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Learning from Chile: Navigating Complexities of Political Crises

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Chileans were unable to turn a national uprising into transformation of the social order. For the US there is much to learn about relationships between left government, movements, and popular protagonism and the importance of political clarity, socialist strategy and organization.

Twenty years of grassroots organizing by Black and Latinx community organizations, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), and the broad Left propelled CTU organizer Brandon Johnson to victory in the April 2023 Chicago mayoral race. Similarly, across the country, progressive and left organizations are focusing on electoral politics as a central arena of struggle. These campaigns are part of a larger motion—a new generation of social movements, union organizing, and Black-led uprisings against racist state violence—provoked by intertwined political, economic, social, and ecological crises in the US and globally. Yet our movements and campaigns lack political cohesion. We have not yet developed the collective organizational capacity, shared strategies, and political vision to take advantage of this moment of destabilization of the patriarchal racial capitalist order. Simultaneously, this crisis has fueled a white nationalist, patriarchal backlash lurching toward authoritarian rule. So where can we look for experiences to shed some light on how to navigate these complexities?

Despite our different contexts, one place to look is the Global South. Specifically, we believe Chile’s political developments over the last four years provide sharp lessons. (These developments occurred against the background of the violent US-backed Chilean military coup on Sept. 11, 1973 that overthrew the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende and installed General Augusto Pinochet as dictator, launching 17 years of brutal repression. Under Pinochet, Chile, guided by US economists, enshrined in their constitution the world’s first neoliberal experiment —privatizing public goods, banning popular organizations, and shifting wealth to the top. In 1990, popular mobilizations forced the re-establishment of electoral democracy, but the power of the Right, oligarchs, and the Pinochet-era constitution remained.)

In October 2019, Chile erupted in the largest uprising since the dictatorship—the estallido—against all the abuses of neoliberalism, patriarchy, and the coercive state. The estallido was an accumulation of social struggles over the last two decades: movements for public pensions, housing, water, environmental justice, and feminist and Mapuche (Indigenous) struggles, but most prominently, student movements which spawned new left parties and a left-party coalition, Frente Amplio (FA, “broad front”). Along with six months of demonstrations across Chile, it unleashed a flourishing of local spaces of popular participation (protagonism) and joy—grassroots assemblies, revolutionary culture, creative protest, community formations, and communal kitchens. A spirit of social solidarity and hope infused everyday life. The next phase of struggle opened with the October 2020 national plebiscite that voted almost 80% to replace Chile’s neoliberal constitution through a grassroots process. Chileans elected a veto-proof, super-majority, progressive constituent assembly, with gender parity and Indigenous representation, to draft the new constitution, and in December 2021, they elected former student leader, leftist Gabriel Boric, as president over ultra-right José Antonio Kast. This process, starting with the estallido, marked an historic opportunity to move toward fundamental transformation of the existing order.

However, Chile’s extreme COVID lockdown, the estallido, campaign for Boric, etc., left social movements exhausted with weakened capacity. Meanwhile, oligarchs and elites used their control of the media to spread lies and fear about the new constitution. Due to these and other factors, despite the many popular victories, in September 2022, in a mandatory national vote, Chileans overwhelmingly rejected (rechazo) the proposed new constitution for a plurinational Chile that expanded democracy and economic, gender, and social rights, and weakened neoliberalism. The rechazo was a huge setback to the Left and all progressive forces. Since then, an emboldened Right is on the offensive and now controls a top-down process to redraft the constitution. In 2019, Republicanos, an ultra-right/fascist party emerged. They justify the 1973 coup and use anti-communism and racism against Haitian and Venezuelan migrants to play on fears and disorientation and sow disunity.

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Our perspective

We have been collaborating with Chilean education activists/organizers since 2011. We were working in Valparaíso for four months in 2019, our third time in Chile. When the estallido erupted, we spent October and November participating in/observing popular assemblies, daily demonstrations, and community events, and documenting the uprising. In December, 2022, we returned for three weeks of in-depth conversations—4 cities, 28 meetings, 36 people, including grassroots colectivas, social movement activists/leaders (feminist, Mapuche, union, immigrant rights, housing), independent leftists, government officials, members of left parties, academics, participants/leaders in the constituent assembly, and human rights defenders.

