Defending The Legacy Of Chile’s 2019 Uprising

The social movement left is having an outsized impact on Chile’s Constitutional Convention — combined with pressure from the streets, another Chile is possible.

On July 5, after a tumultuous morning both inside and outside the former National Congress building, the inaugural meeting of Chile’s Constitutional Convention carried out its first act, electing Elisa Loncon Antileo as its president. Loncon, an Indigenous delegate representing the Mapuche people, made history as she addressed the assembly first in Mapudungun, her native tongue, and later in Spanish.

Here we are, brothers and sisters, here we are, thanks to the support of the different coalitions that placed their trust in us, invested their dreams in the call made by the Mapuche nation to choose a Mapuche, a woman, to change the history of this country.

As an activist and linguist, Loncon has advocated for the preservation of Indigenous languages and underscored the importance of the right to speak these languages in both public and private life. By greeting all the peoples inhabiting the Chilean territory — from the North to Patagonia and everywhere in between — in her native language, she was sketching a vision of what type of transformations were possible in the context of the Constitutional Convention.

Like many of the Indigenous delegates in attendance, Loncon wore traditional clothing and jewelry. However, on her right wrist, a green and purple bandana could also be seen, bearing the phrase, “Nunca más sin nosotras,” a popular feminist slogan meaning that the movement would never again allow decisions to be made about women’s lives without women’s participation. With Loncon at its head and gender parity amongst the delegates, one could say the Convention itself was the ultimate testament to that feminist commitment.

It was no coincidence that in her speech, Loncon emphasized the importance of women’s rights as workers and caretakers as well as the rights of others marginalized for their gender or sexuality. This was couched in a larger call to further democratize the Convention so that every corner of the country would feel represented in the process.

Throughout the speech, she brandished the Wenüfoye, the flag of the Mapuche nation that she herself had participated in developing three decades earlier, as part of the Aukiñ Wallmapu Ngulam, or Council of All Lands. Since its institution, the Wenüfoye has been associated with resistance and not only in the context of the Mapuche struggle for self-determination. In fact, the flag had become one of the most iconic symbols of the popular revolt that shook the country in October 2019.

Loncon did not take the stage alone; at her side stood Machi Francisca Linconao, a Mapuche spiritual authority and former political prisoner who was also elected to one of the delegate seats set aside for Indigenous peoples. Machi Linconao has a long history as a fierce advocate for Indigenous rights and the protection of the natural environment and was seen as a likely candidate for the Convention presidency. Linconao, however, declined the candidacy, instead proposing that Loncon stand for the office. Two weeks later, Loncon won with a total 96 of 155 votes, gathered from Indigenous, left and center-left delegates.

“Today we are founding a new plural, multilingual Chile, with all cultures, with all peoples, with women and with the territories, that is our dream for writing a new constitution,” Loncon closed, before continuing in Mapudungun, “Thank you brothers and sisters! Marichiweu! Marichiweu! Marichiweu!”

“Marichiweu,” repeated by Loncon three times for effect and echoed by some delegates, translates to “ten (or ten-thousand) times we will win” and is a traditional Mapuche war cry said to awaken a warrior’s spirit in battle and instill the certainty of victory. Nothing could have been more appropriate to inaugurate a constitutional process already marked with conflict: when the applause began to die down, spontaneous protest chants broke out in the crowd, as right-wing delegates looked on with distaste.

Loncon’s was a message of unity and hope, encouraging all of us to believe in the dream of another Chile, free of domination. However, neither the delegates elected to make this dream a reality nor the protesters still in the streets demanding justice for the brutality inflicted during the revolt had any illusions about what lay ahead. Establishment politics was already reasserting control over the political life of the country and the Convention itself was set to be a battlefield where every session might reveal a new configuration of forces.

Changing Political Calculations

Nearly two years have passed since the Chilean popular uprising of 2019 dispelled the illusion of a country at peace with its bloody history under the Pinochet dictatorship and the neoliberal economic model that came with it. The movement that emerged from that massive disruption of “business as usual” demanded a reckoning with the economic legacy of the dictatorship era — first in the streets, later through popular assemblies and ultimately in the historic plebiscite of 2020, where voters confirmed their desire for a new constitution in record numbers.

This defeat was a powerful blow to the already weakened right wing, whose campaign against writing a new constitution only gained traction in the richest and most conservative sectors of the country, further highlighting whose interests the status quo actually served.

