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The Soul of Chile

I started this article several weeks ago with good intentions to provide the best personal description and interpretation I could of the social explosion that was affecting Chile; I entitled it “The Soul of Chile”. Every now and then the small, relatively insular South American country of Chile bares its soul and I felt that what I was seeing then was a struggle for that soul.

Five decades ago, having ended my Peace Corps service, I was preparing to depart Chile with my Chilean bride and exciting plans for the future. Chileans also seemed generally intent on continuing their quest for development in democracy, their “revolution in freedom” as defined and led by Eduardo Frei Montalva, President of Chile from 1964 to 1970. It was an exciting time. As it turned out, the way ahead for them was tragic. Social, political and economic chaos of the socialist experiment of Salvador Allende (1970-73), its premature demise by a bloody military coup (September 11, 1973), and the consequent authoritarian regime of General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) engulfed the country in a two-decade struggle. During these years, Chile’s soul seemed confused, at times bright and constructive but generally internally divided and struggling; it also cast dark and violent shadows.

Then, three decades ago, Chileans succeeded in coming together enough to begin disentangling the country from the oppressive 17-year dictatorship. Chilean society reached deep into the republican space of its soul, used persistence and the ballot box to peacefully force the Generals out. A broad coalition across the ideological spectrum committed to a national project to rebuild a political system based on constitutional democracy and a liberal free market economy. During the ensuing years, the soul of Chile seemed to reflect a more optimistic, happy while serious, industrious people, well on their way to reaching “developed country” status. Their pursuit of socioeconomic development served to unite them.

The democratic process was working pretty well, free and exemplary elections were held regularly, and there was alternation between opposing political coalitions for leadership of the country. Unemployment and extreme poverty were decreasing significantly. Chile had accomplished in recent years what no other South American country had, membership in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), hitherto mostly made up of northern hemisphere countries (Colombia has recently joined).

Sure, there were problems, some big ones, caused in part by the entrenched oligarchical structure of Chilean society. The private pension system, after forty years, was falling far short of promised retirement income, leaving part of an entire generation of senior Chileans risking poverty-level incomes in their later years. Inequality of access to education and prohibitive costs of health care persisted, motives for deep discontent and protest. And too many working Chileans, even in what was perceived as the middle class, lived on the edge, hardly making it to the end of each month but rather going deeper and deeper into high interest consumer debt.

So recently, and especially since October 18, 2019, if you penetrated the facade of prosperity and looked deeper into Chile’s soul, what appeared was frankly disconcerting. As described in the two previous postings on this blog, Transition in Chile and Por la Razón o la fuerza, this long-festering societal discontent of a large portion of middle class and poor Chileans rose to the surface and exploded into massive protests in the public arena. In unison, the talking heads and analysts on TV strained to call the action “peaceful social protests”. The most peaceful actually was one notable massive demonstration of maybe a million and a half Chileans expressing desire for broad change. To some, the size and transversality of this protest reflected an important slice of Chile’s soul: deep resentment of inequality. This peaceful protest convinced many that the situation was serious and would not just wane and die out.

Weeks of daily protests continued, announced as peaceful and meant to demand legitimate economic and social reforms. However, these were intertwined with violence perpetrated by hooded gangs of thugs, thieves, anarchists, and arsonists who targeted everything from hotels and supermarkets to municipal buildings and stations of the modern underground Metro public transport system. The movement over time became transversely referred to as the “estallido social“, the social outburst.

After observing a couple of weeks of daily protests in November, I returned to the U.S., convinced of the seriousness, depth and breadth of civil discontent and the reasons for it. I was sympathetic with the general thrust of the protest, but also nagged by an uncomfortable concern for what would surely be the ballooning costs of violent, indiscriminate destruction of public and private buildings, transportation facilities, schools, police stations, and finally, believe it or not, churches. Chile’s soul was being torn apart by the pervasive, more obscure violence of poverty, injustice, inequalities, and the curse of hate-laced violence in the street.

