Chilean historian Gabriel Salazar, a specialist in social movements and constituent people’s power, ponders the future of the new left-wing president in Chile. According to him, Gabriel Boric must place himself at the service of the Constitutional Convention, or risk a new revolt from those who brought him to power.
His portrait on a mural, a few steps from the Plaza de la Dignidad (Dignity Square), the epicentre of the recent protests in Santiago, does not deceive. Salazar, now 85, is not only one of the most eminent Chilean historians, but also a committed thinker, someone listened to by the insurgents who flooded the streets demanding President Sebastián Piñera’s resignation in October 2019.
A former activist of the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR), imprisoned in 1975 during the dictatorship, Salazar was awarded the National History Prize in 2006.
Salazar is also a specialist in the country’s social history and the social movements that arose in the 2000s. He has observed and accompanied the emergence of a militant generation that defies political parties and is now relying on popular power to overturn the 1980 constitution, inherited from the Pinochet regime—a process that bore fruit with the October 2019 revolt, which led to the Constitutional Convention.
In La Reina, a township located northeast of Santiago, Salazar welcomed us a few days after Boric’s victory in the presidential election of December 19. Although he voted for the candidate of the new Chilean left (who won with 56 percent of the vote) in order to block the extreme right-wing candidate, José Antonio Kast, he doubts Boric’s ability to make history.
In order to align with the powerful social movement still simmering at the foot of the Cordillera, he believes that Boric should put himself at the service of the Constitutional Convention, which should present a new constitution this summer and finally break with neoliberalism.
This interview, edited for clarity and length, was translated from French by David Mendel.
Mathieu Dejean: Is this presidential election exceptional in Chile’s history, like those of 1964 (with the victory of Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei, who carried out major structural reforms) and especially that of 1970 (the victory of Salvador Allende and the Popular Unity), that you say were “revolutions within the legal framework”?
Gabriel Salazar: It’s interesting to compare these. Eduardo Frei spoke of “revolution in freedom,” and Allende spoke of revolution by the government. At that time, people were talking about the word revolution. They were even getting killed for it. But nobody was talking about changing the illegitimate constitution of 1925. What a contradiction! Allende committed suicide for this reason: his mandate was “constitutional.” When the workers, worried by the attempted coup of June 1973, asked him to govern on the basis of popular power, he refused.
Today, the revolution is not made by the government, but by the street, by the citizen masses. There were no party banners in the demonstrations of October 2019—that’s what was beautiful. Nor were speeches by an avant-guard. Everyone felt equal. This time, the revolution comes from the people. And the people are not talking revolution—they want a change of constitution. That’s what is ironic.
This is one of the semantic problems that is the context of Boric’s election. And this is the reason why, in my opinion, this election is not worth much.
MD: Why are you so skeptical?
GS: Because this is the last election based on the 1980 constitution, which is in the process of being changed. What legitimacy does this president have, when he is elected according to a constitution that we are in the process of undoing?
The great political problem, the problem of civic morality, is whether or not the current government can complete its term while a constituent process is underway. In the past, when a constituent process began, the government was overthrown.
But this time the politicians called a “Constitutional Convention,” which is not the same thing as a “Constituent Assembly.” The political class thought that the people could organize themselves in the Constituent Assembly. It therefore participated in the formation of a Convention that is not fully sovereign, because half of the delegates come from the general citizenry and the other half from political parties. That is why Piñera has not resigned and continues to govern as if nothing had happened.
This presidential election totally ignored the constituent process. After the first round, Boric made no mention of it in his speech, or just in passing. He gave it a paragraph in his official speech on the evening of the second round. But what can a government like this, that is, in effect, condemned to death, do? It is the Convention that should govern, lead, command. Boric will not be able to do everything he promised. He doesn’t even have a majority in parliament.
MD: Doesn’t he have the historical task of ensuring that the referendum to approve the new constitution is a success?
GS: Yes, that is positive. But it does not eliminate his fundamental basic problem: either he governs according to his personal programme, or he governs so that the Convention expresses what the people want. Yet he stated in his speech: “I am the president of all Chileans.” This means that he will adopt a policy of agreements between parties that are supposed to be antagonistic. This is what Patricio Aylwin invented in 1990, the first president of the democratic period from 1990 to 1994 that followed Pinochet’s dictatorship.
That’s why the youth were scandalized when they heard him. He risks losing a large part of the people who voted for him as a lesser evil when compared to the constituent process. Boric is not the president of October 18, 2019; he is the president of November 15, 2019 (the date when a peace agreement was signed by Boric and the ruling right and which led to the referendum to change the constitution). For me, this president has no historical destiny.
MD: But he did participate in the birth of a left-wing current called “autonomist,” which is new in Chile. How would you define it?
GS: In Chile, since the transition from military tyranny to neoliberal democracy, there has been a great disillusionment with politics. Between 1990 and 2000, the majority of young people abandoned the political parties, be they the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, the centre-left parties, and even the MIR. They are deeply disappointed by the traditional political system and electoral representative democracy. Social movements are therefore appearing, which escape party militancy.
