The Rise of a New Left in Chile?

Building on the student-led mass protests of 2006 and 2011, a newly forming leftist coalition in Chile is well-positioned to challenge Sebastián Piñera’s incoming right-wing administration. 

January 19, 2018

Chilean student protesters march down La Alameda, the main avenue in Santiago in July 2011. (Nicolás 15/Wikimedia Commons)

Against all predictions and expectations, Beatriz Sánchez, Chilean presidential candidate for the recently formed Frente Amplio leftist coalition, acquired just over 20% of ballots cast during the first round of voting in the general elections on November 17, 2017. In addition, 21 of her coalition candidates were elected into office, including one, Juan Ignacio Latorre, to the senate. Sánchez's showing in the first round put her just shy of the second place candidate, Alejandro Guillier of the center-left Nueva Mayoría (New Majority, NM) governing coalition.

Although this meant Sánchez would not make it into the run-off vote, in which right-wing candidate Sebastián Piñera comfortably defeated Guillier, Frente Amplio's surprise showing in the first round suggests that for the first time since the return of democracy in 1990, Chile has a viable alternative to the dominant right-wing and center-left parties and coalitions. “Uncharted territory” is how The Economist describes this new political landscape in Chile, an assessment that also fittingly describes the Frente Amplio itself, its student movement roots, and the politics it will have to enact in the new context, namely those that emphasize open-ended, grass roots democracy.

A Broken System and the “Penguin Revolution”

On May 30, 2006, more than half a million Chilean high school youth and other supporters participated in a general student strike in protest of the country's public education system. The “penguin revolution,” as the movement was called in reference to students’ black and white school uniforms, caught the ruling center-left Concertación government led by then-president Michelle Bachelet, completely by surprise. Chile was undergoing an economic boom and the government’s policies of poverty reduction and social inclusion appeared to be working. Indeed, citing official poverty rates of 20.6 and 18.8 percent for the years 2000 and 2004 respectively, policy-makers sometimes gloated about Chile's supposed historical exceptionalism, claiming previously unheard of progress for the country’s poorest. However, ruling center-left political opinion proved to be glaringly out of touch. The student strike revealed what lay underneath official statistics— namely a contradictory growth model in which rising consumption and real wages depended on growing inequality and unsustainable levels of personal debt held by both popular sectors and middle classes—a contradiction that was particularly obvious in the education system.

The education system in Chile acquired a decisive neoliberal character under the framework set out by the Ley Orgánica Constitucional de Enseñanza (Constitutional Statutory Law of Education, LOCE), created under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet and passed in 1990. At the elementary and secondary levels, the program mandated the creation of new state-subsidized private schools and the transfer of fiscal responsibility from the national to the municipal level. This model succeeded in expanding private education in the country so much that by 2008, enrollment in subsidized private schools actually surpassed that of public ones.

Instead of responding to the 2006 student revolt by challenging Pinochet's model, Bachelet’s center-left government deepened its neoliberal logic, extending public support to private banks engaged in student loans. A system of student loans instituted under Bachelet'’s first administration, known as Crédito con Aval del Estado (state-guranteed student loans, CAE), extended the neoliberal logic to the post-secondary level so that by 2010, the number of students attending private universities for the first time surpassed those attending the public ones. Furthermore, enrollment growth became concentrated in 20 private universities or institutes, which by 2015 had enrolled almost half of all college students.

The radical shift towards private education precipitated a steady hike in tuition fees, which by 2011 had become the most expensive in the world, and comprised no less than 40 per cent of the family income for those at the bottom of the income ladder. This is not surprising given that, in comparison to the OECD average, Chile's spending in education is dramatically tilted toward the private sector. Furthermore, the country's spending in post-secondary education relative to GDP was ranked lowest in the world.

Given this, accessing education in Chile has meant that students must acquire massive debt. Through the CAE program, the Bachelet’s education policy became a massive source of subsidized profits for banks, which were guaranteed at least a 6% interest rate for their service. By 2011, some were warning of an “educational exile,” as Chilean post-secondary students began to migrate to neighboring countries, including 10,000 to .

Following the victory of billionaire businessman Sebastian Piñera in the 2010 general elections, his right-wing government proceeded to “reform” the education system by further deepening forms of privatization and de-centralization pursued by the Concertación. These reforms triggered the second phase of student protests that began in May 2011, this time led by post-secondary students. This wave of protests featured persistent, nationwide participation not only by students and their families, but also a wide range of allied organization including teachers and unions. The “day of protest” in early May of that year attracted approximately 100,000 participants. The national student strike in June 2011 attracted 600,000 Chileans. By August, students had turned whole sections of cities into surrealist carnivals, through mass flash mobs, dance-a-thons, and mock suicides. On August 21, a demonstration held by Families For Education attracted one million people to Santiago's main central park in support of students. Finally, on August 24 and 25, the United Workers Central of Chile organized a 48-hour general strike, which blended traditional union demands with those of the student movement. These protests created a major crisis for Piñera, but also for the parties of the Concertación, as they announced the need to overhaul left politics in the country.

