A Panoramic Impression of the Chilean Libertarian Movement
Chile is a country with a rich history of struggle, and of deep connections to both the domination by and solidarity from North America and Europe. Perhaps more than other Latin American countries, Chile bears a shared neoliberal model with the imperialist countries, and particularly the US, that have been bleeding Chile for centuries. Yet both physical distance and the political landscape have kept the state of Chilean movements obscured from many revolutionaries in the North.
The economic engine of Chile lies in it’s natural resources. Fishing, Mining, and Forestry products are the core of Chile’s wealth, suffering, and economy. With the rise of developing nations like China, India, and Brazil, along with technological advances that drive demand, the price of copper has risen. Chile has the world’s largest copper mines and is the largest copper producer in the world. Nearly all of Chile’s wealth is extracted and exported under the control of foreign multinationals. Nearly all of these resources are taken from Chile’s peripheries while the wealth concentrates in its center. The mines of the north, and fish and forests of the south feed Santiago’s population. The central core of Chile, organized around Santiago largely, has over 70% of the population. This division between the peripheries extracting the wealth and the core controlling it creates a contradiction in Chile. Santiago’s economy is almost completely derived from services, finance, etc., all fed by the resource extraction industries.
Chile’s history itself reflects similar divisions in the population around wealth, power, and force. The victorious capitalist class that won Chile from the Spanish constructed a system of power perhaps more authoritarian than in other revolutions in Latin America. A strong central government and “presidentialist” system plagued Chileans for centuries who fought to create a more just order. Indeed it was perhaps these structures and tradition that would provide additional tools for imperialist powers to dominate Chile in the 20th century.
Contemporary struggles in Chile can’t be understood apart from the recent history of the rise and fall of the Popular Unity government. Following periods of dictatorship and social turmoil, the left rose to power in Chile on the back of unprecedented social movements aimed at uprooting a rigid class system, imperialist exploitation of Chile’s resources, and the poverty and political repression that gripped Chile for ages. The result was the victory of the first democratically elected Marxist president, and a new chapter in Chilean history with nationalization efforts of industries, social welfare measures, and the beginnings of reform in an ossified class system.
Though often leftists focus on the government of Allende and the role of the radical left in institutional Chilean politics, it’s important to be aware of a deeper movement in the Chilean working class at the time. Alongside the official institutional left there was a popular power built across Chilean society. While this power was often manifested in support of the Popular Unity government, it was not confined to that role. Popular power led to seizures of workplaces, estates, and popular expropriations. Workers self-management became a practice and inspiration within the movements of the working class to go beyond their leaders and move towards a more open socialism. At times this functioned as a counterpower as well, something understood and theorized as dualistic by the Movimiento Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR). Thus during this period we see the convergences of official leftists in power, workers self management, and the people going beyond their leaders in key moments of rupture. This specific history of the movements of Chile in the 1970s continue to have resonance and impact on the left in Chile and society in general.
Threatened both economically and politically by the possibility of a liberated Chile, the imperialist powers (particularly the US) moved to destroy Chile’s movements. Through a combined campaign of obliterating the economy through economic terrorism and a military coup under the direction of Pinochet (who was appointed by Allende in hopes of loyalty to the nation), the Chilean bourgeoisie and foreign imperialists began a campaign of barbarity and terror. Following the successful coup of Pinochet where the democratically elected government was overthrown and Allende died defending the presidential palace, the military regime began to terrorize Chileans not only in Chile but literally all over the world.
The terror came in waves and targeted different groups in different periods. Largely the goal was to physically eliminate the left, and to demolish any opposition physical and mentally through torture, rape, murder, and any means necessary to bring the whole country into submission. This even included assassinations of opposition figures on foreign soil in the United States and Europe.
