmetry. But it’s a product of the development model.
Why? Because while some municipal governments can budget USD $2,000 per inhabitant each year, there are others, even within the same metropolitan region of Santiago, that can budget only USD $120.
Not surprisingly, the first is a municipality where the dominant classes live, whereas the second is a totally peripheral community — not just in terms of location, but also with regards to the socioeconomic level of its residents.
You can see it in the streets. Each local government has its own garbage trucks and street cleaning systems. The richer communities — like Las Condes, or Providencia, where we are now — can clearly afford to provide a much higher level of service.
Of course. Their budget is six to eight times higher than what you find in the poorest municipalities.
I want to talk about the popular services that you are building in Recoleta. What is the Open School?
We have this concept that the state should be responding to the needs of its citizens.
What happened first was some young men came to us, saying they wanted to get off the streets. They all agreed they wanted less crime, alcohol, and drug abuse in their community. But when they tried to go to local organizations for help finding a good place to meet, they were turned away. Whether they went to social organizations, the neighborhood council, retirement homes, or the government, they always got the same answer: there was no space available for young people to get together and participate in age-appropriate activities.
The core problem was a lack of facilities, and Recoleta didn’t have the resources needed to build the type of facilities the youth were requesting. However, we were able to get together with our young people and come up with a solution, determining that we should make use of our public schools, as they were only occupied until 4:00 PM.
It made no sense for schools to be empty by 4:00 PM, with no one taking advantage of their facilities. So, we decided to create the Open School program, keeping schools open until 10:00 PM daily, and over the weekend as well. This gave the whole community the opportunity to make use of the spaces as they saw fit: the fields, the gyms, and the classrooms.
With this arrangement, we were able to provide young people with a safe alternative to the street. Families were also well-served, especially the women who had to work and take care of their families. Where previously there may have been nowhere for kids to go after school, now they could simply stay there. The community is a much safer place now for young people and families, which has been a huge cultural change.
From there we’ve been able to launch other projects. For example, we are now taking proposals from professors who want to teach free university classes as part of the Open School program. Our plan is to create an open university that offers anyone in the community access to free university classes in every subject area. Volunteer professors will teach at schools throughout the community. Course offerings will be in areas such as history, philosophy, economics, applied sciences, or the environment. There are no requirements to get into a class; the program is open to everyone and 100 percent free.
What sort of activities are the young people who participate in the Open Schools program engaged in?
They can participate in athletic, recreational, and cultural activities. They do their homework, they get together to chat. They have classes in everything from dance to football. Any sport they want, they can create a class. They run popular pre-university preparatory courses. The municipality organizes a number of activities, but almost 70 percent are self-directed, by both the older and younger people who attend.
It’s not just young people who use these spaces; we also serve a lot of older adults. Anyone from the community can use these spaces. We provide, for example, dental services at our schools, which is organized through our people’s dentistry program. In this way, the public school becomes both the heart of the community and the center of public policy development.
The project seems to be about making public spaces more deeply public.
That’s the idea: to make our public spaces the heart of the community, because we understand that the community is the state. We are not the state; they are the state. Everything we have — the resources, the infrastructure, the facilities — are theirs. And everything we do, we do not for ourselves, but for them.
Could you explain the people’s pharmacy project — how did it start? Why, out of all the services you could have chosen, did you choose a pharmacy?
It was one of the major issues that our senior citizens asked us to address. We had very few doctors in the community and just four medical offices in a community of 162,000 residents. That’s one medical practice per every 40,000 inhabitants.
And these clinics were obsolete, more than thirty years old. Prior to looking into the problem, the community had a mere eleven doctors, working out of just four medical offices. So, the first solution we came up with was to increase the number of doctors from eleven to forty. But we then ran into problems with overcrowding, with twenty-nine new doctors at just four clinics.
The question of transportation is crucial as well in addressing gaps in medical service. Senior citizens told us, “We’re tired of getting up at 5:00 AM to go and get a number and wait in line.” Due to the overcrowding, we couldn’t meet all our citizens’ medical needs with solely the addition of more doctors to our four medical offices. With our deep conviction that the citizenry is indeed the state, we went to the neighborhood council and said, “Let’s resolve these community and neighborhood problems together.”
We built two medical attention hubs for noninvasive primary care at each of Recoleta’s neighborhood councils. We were able to provide 75 percent of senior citizens with medical access within three blocks of their residence. We put particular emphasis on those citizens who most often needed to access these medical services. Quality of care was tremendously improved. That kind of proximity to medical attention has a huge impact on quality of life; it’s like having a family doctor.
After working to close the community’s gaps in medical attention, we moved on towards improving access to medicine. Our residents told us scarcity and high prices were making medication the second biggest obstacle to proper care in Recoleta.
With medicine in Chile there are two distinct problems. First, there is a set of basic medications to which the state guarantees access. However, our residents told us that these staple medications, due to being in such high demand, were never available. So, we increased our investment to make sure those medications were available.
Another problem identified by our citizens was the difficulties they encountered when trying to get medications outside of the guaranteed set. Specialized medications were too expensive and almost impossible to find. In our country, there are sixty municipalities that don’t have a public or private pharmacy. Recoleta, in its 16.6 square kilometers, had only two pharmacies. So, we had a problem in terms of both coverage and price.
