The story of how Chile, in the decades after its 1973 coup and death of democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende, became one of the most neoliberal societies on the planet is well known. But there’s been a remarkable reversal over the last few years. Chile’s current president, Michelle Bachelet, less than a year into her second, non-consecutive term, is advancing an ambitious legislative agenda, related to voting, education, labor, same-sex civil unions, abortion and the environment.
But she is doing it—or able to do it—only because she is being pushed from below. Chile, long held up as a model of “free market” orthodoxy, has become a different kind of example. It’s become model of intersectionality on the march: social movements, students, environmentalist, worker, LGBT—have not only scored concrete victories, they are showing that it is possible to de-neoliberalize policy and resocialize consciousness.
Before the details, take a second to consider the chronology of Chile’s political history since Augusto Pinochet, who seized power in 1973, stepped down as formal head of state in 1990. For twenty years, between 1990 and 2010, Chile was led by a series of democratically elected Concertación governments, a center-left political coalition that simultaneously consolidated (and legitimated) Pinochet’s neoliberal economic model while gradually working to democratize society.
In 2009, at the end of Bachelet’s first term, Concertación lost (since the “transition to democracy”) its first presidential election, to Sebastián Piñera, a right-wing businessman who made his money in that sine qua non of neoliberal economics: the credit card. This conservative interregnum (2010–14) jump-started a mobilized left. Popular protests, constrained during the rule of nominal Concertación allies in previous governments, picked up steam. Especially environmentalists (who last year won a major victory, scuttling plans to despoil Patagonia) and students took the lead.
Piñera had many historical connections to Chile’s old death-squad Pinochet right. But to get elected he successful passed himself off as something like a European conservative, a modern technocrat. Protest movements, in particular those led by students—hundreds of thousands of them occupying high schools and universities and taking over public spaces across the country—utterly destroyed Piñera’s effort to present himself as a center-left moderate. His poll numbers plummeted and never recovered. Here’s The Economist’s lament, in 2012 : “Two years ago Mr Piñera, a billionaire businessman, led the centre-right Alliance to power after two decades of rule by the centre-left Concertación coalition.… [in 2010] his approval rating soared to 63% … Thanks mostly to the students, it is now just 29%.” Thanks, students!
The movement had specific demands having to do with de-privatizing education (more on that below). But it linked demands to a comprehensive analysis. The placards, slogans, memes, innovative tactics, and alliances with other social groups, especially unions, made it clear that despite whatever they weren’t learning in the classroom, they were learning something somewhere: Pinochet was singled out as the founders of a “system” that had a local expression in Chile, but was global in its reach: Neoliberalismo. And they made it clear that neoliberalismo was much more than a set of policies or privatizations, it was the colonization of consciousness, a “way of life,” a capitalist metaphysics. Dressed as zombies, protesters staged public performances of Michael Jackson’s Thriller followed up by mass public kiss-ins. Social-solidarity life against neoliberal death.
Pinochet was portrayed as an “eternal dictator.” Though dead, “he mocks us,” he “continues governing,” he “continues to give orders”—through both the market and center-left politicians who argued that there was no alternative. Accused by politicians of being “over-ideologized,” the students threw the charge back, saying the country’s elites were the over-ideologized ones: fascist, neoliberal, Pinochetista. Take a look at this book, The Memes and Caricatures of the Student Movement, by Juan Federico Holzman, to get a sense of the movement’s marriage of creativity and structural analysis (its images are from the Internet, but the street graphics were just as innovative and cutting).
It is impossible to overstate the success in which student protests—led by different, at times rival organizations, including the youth wing of the Communist Party—created a new public common sense. The fact that market economics produced not harmony and equilibrium but “structural inequality” is now the starting point of policy debate in Chile. Even Piñera, a diehard Pinochetista, in terms of economics if not bodily torture, was forced to criticize Chile’s “excessive inequality” and praise the objectives of the student movement: “They are asking for a more just society, a more egalitarian society,” he said, quoted in The New York Times, “because the inequalities we are living in Chile are excessive and, I feel, immoral.”
