… the one in Chile, the US-orchestrated disaster that opened some Western eyes to US foreign policy. What we should have understood back then – but most of us didn’t – was that many countries, including my own, have both an official and an unofficial foreign policy. In the case of the USA and my own country, what most of us citizens hear to the exclusion of all else are phrases such as “rule of law”, “democracy”, “freedom”, “equal rights”, etc. Countries with which we interact in some capacity or other may not see us as we see ourselves.
What we thought we knew
Few of us knew, on 9/11, 1973, that Chile was neither the first nor the last country to be crucified by the US, that Chile, for the USA, was only business as usual. Alas, I for one was ingenuous: I thought Chile was an exception.
You see, while the US-orchestrated coup in Chile craved, over the next few years, some three thousand lives, most of whom had been tortured till they died, a number of the other countries honoured with US involvement had far worse luck. For instance, Operation Condor cost roughly 30,000 lives in Argentina alone. But most of us never heard about that. And if we did happen to hear about the School of the Americasi1 we dismissed what we heard as whatever they called “a conspiracy theory” back then.
However, few of us in Europe were unaware of the viscious persecution of anybody even vaguely suspected of being opposed to Chile’s dictator Pinochet, and few Europeans – left or right – condoned torture and extra-judicial killings (though Pinochet appears to have been warmly applauded by Margaret Thatcher). As we saw it, President Salvador Allende and his followers had been working to bring human rights and Social Democracy to Chile, whereas Pinochet and his henchmen definitely put an end to everything most of us – also right-wing people – believed in.
Why did so many of us here know about Chile and not about Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Uruguay, Bolivia, etc., not to mention the horrors perpetrated by US puppets in Central America? Oh, yes: and Iran! Not to mention Indoniesia!! Why did so many of us here chant “Un pueblo/unido/jamás será vencido” and sing Victor Jará songs? I ask this question because I think it is important: The Chilean opposition movement must have done something monumentally right, because it made itself heard in a big way, notwithstanding the fact that it was extremely divided.
I cannot tell you what it was they did right, because I don’t know. Maybe it was the heroism of Victor Jara, that brought us to our feet, howling with indignation. We knew, of course, that he wasn’t the only one, but his last stand was truly magnificent.
He had set off, early in the morning of 11 September, for the State Technical University (UTE) where he worked. President Allende himself was going to speak there on that day to announce he would be calling a plebiscite. The students of UTE were among Allende’s warmest supporters, and they had been preparing, for several days, an exhibition demonstrating the progress achieved during the Allende administration. However, when they learnt about the coup, the students and their teachers occupied the buildings and bolted the great gate.
They had not been entirely unprepared; the country was deeply polarised. “There was talk about a coup d’etat, but if you haven’t been through one, you cannot possibly imagine its repercussions in your own life or in society as a whole… It’s like talking about war, when you’ve never known one. So when we considered the possibility of a coup, we just said we would occupy the university.” Source
Alas, early in the morning of 12 September, the security forces broke down the gate and started shooting. The survivors – 600 students and their teachers, including Victor Jará – were eventually marched off to the stadium and tortured. They were soon joined by thousands of others. Victor Jará had to endure four ghastly days of unspeakable treatment. “They recognised him at once and started by breaking his face.” He was denied food and water. One of the other prisoners was able to smuggle a notebook to him in which he penned his last stanzas, headed “Somos cinco miles” (We are five thousand). They cut off his tongue so that he would stop singing, broke all his fingers and …need I continue? On 16 September they finally put him out of his misery with at least 23 shots, probably more, and threw the corpse on a street. Source.
Need I explain that the forces opposed to Social Democracy had to prevent, at all costs, Allende’s calling the plebiscite and proving his Democratic intentions?
One film maker, however, was on the ball, Patricio Guzmán. He was able to document some of the iniquities suffered by the Chilean people during the dictatorship. His trilogy from 1975, 1977, and 1979 – “La batalla de Chile” – appears to be on public domain with English subtitles. It has served as an indelible record of what Chile has been subjected to. His films have sustained the tiny flame of hope that exploded into the “estallido” uprising that started on October 18, 2019.