I struggled with conflicting feelings about all that had happened in such a short time to the Chile I love, the country I thought I knew. I could not explain why the outburst happened when it did, why it was so violent and persistent, and who, if anyone, was behind it all. I harbored an even cloudier view of what was to come, how it would evolve, and what might cause the protest and destruction to subside. Friends and relatives offered uncharacteristically timid explanations of what was going on. Their views were no more revealing than the irritating deflection “it’s complicated”. But in the same vein, when my opinion was sought on the situation, I would fall too easily into the same response: “it’s complicated”.

Over a month had passed since the official start of Chile’s “social outburst”. In the words of a well-known Chilean artist, the protest had left Santiago looking like “a sort of small and ridiculous battlefield “. My view at the time was less poetic and not near as benevolent. I saw nothing “small” nor “ridiculous”, but rather immense and heartbreaking. It seemed that the soul of Chile was in a vicious circle of self destruction, unable to break the cycle.

Something Chile’s infamous anti-poet Nicanor Parra had once said, (describing himself) seemed appropriate, “I am a sausage, ground of angel and beast”. That seemed to me to describe Chile’s soul in November of 2019: a blend of angel and beast.

Granted, the “Agreement for Peace and a New Constitution” which had been signed by political leaders on November 15 did hold some hope that the situation would calm, at least become less violent and provide some space to forge a political response to the protests.

One seasoned observer of Chilean society, whose opinion I value but don’t always share, concluded after a short visit to Chile at that time that “Chileans have every reason to celebrate: their political system and leadership have passed a monumental test and unlike in 1973 have found a consensual path forward.” (He was referring to the period just prior to the September 11, 1973, coup that brought Chilean democracy to a painful hiatus. The opposing political leaders tried at that time, too, to find a solution to the political stalemate between then president Salvador Allende and the opposition, but failed, and the coup prevailed.) I was more skeptical, unconvinced that the promises made to pursue socioeconomic reforms would be sufficient or enacted quickly enough to respond adequately to the protesters’ demands.

By now, opinion polls showed Chileans had lost all confidence and trust in key institutions, including Congress, the President, the political parties and their leaders, the Church, and the national police force. The trust and dialogue needed to make deals appeared non-existent.

However many opinion leaders held out some hope that the November 15 agreement would be a game changer and that the country would find a way out of the vicious cycle of violence and the political no man’s land they had created. President Piñera tried, in his characteristically clumsy way, to regain control and the authority he clearly had lost. The new set of younger ministers he had appointed in key positions seemed inclined to work with opposition leaders of the Assembly and the Senate to get legislative packages moving again through Congress, focusing first on tax and pension reform.

The end-of-year holidays were approaching, immediately followed by the summer vacation hiatus, inviolable for a majority of Chileans. Working against the pressure of the calendar, the leaders of the main political forces in Congress prepared a process to address the call for a rewrite of the constitution. A technical commission of government and opposition representatives met over a couple of weeks and presented a road map for the process; Congress and the President approved. April 26, 2020, was set as the date for a plebiscite to determine if a majority of the voters wanted to rewrite the constitution, and if so, to choose between two options for forming the constituent assembly tasked with the rewrite.

If a rewrite of a new constitution is chosen in the plebiscite, elected members of the assembly would then be chosen in an election in October of 2020. And then, the assembly must present the new constitution a year later, to be approved or not by another plebiscite. In short, if a new constitution were in the cards, it would not be legalized until the end of 2021 or even early 2022. Therein lies the dilemma causing my skepticism that the plan would ever come to fruition: an urgent desire for a new constitution was being clearly expressed, while a seemingly long, drawn out process had been devised to actually produce one. This reality began to cause many to have doubts. Hence, objections to the plan began to grow.

Nonetheless, the framework for the process had been agreed upon, so the discussion turned to important issues of gender equality and indigenous peoples’ representation in the constituent assembly (should the plebescite approve an assembly).

As they drifted off to the beach and to the lakes for vacation, it seemed that just maybe, as my friend had suggested earlier, Chileans had again stepped back from the edge and would find a way to get on with their lives, not precisely as before, but maybe better for those most in need of greater satisfaction of their basic needs. After all, that was ostensibly the objective of the “estallido social”.