The first step we took was to form a consumer’s cooperative, with the goal of driving down the cost of medication. We ran into a lot of issues with Chilean law, but eventually we were able to zero in on our best option. We determined that the municipality would form its own people’s pharmacy, taking on all operational costs. Furthermore, since Chilean law prohibits the state from engaging in any kind of commerce, we had to operate as a nonprofit. The municipality was then able to pass the savings on to the consumer. In Chile, the state is completely prohibited from participating in any kind of business or commerce.
This is a set-up with roots in the dictatorship.
That’s right, our state is constitutionally set up to be neoliberal. So, we are not a democracy. When the majority of the country wants to go in a certain direction, the constitution will simply not allow it.
If the constitution was put in place under a dictatorship, it’s by definition not a democracy.
And yet there are still those in Chile who lecture other countries on democracy. What’s most important is that our pharmacy has become a beta model that has been replicated all over the place.
Even in conservative municipalities.
Absolutely, comunas of every stripe have people’s pharmacies now. The only municipalities without popular pharmacies are those that lack the necessary technical or economical wherewithal, since the local government has to cover operational costs.
Once we saw how successful these pharmacies were, we pushed on to the next challenge, which was to improve access to optician services. Our optician program ended up being even more impactful than the pharmacies. More people have used the optical program, because it used to be easy to just give up on having glasses, whereas stopping a course of medication was much more complicated.
If you’re poor, you might tell yourself, “Maybe I can live without glasses.”
Yes, medication was the first priority, and after that, access to glasses. The glasses have made a significant impact; we are selling 250 pairs a week now. That means almost 15,000 pairs a year, which is completely unprecedented. The media covered the optical program less than the pharmacy, so it hasn’t been replicated as often throughout the country. But you can see it starting to blossom again recently.
To round out our popular services, one last health-related service we offer is our people’s dentistry program. We have dentists who take mobile kits out into the community, serving the house- or bed-bound and students at school.
In this way, we are building the apparatus that can improve community quality of life. This has made Recoleta a much safer community, in a more human sense of security. Not this idea of citizen security you see in the approach of the Right.
Which just means the police, the security state, and repression.
That’s all the Right is interested in, and it never solves the problem.
It seems like this is not just about the right to health care, but also the right to the city. The idea that everyone not only deserves these services, but also in their neighborhood.
Of course, that’s fundamental. My professional background is as an architect, sociologist, and urban planner. So when we talk about constructing a more fair and equitable society, to me that’s a city where people can meet most of their basic needs on foot, travelling as little as possible by car, bike, bus, or train.
We see Recoleta as a much fairer place than it used to be. You no longer have to go outside the community to get glasses, medicine, or books, nor look elsewhere to find a cultural center or sporting activities. Six years ago, you had to leave Recoleta, because we didn’t have access to those things.
I want to talk a bit more about the health care system in Chile. As we discussed earlier, the dictatorship made Chile one of the most neoliberal countries in the world.
Definitely the most neoliberal, I don’t think there’s any country this neoliberal.
I knew this before, but I didn’t truly understand until I got here.
The thing is, I don’t think anyone could really imagine before coming to Chile. This is the most radical laboratory for neoliberalism in the whole world.
When you look at health care for the masses, you have the public system for the workers and poor people who can’t afford private clinics. In richer neighborhoods, you see these beautiful private clinics all over that look almost like luxury malls rather than hospitals designed to function as such. Can you tell us more about the dynamics of the health care system in Chile?
First of all, health care is not a right in Chile, despite the many who think it ought to be. Health care is another market commodity; you have access to the health care you can pay for. This doesn’t just occur with health care; everything in our country works this way. Education is another example.
Eighty percent of people in Chile simply don’t have access to more advanced medical treatments. The state guarantees access to a certain portion of medical care, but not nearly enough. You might be able to get an appointment, for example, if in primary care they find evidence you have cancer. The problem is, that appointment might be a year and a half from now. In a year and a half, cancer might have already killed you. This is the model country that the international right wing admires so much.
This is an example of market freedom: the freedom to die.
That is the liberty the right defends: liberty for those who can pay.
Just this January, another project, the people’s bookstore “Recoletras” went live. All kinds of books are sold there, everything from Derrida to histories of the Mapuche people — all at an extremely low price. There was a line outside the door waiting for the store to open the day I visited.
The other two projects we’ve talked about both centered on health care. The bookstore serves another area of human experience, which is also a right, and that is the right to education. Everyone ought to be able to develop their intellect and participate in the culture.
Explain why you wanted to have a people’s bookstore, and why you think the right to learn and acquire knowledge is so important.
This has been a very long process of cultural change. We Communists define “consciousness” as the ability to realize your own capacity to transform your environment so that it will truly satisfy your needs.
For this reason, developing critical thinking skills and deepening societal awareness will always be among the most important of human pursuits. That’s where you plant the seed, the raw material for innovation, for social change, for improving quality of life. These skills are essential for answering life’s biggest questions and dealing with the problems humanity faces.
This power knowledge has to help people realize their transformative potential cannot be made available only to the rich. Human talent and the ability to effect change are equally distributed across all social classes.