During her first term, Bachelet, from Allende’s old Socialist Party, was by far the most progressive of Concertación elected presidents. Yet she operated within the restraints of the model left in place by the dictatorship. The hardcore right had been losing ground ever since Pinochet’s 1998 arrest in London, and then his death in 2006. But, as The Economist put it, Concertación remained a “model of fiscal responsibility,” having “entrenched a fiscal rule that requires the government to balance its books over the economic cycle and to save windfall profits when the price of copper—Chile’s main export— is high.”
But the protests that checkmated Piñera changed the limits of the possible, as the series of reforms winding its way through Chile’s bicameral legislature reveals.
Two of the most important reforms have to do with voting rights and education, which makes sense. In Chile, through the twentieth century, until 1973, literacy, the vote, and social democracy were closely intertwined. When Allende first ran for congress in the late 1930s, the vote in Chile was extremely restricted: Allende won his first seat with just over two thousand votes, barely 3 per cent of his district’s total population: the franchise was then limited to literate men. Literate women didn’t get the vote until 1949. Over the next few decades, the expansion of the vote and the expansion of public education went hand in hand, with the Chilean left gaining electoral success by expanding popular education. In 1937, as many as 350,000 children had no school to go to. As a new senator, Allende introduced a bill to build classrooms and hire teachers for them. He also proposed peasant and worker literacy programs. The goal, Allende said, was to turn Chile “into one big school.” As more people could read, more people could vote (literate women got the right in 1949). And as they did, more people voted for socialism. By 1970, literacy meant electoral democracy, and electoral democracy meant social democracy. More than a million Chileans voted for Allende that year (and nearly another million voted for a Christian Democratic candidate who ran on nearly an identical socialist platform). Once in office, Allende’s Popular Unity coalition revoked the last literacy restriction: it wasn’t until 1971 that all men and women over the age of 21, literate or not, were allowed to vote. Talk about the slow boring of hard boards.
It made sense, then, that Pinochet would target both the franchise and public education for destruction.
In terms of the vote: before stepping down as the head of state, Pinochet changed the rules by which congress was elected, putting into place a system of disproportional representation. It’s complicated, but you can read the details of Chile’s “binomial” voting here. In effect, it made it necessary to win a super-majority in any electoral district to get the majority of seats in that district, a maneuver designed to, according to Chilean political scientist Carlos Huneeus, “freeze” into place elite interests.
Regarding education: neoliberals turned Chile into the “most pro-market school system in the world,” as the Chilean Mario Waissbluth, a professor at the Universidad de Chile, wrote on Diane Ravitch’s blog. The nation became a pioneer in charter schools, vouchers, privatized teacher training, and for-profit universities. Weissbluth continues:
Two thirds of the 56% of private voucher (charter) schools are for profit, and they can charge on top of it to parents. Therefore, the richest ones mix their sons with their socioeconomic peers, the middle class with the middle class, and so on down to the poorest which go mostly to free public schools. Subsidiarity by the book. Until now, anyone can set up a for-profit subsidized charter school anywhere, without any quality requirements whatsoever. Teacher training also became fully unregulated. Today some universities and institutes ‘sell college degrees’ (for a profit) to students…. National certification and examination for teachers is, of course, voluntary. Freedom. Freedom. The market will solve everything.
Waissbluth goes on to provide equally dreary details concerning intense segregation, literacy rates and standardized tests, which seem to be some hell-spawn of neoliberal market efficiency and late medieval scholasticism.
“Reform” is too mild a word to describe what is currently going on in Chile, but here is some of the proposals that either have recently passed congress to become law, or, hopefully, will soon:
Voting: On January 14, the Chilean Senate passed a law that does away with Pinochet-era gerrymandering. It’s expected that the lower house, where Bachelet has a larger majority to work with, will likewise approve the bill. The law will assign “electoral seats in proportion to the number of votes cast for each individual candidate.” Opponents are criticizing the measure, warning of “neopopulism” and political instability. But Socialist Senator Juan Pablo Letelier (son of an Allende diplomat, Orlando Letelier, who was blown up by Pinochet in Washington, DC, in 1976) said, when the Senate passed the bill, that “today we return to the tradition of this country: a representative and proportional system.… This hard-won achievement is the beginning of a new era, and marks the end to one of the most disastrous inheritances of the dictatorship.”
