INTERVIEW: The struggle for social change in Chile will continue!

Sergio Reyes is a social and political activist from Chile. His father, a carpenter and member of the Communist Party, took him to his meetings with fellow workers. Later, he became a student organizer in high school. In 1973 during his first year in University, he was arrested by the Augusto Pinochet's military dictatorship that overturned the democratically elected presidency of Salvador Allende. He was sentenced to 5 years for his political activity and spent 3 years in various concentration camps until he was granted political exile in the U.S in 1976. In Boston, where he spent 4 decades, he was a founding member of the Boston May Day Coalition which worked in solidarity with immigrant workers. Previously, together with other Chilean exiles, he formed the Committee for the Unity of the Revolutionary Left in Chile. He worked with organizations that supported anti-imperialist struggles in Central America and the Caribbean. He also participated in the formation of Latinas/os for Social Change.  In 2017 he returned to Chile. He is now active in the Former Political Prisoners Union of Chile, in the No + AFP (No More Pension Fund Administration Corporations) which is a platform to end Chile's private pension system. Tamarai spoke to Sergio about the recent changes in Chile.

October 2019 marked the "Estallido Social" or the Social Revolt, which was precipitated by an increase in metro fares in Santiago. High school students refused to pay and led the protest. This was followed by generalized resistance with 1.2 million people hitting the streets in the capital on October 25. Students had previously carried out historic protests in 2006 and 2011 in support of universal and free education. What was different this time? What were the other organizations that were behind this 'revolt'?

Up to this point, there is no clarity about what other organizations, besides high school students, were behind this revolt. This is what made it difficult to repress and stop this revolt. Judging by the graffiti on the walls, one could infer that anarchist groups were the main force of this movement, which erupted in barricades and incendiary attacks on metro stations and other buildings. Then there was free for all looting. These actions were beyond the scope of the student movement for sure, although they began direct action. The reason why this can be defined as a revolt is precisely because there were no organized bodies claiming the actions and there was no clear set of demands coming from a non-defined leadership. As people from different sectors joined the protests, some demands coming from the streets emerged, such as an end to the private pension system, free health care, and a new constitution through a Constitutional Assembly.  Interestingly, no demands for free public transportation appeared. This was a social catharsis that can be explained in the slogan “No son los 30 pesos, sino los 30 años”, it is not a fare increase of 30 pesos, it is all about 30 years of a system that begun in 1990, with the transition to capitalist democracy after the dictatorship gave way in 1989. The difference between previous student mobilizations and the revolt of 2019 was the scope of demands. This revolt went beyond the education system to question many other things. Yet, it did not go so far as to question capitalism as a whole. It did question though the entire “democratic” system and the politicians who administered it for 30 years, from the social democrat center left and the right.

129 organizations participated in a general strike on November 12, 2021 and workers from key sectors like mining, dock, transportation, banking, public sector and agro-industrial establishments participated in large numbers. There was large scale unionization of workers in the 1960s and early 1970s. After the Pinochet led, CIA supported 1973 coup, many union leaders were imprisoned or killed. How is the labor movement at this time?

The general strike, was not general but very partial. The dream of a general strike that comes from some sectors of the radical left and anarchists, it is easier proclaimed than achieved. The civilian-military dictatorship that ruled from 1973 to 1989 destroyed the labor movement. In effect, labor leaders and organizers were repressed, imprisoned, killed, or vanished without trace. The Central Union of Workers (Spanish acronym CUT, Central Unica de Trabajadores) was simply outlawed. Its successor, using the same acronym CUT but different meaning for Central Unitaria de Trabajadores, Unity Central Workers organization, was only formed in 1988, shaped by the limitations imposed by the illegitimate labor laws of the 1980 Constitution, approved in a referendum with machine guns intimidating voters. Today only 20% of the Chilean labor force is affiliated to a union. In general, the labor movement is weak. The agricultural workers had strong unions before the military coup in 1973 and now there are hardly any unions representing them.