The US sought to use Chile both as a laboratory and as a model for the third world in the government’s conquest for world domination and the extension of imperialist control. Chile’s suffering was a part of a larger imperialist project under the umbrella of Operation Condor where the US, working with local bourgeoisie and military forces, installed brutal dictatorships that terrorized populations across South America in the 1970s and literally sought to erase left presence through torture, murder, rape, and exile.
The Chilean economy was reconstructed on a pure neoliberal model largely by the thinkers of the Chicago School of neoliberal economics. Its wealth was privatized and sold off to foreign investors (with some notable exceptions like portions of the copper industry which remained nationalized), and a system of an authoritarian state combined with social austerity that put Chile in a unique position in Latin America. Chile received a serious of compromises between total foreign domination, and increased capital investment. Chile’s position in relation to its resources and standing in the world economy has created contradictions within society. Today the right frequently cites its statistics showing the health of the nation (largely boosted by global demand for copper more than any efforts of neoliberal economists), with an exchange of blunting some of the most severe poverty for widespread austerity, debt serfdom, and the elimination of the social safety net. The left rightly critiques the contradictions between the apparent wealth of a society built on debt and austerity, and the wealth being robbed of Chile every day by imperialism.
Though the dictatorship severely crippled the left of the time, the Chilean people were not defeated. There was a shift between the popular movements leading up to 1973 and those of the early 1980s. The deteriorating conditions in Pinochet’s Chile drove people into the streets and created movements against the repression and standard of living. Popular movements continued to challenge the dictatorship both in terms of repression and in people’s homes, schools, and workplaces. Students, workers, and families of the disappeared waged pitched battles against the dictatorship in the 80s, including armed movements of the left which nearly assassinated Pinochet in 1986. While Pinochet served imperialism for a time, the brutality and rigidity of the dictatorship eventually proved to be more a liability than an asset for maintaining control over Chile and its wealth. Movements were able to overturn the dictatorship and win space, however it was done under the control and management of local and global capital. A period of transition occurred with 20 years of rule of a coalition of opposition parties (concertacion) which left Pinochet’s neoliberalism intact as well as much of relations of the dictatorship. This combination of victory and defeat moved forward on the explicit basis of the exclusion of the radical left and maintainence of the fundamental exploitive relations. The situation helped create both the divisions which Chileans would fight around for following decades, and the crisis of the left which found itself either recuperated or excluded and working to reorient to shifting lines of struggle.
Today’s struggles against austerity and the brutal neoliberal model of Chile take place in this context. Though somewhat insulated from the global crisis by the wealth of copper, Chileans continue to experience attacks on their living conditions by the right wing and the machinations of international capital.
Anarchism in Chile
Chile has a relatively rich history of anarchism similar to many of the countries of the southern cone of South America. A large and militant anarchosyndicalist movement was present in Chile since the 19th century and built some of the first unions. Chilean anarchosyndicalists built libertarian traditions within the labor movement that continued to have resonance even up till the 1940s or beyond. Yet ultimately anarchism entered a dormant period after the 1920s when the Ibañez dictatorship successfully dislodged and attacked the anarchist movement and its bases with a few key exceptions. In the 1950s anarchosyndicalism had a significant revival which reverberated into later eras in influencing Chilean unionism after key strikes of that era. There were some anarchists also active inside of the Movement for Popular Resistance during the 1970s, and some other ex-MIR members moved onto anarchism because of their experiences in MIR. In general however it wasn’t until the period of the 1980s-2000s that anarchism was reborn in Chile.
The first anarchist project to be reborn in Chile during this period was perhaps Hombre y Sociedad, an anarchist communist publication with analysis of Chile’s situation that brought together exiles and different generations of the anarchist movement. By the 1990s, disillusionment with traditional politics and the strain of the official left with the fall of the Soviet block contributed to a revival of sorts of anarchists. Some Chilean youth turned to anarchism to answer the problems raised by integration of the opposition into the Chilean state. In 1999, anarchist communists founded the Congreso Unificacion Anarco-Comunista (CUAC) after working struggling to build a specific anarchist organization across years. The CUAC brought together anarchist militants to develop within the struggles of the working class and orient to social insertion. Today two national organizations exist (Federacion Comunista Libertaria, & the Organization Comunista Libertaria) as well as other smaller local groups such as the Corriente Accion Libertaria of Valparaiso. Organized anarchism in Chile today carries with it the traditions of over 10 years of work within social movements, and broader connections to the struggles against the dictatorship.
