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Chile Is Still in the Midst of a Political Revolution

Three decades after Augusto Pinochet’s fall, Chile stands at the precipice of electing a socialist president and reordering its political system. But the achievement of genuine democracy in the birthplace of neoliberalism is far from guaranteed.

Leftist presidential candidate Gabriel Boric casts his vote during the presidential elections in Punta Arenas, Chile, on November 21, 2021. (Claudio Reyes / AFP via Getty Images)

Chileans headed to the polls last month in watershed general elections. For the first time since 1989, neither of the leading candidates hailed from the pro-market, center-left, and center-right coalitions that have dominated the state since redemocratization. Although a surging reactionary populist, José Antonio Kast, won a narrow plurality, the top contender he will face in this month’s second-round ballot embodies Chile’s emerging radical left. On a parallel track, delegates representing a broad array of the population’s interests, including long-disregarded poor and working masses, are rewriting the constitution.

While the country gears up for the runoffs and awaits the outcome of the constituent assembly, Chile today presents one of the most challenging and promising scenarios for the global left that all socialists should pay attention to. After decades of setbacks and decline — defeats many feared might be permanent — mass movements of workers and the poor launched a cycle of protest that culminated in a generalized rebellion in October 2019 that put the final nails in the coffin of the party system that managed and reinforced Chilean neoliberalism for thirty years. It won the demand for a new constitution to replace the authoritarian and pro-market charter inherited from the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship. An overwhelming majority voted in favor of constituent elections. And when the time came to elect representatives to draft the new constitution, voters delivered a crushing blow to the diminished center-left and center-right ruling coalitions.

In an outcome that would have been near inconceivable just a few years ago, a new alliance of the longstanding Communist Party (CP) and the upstart left Frente Amplio (FA, Broad Front) won nearly one-fifth of votes, just shy of the billionaire president’s center-right coalition. The same Apruebo Dignidad coalition, headed by former student leader and key player in the country’s new left Gabriel Boric, steadily led presidential election polls until last month. Meanwhile a radical, movement-oriented, independent slate came away with about one-sixth of constituent election votes, outpolling the center-left alliance that dominated Chile’s postauthoritarian neoliberal order.

Now that all the preliminary and ceremonial trimmings are out of the way, delegates are finally debating the social and economic rights and protections to be enshrined in the new constitution. A key mechanism for preserving the pro-market paradise that lavishly enriched the country’s business elites and generated apartheid-like inequality lies in the veto power of the old regime’s remnants. Still, with the collapse of its party oligarchs and the initiative partially in the hands of insurgents — old and new, partisan and grassroots — Chile is in the midst of a political revolution.

The country’s road to democratic refoundation sheds light on what insurgent movements and parties fighting to deepen democracy and guarantee social and economic rights should emulate — and what must be avoided. Three general lessons deserve mention. First, the rebellion underscores that mass mobilization must direct its disruptive force and demands at the state. Second, although diverse sectors of the global left have exalted the autonomy of Chile’s new social movements, a commitment to political and organizational independence at the expense of building power in electoral institutions carries dangers that should be preempted at all costs. Lastly, socialists and popular movements must organize in ways that can expand the range of political and programmatic possibilities across society.

Targeting and Taking Hold of the State

The most significant takeaway from Chile’s ongoing political revolution is that popular protest and demands must target the state. As society’s central source of power, the state and its managers hold the key to meaningful and lasting reforms. State actors at the top echelons must be engaged and forced to make concessions. When poor and working people have insufficient representation in the halls of state power, or when their representatives choose to advance elite interests instead, regular people must rebel in their workplaces and take to the streets.

For roughly a decade, a steady revival of protest has expanded Chilean social movements’ power. Students first launched a campaign of occupations and marches in 2011–12 to protest the commodified and tiered education system inherited from the military regime. Years later, the country’s pauperized elderly began taking to the streets to reject Chile’s system of privatized pensions known as AFPs (Administradoras de Fondos de Pensiones, Administrators of Pension Funds). By 2017, the NoMásAFP (“No More AFP”) movement was routinely mobilizing hundreds of thousands of retirees and their supporters. That year, over half a million marched in Santiago, with more than 2 million total turning out in the country of 18 million.

