Violent police repression mixed with President Michelle Bachelet's bizarre assertion that the right to protest still exists in Chile has been the government's response to the national Unitary Worker's Council (CUT) day of protest against neoliberalism, held on August 29. Claims by the governing Socialist-Christian Democrat alliance to be politically "centre-left" now look weaker than at any point in its 16-year reign, given its incapacity to address the underlying political and economic causes that lead to the CUT protest.
The CUT's "national day of union mobilisation and action" and the subsequent repression has instead reaffirmed the dominant power of the armed forces and police. However, a significant advance for left-wing forces has been the CUT leadership's openly anti-capitalist offensive. Organised around the slogan of "No to neoliberalism!", the protest included a call to struggle for a "solidarity, social and democratic state". The CUT and broader social movement have been inspired by the gains won by thousands of subcontractors working in the copper mining sector who held out for 35 days in July and early August, despite police attacks. Hundreds of rank-and-file activists in the industry have since been dismissed, but the improved conditions remain, as does the refreshing boldness of the miners' young communist leader, Cristian Cuevas.
According to the government, the toll from the protest is 533 people arrested nationally (including local and foreign journalists) and 40 police injured. Given the entrenchment of "Chicago Boys" — neoliberal economists heavily influenced by US right-wing economic thinker Milton Friedman — as government statisticians, the actual account of those arrested is likely to be far higher. "Double the bad news" is usually a safe formula in neoliberal Chile.
I was with a crowd of 10,000 who gathered to march at Plaza Italia and who were attacked with water cannons and tear gas, and assaulted by police with batons. Socialist senator Alejandro Navarro was taken to hospital after mounted police assaulted him from behind. Dr Juan Luis Castro, president of the Chilean Medical College, described police actions as "brutal". Doctors from the CMC had joined around 4000 peaceful protesters from the national teachers' union, the National Federation of University Health Service Professionals, the University of Chile Student Federation, and unionists from the public sector that attempted to march on the presidential palace.
CUT strategy has been to refuse to seek government permission to assemble and march, insisting on the inalienable right to protest. Echoing the position of ultra-right parties nostalgic for the days of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, both Bachelet and government spokespeople have insisted that unauthorised protest can not be tolerated. Bachelet, suffering apparent amnesia over her father's death at the hands of the
dictatorship and her exile to Australia, announced that "democracy does not need violence", while the violently repressive force of the police was unleashed on around half a million demonstrators.
Simultaneously, Bachelet's hand-picked "Council for Equity" was meeting to ratify granting a small one-off energy bill discount to be paid direct to the foreign-owned providers notorious for over-charging and falsifying accounts. In other words, providing public funds to maintain private profits. The CUT has refused to join the council, describing it as a charade.
Gross injustices of wealth distribution in resource-rich Chile, a billion-dollar failed attempt to modernise the capital's public transport, creeping inflation, high levels of unemployment and underemployment, child poverty and unresolved disappearances from the dictatorship have been at the heart of the CUT mobilisations. There is a growing sense that neoliberalism has been a massive failure in the country that pioneered it, at bayonet-point during Pinochet's reign.
Real unemployment is around 20%; bread, fruit and vegetables have skyrocketed in price as speculators cash in on unseasonal weather; and public hospitals are at breaking point. The gains won last year during the "penguins" protest by secondary students for reduction in fees and democratisation of education are being slowly eroded. The government's ministry for women has failed to diminish gender violence because it remains locked into defence of a violent economic system. Meanwhile mega-profits continue to flow to foreign corporations like Australia's BHP and predatory Japanese and Spanish multinationals, for whom Chilean democracy and dictatorship have proved much of a muchness.
The national protests and renewed resistance have shown that, in those memorable words of film director Patricio Guzman, "The battle of Chile is not yet over."
[Two representatives from Chile's popular movements against neoliberalism will be participating in the Latin American and Asia Pacific International Solidarity Forum in Melbourne, October 11-14. For more details, visit http://solidarityforum2007.org.]