And furthermore, it was just recently that we heard about universities in the United States that took bribes to admit less talented students. This allows people with no talent to keep their access to high-status social positions. Meanwhile, others who really do have talent are shut out. Its notable because it is perhaps the most important site for creating the majority of society’s inequality.
We’re talking about how the current system is reproduced.
And also, cultural reproduction. When you have a community that lacks access to culture, you end up reproducing a conservative model. The model reproduces itself by inserting itself into common spaces and broadcasting lies, putting forth a false façade of certainty.
Where you consume culture produced by others.
Of course, and in our country being right-wing is quite easy. Turn on the TV, watch CNN or the national news; read La Tercera and El Mercurio. Anything you look at will guide you to the Right, where they are feeding you these supposed certainties.
To be on the Left, you have to study a lot, because you won’t find anything in your immediate surroundings to guide you left. So people on the Left tend to be much more well-read and have a much more complex way of understanding the world. And also, more diversity in the way we understand the world. And that’s a huge opportunity, which is why the Open School, open university, public library system, popular bookstore, and some other projects coming soon, are so crucial. They are aimed directly at building a community capable of critiquing and transforming their environment.
Instead of just saying, “There are rich and poor people,” we have to think more deeply to understand political economy. Or rather than simply say, “There are men and women,” we have to learn the ways in which the construction of gender and patriarchy is more complicated than that.
It’s much more complicated. We are certain that only knowledge can emancipate human beings. Only with education and culture, for example, will you be able to understand that there is indeed richness in diversity.
We’re talking about the relationship between material and the ideological — that ultimately, they’re inseparable.
For me there is no relationship between the material and the ideological. They are coterminous, each is inherent in the other. Matter and consciousness are the same thing. I am profoundly Marxist.
My listeners are too, I think. A practical question: how you are able to sell books at such a low price? And how low are we talking?
The answer is very simple: the book industry in Chile is very small. We have 345 municipal governments in the country, and 294 of them don’t have a bookstore. That is to say, if you want to buy a book once you are out of school, in 85 percent of the country there is nowhere for you to do so. So this industry has to make do earning profits in a very small market, and everything they publish is very expensive.
How is profit distribution arranged in the Chilean book industry? Ten percent stays in the hands of the writer, 15 percent goes to the editor, 25 percent to the publisher, and a final 20 percent to the distributor, who delivers the book from the publisher to the final point of sale. Thirty percent goes to the bookstore at this final point of sale.
Add to that the VAT, the value added tax which you have to pay here. Our country has never wanted to discuss the elimination of this tax on culture.
And it’s a very regressive tax.
Absolutely. So, what does Recoleta do? The same thing we did for the pharmacy: we made a commitment to the culture of Recoleta and invested in the promotion of reading. Our biggest resources are the ten public libraries in Recoleta, which make us the municipality with the most public libraries nationwide.
After arranging for an annual investment of about USD $500,000 a year in the public library system, the next step was the construction of a popular bookstore. The municipality was able to cover all operational costs, paying for the location, salaries, and all the bills. We can then pass these savings on to the public, selling books at the same price we got them for from the publisher or distributor, depending on the case.
This is why we don’t charge even a cent more than at which the price books are sold to us. Since we don’t have to mark-up books to cover costs, we can eliminate the 30 percent added at the final point of sale. We also can knock off the additional 10 percent which publishers sometimes tag on when selling books to non-distributors.
So we are able to give you up to a 40 percent discount on new books compared with market prices.
The booksellers in our industry are so small and have such a limited outlook and vision of what books can be in Chile. And they complained that we were competing unfairly with them, and we said, “Look, in the thirty years Recoleta has existed as a municipality, there has never been a bookseller that even knew we existed, let alone tried to put a bookstore here.”
It can’t be illegal competition, because they never even tried to enter the market.
It didn’t exist, it’s that simple. That’s why we settled on a bookstore, because like you said, there were a lot of myths in this country about books. For example, there’s this myth that people simply don’t like to read.
That poor people don’t want to read.
And also, that high prices weren’t the problem, but rather a lack of interest in reading. But our bookstore proves this to be false: it’s been a great success and is still going strong today. The store is constantly adding to its collection.
Let’s talk about social housing. What type of social housing needs are you facing in Recoleta and as a country as a whole today? What do you hope to construct, in both the material and symbolic sense of the word, with this project?
The first thing to point out is how the dictatorship fomented this idea in the mass consciousness that it was necessary to become a homeowner — and so everybody ends up wanting to be a property owner here. But this is impossible for a significant percentage of people who cannot afford to buy a home.
This dream arises out of a basic uncertainty. When you ask an older adult, why do you want to have a house? Why do you dream of having a house? They tell you, “Because I want to have a place to rest my bones, to stay there until I die.” They know that the state is completely absent, unwilling to provide you with security or the right to live a dignified life until the day you die.
For us, the right to live with dignity is much more important than the right to be a property owner. This is true for a variety of reasons, the first being the natural fluidity or dynamism of people’s housing needs.