The questions that sent us back to Chile were: What can we learn from Chile’s intense experiences—though different from ours—to inform our movements here? What can we learn about transforming popular uprisings into a force towards developing real power? How does the Left use governing power when it does not control capital and confronts a powerful Right and inherited crises and ideologies of neoliberal racial capitalism? For us, these are key challenges in the US.

Here, we want to acknowledge Chile’s complex political reality. The stakes are high, and there are multiple perspectives on rechazo, social movements, political parties, strategies to move forward, etc. We are not Chile “experts,” and our purpose is not to analyze the situation for Chileans. Our intent is to synthesize what we have learned from them to draw lessons and pose questions relevant for US contexts. As outsiders from the US, our analyses are grounded in our relationships, visits, and collaboration with Chilean comrades; our own study and political experience as leftists and organizers; and especially our deep conversations in December. This writing represents our current thinking (all mis-assessments are our own). We hope it sparks dialogue and deepening.

Reflections/analysis relevant to the US (Quotations—anonymous and unidentified for security purposes—are from people we met with. “Left” refers to grassroots organizations, social movements, left political parties, and independent leftists.)

1) In moments of crisis and political upheaval, ideological and political clarity are critical. Like the US, Chile faces multiple, intertwined crises. Fifty years of neoliberalism privatized almost all public goods and services, intensified extreme inequality, and perpetuated the repressive, dictatorship-era police/military force. Due to dictatorship-era repression and neoliberal policies, the working class is fragmented, impoverished, debt-ridden, and lives precariously, many without unions, benefits, or sustainable pensions, or subsists in the informal economy. Chileans want “a dignified life”(a key slogan of the estallido), evidenced by the 80% vote to rewrite the constitution, Boric’s election, Mapuche resistance, and many social movements. This is part of an historical process, most recently originating in the Allende period, percolating through the dictatorship and 1990 transition to democracy, and regenerated by student movements in 2006 and 2011/2015.

But the extreme COVID lockdown and rechazo were demoralizing and disorienting, e.g., in the north of Chile, a grassroots leader told us that some estallido participants later joined racist attacks on Venezuelan migrants. People working within the government told us that it “did not know what to do” and was “cornered by right-wing press.” FA, assessing that it is weak and the Right is strong, appears to be in retreat. Meanwhile, the Right has a clear message of fear, racism, and anti-communism rooted in Chile’s history of settler colonialism and dictatorship. Chilean comrades told us that with the approaching 50th anniversary of the coup, the Right is rewriting the narrative to “erase the student movements and justify the coup” as necessary to control “violence.” This illustrates that if the Left fails to provide ideological and political clarity, organization, and direction, and work with the people to create solutions, a moment of crisis can evolve into fascism. We see this in the US as well.

2) Mis-assessments of social forces have strategic consequences.

  1. Overestimating the Left. Before rechazo, many on the Left were overconfident, riding on the estallido, the overwhelming vote to rewrite the constitution, and Boric’s victory (one person called it “Fiesta of the Left”). With no threat of a right-wing veto, some left assembly members experienced a “distracting sense of power” that contributed to underestimating how much education was needed and insufficient attention to framing constitutional provisions so working-class people “could see themselves in it.”
  2. Misunderstanding the Right and failing to take opportunities to tactically divide/disrupt them. The Left needs tactical flexibility and a sharp analysis of the Right to weaken their bloc. The Right is heterogeneous: Some favored a new constitution to quell the crisis, others to dispel the “shadow of the dictatorship” hanging over Chile’s international reputation. But when the Right fell short of veto power in the constituent assembly, they coalesced around disrupting/attacking it. For example, some left assembly members proposed a constitutional provision to eliminate charter schools, but the Right slickly voted with the Left, turning thousands of charter parents against the new constitution. A prominent union leader said, had the Left better understood the Right, they could have tactically divided them to undermine rechazo.
  3. Mis-assessing the people. We heard consistently across our visits that there is widespread cynicism about political parties. In December, activists told us that social movements and FA were disconnected from the 40% of Chileans, who, for decades, have expressed their discontent by withdrawing from institutional politics (e.g., voting), but who voted 80-90% rechazo in the mandatory vote on the new constitution. They said the Left didn’t appreciate the distance between this discontent and people’s understanding how the new constitution would concretely change their lives. This lack of clarity also contributed to the Left doing insufficient education and organizing for the new constitution.