We again returned to Chile in late January of this year, two months since President Piñera and the leaders of the major political parties had agreed to more aggressively address the social and economic demands expressed in the protests, and start the process leading to a new constitution to replace the existing one. Inherent, no, explicit in the agreement was a call to decrease the violence that had become a regular feature of the street protests. Our plan was to stay in Chile until after the April 26 plebiscite on the new constitution.

Upon arrival, I again visited “ground zero” of the protests, Plaza Italia. I walked to the center of the plaza and can confirm that the statue of General Baquedano was still mounted defiantly on his horse, but stripped of the accompanying smaller statue memorializing the heroes of Chile’s victory in the War of the Pacific. A suggestion had been floated via social media that the plaza now presented a symbol of dignity, a dignity earned by rising up in a civilian “awakening” to the injustices of the prevailing system. Therefore, the proposal that the plaza should be renamed Plaza de la Dignidad. Those who saw destruction and disrespect for the Plaza and its monuments as a desecration of some of Chile’s proudest heroes and history, obviously objected.

But instead of hanging around, we too escaped from the hot, dusty, suffocating climate of the capital city. We visited family and friends outside of Santiago, enjoyed several wineries, and relaxed in the Chilean countryside. What we saw, among the sites, was a background of man made destruction heretofore unseen and the effects of the impending recession, especially in the tourism industry, throughout the country. Obviously, the “estallido social” caused many fewer international visitors to vacation in Chile this year, especially the neighboring Argentines who were caught up in their own political milonga.

While we toured the southern regions of the country, the daily news reported a continuous stream of violent acts against public buildings, the police, and offices of political parties, not just in Santiago and Concepción (the main sites of student protests over the years), but also Antofagasta in the north and Osorno in the south. The outbursts of violence, although very much reduced compared to the earlier period of protest, were dismissed by many political figures and publicized broadly by the media as simple street crime and vandalism, probably drug induced, that the hapless Piñera government was not able to control.

Nurtured by several critical reports from national and international human rights organizations regarding the government’s out dated and crude methods of crowd and crime control, the story was often more about the tactics of the police than on the source and nature of the violence itself. The unique, monopolistic power of the government to provide public safety seemed checkmated. A sense of lawlessness prevailed.

It was becoming clear to a broad cross section of Chilean society that the security apparatus of the State needs significant reform, especially the Carabineros and internal intelligence agencies. This has become an urgent legislative reform package passing through congress.

The nagging reality towards the end of February suggested that the agreement for peace and a new constitution was delivering more on the quest for a new constitution than on the promise of peace.

In that environment, those who wanted greater and more immediate public spending on health, education, and pension benefits, not just promises of marginal improvements in the future, knew that the threat of renewed levels of protests (including a little violence) would be helpful to keep pressure on the President and the legislators to take faster, more significant action on reforms.

So, the summer of 2020 (January and February) was not peaceful in Chile. A pervasive tension increased as March approached. Everyone would be back home in the cities and the students back in the schools, surely it would be a time of dangerously high stress and intense political action. After all, there were still segments of society who wanted Piñera out of the presidency before his term ends in March of 2022, and everyone knew that campaigning for the Apruebo (Yes) or Rechazo (No) positions on the plebiscite to be held on April 26 for a new constitution, would be intense and very likely divisive and disrupting.

From the breakout of social unrest in October of 2019, and actually from well before that landmark event, the movement to write a new constitution has edged its way into the mainstream of Chilean politics. It had been an underlying objective of the second Bachelet presidency, but she did little to make it happen during her tenure. What she did do, was to drop a draft plan, developed by a series of community based consultations, on her successor’s in-box.

But Piñera won the election on a platform that clearly gave low priority to a new constitution. So, confident that he had no mandate to do so, he did not pursue Bachelet’s eleventh-hour constitution rewrite initiative. But many academic constitutionalists and many progressive politicians, operating from the opposition, did pursue it. The supporters of a new constitution continued to argue that it was the only way to obtain meaningful progress on social and economic changes needed to reduce poverty and inequality. The October “estallido” brought a myriad of demands for change to the surface, and the movement for a new constitution opportunistically gathered all of them under their banner.

