Chile 2019 Protests

Revolution in Latin America: Lessons of the Red October

In this article for America Socialista (published on January 17), Jorge Martin looks back on the tremendous “Red October” that swept Latin America last year, with insurrectionary movements in one country after another. Where did these eruptions come from? What were their limitations? What lessons were learned? And what is the perspective going forward?

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October 2019 was marked by an insurrectional surge in Latin America. From the 2nd to the 14th, a magnificent worker and indigenous uprising took place in Ecuador against the IMF package that Lenín Moreno’s government wanted to impose. This was followed, almost immediately, by the insurrectionary explosion in Chile, whose beginning can be set on the day of October 18, and which still continues, although with less intensity, at the time of writing these lines.

We are not simply talking about protest movements that put forward a series of demands, but something more. These are movements that take direct action to achieve their aims: they are not intimidated in the face of repression, they challenge not only a government decision, but the government itself and in reality the entire status quo. They begin to build embryonic bodies of workers’ power and even mass self-defense organizations in the face of repression. We are talking about insurrections with revolutionary features.

Moreover, these movements are not limited to a single country, but in a short period of time have spread from one country to another. We can cite the enormous movement in Puerto Rico that for 10 days in July 2019 brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets and finally forced the resignation of the hated governor Rosselló. This is even more significant considering that, officially, Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States.

Special mention should be made of the revolutionary movement in Haiti that has shaken the Caribbean country for almost eleven months. Starting in February 2019, hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets in mass demonstrations, general strikes, boycotts and clashes with the police, in protest against the corruption of the puppet government of Jovenel Moïse; against repression, misery and imperialist interference. The deadly balance is uncertain, but more than 40 people were killed by state repression between September and November.

Colombia strike
October 2019 saw an insurrectional surge in Latin America. / Image: Fair Use

It is necessary to point out that the outbreak in Chile was followed by the national strike of November 21 in Colombia, a mobilization that, despite being called only for one day, continued in the following days, and that marks a turning point in the workers’ and social struggle in this country. In Colombia, again, this is not simply a protest movement, but a general challenge to the regime that continues to this day.

These movements in Latin America, although they have their own features, are also part of a broader international process that includes the revolutions in Sudan and Algeria, the revolutionary and mass movements in Hong Kong, Lebanon, Iraq and even in Iran throughout the year 2019. The protests in Catalonia in October 2019 were also part of the same wave. In all these cases we have seen some common features: brutal state repression, the resilience of the masses who refuse to back down, the questioning of the whole regime, the discrediting of traditional organizations and a strong element of spontaneity.

To these factors we must also add, and in a very prominent way, the role of youth, who have been on the front lines of the struggle, and above all in the clashes with law enforcement. This is a generation of young people who have entered into conscious political life in the heat of the great capitalist recession of 2008. Capitalism offers no perspective for the future, and condemns these youths to precarious employment. They have reacted to this dead end with fury.

The myth of the “conservative wave”

In the case of Latin America, the Red October of 2019 is the last nail in the coffin of the “conservative wave” and the “death of the left” that bourgeois commentators, but also academics and leftist organizations, had announced with hype and fanfare.

In March 2016, Mexican politician Jorge Castañeda, who went from being a member of the Communist Party to a Minister of the reactionary government of Vicente Fox Quesada, published a column in the New York Times with the title “The Death of the Latin American Left.” Basing himself on the electoral defeats of Kirchnerism in Argentina and the PSUV in Venezuela, Castañeda decreed the “death”—pay attention, not the decline, nor the retreat, but the death—of the Latin American left.

In Brazil, already in October 2014, the leader of the Movement of the Homeless Workers (MTST) Guilherme Boulos, spoke of a “conservative wave” in his opinion column in the Folha de São Paulo. His ideas, shared by other leftist commentators, was that, in Latin America, we were witnessing a shift of the electorate to the right. Some even pointed out that the reason was as follows: the “progressive governments” had increased the standard of living of the masses, lifted large sections of the population out of poverty, and now that they were “middle class” their consciousness had changed and they were voting for right-wing parties. A theory as simple as it was erroneous, which also had the added value of blaming the masses and exempting leaders from all responsibility.

As we explained at that time, repeatedly, we were not witnessing in Latin America a conservative wave and reports of the death of the left “had been greatly exaggerated.” It is true that, in a short period of time, we saw the defeat of Kirchnerism in the Argentine elections of November 2015, the defeat of the PSUV in the Venezuelan National Assembly elections of December 2015, the defeat of Evo Morales in the constitutional referendum in Bolivia in February 2016, the impeachment of an extremely unpopular Dilma in 2016, etc. All these phenomena are not accidental and need to be explained.

