Chile: From a Social Earthquake to a Political Tsunami



Earthquake to a Political Tsunami.













Sixty percent of Chileans did not vote in the local elections on October 28. According to Gabriel Salazar, winner of the National History Prize and one of the country’s most respected intellectuals, only in the absence of a social movement could this unusual level of voter absenteeism by explained away as “laziness” or “escapism.” However, with the presence of a powerful student movement, along with agrarian organizations in the north and south of the country, this voter abstention indicates “a refusal to participate in that model.”[1]


In effect, the growth and solidification of the social movement over the last decade exploded in 2011: strikes and regional protests in Magallanes (south), Arica and Calama (north), a local uprising against the HidroAysén  mega-project (south), copper workers strikes, Mapuche community actions, mobilizations of earthquake victims in 2010 and, above all, the broad-based movement for public education that includes students, parents and teachers[2].


In mid-2011, at the height of the student turmoil, the third Historians’ Manifesto asserted the emergence of a “movement of revolutionary-anti-neoliberal character.”[3] In 2013, after two years of intense mobilizations and increased electoral abstentions, numerous analysts have noted and agreed that the political class was getting nervous, paving the way for a proposal to call a Constituents’ Assembly, which historian Sergio Grez pointed out, was taking the democratic route to a “fundamental overhaul of its institutionalization” for the first time in Chilean history.[4]


The existing Chilean Constitution was approved in 1980 under the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship. Many analysts claim that the Constitution was designed to prevent changes and that it includes some “catches,” such as the 4/7 parliamentary vote requirement to approve any organic law. Constitutional attorney Fernando Atria insists that: “No country that is considered democratic requires more than a simple majority to approve a law.”[5]


Atria concluded that the dictatorship has institutionalized three mechanisms for perpetuating the power of the elites, a legacy that democracy has not been able to dismantle: the binominal electoral system, the special 4/7 approval quorums for important laws and the Constitutional Court, “forming a coalition of fundamentally undemocratic institutions” that “gives veto power to the right.”  Atria added that the dictatorship used this legal framework when it decided to “take the power away from the seemingly dangerous majority.”


The current movement rejects the Coalition of Parties for Democracy strategy, consisting of a centrist coalition which governed Chile between 1990 and 2010, that gradually dismantle the legacy Constitution. In fact, this process was halted due to the so-called “catches,” which serve to resist reforms, as is the case with the education law that was likewise inherited from Pinochet.


The tireless Mapuche resistance


They are arriving at the El Manzano prison in the outskirts of Concepción, after crossing pine ridges and forests of the eucalyptus trees that survived initial timber extraction enterprises. The delegation, after announcing its intention to visit Héctor Llaitul and having passed through three Gendarme controls, not very formal for sure, continued on to the penal sanctuary.  Seated on his bed, surrounded by his wife, mother, and family members of two other prisoners, Llaitul smiles in a warm greeting.


The commission includes five important national figures, the president of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the president of the Medical College, a former judge and diplomat, student and union leaders, several intellectuals, the Mapuche pastoral, and the Ethical Commission against Torture.  Half of the delegation went to the Angol prison, where Ramón Llanquileo is being held, who, like Llaitul, is a member of the Arauco Malleco Coordinating Committee, dedicated to the recuperation of ancestral lands that are now in the hands of forestry companies and  large estate owners.


The Mapuche prisoners ended their 76-day hunger strike on January 28 when the delegation resolved to form a National and International Commission of Mapuche human rights observers.  Llaitul had a cheery disposition despite having lost 26 kilos, notable in how his pants were sagging and in the pallor of his face.  The motives for the strike are plenty, but the visitors received flyers with only six demands listed.


The six demands were: the immediate release of Llaitul and Llanquileo, to open a dialog between the State and Mapuche representatives, to establish an agenda that “takes into consideration the self-determination, forms of representation, and self-government of the Mapuche people,” to take back territories now in the hands of forestry companies, to drop all charges against the Mapuche prisoners, to respect Convention 169 of the ILO (International Labor Organization), which recognizes the collective rights and protects Mapuche children, as many children in the community have been negatively impacted by repressive state institutions.


The Fourth Declaration of Historians in Respect to the National Mapuche Question, signed by hundreds of intellectuals, was distributed days after the the Swiss settler couple Luchsinger-Mackay were in Vilcún, on January 3, when Mapuche community members tried to occupy their property on the fifth anniversary of the assassination of Mapuche community member Matías Catrileo, who was shot in the back by police when a group attempted to enter the hacienda belonging to Jorge Luchsinger.