When you live with your parents, you don’t need a home. If you leave home when you’re single, you only need a studio. If you become part of a couple, you need a bedroom as well. If you have that first child, then you need two bedrooms. If you have another child of the opposite sex, a third bedroom. Then the children grow up, and you don’t need at least one of those bedrooms. So, it just sits there unused, and then the second child leaves and gets married, and you have another extra bedroom you don’t need.
Then you get separated from your partner and only need a room again. Or you go back home to live with your parents. So I don’t think it’s worth it to pay into the financial system twenty-five to thirty years, paying four times the original value, just for the privilege of being a homeowner. I really don’t think this makes any sense. So, we have to guarantee via state intervention in the rental market, that everyone who can’t buy a home can rent one at a fair price.
In sociology, fair prices are determined by establishing the highest percentage of family income that should be proportioned to mortgage or rent. Housing costs shouldn’t exceed 20 or 25 percent of your income. This is why we are constructing Chile’s first public housing, which we’ve never truly had.
Social housing has been built, but always with the intention of giving it to people as property. But never public housing which actually remains in state hands, so that it can be rented out at a fair price. Another great thing about building social housing is it permits the state to intervene in and remodel the city with a different vision. If you leave it to the market, we know perfectly well what happens in Chile. We have seen how the market builds the city, guided by only its own profits and needs, and never the good of the city. We are currently constructing our first building, which will have thirty-eight municipal apartments available to rent out at a fair price.
Historically, one of the biggest critiques of actually existing socialisms has been inefficiency in public administration; the bureaucracies these projects have engendered. But your project in Recoleta shows the ability to get things done.
I think what you’re saying has an element of truth to it. But there are also a lot of myths, because public systems always attend to a much wider range of needs, with much fewer resources than the private apparatus. So in that way it’s actually much more efficient.
Our municipal government solves problems much more effectively and efficiently than other communities, even the millionaire ones.
If you look at the Chilean health care system, total spending in the public and private sectors is more or less the same, which nobody talks about. Yet the private system takes care of 15 percent of Chileans, while spending the same amount the public system does treating the other 85 percent. So the public system is much more efficient, and perhaps this is why it’s a bit less effective as well: it is overloaded and has insufficient resources.
In Chile we are plagued with examples demonstrating that the market and private initiative are tremendously inefficient and ineffective, with widespread collusion and fraud. The private system is not truly interested in efficiency or efficacy.
We saw this with our previous public transport system. We can also see it in how much money private health care invests in marketing. They make advertisements so they can make big profits, which don’t impact the quality of care at all. The advertising private medicine puts out simply elevates its status in the popular imagination, as if you were going to have an operation at a five-star hotel in New York City.
People who haven’t been to Chile wouldn’t believe how the private clinics are here.
They can’t even understand it, let alone imagine it, it’s absurd. So, I don’t believe in all those myths you see nowadays.
The biggest challenge the Left faces is learning how to speak the language of emancipation, rather than simply reproducing the language of domination. We are in the habit of arguing on the right-wing’s terms, debating the ideas they come up with, saying “yes” to everything.
That’s how hegemony works.
I bring up this common idea of the single mother at every talk I give. I always ask, “Are there any single mothers here?” And there are always several women who raise their hand and I ask them, “Do you think that to be a mother you have to be married? Or that if you’re single, you’re less valid as a mother?”
Because this is an idea held by so many, almost unanimously. And these are concepts installed by the patriarchy under a framework of domination. To tell one mother that she is less legitimate than another who is married and subordinated to the patriarchy. Yet we keep thinking this way. It would be like if you thought the state as currently constituted really governs out of concern for the common good.
You’ve been able to prove with very concrete examples that the Left not only knows how to fight, but also knows how to govern. It seems like you are very focused on building a socialism of good public administration.
That’s how it has to be. A socialism that doesn’t govern any better than the Right has no future, nor any right to guide society’s destiny. If socialism wants an opportunity, it will have to be much more democratic, much more effective, and much more efficient. It will have to be more transparent, more innovative, and more transparent than any right-wing government, and more environmentally sustainable.
Should we understand these projects as part of a broader political program; not just for Recoleta, but for all of Santiago and Chile? Do you think about the programs you’re rolling out as part of a broader anticapitalist politics which aims to transform the economic system?
We never planned it this way in the beginning, but in reality it was an anticapitalist politics that can be grown up, outward from the local level. People have taken these programs and scaled them nationally. Many of our initiatives have been replicated throughout the country, and you are seeing demands for these programs in places where they haven’t been implemented. So this politics has within it a seed for the construction of a country-wide project.
Imagine how many municipalities want a popular pharmacy but don’t have one. How many of the 294 municipalities who lack a bookstore want one? Or what about something I haven’t mentioned yet; the 213 municipalities out of 245 that have never had an optician in their community?
You can recognize markets and private initiative as still having some role to play in the administration of resources, as long as they are subordinated to the state’s central role as the strategic director of society. Markets have to understand that the state cannot wait on private business when it only invests where people have money. If businesses refuse to invest in our community, who else will take care of local governance, if not the state?
Who else can put in a pharmacy where there were previously none? Or an optician or bookstore in a community that never used to have one? Who else can provide energy when the private system refuses because they won’t make a profit?
I wanted to talk about the Chilean social, political, and economic context. Let’s start with the president Sebastián Piñera, from the National Renovation party (Renovación Nacional, RN), part of the Chile Vamos (Let’s Go Chile) coalition. There are a lot of very conservative political figures there.
