On March 11, newly elected President Michelle Bachelet began her inaugural speech by acknowledged her debt to the social movements that propelled her center-left New Majority coalition to victory, on a radical platform that has transformed Chile’s political landscape. Even as they continue to shape the domestic political agenda, activist students, trade unionists, and other civil society and political organizations are also mobilizing to build cross-border solidarity, pressuring Bachelet to ally with other leftist governments in the region.
On February 15, the militant University of Chile Student Federation (FECH)—fresh on the heels of forcing the ouster of Bachelet’s newly-appointed education undersecretary and her replacement with a more politically compatible designee—issued a strong statement critical of Venezuelan students who have spearheaded ongoing protests against the Chavista government of Nicolás Maduro. “We don’t feel represented by the actions of Venezuelan student sectors that are defending the old order, in opposition to the path that the people have defined,” the statement read in part.
Demonstrating at the Venezuelan embassy, representatives of FECH and other student federations emphasized that the middle-class Venezuelan students, unlike their Chilean counterparts, are not demanding educational or other social reforms. Rather, student leaders explained, they are mobilizing against the Chavista government which has advanced the goals of free, public education and democratization of the university, the very issues that Chilean students are fighting for.
To be sure, FECH’s stance is opposed by Chile’s Young Christian Democrats (JDC), student organizations from some private universities, and other dissident factions, who have urged support for the protesters. Some groups, such as the Student Federation of Catholic University (FEUC), have called for protection of Venezuelan students’ rights, while stopping short of endorsing their demands.
The split mirrors divisions within the New Majority coalition itself. Under pressure from FECH and allied student organizations, Bachelet has publicly supported Maduro and the people of Venezuela, calling on all sides to seek a peaceful and democratic resolution to the conflict, while leading Christian Democrats accuse the Venezuelan government of criminalizing and repressing dissent. The recent assassination of a 47-year old Chilean citizen in Venezuela, a Chavista supporter and mother of four, has heightened domestic tensions over the issue. Still, the majority of student organizations continue to emphasize (to both Chilean and foreign media) that their movement has little in common with Venezuela’s student protests.
Following Bachelet’s inaugural ceremony, some 5,000 representatives of student, trade union, community, indigenous, and other civil society organizations assembled at the Teatro Caupolicán in Santiago to welcome Bolivian President Evo Morales with the slogan “Mar para Bolivia!” (“The sea for Bolivia!”). The issue of regaining coastal territory lost to Chile in the 1879 War of Pacific, which left Bolivia landlocked, has long been a rallying point for Bolivia and is now a crusade for the Morales government.
Last year, Morales filed a lawsuit with the International Court of Justice in The Hague, demanding that Chile negotiate in good faith to provide Bolivia with sovereign access to the Pacific. Morales argues that the 1904 Peace Treaty signed by the two countries was imposed under duress, and should be scrapped or modified. On economic grounds, Bolivia claims that its landlocked status has reduced its GNP by more than $30 billion since 1970, while the mineral-rich ceded territory (now the site of some of the world’s biggest copper mines) has made Chile the wealthiest country in South America.
The dispute has strained relations between the two countries for decades. Ironically, former dictators Augusto Pinochet and Hugo Banzer were on the brink of an agreement in 1975, which derailed when Pinochet demanded territorial compensation from Bolivia in exchange for granting it a sea corridor. A 13-point bilateral agenda developed by Morales and Bachelet during her first term in 2006 was sidelined by her conservative successor, Sebastián Piñera.
Recent efforts to resume dialogue with Bolivia have been spearheaded by Chilean social sectors and political activists. Last April, 57 civil society groups, including the Workers United Center of Chile (CUT, the major national trade union federation) and indigenous Mapuche organizations, signed a letter demanding that Piñera offer Bolivia a constructive proposal. Former Progressive Party presidential candidate Marco Enríquez-Ominami, who placed third in the first-round election, visited Morales last month to convey Chilean solidarity and pave the way for the post-inaugural encounter.
Former student leader and newly elected Communist Party congressional deputy Camila Vallejo has been a leading voice pressing the Bachelet government to re-engage with Bolivia. “It’s not about giving away a gift,” she emphasizes. “Bolivia has significant energy (gas) resources and we are, supposedly, in an energy crisis. Why not have a politics of integration and mutual solidarity?”
To the consternation of many, Bachelet—bowing to conservative pressures—announced the day after her inauguration that Chile will not negotiate Bolivia’s sea access while the matter is pending before the International Court. For his part, Morales has refused to abandon Bolivia’s legal claims, leaving civil society activists with a significant role to play in the continuing controversy .
Finally, last December more than 50 Chilean civil society leaders, 15 senators, and 37 congressional deputies signed a public declaration demanding a halt to negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a U.S.-led trade initiative involving a dozen Pacific Rim nations. Activists are demanding increased transparency, as well as protections from trade rules that could undermine national sovereignty over intellectual property rights, access to medicine, capital flow management, and other crucial matters. Bachelet, a strong supporter of free trade, is also an advocate of national sovereignty. Her campaign manager (now finance minister) Alberto Arenas has indicated his support for civil society’s position.
As Bachelet struggles to manage competing ideological tensions within her own New Majority coalition, continuing pressure from Chile’s resurgent social movements on these and other cross-border issues will be critical in positioning Chile within Latin America’s growing political divide.
Emily Achtenberg is an urban planner and the author of NACLA’s biweekly blog Rebel Currents, covering Latin American social movements and progressive governments (nacla.org/blog/rebel-currents).