Five years later, in the context of mobilizations honoring the 22-year-old student and demanding his killer’s trial, some 20 Mapuches occupied the hacienda of Jorge’s brother, Werner, who defended the house by gunfire as the Mapuches burned it down. The historians’ Declaration asserts that the violent incidents “emerge from the departure point of the misnamed ´Araucanía pacification´ carried out by the Chilean State between 1860 and 1880 in violation of the accords reached with the Mapuches following the Independence (1825).”[6]


“The State of Chile occupied the Araucanía using brute force in a prolonged military campaign” –the Declaration continues – “applying the most violent and cruel methods at their disposal to usurp vast indigenous territories and auction them off at rock-bottom prices – sometimes just giving them away – to Chilean and foreign settlers, confining the Mapuches to tiny and miserable reduced territories.” For this reason, the declaration asserts that “the current violence is the result of more than 130 years of injustice, removals and denials of human rights.”


Since 1990, new generations of Mapuche have created a plethora of urban and rural organizations that the historian Gabriel Salazar denotes is the “sixth phase” of the Mapuche war which began in 1981.[7] For the first time in history, the prisons in the south are full of Mapuche youth who can only be considered political prisoners. Salazar believes that the Chilean State “cannot overlook the oldest and most persistent social movement in Chile’s history,” a movement that boasts the support of the country’s majority and international sympathizers. For this reason, he asserts that the State “cannot distance itself too far from it.”


“You don’t have my vote”


On the night of October 28, the Piñera government had to suspend its festivities in celebration of the sure victory of the official candidates in the key districts of Santiago, Providencia and Ñuñoa. Providencia’s defeated mayor, a coronel and ex-minister under Pinochet, insulted the winners of the election in typical right-wing style: “Hatred, intolerance, and disrespect have won. (…) The serpent has returned to Paradise.”[8]


It is clear that the student movement, the Asamblea Coordinadora de Estudiantes Secundarios or ACES, and some collectives correctly read the anemic state of Chileans when they decided to launch their campaign “I will not vote.” That same election day, they arrived at the National Stadium to protest with their hands on their heads and in a squatted position “to remind voters that this place was the country’s largest detention center in the recent military dictatorship, supported by right-wing candidates.”[9]


The 2012 elections changed the whole electoral procedure. Before, voters had to register in order to vote, but only 8 million out of 13 million eligible voters showed up on the voter rosters, since the majority of youth refused to register.  This time, voter registration was automated, but the amount of people who didn’t vote was greater than those did not register: nearly 8 million voters did not show up at the polls and five million voted, meaning that three million more abstained. Now, many politicians are debating whether to rule voting mandatory.


Mario Sobarzo of “Alarm Center;” or Centro Alerta in Spanish, a collective known for its campaign it waged against the urban transport system Transantiago, reflected on the 60% voter abstention rate, and reminded citizens of the low 30% registered voter turn-out in the country’s most impoverished communities, like the periphery of the capital, Puente Alto.[10] In this community, the Transantiago is affected by the highest fare evasion rate, on average of about 20%. Despite posting fare monitors at every station and on all the buses, one out of every five riders do not pay, even at the risk of being sanctioned with elevated fines.


For Sobarzo, voter abstention reflects “a desire for change that is not represented by the system.” He believes that “the campaign Youdonthavemyvote politicized how voter abstention is regarded.” He believes that the social movement will intensify these three processes in the near future: “the capacity to collectively articulate agendas, the capacity to coordinate and collaborate between different organizations, and to maintain the mobilization as a principal instrument of negotiation.”


High school students grouped under ACES, the main nucleus of the most mobilized sector in Chilean society, continue to amass between 45 and 65 high schools according to Manuela and Max, reminding that at the height of the conflict, the group coordinated 120 out of 200 occupied high schools. They believe that the movement is far from being neutralized and that weekly assemblies have deepened their understanding of the Chilean reality.  In addition, they sought to “join together the centers of conflict,” leading to the formation of a Mapuche Commission in ACES for the purposes of building direct ties to the communities affected by the repression.


The type of relationship the high school students are establishing with the Mapuche seeks to build direct ties between the two movements without regard to government authorities, entities that the movements reject. In the last two decades, several student Mapuche groups linked to urban university student residences have emerged, and have taken on significant roles as centers of the organizing the Mapuche.


The Mapuche Federation of Students (FEMAE by its Spanish acronym) arose out of the youth-student mobilization. This organization defines itself as an “autonomous network comprised of college and university students, which has a local character, and whose main objective is to counteract the cultural and political alienation Mapuche students face in the formal State educational system.”[11]


Toward a Constituent Assembly?