The “progressive governments”

First of all we must point out that it is not possible to put all governments that are usually grouped under the label of “progressive governments” in the same bag. Evo Morales came to power as a byproduct of two revolutionary uprisings (in 2003 and 2005) in which the working class could have taken power, but did not do so due to lack of leadership. The MAS benefited from this outcome and, from power, worked to reestablish the legitimacy of bourgeois institutions.

Something similar can be said of Kirchnerism in Argentina, which came to power after the revolutionary outbreak in December 2001. The argentinazo questioned all the institutions of bourgeois democracy with their cry to “kick them all out,” and by bringing down several governments in quick succession. Kirchnerism brought that open revolutionary crisis to a close and re-established legitimacy to those same institutions.

The same happened in Ecuador, where the Citizen Revolution of Correa won the elections after a series of insurrectionary uprisings that had overthrown the governments of the “crazy” Bucaram (1997), Jamil Mahuad (2000) and Lucio Gutiérrez (2005). Again, the revolutionary crisis was brought to an end through bourgeois parliamentarianism.

Chavez five years 6 Image chavezcandanga
While it is true that the last period was marked by defeats for several progressive Latin American governments, not all of these are alike, and this process does not represent a general rightward turn. / Image: chavezcandanga

The Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela was different from these processes, in the sense that, of all of them, it was the one that advanced the most in breaking with the capitalist regime, although it never went all the way to the end. The election of Chávez in 1998 and the defeat of the coup of 2002 radicalized a revolutionary process that had started before him and led onto a collision course with the limits of the capitalist system. There was the factory occupation movement (with the support of Chávez), the experiences of workers’ control (with the support of Chávez), the agrarian reform and the creation of the communes (with the support of Chávez)… In sum, there was a process of radicalization in which the masses and the president were feeding off each other, a process that faced the fierce resistance of the bureaucracy and the reformists, which led Chavez himself to raise the need for socialism and the abolition of the bourgeois state.

However, the truth is that all these governments did have something in common. They all benefited from a prolonged upward cycle in the prices of commodities, oil, minerals and agricultural exports, on the basis of which they were able to fund significant social expenditure, which had a concrete impact on the living conditions of the masses.

Driven primarily by economic growth in China, commodity prices grew steadily between 2003 and 2010. The price of oil rose from less than US$30 a barrel to more than US$100. The price of natural gas had been around US$3 per MMBtu (millions of British thermal units) and increased to between US$8 and US$18 per MMBtu. The price of soybeans rose from a minimum of US$4 per bushel to a peak of more than US$17. Copper went from US$0.67 a pound, to US$4.5. Zinc from a minimum of US$750 per metric ton to a high of US$4,600. Copper went from US$3,500 per metric ton to an incredible price of almost US$33,000.

All these governments enjoyed a long period of relative stability due to two, key, interrelated factors. On the one hand, there was the strength of the mass movement of workers and peasants, which the ruling class was unable to defeat in a direct confrontation. The coup attempts in Venezuela (2002), Bolivia (2008) and Ecuador (2010) were defeated by the mobilization of the masses. On the other hand, the high price of raw materials that we have described sustained the illusion that important social programs that benefited millions of people could be carried out, while avoiding a direct clash with the limits of the capitalist system.

The end of the boom in raw materials plunged the entire region into a recession in 2014–15 and ended that illusion. That is the underlying economic reason for the electoral defeats that we have mentioned before. The end of economic growth also brought to light and made all the limitations of these governments more relevant. Bureaucratic methods in the mass organizations, co-optation of movements, concessions to the bourgeoisie, imperialism and multinationals etc.

Far from a situation in which the masses of the working class turned to the right and went on to vote for reactionary parties, what we actually saw was an increase in apathy, skepticism and abstention of the electorate that had kept these governments in power. They kept talking about “socialism of the 21st century,” “citizen’s revolution,” “process of change,” etc., but as time went by there was a growing distance between the great phrases and concrete reality.

The bourgeoisie, who had never reconciled with these governments because of the links they had in the imagination of the masses with the revolutionary processes that had, in a distorted way, brought them to power, decided that it was time to go on the offensive. They wanted to take direct control of political power again, through their direct representatives, to carry out a more open policy of counterreforms and attacks.

However, it is totally wrong to speak of a “conservative wave.” The new reactionary governments elected do not have a solid base of support among the masses. They were brought to power with very narrow majorities or through subterfuge (as in the case of Lenín Moreno). And as soon as they began to apply their programs of attacks, the programs that the bourgeoisie needed to make the workers pay for the crisis, they faced massive mobilizations. Far from being stable governments, based on a supposed turn to the right of the masses, they are extremely unstable governments that threaten to reopen revolutionary crises like the ones we saw at the beginning of the century.