Legislation also mandates that at least 40 percent of party candidates be women.
Education: Bachelet campaigned promising to fulfill much of the student protest movement’s agenda. This last month, congress passed the first in what is expected to be a series of education reforms. The bill is complicated, and gradual, with many modifications. (Here’s a decent summary in Spanish. Here’s one in English.) The law ends “profits at state-subsidized schools and eliminates their selective entrance policies.” Starting in March 2016, it also begins to eliminate the multi-tiered system of public voucher and private tuition described by Waissbluth above, moving soon to completely free and public education funded by the state. “What we’ve put an end to here is a set of illegitimate bases put in place during the dictatorship, behind the nation’s back, and today we’ve recovered Chile’s historic tradition and the best practices in the world,” Bachelet’s education minister said.
Also, the government announced in December that it would use the revenue from its tax reform (see below) to fully fund free higher education.
The Federación de Estudiantes de la Universidad de Chile, one of the main groups leading the education protests, has criticized the reform for both not going far enough and for not being based on ongoing consultation with social movements. Facing ongoing pressure—massive demonstrations continued after her inauguration last year—Bachelet has promised that this is just the first step in what will be an ongoing process of de-privatization.
Abortion: Bachelet, a medical doctor, has just sent a draft bill to Congress that would decriminalize medically necessary abortion. Like the disproportional congressional representation, an “outright ban on terminations was put in place during the final days of Augusto Pinochet’s 1973-1990 dictatorship.” According to one poll, 79 percent of Chileans are in favor of the right of the woman to have an abortion: 60 percent “under specific circumstances” and 19 percent with no restrictions. This in a country that didn’t legalize divorce until 2004.
Civil unions: In January, the Chilean congress approved civil unions for same-sex couples.
Tax reform: Last September, Bachelet raised taxes, with a mix of regressive (sales taxes on alcohol, etc.) and progressive (large business will see their rates go from 20 to 27 percent) levies. “The legislation seeks to raise $8.2 billion, or 3 percent of gross domestic product, through higher taxes on companies and the closure of loopholes for wealthy individuals,” reported Bloomberg. The new revenue will go to support social programs, such as healthcare and education. “The tax reform is a fundamental tool to attack the structural inequality in Chile,” Bachelet said at the end of last year. “The idea is to level the field.”
But most importantly, the tax reform eliminates (within a few years) another bulwark put in place by Pinochet, an extremely regressive capital-gains exemption. Here’s Bloomberg describing it (before Bachelet’s re-election):
A system set up by former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1984 to boost investment is being used to help the rich avoid taxes.… In a country of 17 million people, only 0.3 percent of tax payers pay the top income rate, depriving Chile of the money it needs to improve education and tackle the worst income inequality in the 34-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, says opposition candidate Michelle Bachelet. The rich in Latin America’s wealthiest nation evade the 40 percent tax on income over $100,000 a year by keeping earnings in investment companies, says Sergio Endress.
But a backlash is underway: “parent” groups committed to privatized education (and undoubtedly funded by corporations invested in privatized education) have taken to the streets. Conservatives, fearing that proportional representation will bring about their political extinction, are appealing the constitutionality of the voting law. Democracy (defined as proportional representation), say a number of right-wing senators, “contradicts the meaning and tenor of the current constitution” (considering that the charter was written by Pinochet’s Chicago Boys and modeled on Friedrich Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty, they have a point).
And Bachelet is receiving what might be called the Kirchner treatment by Chile’s corporate media, which is focusing obsessively on a business scandal involving her son. The right-wing opposition is threatening to make it a criminal case.
With poll numbers falling as a result, Bachelet might have to make a choice: back away from her agenda or throw in fully with the social movements. It was smart of her to push through that proportional representation reform bill early in her term.