While tens of thousands went out into the streets to celebrate this victory with fireworks and cacerolazos (noise demonstrations), they did so with the understanding that the fight was far from over. President Sebastián Piñera was still in power and had managed to stabilize his administration in the breathing room afforded him by the long months of pandemic lockdowns. Without the pressure of massive street protests, it seemed highly likely that he would serve out the remainder of his term without facing any meaningful consequences for the brutal crackdowns he oversaw during the revolt. Meanwhile, the victims of that violence — those who were tortured, maimed, and even killed by the armed forces — have yet to receive justice.

The movement itself had also changed a great deal. At the onset of the pandemic, the organized sectors of the revolt shifted focus, promoting public health protocols as “another way to struggle” and using the networks built up by the popular assemblies to keep their communities fed. However, after nearly a year and a half under various stages of quarantine, it was impossible to maintain the same level of activity. The threat of the pandemic itself was a factor, as was the never-ending state of exception that kept the country under curfew with the backing of the military. However, some forces were able to stay mobilized and even expand their activity.

Despite the inhospitable conditions, a movement demanding freedom and amnesty for the prisoners of the revolt started gathering steam over the course of 2020. Although Piñera has declared that “in Chile, there are no political prisoners,” dozens remain in jail or under house arrest in relation to their participation in the mobilizations during or in the period following the revolt. Some have already been slapped with heavy penalties under the new laws, while others continue to wait and wait for their day in court.

Activists have been steadfast in their demonstrations in front of courthouses and jails throughout all phases of the pandemic, providing grounding and direction for the larger movement, which was struggling to redefine its strategy in the wake of the plebiscite. Indeed, the upcoming constitutional convention had changed the political calculations for all players on the board.

The diverse movement that came together during the revolt was broadly united in its rejection of the Piñera administration and all political parties complicit in upholding the neoliberal model enshrined in the dictatorship-era constitution. However, 2021 is a year of elections and the social movement forces still in motion have had to decide how to engage with electoral politics and a new political context in which previously discredited parties are seeking to recapture the narrative.

Although the election of constitutional delegates was at the top of everyone’s mind, there were also municipal and regional elections to consider, not to mention the parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for November. This is much friendlier terrain for the country’s establishment political parties, who are eagerly searching for a path back to power.

The revolt had provoked a serious crisis of legitimacy across the political spectrum. Going into 2021, the right wing has been sagging under the weight of an unpopular president. The left-wing parties were doing marginally better, but the protesters were still making them pay for their various betrayals in the midst of the revolt. This was particularly true in the case of the Frente Amplio coalition, some of whose members not only signed the Agreement for Peace and a New Constitution — a move widely understood to be an attempt to arrest the momentum of the uprising and channel its energy back into establishment politics — but also cast controversial votes in favor of stronger penalties for protesters caught building barricades or committing acts of property destruction.

Only the Communist Party was able to emerge from this period with its hands mostly clean, a strategic positioning that would grant them an advantage when making their case to jaded left-wing voters in the new political landscape.

The Constitutional Convention

After some rescheduling due to pandemic restrictions, the first major elections took place in May 2021. Over the course of a weekend, voters were tasked with choosing their district mayors as well as their delegates for the Constitutional Convention. The latter represented the first major battle over the character and scope of the process.

The social movements had scored some early wins by pressuring congress for changes in the make-up of the Convention itself. The first of these was the creation of the category of independent candidates, meaning that the elections would not exclusively revolve around pre-existing political parties. This opened the door for progressive candidates who did not have traditional political pedigrees, as well as right-wing candidates looking to distance themselves from the failures of the Piñera administration.

Secondly, thanks to activism on the part of the feminist movement, the Convention would be the first in world history to have gender parity. Finally, another congressional victory guaranteed 17 out of the 155 total Convention seats would be set aside for delegates representing the territory’s Indigenous groups — who are not even mentioned in the present constitution — to be elected in a parallel ballot. Although the revolt had failed to achieve its goal of a directly democratic constitutional assembly, it had still created the conditions for a process with greater democratic potential.

Though still smarting from their defeat in the plebiscite, the political right was ready with a new strategy. Parties of the center and far right formed an electoral pact, Vamos por Chile (“Let’s go, Chile”), in order to consolidate their lists of candidates and increase their chances of achieving enough representation to prevent the two-thirds majority required to send a new constitution to referendum. Even without the seats necessary to advance their own policy agenda, they could still wield veto power against any progressive proposals and use the Convention floor as a public platform to harass, discredit or otherwise sabotage their political opponents. Considering the fragmentation on the left, Vamos por Chile stood a real chance at torpedoing the entire endeavor.