This is where the pingüina generation was born. In 2006, high school students demonstrated for free public education. Their black and white uniforms, resembling penguins, earned them this nickname. In 2011, they were the same people who participated in the student movement. They are known to strongly contest the political parties and to seek a political expression in the social arena. They are involved in grassroots social, cultural and musical organizations, most of them anarchist. Hence the idea of autonomism.
The concept of revolution, which until 1973 (the year of Pinochet’s coup d’état) referred to profound change achieved by a collective organization, is undergoing a transformation. From the 2000s on, people feel revolutionary as individuals: I am revolutionary and express it in my attitude, in how I dress, in what I eat, and so on. Revolution becomes a personal object; it is no longer organized collectively.
MD: How do you view this generation of 30-somethings that is getting ready to govern?
GS: This generation is divided in two. On the one hand, there are those who have followed a political career. These are the students who led the University of Chile Student Federation (FECH): Camila Vallejo, Giorgio Jackson, Gabriel Boric, and Karol Cariola. These student leaders took advantage of their notoriety to enter the political arena and to get elected as deputies.
On the other hand, there are those who have taken the opposite path, that of the street, and who do not vote. This element is involved in local protest movements that advocate autonomy. The culture of street protest remains live in this generation. One cannot understand October 2019 without this element.
They are the ones who formed the violent sector of the mobilization, the famous “first line.” But on December 19, 2021, the vast majority of the one million more people who voted in the second round came from this youth segment who did not want to vote. In this sense, unless Boric realizes that he won largely because this non-politicized (in the institutional sense), pingüina generation voted for him, it will not turn out good.
In sum, Boric belongs to this generation, but to its academic fringe, that of excellence; those who followed a political career, as defined by the constitution of 1980—the one we want to change.
MD: Are you certain about the future of the constituent process?
GS: Yes and no. Yes, because the citizenry is fed up with the old politics. This is a constant: the rejection of parties and of the political class has gone from an average of 57 percent in 1990 to over 90 percent between 2018 and 2020. There are many unresolved historical problems in Chile—the Mapuche struggle to recover their land is only one of them—that preoccupy the citizenry in an unconscious way and feed its exasperation.
But I think that the Constitutional Convention will only half realize the objectives that the people expect and that the final text will be lacking—there will be a deficit in the final text. There will then be a new conflict, which I hope will be less violent than if Kast had won. I hope so. We will have to be attentive to the reaction of the great mass of people, who are in the process of becoming aware of their sovereignty and who have this deep rage within them.
There may very well be another social explosion in Chile, either in support of the Convention or for the Convention to radicalize its thinking. Since 2005, a gigantic social explosion was predicted. I don’t think that rage has disappeared. In two years, the Convention will be evaluated, and I think that the people will not be satisfied, unlike the political class. Another big explosion is likely. Boric will face the same problem: what to do?
Take the army out into the street? It did not obey Piñera (General Iturriaga, head of national defense, declared in 2019 that we are “not at war with anyone,” while Piñera said, “We are at war”), so I doubt it will obey Boric. The popular movement should be worried about its policy towards the military.
MD: Is this aspect part of the work to be done by the Constitutional Convention?
GS: The big problem with this Constitutional Convention is the army. I have been in contact with several elected officials at the Convention, and they tell me that none of them has thought to work on the issue of the armed forces. In the previous constitution, there were four articles that concerned it. In this one, there may not be any. They don’t know.
But the army has changed. It now has officers who studied in the United States or in France. There are also more women in its ranks now, 17 percent. They will have an influence. We need to develop a policy for the army, not as an isolated institution, but with the people.
If Boric were a true statesman, he would push to give the Convention at least six more months to deliver its text. Because if the people are not satisfied, they will take to the streets again, and for Boric, that will be tragic. He will have to decide very quickly whether to side with the other politicians, or to really commit himself to the revolutionary movement.
MD: You were a MIR activist in the 1970s. What is the legacy of MIR today?
GS: Unfortunately, the real history of the MIR is not well understood. I joined the day after Allende’s victory on September 5, 1970. I thought that that government was not going to make it. I joined because it was a “movement.” Its idea was to generate a social movement and to act within it.
For a long time it acted for popular power, under the influence of Che, Fidel Castro, and Chilean popular power. But in 1970 Allende drew all the energy of the left into a constitutionalist logic that was a dead end. He could not be attacked—that was obvious. So the MIR was not able to develop when it should have.
Allende failed, as we know, and the MIR was the only structure that proved capable of surviving. And it survived, but badly. It suffered brutal repression. In two years, the dictatorship wiped us off the map. I was taken prisoner in October 1975, two years after the coup. The party was destroyed, by means of torture and massacres. What remains of the MIR is the image of struggle to the death. It has a series of heroes, like Carmen Castillo, and others.
During the dictatorship, MIR’s cadres were trained in Cuba and returned clandestinely to Chile to arm the guerrillas. This was an absolute failure. I opposed this policy. I told them that they were all going to die. I worked for an alternative, but the military line had a majority—everyone was convinced of its relevance.
The MIR remains in memories as the only organization that did not fall into the parliamentarianism that led to the death of Allende and the old left. That is why there are many small MIRs today. But in the memory of the youth, the MIR is often associated with its violent breakaway action, and not as an organization that planned a revolutionary process. That is too bad.
Mathieu Dejean is a journalist with Mediapart, an independent French online investigative journal.
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