Perhaps the most emblematic case is that of the Macri government in Argentina. When he tried to apply the attack on pensions in December 2017, Macri faced a huge wave of protests and confrontations that caused him to abandon the idea of applying labor counterreform. The Macri government has faced five general strikes, and had it not been for the elections in October 2019, it is possible that it would have ended up being overthrown by a revolutionary uprising. The union leaders and Kirchnerists were used to the fullest extent to prevent such an outcome and divert all discontent towards the electoral route. This is not exactly what could be understood as a “conservative wave.”

Even in Brazil, where the ruling class lost direct control of events after Dilma’s impeachment, with the election of a reactionary demagogue in the form of Bolsonaro with a large majority in the polls, this does not mean a solid basis for a policy of open attacks. The coming to power of Bolsonaro does not represent the “victory of fascism” as many on the left thought. It is obviously a reactionary and deeply anti-worker and anti-democratic government. But it is not a strong government that sits on a crazed mass of the petty bourgeoisie and the physical suppression of workers’ organizations. On the contrary, within a few months of his election, Bolsonaro faced a huge, spontaneous mobilization of hundreds of thousands, led by the student youth and a general strike of millions in defense of pensions. That movement was defeated by the dreadful role of the trade union leadership, but revealed the true potential balance forces that exists. An internally divided government, with a sharp decline in its popularity, faced a movement that just a few months after its election already raised the slogan “Bolsonaro Out.”

This is the real situation in which we find ourselves, with national differences and particularities, in Latin America. Yes, it is the end of a period. But it is not the beginning of any conservative wave. The illusion that it was possible to manage the weak and dominated Latin American capitalism, while granting social reforms has vanished. We have entered a phase of sharpening of the class struggle, of brutal attacks on the living conditions of the masses and, as a consequence, massive mobilizations and even revolutionary outbreaks such as those we have witnessed in recent months.

Revolutionary features

It is necessary to analyze these uprisings, examine their most important features and draw conclusions from them. There is no doubt that, both in Ecuador and in Chile, we can observe important insurrectional and revolutionary features.

What is a revolution? In his prologue to the History of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky states that:

The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business—kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new regime … The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.

Lenin, in 1915, also tried to identify the symptoms of a revolutionary situation:

What, generally speaking, are the symptoms of a revolutionary situation? We shall certainly not be mistaken if we indicate the following three major symptoms: (1) when it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the “upper classes,” a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth. For a revolution to take place, it is usually insufficient for “the lower classes not to want” to live in the old way; it is also necessary that “the upper classes should be unable” to live in the old way; (2) when the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual; (3) when, as a consequence of the above causes, there is a considerable increase in the activity of the masses, who uncomplainingly allow themselves to be robbed in “peace time,” but, in turbulent times, are drawn both by all the circumstances of the crisis and by the “upper classes” themselves into independent historical action.


In the case of the October uprising in Ecuador, we can clearly see revolutionary features in the situation. What caused the outbreak was Lenín Moreno’s package of economic and social measures. When the masses entered the scene, the government tried to crush the movement with a combination of brutal repression, that included the state of siege and a curfew; and with concessions (the withdrawal of the decree on the fuel subsidy within a few days). But that did not work. On the contrary, in this case, repression spurred the movement of the masses forward. All their bottled-up anger was brought to the surface.

At that time, and in a very significant way, elements of dual power began to emerge. The mobilized masses challenged the established power of the bourgeois institutions and the bodies of armed men who defend them.

The government decreed the state of emergency, to which CONAIE, which played the main role in the leadership of the movement, responded by declaring its own “state of emergency” in which neither the police nor the army were welcome in their communities. And this was not a mere statement, but was put into practice. In several communities, elite units of the army and police were kidnapped by the population and could not leave the communities except on the basis of negotiations with community leaders.

In several provinces, there were also takeovers of government buildings. That is, the organized people challenged the government and took over their institutions. At the height of the insurrection the Moreno government was forced, almost physically, to flee the government palace and abandon the capital Quito to take refuge in Guayaquil. Not only this, but the mobilized masses briefly took the national assembly building, with the idea of installing a People’s Assembly; that is, their own body of power in opposition to the power of the bourgeoisie.

Ecuador protest 2 self defence Image public domain
The October uprising in Ecuador clearly displayed revolutionary features, like bodies of workers’ power and armed selfdefense. / Image: Public Domain

Clearly, the thousands that marched from the provinces to the capital were not only going into dialogue with the government, but they went first to impose their demands and then, when the brutal repression already resulted in more than a dozen dead, to bring down the government. The central slogan that tens of thousands shouted in the streets was: “Moreno out!”