Looking at the world political stage today, we see the beginnings of a right-wing onslaught. Who do you think makes up the true conservative base in Chile today? Who are the leaders, and what social forces are behind this ultraconservative force?
The first thing we must do is make sure the Left doesn’t keep making the same error it always does, which is to confuse the class enemy with “the subject in dispute” [different sectors that might be won over by the Left]. Anyone who is not an owner of the means of production is on our side of the class struggle. We must go and seek them out, so they realize what side of the world they are on.
Why do I say this? Because what’s happening today is tremendously complex. This resurgence of more neoconservative positions has a material basis. And what is this material basis?
It’s not just bad ideas.
It’s not ideas. The next cycle of wealth accumulation in a globalized world cannot be carried out under democracy. An even more precarious labor market is required, along with an increased precaritization of quality of life for the vast majority of people. This is the only way the owners of the world can maintain the profit margins to which they are accustomed.
So, what we are going to see in the coming years is a right wing that owns all the means of production worldwide, and which tries to install far-right governments throughout the world. They will be willing to kill anyone who is ready to fight for a better world.
To put it in classic Marxist terms, the contradictions are heightening. As contradictions continue emerging between the mode of production and the relations of production it generates, we should expect a combative period of human history. We may see the Right clinging to power, side by side with the military, with economic, cultural, and military hegemony. We should prepare ourselves for this scenario. It’s not a matter of saying, “Look, the pendulum is going to swing back, after this the Left will govern.”
Sometimes politics in Chile are described that way.
Of course, and they never explain what is really happening.
The state’s role as an instrument of class domination is made more naked by the day, introducing measures purely intended to maximize profit and hit projected margins. This takes place in a world that is more globalized every day, only increasing the imperative to maintain precarity.
In this context, what does the government of Piñera mean more specifically?
A transitional government to an even farther-right government.
What is his administration doing?
Piñera won’t be able to do anything, because he doesn’t have a parliamentary majority. Therefore, he will simply govern by decree and via poll. The only thing Piñera is interested in is getting his side a second term, but with a stronger parliament to back it up.
This is the decisive battle. This government is shackled, but the real battle is for the next government. They want a right-wing government with a parliament to match, so they can sell off Chile completely.
Why did Piñera win? What is his analysis of the failure of the “New Majority” (Nueva Mayoría) coalition, to which the Communist Party belonged?
The first point is to understand and take responsibility for the mistakes made on the Left. We made an error by not going out to the base and defending the government more. It was an administration that accomplished a lot, but some political sectors were unconvinced.
The second factor to appreciate is how the Right imparts cultural hegemony through its media offerings. This is a country without real freedom of the press, nor the right to information.
Ninety-five percent of the media is in the hands of the far right. Therefore, [New Majority president Michelle] Bachelet’s government had to communicate with the electorate through the press of their opponents. It’s not easy to change cultural hegemony when the press is entirely in your opponents’ hands. If we don’t resolve this issue, it’s hard to envision a promising future.
These are key errors for which the Left can take responsibility. But the Right has also shaped reality through their control of the media and with the schizophrenic polling system our country uses. These polls are a highly developed form of elegant lying. The far right pays for these surveys, and it’s incredible how much power they have to set the terms of debate using these polls.
The masses tell Piñera what is worrying them, and he responds accordingly, generating a sense of identification between the far right and the masses. This permits the far right to critique the government from the point of view of popular common sense.
They hide the way they are the ones shaping this reality; they are the ones who create this common sense.
Of course, they are the creators.
This is absolutely how they construct a hegemonic sense of reality. This is a huge ideological weakness of today’s left. For many years we have only focused our political work on the superstructure, and we haven’t paid attention to the mode of production nor focused on creating an alternative reality.
What we are doing in Recoleta is changing people’s lives, and in turn, their vote. Most of the worldwide left today goes after people’s votes without actually changing their lives, and this is an enormous fundamental error.
A new left-wing coalition has emerged in recent years, coming out of the student movement. This coalition, “Broad Front” (Frente Amplio), brings together a variety of parties. What factors led to the development of this formation and how is it different from the New Majority coalition? Most crucially, what differences does the Broad Front have with the New Majority coalition, particularly with regards to your party, the Communists?
More student leaders have always come out of our Young Communist organizations than from the Broad Front movement. Their movement and resulting organization are made up of the children of the leaders of the previous center-left coalition [Concertación] that came before New Majority. This is why they don’t really have a profound ideological difference from the previous coalition. However, they have also been able to absorb into their organization historic far-left leaders that hadn’t participated in politics since the end of the dictatorship. And twenty-five years later they realize that you actually have to participate in politics.
I don’t think they differ significantly from the previous or current left coalitions, because they move more in the sphere of debate than in the sphere of action. They face the same critical problems that all left coalitions have faced in this political period. The principal problem being that the “Broad Front” is too broad, with membership on the Right and Left.
There some parties in that coalition that share the Communist Party’s politics and others that don’t.
Yes. The issue, as I said, is that the Broad Front is simply too broad. They formed the coalition for solely electoral ends, but they don’t have a real project for the country yet. Actually, you can see the difference, for example, in their position towards the North American intervention in Venezuela.