Meanwhile, a radical feminist movement emerged, reaching unprecedented levels of mobilization. Networks of feminist groups and collectives from college campuses and community organizations began coordinating their actions. After a series of university takeovers in 2016, the movement drew nearly 100,000 women on its 2018 day of action. Chile’s “feminist revolution” against misogyny, abuse, and inequality continued to grow, and in March of last year, approximately 2 million women marched throughout the country. Movement mobilization reached a high point in late October 2019 when approximately 3 million marched across the country against Sebastián Piñera’s right-wing government, with over a million in the capital.

The mobilization wave registered rising levels of popular discontent and put the ruling class on notice. As a result, Chilean governments implemented a number of palliative reforms and even changed the country’s electoral rules and system of representation. Movements’ costly disruptions produced higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy, more funding to subsidize the poorest students’ education, and, crucially, the adoption of proportional representation elections.

The relentless protests shattered the Chilean political class’s credibility. Its constant pressure brought the governing regime’s legitimacy to wretched levels for any respectable democracy: While the 2019 explosion sank Piñera’s approval rating to single digits, his predecessor Michelle Bachelet’s had fallen to a dismal 20 percent by the second year of her second term. In both cases, popular rejection dogged the neoliberal administrations’ ability to govern for the duration of their tenures.

None of these achievements should be dismissed; they favorably altered the landscape for ongoing political and social conflict. Electoral reform, for instance, led to the election of twenty Frente Amplio parliamentarians in 2017, establishing a genuine left bloc in congress. But despite the constant upheaval, Chile’s political class continued to rule, sharing power between its left and right wings. It was not until October–November 2019, when the expanding and escalating movement metaphorically seized the government by the neck, and under the threat of ongoing looting and shutting down of business as usual, forced a state-sanctioned concession, opening a path to a new constitution and with it deeper and systemic change. Had the rebellion been unable or unwilling to bring the state to its knees and wrest from it a path to regime change, Chile’s democratic neoliberals, however embattled, might still firmly control the levers of power two years on.

The indispensability of targeting the state is borne out by Piñera’s pledge, under duress, to move toward constitutional reform. But this outcome would have been unlikely had the Frente Amplio not previously contested crucial legislative positions. With key representatives in the lower house, social movements could deploy their own candidates inside the state to negotiate on their behalf and broker the decisive pact that led to the plebiscite and constituent elections.

Despite its proven efficacy, many on the left were critical of the FA and of its young leader Gabriel Boric in particular for signing the agreement. Some, including the CP and a sectarian strand that abandoned Frente Amplio in protest, argued that Boric’s intervention saved the Piñera presidency; others claimed the move was evidence of the inevitable corrupting effects of entering ruling institutions.

Subsequent developments have vindicated Boric and his comrades on the first charge. Had Piñera been forced to resign, the neoliberal center-left opposition would have managed his succession in negotiations with the lame-duck coalition. By all counts, a constitutional revolution was the preferable denouement.

The other invoked outcome, an insurrectionary takeover of the state, was simply a pipe dream. The second criticism, the inescapable installation of pro-elite biases, deserves more consideration.

The pull of business influence and the risk of succumbing to pressures to keep state institutions afloat is very real, even for the young radicals who cut their teeth confronting Chile’s militarized police during the student rebellion. But when insurrection is off the table and oligarchic power sharing is the likely alternative, the danger of falling under the sway of capital is worth risking.

For now, and in retrospect, the Frente Amplio has clearly acted to supplant rather than rescue Chile’s neoliberal regime. It remains to be seen if the Front, now solidly allied with the CP, will continue advancing radical reform as it expands its positions within the state.