During Pinochet's brutal rule from 1973- 1990, the 'Chicago Boys' economists trained in Chicago put together policies oriented around big business and privatization of several state businesses, education, social security and health care. One of the most infuriating issues for the people has been the privatization of the pension schemes during the dictatorship. 80% pensioners receive less than minimum wage per month and many have become destitute. You are active in NO + AFP movement which calls for the end of privatized pensions run by the Administrators of pension funds (AFP). Can you tell us about your work in this platform?

The pension reform under the dictatorship started to operate in May 1981, right after the Pinochet’s Constitution of 1980 provided a “legal” framework that allowed for private administration of pension funds. The corporations that were entrusted to do this were the AFP, Administradoras de Fondos de Pensiones, or pension fund administrator companies. The main engineer of this system was Jose Piñera, the brother of outgoing president Sebastián Piñera.  Interestingly, the only group that retained its old system were the armed forces. This system of private administration of pension funds was a magnificent pool of money to increase the financial market. The money of the workers would end in the pockets of large corporations as investments, if there were profits these went some to the workers accounts, and some to the AFPs. But the AFPs, assimilated none of the losses when companies didn’t fare well in the financial markets.  Furthermore, workers were the only ones to contribute to these funds, their bosses were not required to do so. In the 1980s the AFP marketing promised a return of at least 80% of the retiree’s last salary. Well, as you say above, those promises failed and most people are getting less than minimum wage.

By 2016, millions marched on the streets of the country demanding an end to the AFP system. Hence the name of the movement, NO+AFP, no more AFPs. All of this in spite of the efforts made by the center left state administrations like that of the socialist Michelle Bachelet, who had to create the “Pilar Solidario” or solidarity state fund, for those whose pension savings were less than $150.000 pesos (about $187 dollars) a month. What NO+AFP is proposing is to eliminate the AFPs, and create a three-way contribution system from workers, employers and the state, with intergenerational solidarity distribution, and a strong reserve fund.  This system would guarantee a pension floor equal to a minimum wage. Its administration would be autonomous with democratic representation from the interested parties. The National Coordinating Organization of Workers NO+AFP, is formed by workers unions and associations and a large platform of independent workers. Its ruling body is a National Council with representation of regional NO+AFP organizations. It prides itself in not accepting control by political parties.

Following the protests in October 2019 by vast sections of the people, the ruling class had to concede to the major demand to vote for a new constitution. The plebiscite held on October 25, 2019 resulted in 78% of Chileans voting to draft a new constitution. Elections were held in May 2021 to elect 155 delegates for the Constitutional Convention where pro-reform candidates have received more than 60% of seats with the right being reduced to a minority. Could you tell us about the political affiliations of these elected delegates and what are the reforms you are hoping for in the new constitution?

People on the streets were demanding an autonomous, sovereign Constitutional Assembly. The social pact that was negotiated behind people’s backs, came out with Constitutional Convention, determined by old rules, such as the two thirds quorum to pass constitutional articles. But, that is a different story. The political distribution of constitutional members is as follows:  About 77 come from a more radical left or social movement activist groups.  The right and center right forces obtained 37 members. The center left gained 25 members (of which 15 are from the Socialist Party). The rest are independents and reserved seats for indigenous communities. Every reform that I would hope for will be opposed with all the force of the ruling class, the wealthy, and politicians from the right and left who have profited from the system inherited from the dictatorship. This new constitution is not emerging from a revolution but from a revolt. A revolt is an incomplete revolution. Power still resides in the wealthy, the capitalist class. Even what our NO+AFP movement is hoping for is being fought against tooth and nail by the right-wing, with the support of center left politicians and even the so-called new left. Then there is also an anticommunist consumerist culture, a brain washed mass of people, who are also not prepared for a change in that direction. In fact, about 40% of voters favored a fascist candidate in the recent presidential election.