So as March arrived, Chileans focused on putting their children back in school and the Universities girded themselves for a new academic year that would surely include strikes, a continuation of protests, and more damage including to schools. By this time, the threat of removing Piñera from the presidency, externalized by the most extreme in the opposition groups, was pretty much put aside. Most politicians decided, some reluctantly, that the crisis of governance created by pushing a democratically elected president out of power before the next election would further weaken their threatened democracy, not an acceptable outcome.

Writing a new Constitution was being presented as a cure all for the deficiencies in the Chilean socioeconomic system the protests had targeted. Changing the neo-liberal economic “model” became the battle cry of those in favor of a new constitution. Saving certain aspects of the “model” embedded in the existing constitution, became the cause of the more conservative groups who defended precisely that model as the reason, the motor, of Chile’s socioeconomic development post dictatorship.

The arguments for or against a new constitution focused on changing the nature of the State from its present subsidiary role to a more supportive involvement in provision of social services and the economy; dilution of executive power to give more responsibility to the legislature, possibly moving to a parliamentary system seen by some as more representative of society broadly; defining a more explicit space in the Nation and government for the Mapuches and other indigenous peoples; decentralization of decision making and resources to the regions; degree of independence of the central bank; protection of private property; security of universal quality health care, education, and a “decent” income and retirement.

So the sides were drawn by early March. The terms were set (Approve vs Disapprove) for the political question to be determined in the plebiscite, then scheduled for April 26. A complex agenda of social and economic legislation was passing through Congress.

And then, as if that wasn’t challenging enough, the Covid-19 virus reared its ugly head. A few schools had opened for a few days, but the Chilean government made the decision so many other countries were making, and began closing down to defend citizens from the effects of the pandemia.

One of the first decisions taken in concert with the leadership of the opposition was to postpone for six months the plebiscite for a new constitution from April 26 to October 25. Staying healthy became everyone’s main task.

So on March 19, we boarded one of the last Delta Airlines flights from Santiago to Atlanta, and on to home in Virginia. What has happened in Chile since that day of our quick, unplanned, and unwelcome departure from Chile, is another whole story, still playing out. Chileans must now struggle through the effects of the social uprising launched on October 19, 2019, plus the pandemic of 2020, and when that happens, once again they will be faced with putting their country and society back together. The process they have begun to consider a rewrite of their constitution may just turn out to be the means to come together. In fact, many other democracies will surely be facing similar economic, political and social restructuring as the global pandemic subsides.

What has happened here in the US, where we rushed to harbor ourselves in March of 2020, mostly for family and medical reasons, of course provides an interesting parallel story. As these stories play out, the similarities between Chile and the US beg consideration. They are instructive, and at the same time disheartening. Poverty and bigotry are revealed in both. Inequalities and racism are exposed in both. Social safety nets are proven weak and discriminatory. The challenges scream out for effective but compassionate leadership in both countries, but compassion and solidarity are all too scarce in both.

Chileans will continue the struggle to define their society’s soul. I recall that Gabriela Mistral, National poet and Nobel recipient, noted that Chile’s soul was represented in the national emblem by the juxtaposition of a huemul (small Andean deer) and a condor; one is modest and elegant, the other threatening and blood thirsty. She always wished for her country to be more huemul than condor.

That is a nice metaphor, but for the moment, I prefer to stick with the characterization (borrowed from Nicanor Parra) of the soul of Chile as a blend of angel and beast, and close with the firm hope that Chileans find the way to continue their quest for progress and peace, hopefully with more angel, less beast.

Posted in Leesburg, Virginia, on June 12, 2020

David Joslyn

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David Joslyn
David Joslyn, after a 45-year career in international development with USAID, Peace Corps, The Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and private sector consulting firms, divides his time between his homes in Virginia and Chile. Since 2010, David has been writing about Chile and Chileans, often based upon his experience with the Peace Corps in Chile and his many travels throughout the country with family and friends.
David Joslyn

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