Chile’s political revolution demonstrates the need not just to resist and protest against but to engage the state directly in order to force concessions. This necessitates holding leverage over, yet also within, the state. Disruption at worksites, on the street, and in other institutions elites rely upon is indispensable. It is, after all, the main source of leverage that workers and the poor have to counter their own politicians’ susceptibility to pro-business compulsions. But this balance of countervailing forces requires representation in governing institutions that can read mass demands and help translate them into accountable state action. Programmatic links and accountability of this sort, in turn, requires coherent and representative organizations.

The Dangers of Movement Autonomy

The second lesson involves the harmful potential of independent action. Mass movements and the landslide constituent elections have been praised, not totally incorrectly, for the central role played by autonomously organized forces. These forces’ political freedom is said to encourage radical organizers to be more responsive to ordinary constituents, as well as offer them freedom from the kind of pragmatic dealmaking in which figures who are directly accountable to parties that hold formal political power are often entangled. As direct expressions of poor and working people’s interests, autonomous organization should foment more democratic participation and allow uncompromised popular demands to be placed on the agenda.

Yet paradoxically, these kinds of autonomist approaches are as likely to dilute, squander, and distort grievances from below and dampen enthusiasm for radical politics. Chile’s social movements’ devotion to independence did just this.

Two separate networks of vaguely connected independent activists competed nationally in the constituent elections. Besides the radical Lista del Pueblo (People’s List), which sent twenty-six delegates to the convention, the Independientes por una Nueva Constitución (Independents for a New Constitution) got 9 percent of votes and garnered eleven seats. Together, both slates took one quarter of all convention seats, equaling the center-right’s bloc and far surpassing the center left. However impressive, the achievement hides an extreme level of fragmentation spurred by activists’ zealous commitment to direct and independent representation.

Because groups scattered throughout loosely networked movements insisted on running their own autonomous candidates, independent slates fielded a number of competing lists within single districts. The result was a disastrously inefficient representation of grassroots interests. Back-of-the-envelope calculations of ballots cast for losing independent slates — which basically amount to votes left on the table — show that roughly 8 percent of the total national vote was outright wasted. Such votes could have produced as many as ten more convention seats. The irony of undermining poor people’s political representation for the sanctity of defending its alleged purity should not be lost on socialists and the Left.

Results in Santiago’s Tenth District, which the Left should have won resoundingly, capture the absurd inefficiency and dispersion that characterized radical independents’ campaigns. Against expectations, the center right came away with two of the seven seats up for grabs, while the center left managed another. The FA-Communist alliance did win a couple of seats, and the Lista del Pueblo and the Independientes por una Nueva Constitución list of unaffiliated moderate progressives each elected one delegate. The results for radicals and left progressives, nonetheless, should have handily surpassed the three seats they secured. The crucial barrier to a better showing for the Left — and to further diminishing the old order’s oligarchs — was the clutch of independent slates that fragmented pro-reform popular sector votes.

Autonomists ran three separate lists along with one stand-alone candidate. More than competing against establishment neoliberal parties, these tickets senselessly battled one another as well as the FA-CP alliance. The overwhelming majority of their votes were consequently lost: Although together they accounted for over one-quarter of ballots cast, the three left independent slates only managed to elect one delegate. Had they managed a modicum of coordination and avoided splintering, they could have at a minimum snatched an additional district seat from the center right.

A single radical slate under Chile’s new left banner was poised to win half of all votes. Fragmentation and vote squandering reached such extremes that leaders of Chile’s largest mass movements, the feminists and NoMásAFP, both lost their bids despite respectable showings. Inexplicably, neither ran with the FA-CP or Lista del Pueblo.

 

More broadly, a similar aggregation of votes up and down Chile’s twenty-eight districts would have dramatically shifted the convention’s overall composition. Combining the roughly ten additional seats the independent left stood to gain under unified slates with the FA-CP’s twenty-eight, the Lista del Pueblo’s twenty-six, the No Neutrales’ eleven, the seventeen reserved for indigenous representatives, and the left-leaning portion expected to break with the center left would yield something close to a veto-proof majority for Chile’s new radicals.