The large-scale student mobilization of 2011 was up against a wall of government indifference, despite the fact that the youth movement  enjoys more sympathy than President Piñera. Rough waters disperse but they don’t dissolve. Rather they return with greater force, seeking lateral side paths. In Chile, there are two converging processes: the social protest is legitimized and has been growing for a decade, putting the regime, not just the government, into question.


We are calling this duality tsunami, along the lines of what the president of the Student Federation of the Catholic University, Noam Titelman, expressed: “The social earthquake of 2011, the student movement, is becoming a political tsunami. We see it in the rise of new leaders and different visions.”[12] One symptom of this “tsunami” is the growing politicization of movements. Let’s examine two cases.


In 2012, ACES published the “Proposal for the Education We Want,” a manifesto which summarily analyzes the political landscape and proposes three educational agendas.[13] It posits that since 2011, “a door has opened for social movements to decide what kind of society they want,” because these movements have unveiled injustices. The youth consider themselves to be “historical memory and accumulation (…) the children and grandchildren of the existing model.” And they also declare: “We will not let ourselves be subjected to fear or to the logic of consent. Therefore, we have the liberty to shout, rise up and mobilize, to think and create, to dream of a different world.”


They believe that the great virtue of the movement has been to put up for debate the main tenets of the existing model, such as the assumption that education is a luxury. They also speak of themselves: “We are at the tip of the iceberg, on the margins of a social continent that has had enough of abuse, brutalization, blows, humiliation, and exploitation.” The clarity of the youth’s analysis, and above all, their decisiveness and fearlessness, is underlined in every gesture and every word, in how they dress and speak, and in their critical and challenging gaze.


It is the same gaze seen in Llaitul and the family members of the Mapuche political prisoners. For Salazar, the Mapuche “are a movement that has accumulated its own historical memory, almost unparalleled in the world, of not just one but five to six phases of war over more than six centuries.”[14] They embody a different political culture than the traditional, and, upon closer glance, it is similar to the student movement: they are not beholden to the existing Constitution, nor do they form a political party, nor do they adhere to the election cycles, nor do they compete for government posts, nor do they assimilate into the political class.


Furthermore, “they do not set fixed agendas, single objectives or rigid dogmas subject to constant re-evaluation.”[15] They have a novel form of analysis and understanding of their past and of the country’s current reality. The Mapuche’s historical record is rich, and every militant is keenly aware of the root of the problem; the “the pacification of the Araucanía” comes up in every debate.


It is not a coincidence that these after years of abuse by the neoliberal system and by the Chilean State, both movements are beginning to come together, venturing down the same paths that they never left, but only submerged for the time being to replenish their strength, resurfacing with more knowledge and courage than before with the potential to erupt … a tsunami.



Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for the weekly Brecha of Montevideo, professor and researcher on social movements in the Multiversidad Franciscana of Latin America, and advisor to several grassroots organizations. He writes the monthly “Zibechi Report” for the CIP Americas Program




Asamblea Coordinadora de Estudiantes Secundarios(ACES), “Propuesta para la educación que queremos”, La Revista Otra, MPL, Santiago, 2012.


“Cuarta  Declaración de Historiadores respecto de la Cuestión Nacional Mapuche”, La Araucanía-Santiago, 19 de enero de 2013.


El Ciudadano, periódico quincenal y web:


Gabriel Salazar, “Movimientos sociales en Chile”, Uqbar, Santiago, 2012.


Sergio Groz, “Chile 2012: el movimiento estudiantil en la encrucijada”, Le Monde Diplomatique, edición chilena, enero-febrero de 2012.


Raúl Zibechi, intercambio con movimientos sociales, Santiago, 28 de enero de 2013.


[1] El Ciudadano, 2 de noviembre de 2012.

[2] Le Monde Diplomatique, enero-febrero 2012.

[4] Le Monde Diplomatique, ob. cit.

[6] “Cuarta Declaración”, ob cit.

[7] Gabriel Salazar, “Movimientos sociales en Chile”, pp. 116-125. The first era of the war was against the Incas, the second and third against the Spaniards, the fourth was the defeat in the “pacification of the Araucanía,” the fifth  was the century-long retreat, and the sixth, the current era, is the “rebirth” of the movement.

[9] El Ciudadano, 31 de octubre de 2012.

[10] El Ciudadano, 1 de noviembre de 2012.

[12] El Ciudadano, 31 de octubre de 2012.

[13] “La revista Otra”, MPL, 2012, pp. 43-50.

[14] Gabriel Salazar, “Movimientos sociales en Chile”, ob. cit. p. 119.

[15] Idem., p. 118.















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