These mis-assessments—of the Left, the Right, the people—contributed to rechazo and stymied the capacity of progressive sectors and movements to move Chile towards fundamental transformation—a path that might have been clarified by a better understanding of relations of social forces.

3. Dialectically assessing, and learning from, accomplishments/defeats, from a strategic point of view. To be clear, rechazo was devastating. It set back momentum to dismantle structural and ideological bases of neoliberalism, much less consider an alternative to capitalism and begin to redress settler colonialism. This defeat for Latin America, and really the world, led to demoralization and arguments for retrenchment from some we talked with—and a green light for the Right. But others are dialectically assessing and learning from defeats and accomplishments to see how far the Left has come, how far they need to go, and what could be done differently.

Despite rechazo, 4.8 million people (38%) voted for a feminist, plurinational constitution that challenged neoliberalism, patriarchy, and settler colonialism. Grassroots elected representatives from social sectors across Chile wrote this constitution democratically, learning about each other’s experiences and demands. Key actors said, “we know each other now,” and “now we have a minimum program” to continue to organize and a departure point for dialogue and connecting disparate movements. The experiences of working together, the weaknesses, and rechazo itself are pedagogical. We heard many reflect on what they saw as mistakes and how they might transcend them. And many thousands experienced the collective power of popular participation.

Strategically, these lessons and relationships are gains for the Left. They further develop the basis and create conditions to align social movements and organize around a strategy and program. But as some activists told us, summing up dialectically is key.

4. Re-visioning the role of the Left in government. While the broad Left over-estimated popular support, the Left in government under-estimated its power in relation to popular movements. For us, this points to the Left using governing power differently from traditional politicians.

  1. We heard often that Boric/FA didn’t intervene to support the draft constitution. Social movement activists said Boric could have used his TV channel and public visibility to combat the Right’s smear campaign, debunk fake news, and do popular political education about the draft. Instead, FA was defensive, some saying “the constitution is flawed, but vote for it and we can fix it later.” Their inaction created space for a right offensive.
  2. People in government we talked with saw the Left as weak and rechazo as a sign that Chileans don’t want radical change: “Chile is not ripe for dismantling neoliberalism let alone capitalism, and even less ready for revolution.” They concluded they should be patient, learn, hold onto power, keep open the process of change, pass one big reform (like pensions) and gain people’s confidence. While from their view, this is a sober assessment of the limits of their governing power at this moment, many in social movements—the force that put FA in government—have a different understanding. They told us that they are another source of power, arguing that Chileans do want change. They said that in this time of a right offensive and limited power, FA needs to work closely with the people but instead relies on alliances with center parties and retreats. A housing activist said, “we thought the new government would consult with us, but we are excluded.” We heard this in education also. In the view of these social movement actors, the constitution failed partly because FA was disconnected from the people, and because Boric/FA did not use their power and public platform to support the new constitution and mobilize people—while also acknowledging the power of the Right (fake news, narrative shaping) and social movements’ lack of capacity contributed to the rechazo.
  3. In FA’s case, it is not clear, and we did not hear articulated, how moving into government is linked to a long-term strategy to fundamentally move past the neoliberal model and transform Chile in the spirit of the estallido, towards a “dignified life.”

We draw from this the imperative for left parties and elected officials to be rooted in the working class and strategically aligned with popular movements. This implies the ideological understanding that the protagonism of working-class communities, organizations, social movements, institutions, and other progressive sectors is the driving force for social transformation (as social movements argue). Electoral politics is important, but not decisive—it is a form of struggle more effective when strategically linked to mass organizations. Left parties, their elected officials, and social movements need deep connections with the broad working class and its most active sectors, and they need strategy through which all actors play their specific roles, in coordination toward shared political goals—a vision of how the Left can move towards real power that is eminently relevant to the US.