The autonomists’ puritanical defense of direct representation is a central impediment to advancing the demands and interests of Chile’s poor and working-class majority.

The toll of autonomist politics goes beyond preventable dispersion and vote wasting. Independents’ disconnection from established institutions with consolidated programs and representational procedures has been disastrous. Once seated, the radical independent blocs’ free-floating delegates have exhibited predictably erratic, sectarian, and disgraceful behavior. Their anti-party fanaticism enabled candidates to avoid serious organizational and programmatic cohesion on their path to and inside the convention. The Lista del Pueblo in particular has been plagued by a number of gaffes and scandals that outraged working Chileans and handicapped Chile’s democratic insurgency.

Here again, autonomist commitments are undermining rigorous and effective representation of grassroots interests.

Although even left parties competing for state positions and power often develop oligarchic tendencies that distance their political action from the interests and demands of their bases, their organizational structures supply indispensable tools for democratic participation and liability. Formal organization provides institutionalized linkages between rank-and-file members and leadership, along with standardized activities, policy criteria, and accountability mechanisms for the former to discipline the latter. Robust partisan organization offers mechanisms for holding elected officials to the preferences of members and grassroots constituencies. When representatives stray from or abandon the principled pursuit of the party’s program, its organizational structure can identify the discrepancy and sanction the deviation.

This appreciation of formal institutions does not deny the dangers of corruption and oligarchization. But rather than abandoning formal organization, it calls for revamping internal democracy and coherence.

Without a doubt, as the governing coalitions spurned popular demands in favor of business, Chileans lost trust in political parties, whether from the neoliberal establishment or not. Over the past four administrations, for instance, identification with parties waned precipitously, falling from 53 percent in January 2006 when Bachelet assumed her first term to a paltry 14 percent when the rebellion erupted in 2019. The insurgent constituent process has struggled to reverse the across-the-board disgust.

Nevertheless, as the dominant coalitions’ standing has stagnated since the rebellion, the Communist Party and FA have recovered in spurts. The Front’s approval has more than doubled to 34 percent; support for the CP, considered so marginal that polls did not bother to record its approval, grew from total marginality to over one-fifth of the public. The legitimacy of radical parties has rebounded to such an extent that the most improbable outcomes have materialized.

Following local elections and primaries earlier this year, Communists now control the Santiago municipality, and Boric, the young FA leader, surged to the top of the polls for the upcoming presidential elections. Indeed, participation in the new radicals’ primary contest far outpaced turnout for the center right’s primary. Although working and poor Chileans have lost faith in partisan politics, there is growing attachment to the left alliance because of the widespread popularity of its program of radical reform.

Attuned to expanding from-below support for radical reform, the autonomists might have worked to invigorate social movements’ relations with the surging alliance. But instead of constructively linking community bases to radical partisan politics and reinforcing democratic accountability, Chile’s radical independents redoubled their purist embrace of unmediated grassroots representation. Emphasizing direct work in territorios, they dispensed with systematic methods for selecting candidates and ensuring adherence to popular sympathy for the CP-FA alliance’s planks. Cut off from disciplining input from the grassroots they claim to champion, an unsurprising wave of shameful decisions racked the autonomists.

 

The most outrageous came with the revelations of deceit by the Lista del Pueblo’s most visible delegate, Rodrigo Rojas Vade. The activist, known simply as el Pela’o (“Baldy”) Vade, emerged from obscurity thanks to his fearless presence on the front lines of the rebellion. He then handily won a seat representing Santiago’s poor southern townships in the Thirteenth District.

As he cashed in on his militant celebrity, Rojas Vade presented himself as a cancer survivor and health care activist. Unfortunately for the Lista del Pueblo, its stature, already shaky, suffered a massive hit when investigative reporting showed his medical ordeal was a fabrication. Not only did cancer patients, their families, and the general public feel used and manipulated, the disclosure cheapened the credibility of the fight for universal public health care, a central demand of mass movements and the Left. Support for the Lista, after enjoying public enthusiasm, plunged by twenty-seven points. Although Rojas Vade deserves individual repudiation, the autonomists’ lack of transparency and representational accountability directly contributed to the fiasco.