On the establishment left, there were plenty of electoral slates to choose from. The Frente Amplio and Chile Digno coalitions formed a pact to create the Apruebo Dignidad list. The center-left parties associated with the old ruling coalition the Concertación (notably excluded from the aforementioned alliances) put forward a list as well, simply called Apruebo. These were joined by much smaller lists backed by political parties not participating in the larger coalitions.

The social movement forces aligned with the revolt were split in terms of strategy. Some supported a total boycott of the Convention, contending that participation would mean conceding power to the political establishment and de facto granting impunity to those responsible for human rights violations. Others shared these fears, but ultimately decided on an inside/outside approach. This meant maintaining external pressure on the Convention through street mobilizations while simultaneously boosting their own lists of independent candidates, who, if elected, would fight for the most progressive agenda possible from within.

These candidates were mostly activists or social movement leaders, with a significant number coming from the feminist and socio-environmental movements. Many of their candidacies emerged from democratic processes within their assemblies or organizations; they were not self-appointed or beholden to any political party.

After a furious few months of campaigning, the vote took place and the results shocked the country. Despite receiving the highest number of total votes, the right-wing gambit had failed, with Vamos por Chile only capturing 37 seats — not even a quarter of the total. This was in stark contrast with the gains made by the left-wing and social movement lists. While the leftist Apruebo Dignidad pact did well, racking up 27 seats, the regional lists of progressive independents ended up with a combined total of 40 delegates. Taken together with the Indigenous delegates populating the reserved seats, the forces who wished to make a profound change in the social and economic structure of the country were in the clear majority.

With 155 delegates carrying their own mandates and another round of alliance building and breaking already underway, no one outcome was guaranteed. However, the composition of the Convention meant that the dream of a transformative new charter might actually pass to a referendum, one which would finally overturn the neoliberal legacy birthed by the dictatorship and guarded for 30 years by the parties of order.

The Promise And Potential Of Intersecting Movements

The revolt that started in October 2019 opened the door to political participation for many Chileans who had never before thought to demand change in the streets. At the same time, it also created space into which pre-existing movements could expand. This was particularly true for the feminist movement, as well as the centuries-old struggle for self-determination and land sovereignty waged by the Mapuche. These struggles shared a common characteristic in that they encompassed and intermingled with a number of other social movements, lending them the ability to cohere larger bodies around their causes.

In the years prior to the revolt, the feminist movement had rallied around anti-neoliberal slogans and woven together students, workers, pensioners and migrants into powerful networks. Feminist organizations such as the March 8th Coordinating Committee successfully convoked massive demonstrations and gatherings while modeling directly democratic methods for developing a political program. Meanwhile, small and medium-sized organizations carried out innovative interventions throughout the country.

In short, feminism proved to have a catalytic effect on social movement activity as a whole, all while avoiding co-option by the mainstream political establishment. In many ways, the character and political orientation of the current feminist wave prefigured the revolt itself.

For the Mapuche and other Indigenous peoples of the territory, the revolt did not necessarily represent the beginning of something new. Their critiques of the Chilean state stretch back to the arrival of the first colonizers and they are no strangers to state terrorism. When Piñera instituted the state of emergency that allowed for the deployment of the military and other special powers to control the unrest, many Mapuche were quick to remind the furious Chileans that this was the daily reality in their ancestral territories, where they were permanently under siege by not only the Chilean state, but also by the country’s extractive industries.

In the midst of the mobilizations, Mapuche flags bloomed like wildflowers, demonstrating how this age-old struggle for liberation was intertwined with the one that was just waking up. First the protests and eventually the Convention itself would serve as vehicles for pursuing the dream of a plurinational state in which the country’s Indigenous peoples could enjoy sovereignty, cultural recognition and the full protection of their rights.

Collaborations between the Mapuche and feminist struggles are still at an early stage, largely due to the narrow and academic way feminism has often been practiced. However, through hard work and self-reflection, Chilean feminist organizations have learned to adapt their structures and analysis to include the priorities of those who have been historically marginalized by the mainstream movement. This has meant embracing the territorial and socio-environmental struggles of Mapuche women, advocating for prison abolition and directly confronting the racism and xenophobia faced by Black and/or migrant women. Though these movement relationships are still quite young, they have served as an enduring basis of cooperation since the pandemic cleared the streets and the Constitutional Convention took center stage.