There are some people in Broad Front who support the intervention and coup, while others oppose intervention, wanting to respect Venezuela’s autonomy. With a coalition that diverse you can’t make a clear judgement about its value, because there is no unifying current to which to refer. I think it’s a process that’s still in formation, which is totally valid. And it’s a valuable project for Chile, because it helps gets people who weren’t participating to participate. But I think there is still some maturation that needs to take place.
Can you briefly explain which are the most important parties in the front and what politics they represent?
All I can say is that there is a sector of Broad Front that has treated the Communist Party as traitors. They claim we are sellouts for participating in the electoral process these past twenty-five years, as we continue to do today. You have to ask whether they are the ones who betrayed something; whether they sold out or were wrong these past twenty-five years.
They have never explained why they changed their position on electoral participation. Nor have they laid out why they are moving from the social movements into political parties. They used to say that political parties were obsolete.
There’s a change there that I think is related to a maturation in political participation. People need to understand that you do politics, you don’t debate politics. Marx has a fundamental phrase about those who only who wish to interpret the world, without transforming it …
“The point is to change it.”
Yes, this is the heart of the matter. You can’t be the left opposition but not want to ever participate in anything except base-building. If you never engage in self-criticism about how much you can get done with base-building, without participating in the larger structure, this is an ideological problem.
Why did the Chilean Communist Party decide to join the center-left New Majority coalition? When did this happen and what led to that decision? What effects did this have on the party rank and file?
This is not a process that started with our incorporation into the New Majority. The Communist Party has been aware since 1997 that the political structure handed down to us by the dictatorship was designed to make changing the country impossible. So we said, “The only option we have to is join forces with everyone that is not on the Right, in order to transform the system and undo the locks.”
This came about after the “Concertación” [the previous center-left coalition] lost its source of votes. After twenty years of governing under the new model, their utter lack of will to change the system was made plain. It became clear that it was necessary, in order to stay relevant and return to power, to embrace these transformations.
The minute they changed their outlook, the Communist Party said, “Okay, we are aligning with you.” What was there to gain? The idea was to replace the binomial electoral system and reform the educational system. We initiated the process of making university free. We’ve made progress with gender issues; forming the Ministry of Women, and advancing the cause for marriage equality, achieving the right to civil unions for all. We also got abortion legalized under three circumstances [if the mother’s life is endangered, in the event of a rape, or if the fetus is not viable].
There’s a whole set of issues that never would have been addressed if we hadn’t entered into this coalition. We would have the same country today as we did immediately after the dictatorship. But instead, we can say, “Look at how we have fulfilled our promises,” with all the attendant costs that came with it. We faced the displeasure of the rank and file in the party who never understood nor got on board with the plan. This was our own failure to never successfully present the issue in a way that everyone understood what we were doing and why were in the coalition.
I think we’re going to see a jump in support, because people will start to see the boost our entry into the coalition created, and how important this has been for the Chilean Communist Party.
But Bachelet was not able to do everything she wanted. She couldn’t establish free secondary public education, nor initiate a process of constitutional reform.
That’s because, within her alliance, there were people more interested in preserving their own power than carrying out the governmental program. Some went as far as to say they hadn’t read the program before agreeing to it. To me, this is such a childish and barbarous way of doing politics that it’s honestly difficult to debate them.
It was factions within the Christian Democrats, not Christian Democracy itself. There are portions of their leadership that are more interested in keeping power than in changing the country.
Earlier we briefly touched on how key the student movements have been to Chile. These secondary and university school movements first sprang up in the early 2000s and then again in 2011. Can you give us your read on the emergence of these movements and their relationship to political resistance?
First off, I don’t agree with the premise of your question. What am I referring to? The student movement didn’t come into being in 2000, nor in 2006, nor in 2011. The student movement comes out of the military dictatorship. The demands of 2011 are the exact same demands that were made in 1986, in ‘94, in ‘97, in 2000, and in 2006.
I am as much a part of the student movement as Gabriel Boric, Giorgio Jackson [now in the Broad Front], or [Communist student leaders turned legislators] Camila [Vallejo] or Karol [Cariola] are today. I think there is a continuity.
Those are militants that come out of the more recent movements.
Exactly. What must be understand is that this continuity is becoming more recognized as the movement gains strength; it’s gotten massive. Back in 1996, getting thirty thousand people out on the street was a success [because the memory of the dictatorship was still fresh]. Today of course, thirty thousand people would be a failure.
The Communist Party of Chile has played a momentous role in this whole process. We are the only party that never set up a false dichotomy between political parties and social movements. We were always simultaneously a political party that also worked within the social movements.
I think the dialectic between social movements and political parties is absolutely essential and impossible to deny. Denying the necessity of this interplay is precisely what led part of the Left to failure, principally the more social-democratic left. And the other sector of the Left was driven to failure by failing to understand the breadth of forms of legal struggle one must fight with in democratic systems.
For those listening from outside Chile, can you explain a bit more about the current situation with the Chilean educational system? What are students fighting for?
One of the most important demands continues to be a universal, free, and high-quality education for all. Also critical is the strengthening of the primary and secondary public education system.