The Lista’s opaqueness and capriciousness produced far worse political fallout. Its erraticism has set in motion centrifugal shock waves damaging the broader left. Institutionally unmoored, the Lista embarked on a sectarian binge that tore it apart and strained earnest reform politics in the convention. Its toxicity revealed itself most notoriously when taking up the question of upcoming presidential elections. Without an agreed-upon process, the alliance disintegrated after a haphazard candidate selection, a public announcement, and a subsequent reversal were followed by public finger-pointing and mass resignations.

Independents first chose storied copper union dissident and former Communist and Frenteamplista, Cristián Cuevas — in an unsanctioned vote by seventy Lista notables, only to renounce the selection and carry out an even more dubious process. When a hastily set-up “primary” then picked a sketchy Mapuche “political entrepreneur,” reporting revealed that the candidate, replicating a habit of past frauds, had faked most endorsement signatures. By then, the intrigue, mutual recriminations, and outright harassment had pushed ten of its twenty-seven delegates to abandon the Lista. After the endorsement debacle, seventeen remaining delegates, along with key founding members, resigned.

The self-inflicted harm proved irreversible. Efforts to revitalize earlier caucusing aimed at consolidating a radical autonomous platform inside the convention have failed. The rebranded Pueblo Constituyente coalition began collapsing less than one month into its foundation. The damage, stemming from radical independents’ disregard of clear representational procedures and commitments, contributed significantly to the public’s growing disenchantment in the constituent process. After their imbroglios, trust in the convention, which reached two-thirds in July, dipped ominously to 43 percent.

With autonomists’ internecine cannibalism on full display, ordinary people’s hope in the convention, and their faith in radical politics writ large, is sliding toward disdain.

Strategic Intervention in the Conjunctural Reality

Recent frustration with the autonomists and creeping disappointment in Chile’s democratic revolution are reminders of radicals’ duty to intervene strategically in politics. In the years leading up to the rebellion as well as its aftermath, movements and parties deployed their growing power to reshape the political arena. At its best, Chile’s left weighed alternatives and made decisions that expanded the political possibilities of the moment.

Independents’ current infighting draws energy and attention away from the popular demands and mass activity that propelled the rebellion and constituent process. Rather than mobilizing their bases to better advance reforms and block elite maneuvers, part of Chile’s rising left has used its gains to peer inward and corrode its built-up capacity.

Step by step, Chile’s emerging new left grasped the moment and figured out, often precariously, how to guide mobilization towards regime change. To bury the democratic neoliberal order entrenched since the 1990 transition to democracy, rising and inexperienced cadre had to read the broader landscape, including its array of social and political forces, and make decisions that would, first, widen the possibilities for reform, and, second, strengthen their position in each scenario.

Starting from a place of weakness relative to party elites that enjoyed full corporate backing, Chile’s young activists made inevitable mistakes. The costliest of these were the Communist backing of the center left in both Bachelet’s successful 2013 bid for a second term and its subsequent 2017 defeat to Piñera’s right coalition. The new left that eventually formed the Frente Amplio also erred grievously when it emphasized stitching alliances with unaffiliated congressional candidates with no ties to social movements over forging institutional links with emerging mass movements.

Chile’s new radical forces undoubtedly also devolved into inward squabbling. But their brightest moments came when they aimed to influence the broader political landscape. Even the setbacks from the CP and FA’s politicking resulted from earnest attempts to move systemic change forward.

A crucial strategic intervention by Chile’s new left forces occurred in 2007 when communist workers and other labor dissidents led a series of wildcat strikes in the mining sector. Led by Cuevas, the copper miners’ union leader, outsourced workers carried out a series of rolling actions against the state copper giant CODELCO (Corporación Nacional del Cobre de Chile, National Copper Corporation of Chile), with tens of thousands of flexibilized employees disrupting production for months on end. While the CP at the time prioritized breaking into the center-left governing alliance, Cuevas and others chose to use subcontracted workers’ increasing leverage in mining operations to demand recognition and win formal contracts with the state.