5. Importance of inter-generational movements rooted in the working class. Many current leaders come from student movements that importantly re-envisioned left politics as feminist, plurinational, and environmental. But they don’t have the benefit of the experience of Allende-generation leftists, militants, and union and peasant leaders, many of whom were assassinated, tortured, or exiled, and whose children were terrorized—deep trauma that persists today. Chile’s new leadership is largely middle-class vs. the Allende period when the Left was rooted in a much more organized working class. The lack of intergenerational experience and disconnection from the working class are legacies of Chile’s dictatorship, limitations faced by the new, young government. We face similar issues in the US.

6. Combating patriarchy, racism, and settler colonialism. Patriarchy and settler colonialism are integral to Chile’s economic and political order—patriarchy maintains the subordination of women and legitimates unpaid reproductive labor, and settler colonialism, including past and current Chilean governments, continues the overall domination of Indigenous life. Abortion is virtually illegal; gender oppression and violence against women have fueled a powerful feminist movement that played a major role in the estallido and constitutional process. The state preserves a violent settler colonial relationship with Indigenous people through extractivism, militarization, political marginalization, theft of land, culture, and language, fueling resistance.

However, some movement leaders claimed feminism and plurinationality are “identity” issues distracting from “material” class issues, and the focus on them in the draft constitution undercut working-class support. And although Mapuche flags were iconic in the estallido, few people we talked with, other than Mapuche, human rights defenders, and some grassroots activists, mentioned racism. But the Right understood that, as in the US, ideologies that legitimate these systems are essential to prevent class/race/gender solidarity. In their pro-rechazo campaign, they played “legal abortion” and “Mapuche terrorism” cards, exploiting fear and insecurity.

For us, this is a sharp example of the importance of political clarity on challenging patriarchy, racism, and settler colonialism as class issues and fundamental to forge a political project for the vast majority. “We need to go together” a feminist Mapuche leader said, and “La Revolución Será Feminista, o No Será” emblazons feminist banners.


Chile’s twists and turns exemplify the political volatility of the present conjuncture. The demand for “a dignified life” was objectively revolutionary—unable to be met by Chile’s existing order. The estallido and constitutional process created an historic opportunity to not only break with the legacy of the dictatorship and neoliberalism but to embark on a trajectory toward an economic and political order focused on human flourishing. But Chile illustrates, again, that political ruptures can go either way. Chileans were unable to convert a social uprising into concrete steps toward social transformation. Essentially everyone we spoke with told us a key factor was lack of strategy toward a common political project. In many conversations, the need for ideological and political clarity was a throughline. There were sharply different assessments of the relations of social forces, positioning of feminism/anti-racism/anti-colonialism in a broad social agenda—and how to move forward. These contradictions reflect the current political development of the Chilean Left, and are central challenges we face in the US.

In particular, there was consensus that FA was unsure how to govern when confronted with rechazo, deep social crises, and the right offensive—a situation not so distant from US progressive politics. Based on her experience in Latin American social movements, Chilean political theorist Marta Harnecker re-visioned the role of the Left in government, grounded in understanding that the people make history. Harnecker concluded that while left governments like FA have to improve material conditions and instill confidence, they also need to risk trusting the people. Seeing their role as political organizer and teacher/learner, they practice a “pedagogy of limitations”—explain to people the challenges and what it would take to shift the relation of forces, “simultaneously accompanied by the fomentation of popular mobilizations and creativity.” Chilean people have clearly demonstrated their capacity for protagonism. And a sector of the movements is focused on base organizing, educating, and connecting with the disconnected 40% “so next time they will know where to find us.”

We also are confronted with an historic opportunity—a crisis brimming with danger and possibility, with no clear resolution, exemplified by social movement political victories and challenges and contradictions we face in Chicago. Above all, Chile (re)confirmed for us the necessity for a new kind of party, or “political instrument,” that Harnecker proposes—a non-sectarian, democratic, disciplined political organization capable of developing revolutionary strategy that can actually dismantle racial capitalism and move towards reinventing socialism for our century. Rooted in social movements and working-class organizations, it works inside and outside institutional politics to educate, organize, and promote broad protagonism to shift the balance of forces away from fascism and toward liberation. We are inspired and encouraged by steps some social movement leaders with whom we talked are taking toward this goal in Chile “so next time this doesn’t happen.”  

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