We have an extremely privatized system, which the military dictatorship introduced so that long-term, they could destroy the public system. How do you do this? By providing the public system with the absolute minimum resources needed to continue operating, while also refusing to invest in repairs or renovations of facilities. This way, in thirty years you have left schools utterly destroyed, and even worse, shackled with debt.
They force this responsibility for the debt onto the municipalities. In turn, the asymmetrical distribution of state resources we discussed earlier enables the richer municipalities to keep their public schools in good shape, while poorer districts end up completely broke.
What is the goal? To make public education disappear, and to put in its place state-subsidized private schools that turn education into a business.
This strategy worked for the dictatorship; they were able to bring about the changes they desired. There have been a lot of setbacks as we keep fighting to undo these changes. Cultural hegemony has invaded certain parties in the political center which are supposedly on the Left. In my eyes, they are not really part of the Left; it’s what you do that matters, not what you say. If you behave like a right-wing actor, then you cannot call yourself “left.”
This ideology says that public schools are bad, that private ones are much better. You, of course, see this same ideology in the US, and many other places worldwide. Because this idea in Chile is deeply linked to when Milton Friedman and the “Chicago Boys” came here.
Recently we witnessed one of the biggest marches since the return of democracy in Chile: the feminist march for International Women’s Day on March 8. I had never seen so big, so militant, so left, and so radical a march in my life.
A few days before the march, a viral video from a right-wing UDI [Unión Demócrata Independiente, Independent Democratic Union] politician made the rounds on social media. He said feminist women were only angry because nobody was giving them flowers or chocolate on International Women’s Day or something like that. This makes me think the Chilean right wing is very afraid of the feminist movement. What’s your analysis of this movement and how it freaks out the Right?
Firstly, while I think the movement is magnificent and has a wonderful future, I don’t agree that it is extremely radical yet. I think it has a long way to go to be very left.
Compared with the movement in the United States maybe.
That might be true, because, for example, I have never understood why feminist movements didn’t make their primary demand the recognition of domestic work as paid labor. When you say, “Hey, this percentage for the number of women in the workforce, does it not include those women who don’t receive a salary, but are at home? Do they not work?” They work.
The invisibilization of the work of social reproduction.
Exactly. Why do feminists not make it their first demand that society recognize domestic work as labor that ought to be remunerated? This, to me, would be radical and left, because it would also help close the gender pay gap.
If you pay a domestic worker, male or female, minimum wage, this immediately increases the value of domestic work. It doesn’t make sense for domestic work outside your home to be remunerated if the same work in your own home is unpaid and invisible.
I think the feminist movement owes itself that debt. Why? Because I think for a long time the feminist movement has wanted to challenge men’s presence in positions of power. But they didn’t understand that the central problem was one of class; that the core problem is the relationship between capital and workers.
Now, of course, you have a diversity of relationships of subordination within capital and labor relations, whether with migrants, women, or the feminist movement. But the principal contradiction will always be economic. Enslaving the woman inside the house is an economic problem, not just a gender problem. I think that, at least from my point of view, this feminist movement is not that radical or left, but it keeps growing more and more formidable.
And I think that the Right is indeed panicked, because it destroys the society they want to live in. The feminist movement breaks up the society where the man is the head of the family, in the same way Jesus is the head of the church. It dismantles the framework where women answer to men in the administration of family resources. It shatters many structures that for the Right are completely natural, which they couldn’t live without.
I think that many right-wing men would die of hunger without badly paid domestic labor serving them. At the very least, they’d have to eat out more, because their homes would be like garbage dumps. Many of them can’t even imagine cleaning, cooking, doing laundry, washing dishes, or ironing.
That’s why we must work for a much deeper cultural transformation. This will not be solely a transformation for women, for this is men’s problem as well. The emancipation of the human, male and female, depends on the progress of feminism.
I want to discuss another major battle: the struggles of the Mapuche indigenous people. This has been a key site of conflict recently in Chile, especially with the assassination of leader Camilo Catrillanca this past November. What significance did this assassination have for Chilean politics?
[Laughs] For the relationship between Wallmapu [the Mapuche’s ancestral territory] and the Chilean state?
Nothing. This is the same thing that has been happening for the last forty, fifty, one hundred, and even 180 years. Nothing has changed.
Perhaps I have a very specific point of view, because I’m Chilean but of Palestinian origin. The Palestinian situation is almost identical to the one in which the Mapuche people find themselves. Both have faced genocide and foreign military occupation, with the appropriation of their land, their lives, their speech. Everything.
Thus, as long as the state does not understand itself as a plurinational state, they cannot coexist within the Chilean state. They are not able to coexist under this rubric, as distinct cultural systems, that permits each community to live according to its own precepts.
Of course, legally speaking everyone is theoretically equal, but there is no possibility of this assassination changing the course of the Mapuche question. Under the government of New Majority, and the previous center-left coalition (Concertación) as well, Mapuche leaders were also assassinated. And we have activists and leaders who are not Mapuche who are killed in this country too, with everything remaining in obscurity. That’s why I wanted to reiterate that the fundamental problem is not rooted in the issue of gender nor nations, unless it’s defined as being comprised of a dominant and dominated class.