Although the parties’ preferred electoralist strategy would have to wait another five years, miners took advantage of Chile’s dependence on copper, which accounts for half of all exports and roughly one-tenth of GDP, to force concessions. They formed the Copper Workers Federation (CTC in its Spanish acronym), which has since used its newly developed power to periodically hammer out de facto sectoral agreements with the national industry, establishing a floor for improved wages and protections for the roughly 90,000 mining contract workers. More importantly, radical worker-activists built a mass labor movement that has mobilized its strategic power in defense of broader social and political reforms.

Years later, radical student activists in local campus assemblies put in organizing work that in 2011 translated into the largest mobilizations seen in Chile since the mid-1980s. The country’s new radical youth cadre accomplished what more sectional protests failed to achieve. Students coordinated their mass actions in pursuit of a broad reform program that challenged a crucial aspect of class inequality. Backed by the might of hundreds of thousands on the streets, the movement pushed a demand for free, quality public education for all onto the national agenda. It was the first time since redemocratization that radical politics took the initiative and forced elites to respond with promises of systemic reform.

The novelty of the student mobilizations was not just its sheer magnitude but rather its ability to take on the state. They laid the foundations for gathering broader social forces into a general, classwide, anti-neoliberal politics.

Then, in 2013, following two years of mass protest, voters elected a student “bench” or bancada to Congress. Whereas two young Communists, Camila Vallejo and Karol Cariola, followed their parent party and joined the Socialist-led center-left coalition, Boric and Giorgio Jackson, who headed the broad left’s presidential campaign, opened an anti-neoliberal left flank in the electoral and parliamentary arenas. After exploring possibilities of collaboration with Communists and Bachelet’s second administration on one hand, and numerous messy realignments within the emerging autonomous left on the other, the radical duo used the congressional bully pulpit to gather new left forces that would challenge the bi-coalitional pro-market consensus. Following a moderate reform of the binomial electoral rules, they formed the Frente Amplio and ran slates competing for positions in the highest echelons of state power.

In the late 2017 elections, the FA emerged as the near-second national force, taking 20 percent of first-round presidential votes. Twenty other candidates also broke into Congress.

The strategic decision to form an anti-neoliberal left bloc and contend for central power has likely been the most important political development since the democratic transition. Growing mass mobilization could now channel mass disruptive rage through concrete demands on the state.

Each step of Chilean working-class advance built on these expanded organizational capacities. What began in the late 2000s most recently culminated in the insurgent constituent process and the historic founding of an anti-neoliberal Communist-FA alliance. These developments may lead to new victories in Chile’s revived class struggle. They make restoration of neoliberal dominance unlikely.

But the harsh market fundamentalism said to have started in Chile has not yet been defeated. Despite enormous advances, the Left has yet to cohere into the disciplined socialist vehicle the country’s poor and working masses need. Progressives continue to make expected but avoidable mistakes. In her inaugural speech, for instance, the constituent convention’s president, indigenous Mapuche scholar-activist Elisa Loncón, made a rousing case for cultural sovereignty and plurinational equality — yet she failed to once mention the key grievances behind the insurrection: health care, wages, pensions, and education.

The Left’s self-inflicted wounds and popular concerns that Chile’s new radicals may be straying from the classwide material demands that mobilized laboring Chileans have contributed to the alarming surge by Kast, who has a real chance of becoming the next president. The pro-Pinochet reactionary, who came in at 8 percent in 2017, blew past the center-right candidate in September and, after edging out a victory in the first round, will face Boric in December’s runoffs.

The moment is uncertain. But we can be sure that Chile’s old neoliberal regime is dead, and the Left is better positioned in Chile than it has been since the 1973 coup. Facing the grim prospect of the Right returning to the presidency, Chile’s new radicals — and radicals the world over — would do well to remind themselves of the lessons emanating from their actions over the past decade. It will be a crash course on how to navigate new challenges and complete the country’s political revolution.