The Constitution – part 1
Chile under Pinochet was the “laboratory” of what we call, today, “neoliberalism”. Quoting Naomi Klein in conversation with Democracy Now::
Chile was the laboratory for what’s called the Chicago School of Economics. It was the first place in the world where the radical ideas of Milton Friedman, who believed in privatizing absolutely everything, except for the military… These were crank ideas in the 1960s, when it was still, you know—it was still a Keynesian era, and so they weren’t able to introduce these ideas in the United States. … And so, it was only in Chile, in the aftermath of the brutal coup and the death of Salvador Allende, that the Chicago economists had their little playground where they were able to road-test many of the policies that would eventually be globalized.
The experiment worked, in the sense that GDP sky-rocketed, but GDP tells us nothing about how national income is distributed: In Chile, it is not distributed at all.
The greatest Neoliberal triumph was the Pinochet constitution of 1980, which more or less sanctifies private ownership. It was a blessing for the filthy rich and a scourge on the rest of the population. With few amendments, it is still in force today. It effectively prevents the creation of a national health service and of public university education. Everything, including water, is for sale to the highest bidder. The young have no future. The old can hardly afford to stay alive after they retire.
Just about a year ago, I spent some hours reading the final draft of a new Constitution. (English translation here). I have read a lot of legal documents in my time, but that draft Constitution was one of the most beautiful texts I have ever encountered. According to a very decent Wikipedia article (as at 13 August 2023) its preamble reads:
We, the people of Chile, made up of various nations, freely grant ourselves this Constitution, agreed upon in a participatory, equal and democratic process.
Indeed, the draft Constitution was created by the “people of Chile”, who elected each of the 155 members of the “Constitutional Convention” directly i.e. not through Congress.
I urge you to watch Patricio Guzmán’s film Mi país imaginario (also, apparently on public domain with English subtitles) which chronicles the “estallido” and subsequent events leading up to the creation of the people’s draft constitution.
The Constitution – part II
Alas, the 4 September plebiscite rejected the beautiful people’s draft Constitution, as indeed I had feared it would. Apart from a lot of redundancies in the text, which could so easily have been ironed out, there were also flaws of “the too much, too fast” category. Though most Chileans wanted social reform and would probably have preferred to live in a so-called “social democracy”, there is much conservatism and nationalism among them. The phrase “sexual and gender diversities and dissidents” repeated 6 times throughout the text, will have generated distrust and even disgust, while the reference to 11 indigenous peoples as “nations” in Article 5 will have disseminated confusion and even anger.
Obviously, the predominantly right-wing press capitalised on the confusion and distrust and warned its readers that should the constitution be approved, the result would be mass unemployment, added to even more inflation, even more crime, and even more illegal immigration. Besides, peoples’ homes would be expropriated. There would be dissolution of families, abortions galore, general sexual confusion and depravity.
In my experience, if you tell people that unless they do what you tell them to, they will lose their jobs and their granddaughters will turn into grandsons and vice versa, they usually will do what you tell them to. Particularly if you have withheld from them a decent education so that they cannot call your bluff. It’s called blackmail.
So there we are, back at square 1: An overwhelmingly right-wing Congress has been tasked with the drafting of a new constitution. A so-called Expert Commission (EC) composed of 24 members selected by the Congress has already prepared a first draft, to which amendments have been proposed that are being debated by a so-called Constitutional Council of 50 members, 33 of whom are representatives from the far-right. The fate of the final draft will depend on a referendum on 17 December 2023.
For those who read Spanish, the EC draft and the subsequent proposed amendments can be examined here. What is clear, though, is that some of the amendments proposed by the far-Right bode ill. According to Ciperchile,, 11 of them, in particular, bear the hallmark of Pinochetism. For example, as compared to the EC’s draft:
- Amendments to the Constitution must currently be approved by 66,6% of Congress. As a result, it has been practically impossible to introduce change. The far-right wants to keep it that way, (The EC proposed to reduce required Congress acceptance to 60%.)