In the dominated class, certainly, you will find the vast majority of people from the sectors of the population that are discriminated against, whether they be women, sexual minorities, or the Mapuche. However, you can’t avoid the fact that there are also Mapuches who are part of the dominant class and that live very well there.
There’s a representative from the far-right UDI who’s Mapuche.
This very liberal formulation. “We just need to diversify the dominant class” is one we’ve seen a lot of in the US.
When Recoleta put in its first ordinance against harassment, some other municipalities tried to enact the same measure. In some communities, however, women on the right voted against these measures. We must be careful not to fall into the common trap of oversimplifying and making it about the Mapuche nation versus the Chilean nation and men versus women. When things are that simplified, it can get a bit clumsy.
Can you give us a little more background on the conflict, because I don’t think the situation is very well-known or understood outside Chile at all?
The first nation to inhabit this territory was the Mapuche nation. The Mapuche have had a historically continuous presence in Chilean territory. Furthermore, all the peace agreements and treaties they have made with the Chilean state have been systematically ignored by the state. This state has advanced on and appropriated Mapuche lands, extinguishing through genocide an entire ancestral culture; that of our original people, our first nation.
This continues to the current day. The historical continuity is not just between, as many people think, the present and the arrival of the Spanish. Rather, this is a problem which has only intensified in the past 180 years of the Chilean Republic’s history. Chile still lauds and remembers military leaders who made explicit decisions to advance on Wallmapu to appropriate the wealth of their territory.
If Chile doesn’t come to terms with this reality first, I think it will be difficult to talk about what comes next. But the story I just told is not the official history; this not what they teach you in the schools.
They teach you something quite different in the schools, so our young people don’t know their history. For them, the right to property starts with their own property, it’s not something that was made earlier. The right to property is born with the papers that define the property of their fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers and great-great-grandfathers.
Before this there was no right to property. In the Mapuche cosmovision, there was no right to property but rather territoriality, a right to control of a territory for the reproduction of existence. A lot must change in Chile for this state of affairs to end. I identify deeply with the Mapuche people because of my Palestinian origins.
Chatting with the people here, we always end up discussing the weather; probably because that’s what strangers do everywhere. We talk a lot about the difference between the intense summer heat here, and the intense winter cold in my region, New England.
And Chileans always bring up the fact that summer and winter in Chile have started to become more and more extreme due to climate change. It seems like the majority of Chileans understand that climate change exists and is a real phenomenon.
We are going from being a country with four seasons a year to one that has only two seasons per year. Fall is not really fall anymore, spring is no longer spring-like. Spring starts to look a lot like summer, and the fall starts to look a lot like winter. It’s undeniable that human activity has generated massive changes in our environment.
The destruction of the marine biome, the contamination of the water table, the destruction of glaciers. And the desertification which has grown in leaps and bounds from north to south. The excessive exploitation of natural resources has made a country like ours less and less sustainable every day. There is still not enough awareness of this problem.
What role does the fight against climate change take on the Chilean left? And in your project to transform the city?
When services are provided in a just and equitable way, you are creating a sustainable city. You also make things more sustainable when you work on projects for energy sovereignty.
The problem is, it’s not unlike when you try to tackle a plague of termites or rats. Making changes in just one region isn’t enough; we need to make changes on a global scale, or else it’s pointless. What’s the use of Recoleta reducing its water consumption and waste production, when Las Condes [a wealthy comuna] next door is consuming ten times more water and producing twelve times more waste? What we really need to discuss are patterns of consumption.
It’s ridiculous to think that the solution to poverty in Chile is to make it so that poor people can consume at the same pace as in richer communities like Providencia or Las Condes. Those rates of consumption are plainly unsustainable on a planetary scale. So ultimately, we must talk about some of these tough issues. What are the limits to wealth? How do we change patterns of consumption and distribution? How could we approach a project of degrowth? The answers tend to be dictated by cultural hegemony, and I think we still have a lot to learn in this regard.
My last question: I know you’re very interested in Bernie Sanders’s candidacy for president in my country. How do you see things right now? What would it mean to have the first left government in US history?
It would truly be a great change for the whole world. Truthfully, a lot of people who are deeply interested in politics are following Bernie Sanders. They know his story, his beliefs, his track record, his consistency, and him winning would be great news for us.
You saw a strong anti-establishment sentiment in the US during the 2016 election, and Trump and Bernie were the only two candidates with an anti-establishment pitch. Therefore, Bernie is really the only candidate that can and could’ve beaten Trump. Clinton represented continuity with a hated establishment, and even then, she still got more votes than Trump.
Another issue is how anti-democratic the North American electoral system is.
Explaining the electoral college to people outside the US is almost impossible.
The US system is so indirect and anti-democratic. Incredible that it allows for the candidate who received less votes to somehow win the election.
Bernie could produce far-reaching change. There’s no doubt we wouldn’t be in the situation we are currently in with Venezuela. Nor is there any doubt that things would be different in Palestine or Syria. The migrant crisis that is haunting Europe and much of the world would be impacted.
I really hope that Bernie, with this second chance, can bring about substantial change. I think Trump is helping him out a lot, so I wish him the best success in the near future. I hope to meet him one day; I admire him a lot.