Today’s Social Struggles
In the present period Chile is witnessing five fronts of struggle across the country: students, workers, neighborhoods, territorial battles, and indigenous struggle. All have roots in struggles from the era of the popular front government, and in some cases even earlier.
Chile catapulted into the news and into the consciousness of activists in 2011 because of the student movement. Aimed at combatting debt-servitude, poor quality, and untenable prices, the student movement organized widespread actions, strikes, and social disruptions to achieve free quality public education for all, and in many cases a liberatory vision of education as well. Chile’s system of education resembles in some ways the US because of its reliance on debt, similar cost (but with Chilean wages), and a public/private divide that has deep class implications. Chile, like Quebec, has been going through regular cycles of student struggles around such issues. The most recent period was in 2006 under Bachelet in the ‘March of the Penguins’ (named for the students’ uniforms) around issues of fees, bus passes, and the system problems with funding and regulation of education in Chile. The struggles ended with concessions, but without resolving the larger issues. Many of the leaders of the 2011 university struggles were militants in the high school organizations (liceos) of 2006. At its peak, the movement of 2011 led to near urban shutdown with hundreds of thousands in the streets, the will of the public on their side, and solidarity strikes by workers in the strategic sectors of the economy.
Anarchists built a base in the student movements with the work of the Federacion Estudiantil Libertaria (FEL) more than a decade ago. Beginning as an intermediate tendency within the student movement, the FEL built a libertarian praxis both inside the official student movement and in the streets. Chile has a system of political representation which resembles elements of both governmental structures and unions. The organizations are built on a departmental basis with their own constitutions and structure, but largely they are all accountable to base assemblies. There are larger coordinating structures where different political tendencies compete and engage in negotiation with administration, and coordinating forces. FEL engages in both organizing the student struggle, and activities around political formation, popular education, and intervention in maintaining a libertarian revolutionary character of popular student struggles. Presently it’s a network across the Universities and high schools of Chile, and has won several key victories in establishing a presence for FEL and it’s networks. In 2012 the movement will face challenges due to the inability to win its significant system demands in 2011. University students are being attacked both by the state targeting any further protests through retributory action within the school system, and by the economic burden of their loans and loss of classes. Occupations of high schools continue however, and the movement is facing a crucial juncture at this time. Regional elections occur in 2012, and much of the left will mobilize to funnel the energy of the student movement into institutional politics. With the autonomous power of the student movement, the libertarian presence of the FEL, and the world crisis unfolding, 2012 may prove to be a pivotal year in either direction. Today, as we speak mobilizations are already returning to the streets and demonstrating a power that has not yet been defeated by either the crisis or the government.
The repression of Pinochet led to a weakened official workers movement. In Chile, the official union rate hovers around 10% similar to the US. Chilean labor law combines the worst of Europe (strikes are illegal without certain specific parameters) and the worst of the US (widespread evasion of labor law through exclusions, independent contracting, and the ability to replace workers who strike). More than a decade of anarchist organization and agitation however has built a libertarian presence in key sectors of Chilean society. Construction workers for example are excluded from collective bargaining largely in Chilean labor law. A relatively new union, SINTEC, was built in construction with a strong libertarian current and on a combative libertarian model. The port workers likewise have a tradition and presence of libertarian unionism, while at the same time occupying a strategic position within the economy as the means of exporting all of Chile’s wealth. Depending on the region, anarchists have built maturing roots in various sectors of the economy strategic to their position (mining, health, education, transportation, forestry, and fisheries).