The Origins of Chile’s New Left

Although student activism has a long and rich history in Chile, one of the defining features of the cycle of protest that began in 2006 is that it went beyond some of its traditional elements. Hence, although long-standing organizations such as the University of Chile Student Federation, United Workers Central of Chile, and the Communist Party of Chile became prominent actors, new political strategies and coalitions developed. The use of assemblies, first by the Coordinating Assembly of High School Students, and later by other groups, was the most novel innovation of the “penguin revolution.” In contrast to pre-established, elite political institutions, student assemblies were based on direct participation and the use of rotating spokespeople rather than representatives. This allowed leaders to remain in constant contact with the base, creating new forms of representation.

Student assemblies also encouraged open-ended and non-sectarian cooperation among participants, including different leftist currents within the movement. As such, they modeled new forms of convergence among different sectors of the working class. One such group was the Mesa Social por la Educación, an innovative transversal organization that brought together students, teachers, workers, and environmental and human rights groups.

A cooperative spirit was also evident in the 2010 elections in the University of Chile Student Federation. On this occasion, a wide range of leftist groups united for the first time to elect Camila Vallejo of the Communist Party of Chile as president. Lastly, assemblies unleashed a process of political education through which demands became progressively radicalized. The so-called “penguins” demanded an end to mandatory testing. By 2011, the movement demanded free, public education, the nationalization of the copper industry and a Constituent Assembly. Hence, in its two iterations, 2006 and 2011, Chile’s student movement enacted a new type of politics: new practices of autonomy, direct democracy, horizontality, accountability, and transparent governance, channeling the energy of hundreds of thousands from widespread social and territorially-based groups.

The movement's suspicion and distaste for elite political institutions extended also to political parties, even those of the Left. This became evident on the streets, as students reworked the historic chant, “El pueblo unido jamás sera vencido,” (The people united will never be defeated) modified to, “El pueblo unido avanza sin partidos” (The people united advance without parties). At the height of the mobilizations, students occupied the headquarters of both right wing and socialist parties. Anti-voting campaigns in the run up to the 2013 elections proliferated.

As Cristián Cuevas, former president of the Confederation of Copper Workers and former Communist Party member described, the movement expressed people's desire to do away with political mediators, and be protagonists of their own history. Indeed, the distaste for the political class went beyond the student population. By 2012, surveys showed the popularity of Sebastián Piñera, his government, and all major parties and institutions at historic lows. This also explains the growing rates of voter abstention in the country in recent years, which peaked in 2013 at close to 60%, improving only to 50% in the December 2017 presidential elections.

Yet, brewing underneath an anti-establishment sentiment was a growing recognition within the movement that the state and its institutions could not simply be ignored. After all, the movement's demands implied a radically transformed state. The challenge, therefore, became how to engage the state while maintaining a certain degree of autonomy and honoring the movement's creative impetus. The interpretation of this challenge led to the movement's most significant political fracture, first evident in the 2011 University of Chile Student Federation elections. Unlike the previous year, the Communist Party presented Vallejo's candidacy for the presidency in a separate bid from their former leftist allies, a move that quickly triggered a split among the emerging left forces. In a surprising result, Vallejo lost the election to Gabriel Boric, a then member of the Izquierda Autónoma (Autonomous Left, IA).

And thus, the movement split in two. On one side, a new “uncharted left,” comprised of a tentative, but highly creative amalgam of groups and networks, began to emerge, most notably the victorious Izquierda Autónoma, Revolución Democrática (Democratic Revolution), and Izquierda Libertaria (Left Liberty). This block positioned itself as radically in opposition to the center-left. As Boric puts it in his “manifesto,”— “Nothing that is born out of the Concertación is born with life.”

In subsequent years, these organizations soon developed a hegemony within the key student bodies, found success in municipal elections, and would go on to become the radical backbone of the Frente Amplio (Broad Left, or FA). On the other side was the older Communist Party, whose political goals became increasingly centered on the electoral arena and therefore formalized its alliance with the more progressive sectors of the Concertación. In 2013, this new alliance created the NM, an essentially rebranded version of the Concertación, now including the Communist Party. In the NM, the line between Chile's historic left, traditionally committed to anti-capitalist struggle, and the permitted left, which promotes neoliberalism “with a human face,” began to disappear.