"Freedom of Unionization" laws like the right to work laws in the U.S. have weakened the labor unions in Chile as workers are free to leave unions if given enough individual incentive by their employer. Michelle Bachelet's government was not able to pass labor reform in 2016 which would have strengthened unions as Chile's Constitutional Tribunal ruled it unconstitutional. Is there hope that the new constitution will be able to stop employers from creating pro-company unions and open the door for militant trade unions to organize workers in different sectors of the economy?

There can be no more regressive labor legislation than what we now have. There are efforts underway to provide proposals to the constitutional representatives from labor organizations such as the CUT and ANEF, the state workers association.  Again, a capitalist state will not promote militant trade unions. However, we hope that a more progressive labor base emerges from the Constitutional Convention.

You worked in the Committee for the Unity of the Revolutionary Left in Chile when you lived in the U.S. How is the situation for the revolutionary left in Chile at this time?

The revolutionary left was strongly hit by the dictatorship. However, it was not the dictatorship that destroyed it. It was the social pact signed by the center left and the right wing that destroyed it. By 1986, the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front had the capability of attempting to execute Pinochet, which he survived. At the same time confrontations with the military and police were taking place throughout the country, but particularly in poor neighborhoods in the capital- Santiago. All of that was halted with the social pact negotiated, where the center left promised to dismantle the resistance and promised the arrival of “happiness” (la alegría ya viene), with a return to democracy.  By 1991, the transitioning presidency of the Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin created the secret police called “The Office”, which in essence replaced Pinochet’s National Directorate of Intelligence, and set out to infiltrate and eliminate the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front, MAPU Lautaro and the Movement of the Revolutionary Left. Therefore, the traditional revolutionary left doesn’t exist now beyond survivors maintaining their history alive. However, new radical forces that confront the capitalist state exist, such as the Mapuche organization Coordinadora Arauco-Malleco (CAM), formed in 1998, which claims the right to armed struggle to achieve their demands. The CAM has been active but has faced repression since its inception.

What is your analysis of the elections of the 35-year-old, Broad Front member, "leftist" Gabriel Boric and what are the changes that can come about under his administration which will start in March?

The Broad Front (Frente Amplio, FA), was an array of small, alternative, leftist organizations formed by young people coming from the mobilizations that took place in 2006 by high school students. The 2006 mobilization was termed the “Penguin Revolution”, and sought to change the private school system imposed by the dictatorship and managed by the center left.

In 2011, university students mobilized.  Among the leadership there were many of the people who gave way to the Broad Front, including the currently elected President of Chile, Gabriel Boric.  The president of the university student federation was a charismatic young woman, Camila Vallejo, a Communist Party member. Many from her generation continued to be politically active. By 2016, the Broad Front begun to take shape. In 2017, they were ready to participate in the presidential elections with a journalist as their candidate, Beatriz Sanchez. She run on fresh program which incorporated women’s rights, environmental concerns, armed forces and police reform, economy based on sustainable development, and a new pension system based on the NO+AFP proposal. She came in third in the final results, with 20% of the electoral preference. This time, the base coalition that elected Gabriel Boric was formed by the Broad Front and the Communist Party, running on a program that is far more to the center than that of Beatriz Sanchez in 2017. Boric has tried to distance himself from radical politics in order to please the center left, the old guard of opportunist and pro-capitalist politicians that he criticized in the past. His chosen cabinet reflects that, including his choice as Economy Minister, Mario Marcel, at the time of his selection President of the Central Bank of Chile, who served well under former Presidents Bachelet and Piñera, looking after the interests of the wealthy, while being a Socialist Party sympathizer.

Boric is going to encounter a country in crisis, and with pressures coming from the right and the left. He will preside over the new constitution plebiscite around July or August. It is not unlikely that we will see new revolts taking place. Social movements are aware and vigilant. The struggle for social change will continue.