These intersecting movements chose to participate in the Convention without illusions: they did not trust the system to play fair, but they were determined to “overrun” the process, pushing its democratic potential to the absolute limit. This effort culminated one month before the Convention in the formation of the Vocería de los Pueblos, an alliance of delegates explicitly aligned with the revolt and oriented around its objectives. They found common ground in six points of unity, which included liberty for all political prisoners of both the revolt and the Mapuche struggle, an end to impunity for past and present human right violations and the demilitarization of Wallmapu — ancestral and present-day Mapuche territory — among others.

The Vocería de los Pueblos was composed of independent delegates from the People’s List and Constituent Social Movements list — two independent left-wing alliances in firm opposition to the political establishment — as well as a majority of the Indigenous delegates, with a total of 33 members signing its initial declaration. When they released their second communique 11 days later, the number of signatures had grown to 41, including almost all the Indigenous delegates and a female majority. With a quarter of the Convention and the potential to attract more delegates to their cause, this alliance was set to be a significant player in the debates and policy decisions ahead.

Another Chile Is Possible — Perhaps

The Constitutional Convention was inaugurated on Sunday, July 4, at the former National Congress building located in downtown Santiago. The day dawned with both tension and promise, as various groups rallied throughout the surrounding area and riot police deployed to guard strategic locations. Delegates aligned with left-wing parties and social movements held rallies before marching to the ex-Congress with their families and supporters. In nearby Plaza de la Dignidad — the heart of the October uprising — some protesters gathered not in support of particular delegates, but rather as a show of force to pressure the Convention to acknowledge and address the human rights violations committed during the revolt.

As the morning progressed, various feeder marches began to arrive at the ex-Congress to deliver their delegates. The feminist contingent arrived hoisting banners and wearing green bandanas around their necks and the Mapuche delegation held a full ceremonial procession from nearby Huelén Hill, a sacred site for their people. Meanwhile, trouble was already brewing between protesters and riot police. As the opening ceremony was set to commence, scuffles had already broken out and water cannons were being deployed against the crowds.

As delegates began to receive news of what was happening outside the building, they cried out to halt the proceedings, becoming increasingly rowdy as right-wing delegates vacillated between discomfort and irritation. Eventually, Elsa Labraña, a delegate from the People’s List, went directly to the legal official overseeing the inauguration to demand that the Convention be suspended, saying, “If the repression doesn’t stop, we’re leaving!” A pause was agreed upon in which delegates could leave the building to ascertain the safety of their family members gathered outside.

Some delegates chose to intervene directly in the conflict, going so far as to try to physically block the advance of the water cannon vehicles. Meanwhile, other delegates remained in the building’s patio, making calls to cabinet officials, explaining in no uncertain terms that if they did not get the riot police off the streets, the first day of the Convention would fail. These demands went unmet, but the conflict eventually deescalated to a point where the Convention could reconvene. The first order of business was electing a president.

That first fractious day of proceedings would come to encapsulate the functioning of the Convention going forward. Each vote, no matter how bureaucratic, became a site of conflict between the opposing political forces — forces that, in the case of the broad left, were in a near-constant state of realignment. Even after one short month, breaks have already taken place and new political poles have formed.

Right-wing delegates have seized every opportunity to cause a fuss and make headlines. While clearly an organized tactic to portray the Convention as an ineffective soap opera in the media, there is no doubt that they are beyond frustrated with their political marginalization. After a particularly tough week, Marcela Cubillos, reviled former Minister of Education under Piñera and constitutional delegate for Vamos por Chile, recently quipped that “there is a ‘mapuchization’ of the Convention” and “practically everything coming from Vamos por Chile goes unread and is rejected.”

Clearly, the social movement left is having a moment in the Constitutional Convention, making an outsized impact on the proceedings and keeping the right in check. However, the internal machinations of the process appear distant and impenetrable for many who had staked their hopes on a new constitution in the midst of the revolt.

Prior to the signing of the Agreement that initiated the current constitutional process, neighbors were gathering in popular assemblies and actively discussing their dreams for a different, better country — the very country Loncon envisioned in her inaugural speech. That dream, shared by so many, is far too large to be captured in just one document. However, together with the ungovernable power of those still willing to take to the streets, another Chile, perhaps, is possible.