The Nueva Mayoría in Power

Under the leadership of Michelle Bachelet, the Nueva Mayoría developed four key reform promises: free post-secondary education, a new and more progressive tax code, a new constitution, and a more progressive labor code. These were no doubt lofty promises that showed the NM’s apparent willingness to support popularly supported reforms. Furthermore, with Camila Vallejo and other Communist Party student movement leaders now running for office and actively campaigning for the NM, the coalition comfortably won the 2013 elections second round, giving Bachelet another 4 years as President. The results were also positive for the Communist Party who doubled their seats in congress, from 3 to 6, two of which went to their most notable student movement leaders, Camila Vallejo, and Karol Cariola. The “uncharted left” was also successful, winning seats for Gabriel Boric of the Izquierda Autónoma and Giorgio Jackson of Revolución Democrática. The NM called this a new cycle for progressive politics, but this assessment proved to be little more than wishful thinking.

Fissures in the supposed new cycle of progressive politics began to appear with the implementation of the NM’s four proposed reforms, which became diluted, almost beyond recognition, by the business interests operating within and around the NM. Hence, the NM’s implementation of free, public education maintains and extends the voucher system first introduced in the 1980s. This approach to educational reform leaves the commodified character of education intact, and has indeed increased the role of private universities, while continuing to subsidize their massive profits via CAE, the state’s student loan system.

Tax reform promised to raise 8.2 billion dollars in revenue via increased corporate taxes and the abolishment of the Fondo de Utilidades Tributarias (FUT), a tax haven created under the Pinochet regime. However, not only has the FUT remained in place, the new corporate taxation formula is so tangled and complicated that it does little more than to empower corporate tax lawyers, while giving share-holders a significant degree of flexibility.

The new labor code promised to expand the number of workers eligible for collective bargaining contracts, as well as give labor unions exclusive bargaining rights with employers. This would do away with the reactionary employer-generated “bargaining groups” created under Pinochet. However, the new labor law only strengthened the old bargaining groups, and introduced new “adaptability pacts” that give employers the power to create a more flexible and easier to exploit workforce.

Finally, rather than convening a Constituent Assembly that in some way captured the democratic spirit of the movement, the NM's constitutional reform process was a tightly controlled, top-down affair, which resulted in only one significant change to date, the introduction of proportional representation. With Piñera's electoral triumph in December 2017 and the right-wing now in power, further changes appear highly unlikely. Given that the NM reforms ended up enhancing neoliberal dynamics, the rhetoric of the incoming Piñera administration suggests that instead of opposing such reforms, they will refine them.

New Challenges for the Left

The victory of the right wing in 2017, coupled with the emergence of the leftist coalition Frente Amplio, means a severe blow to the centrist project of the NM. It also means the start of a new cycle of neoliberal attacks against students, workers, and Indigenous communities. However, Chile is not what it was during the first Piñera government in 2010. The country's economy is slowly recovering from the recent collapse of commodity prices, productive investment and labor productivity remains stagnant. Neoliberal ideas no longer have the same arrogant swagger of years past. This presents the Left with unique opportunities. For Chile’s Communist Party, the present conjuncture offers them with a clear choice: succumb to the moribund permitted Left of the NM, or join with the uncharted Left represented in the Frente Amplio. But the Communist Party will need to give up its nostalgia for a bygone Left, one that remains attached to the embalmed memory of Salvador Allende.

For the Frente Amplio, the challenges are different. For the young coalition made up of nearly a dozen very heterogeneous movements and formations, the political moment provides space to deepen its anti-neoliberal program. This will require refining its leftist identity, one that most strongly resides in the radically democratic posture of the student and other post-2011 social movements. Crucially, this also means overcoming the ambiguities towards the parties that conform the NM. This means rejecting their advances to temper the FA’s more transformative positions, while using its electoral gains and presence in Congress  to promote strategic goals. The Frente Amplio faces the challenge of reaching out to the 50%, that is, the absentee mass for whom the political system is broken. To have a lasting impact, it will need to represent not just middle class anxieties but directly take up the demands of workers and the urban and rural poor. Reaching this disenchanted and de-politicized mass will surely require a Left that, as Camila Rojas, newly elected representative for the Izquierda Autónoma stated in a recent interview, “keeps both feet on the streets.”

Manuel Larrabure is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the department of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of California Santa Cruz. His current research attempts to explain the crisis of center-left governance in Latin America by comparing the cases of Chile and Brazil. His work appears in Latin American Perspectives, Canadian Journal of Development Studies, and Historical Materialism.

Fernando Leiva is an Associate Professor at the department of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of California Santa Cruz. He specializes in political economy, social movements, and how global flows redefine society’s material and symbolic dimensions. His work has been published in Latin American Politics and Society, Latin American Perspectives, and New Political Economy.

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