Chile is a country that is overwhelmingly urban with generally compact cities and collective housing. The untenable costs of living (nearly US prices on a fraction of the wages) have led to situations in neighborhoods where many families are forced into tiny apartments, the quality and availability of basic utilities is limited, capitalist development destroys community’s health, and basic commodity prices assault people. In response a number of popular movements have emerged. Anarchists have been active in these struggles which tend to center around the availability of housing, living standards, and fighting runaway costs. This includes land occupations as well as direct action to leverage more working class housing from the state. Rather than focusing on single issues, libertarians pushed for a broader orientation of community-wide struggles and popular education in order to sustain the popular character and leadership of the struggles (rather than having people leave when their personal needs are met).
Chile’s structure of its core and periphery have created situations where vast areas are ignored and repressed. Territorial Struggles around the conditions of living in whole regions have exploded in key places during the past few years. In 2011, the extreme south of Chile exploded in protests in Punta Arenas with blockades, barricades, and street battles between forces of the government and the whole community. This year in Aysen, another southern Chilean region, community members blockade their area for months in bitter battles with government forces. Their demands have focused on fighting increased cost of food, transportation, and the lack of infrastructure (educational, physical, and social) in their region. In the mining region of Northern Chile, residents waged similar battles around their health, water, and infrastructure. While creating all the wealth of Chile, they live in some of the worst conditions.
Indigenous struggle in Chile is synonymous largely with the Mapuche. Though other struggles exist in Tierra del Fuego and the northern Aymara regions, the Mapuche of Chile’s south have a center place in the national attention because of the strength and duration of their struggles. The Mapuche have a history not only of struggle in present history but continuing to resist since colonization. The Mapuche continued to have an independent nation until Chile had it’s own indigenous wars and conquered the territory, but not the Mapuche people. Isolated by geography and a harsh climate, the Mapuche have resisted both integration and capitalist transgressions in their lands. As neoliberalism and imperialism drives deeper into the heart of the Mapuche’s lands, the community has continued to resist. Widespread abuse and ethnic driven killings by the State have been routine. Combined with solidarity movements across Chile, the Mapuche represent an undominated force of constant resistance in Chile who carry their own libertarian traditions and struggles.
Alongside presence in social struggle, the anarchist movement has a broad base of activities both within the left and the popular neighborhoods for the development of a libertarian praxis. Anarchists are active in community radio stations across Chile where residents engage in popular education in tandem with the struggles of their neighborhood on a liberatory model. The movement has a number of media projects both of organizations and of broader libertarian networks. For example Politica y Sociedad (originally Hombre y Sociedad) is an anarchist communist journal founded in the 1980s that represents a collaboration between various organized anarchist groups and individuals. There are anarchist journals like Erosion. The Federacion Comunista Libertaria has both print and web publications. In Santiago there’s a network of around 12 popular libraries in particular popular neighborhoods. Insurrectionists and lifestylist elements had active squats until largely closed down during el caso de bombas where the state targeted them for insurrectionist bombings. Subsequently the defendants were all cleared, however the squats have not since returned to pre-repression levels of functioning.
The position of the libertarian movement in Chile shows the direction a mature movement can have when it invests in becoming rooted in popular struggles and communities. Chile faced unique challenges due to the social disruption that the combined terrorism of the dictatorship and neoliberalism. Building often with very little, the anarchist movement has grown roots and stand in strategic positions today within Chilean social struggles. There is much to be learned from these experiences, when taken with our analysis of our time, our place, and our conjuncture. The future of both Chile and its anarchists lies today in their fight within Chilean society, and with the fight of the international working class against imperialism and new methods of submission in this era of crisis.
 Thanks are due to Jose Antonio Gutiérrez for his input concerning Chilean history, and to all the compañerxs in Chile who assisted in my research, writings, and travels.