- The far-right also wishes to retain the Constitutional Court’ s power to block legislation. (The EC reduces the power of the Constitutional Court and redefines it as advisory).
- The far-right wishes to retain what Ciperchile refers to as EU’s “subsidiarity model”, a good thing, perhaps, for the EU but not for Chile. In practice, it works like this: the State must only engage in activities that are of no interest to private investors. For example: If all persons have the right to chose whether to pay for private or public health insurance, public hospitals will be under-financed or non-existent. The same applies to institutions of higher education, and to social security programmes, including not least retirement and unemployment funds.
This was a key issue for those who partook in the disturbances. The implication is, of course, that if public hospitals and public universities are to be financed by the state, a tax reform will be needed. The Chilean tax system ” is very regressive, with a heavy reliance on indirect taxes, which mainly affect the middle- and lower-income sectors of the population.” What is required is “the introduction of a progressive tax on the highest assets and a tax on large fortunes. Less than 0.1 percent of the population, the very rich, have the equivalent of Chile’s GDP in their hands. Taxing their wealth at a rate of 2.5 percent would raise some $5bn, or 1.9 percent of GDP.” Source
- The far-right only acknowledges international human rights treaties to the extent they are compatible with the Chilean Constitution.
- The far-right wishes to limit workers’ right to go on strike.
- The far-right wishes to prohibit abortion.
- The far-right does not wish to augment the rights of indigenous communities.
The Constitution – the water part
You may know that Chile has been suffering from severe water shortages for several years. In the central and most populated areas, water has to be delivered by tank lorries. What has been under-reported, however, is that this is not only a result of climate change. One of the slogans of the protesters of the “estallido” was “It’s not drought, it’s theft”.
Now you might think that water is a human right. Not so in Chile, where water ownership is marked-based and the current constitution specifically says that water rights are considered private property. Water ownership does not require land ownership, so that there are water owners who have no land and landowners who have no water.
According to an interview in Resilience.org, for example, Presiden Piñera’s (until 2020)
… Minister of Agriculture, Antonio Walker Prieto and his family own more than 29,000 litres per second, which is equivalent to the continuous water supply used by approximately 17 million people.
One last quote, this time from Earth.org:
[The} system allows agricultural, energy, and mining companies to buy and sell water allocations as if they were company stocks. But while this has favoured a flourishing export economy by turning Chile into a major exporter of products from copper to avocado and wine, millions of people have been left behind. Farmers across the country have seen years of work go up in smoke as the drought has slowly consumed their harvest and irreversibly compromised crops such as potatoes, rice, maize, beans, fruit trees, and vineyards. Meanwhile, hundreds of rural communities that have lost everything had no choice but to sell their land and move to urban centres.
Chile’s economy – the largest in South America by per-capita GDP – is based on three very water-thirsty industries: mining, agriculture, and forestry. Supported by the private rights system, the latter – which accounts for just 3% of the country’s GDP – has access to nearly 60% of Chile’s water resources. Another 37% is allocated to the agricultural sector, leaving only about 2% for human consumption.
There was much talk in the Chilean media about water during the preparation of the people’s draft Constitution. For whatever reason, I find the word “water” is hardly mentioned in connection with the Congress’ draft Constitution. I suspect nobody believes the far-Right would ever, ever relinquish property rights over water. If you have watched Patricio Guzmán’s film Mi país imaginario, you may have noticed that Congress is sometimes referred to as a “clique of interrelated families”.
I believe I have demonstrated that the Chilean state and its Congress patently serve primarily the interests of an infinitesimal proportion of the Chilean population. Chile’s domestic policy appears to be extremely cynical. Is it exceptional?
The School of the Americas (Renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) in 2001), has been training “assassins, death-squad leaders, and human-rights abusers for dirty work in Latin America since its founding in 1946. ↩︎