Not only did the mobilized masses establish, in an embryonic way, their own organs of power, but in the course of clashes with the forces of repression, they created self-defense organizations, in the form of the indigenous guard or popular guard. Armed with rudimentary shields, slingshots and homemade mortars, the Guard was responsible for defending protesters from repression, repelled police attacks and allowed protesters to move forward. The Guard was also, one way or another, under the control of the community organizations, particularly CONAIE.

Also, during the uprising in Ecuador, we saw symptoms of cracks in the repressive apparatus of the bourgeois state: another feature of a revolutionary situation. Faced with the irresistible thrust of the movement, some sectors of the police and the army refused to intervene against the protesters. This happened when the government sent the army to lift the roadblocks in the first days of the uprising. In some provinces, the soldiers, instead of repressing the movement, merely escorted the protesters who were marching towards the capital. Even in Guayaquil, at the height of the movement, there was a fist fight between soldiers and police, when the former tried to prevent the latter from attacking a group of protesters.

Importantly, the government’s attempts to mobilize the reaction in the streets to face the movement failed completely. Even in Guayaquil, the traditional stronghold of the oligarchy, they failed to mobilize the reactionary middle layers in any significant way. The attempt to organize an armed demonstration of small shopkeepers to confront “the Indian revolt” failed resoundingly.

Thus, two sides were clearly delimited. On the one hand: the workers, the poor indigenous people, the peasants, the student and working-class youth. On the other hand: the government of Lenín Moreno, completely aligned with US imperialism, the IMF, the Ecuadorian capitalist oligarchy and all its political representatives (Noboa, Nebot, Mahuad, etc). And yet, it was the masses who were on the offensive, and the government was against the ropes.

On October 10 there was an extraordinary People’s Assembly in the Agora of the House of Culture of Quito. There, the movement, which had captured and disarmed a group of police officers, forced the state to hand over the bodies of several of those killed by the repression, to broadcast the assembly live throughout the country through the media, and set itself the aim of marching to the National Assembly to install the People’s Assembly there. At that time, we had a situation of dual power. The question raised was: who rules the country, Lenín Moreno or the CONAIE?

And yet, two days later, the revolutionary crisis was resolved with a negotiation with the government, the withdrawal of the masses from the streets and the restoration of bourgeois order. What went wrong? What was missing?

What was missing was precisely a revolutionary leadership up to the tasks that were posed. Despite having raised the issue of power, and launching the idea of a People’s Assembly, the CONAIE leadership never raised the slogan of “Moreno out,” and focused specifically on demanding only the withdrawal of the IMF package. At the meeting at the Agora of the House of Culture, the resignation of the ministers responsible for the repression and the withdrawal of the decree to end fuel subsidies had been raised as prior conditions for any negotiation. In the end, they negotiated without conditions, the ministers are still in their posts and nobody has borne responsibility for those killed by repression. The only thing that was achieved was the withdrawal of the decree on fuel. And on that basis, the masses were demobilized.

Faced with the accusation launched by the government and the media that CONAIE wanted to bring down the government and therefore “was playing the game of correismo [that is, Rafael Correa’s movement],” the CONAIE leaders responded that it was not true, and proceeded to take measures to guarantee that the government did not fall.

In this, the sectarianism of CONAIE’s leadership towards correismo played an important role. During the Correa government, there were disagreements and conflicts between the peasant-indigenous leadership and the government, and also between the government and different workers’ organizations. In some cases, without a doubt, government policy was incorrect and went against the interests of the working class. However, on several occasions, that pushed the leadership of CONAIE (and also that of some workers’ organizations and the left) to support Moreno and reactionary forces against Correa’s government, something totally impermissible.

To the accusation that they wanted to bring down the government and that they were correistas, the CONAIE management should have responded: “We are not correistas, but anyone who is against this government and its policy is welcome in the fight. And yes, if the government does not withdraw the anti-worker package, the people will impose the will of the majority, overthrow Moreno and establish a workers’ government.” But the CONAIE leadership did not have a revolutionary perspective and, in the end, to defend itself against the accusation of wanting to overthrow the government, it ended up ensuring that it did not fall, just as it was hanging only by a thread. In other words, what was missing was the subjective factor.

Of course, the government promised much at the negotiating table: it had no choice if it did not want to be overthrown, although it granted very little, only the withdrawal of the decree. What it wanted above all was that the masses leave the streets, where they were strong and threatened its power, and to return to their homes, where they are weak.

Once the mobilization was called off, the government, little by little, began to regain ground and to attack the leaders who had just saved it. In several provinces, CONAIE leaders have been indicted on rebellion charges. Opposition politicians have been imprisoned. This was to be expected.

However, this is not the end of the story. Moreno’s government, sooner or later, will go on the offensive again. The crisis of capitalism, and the role that a country like Ecuador plays in it, leaves it with no alternative. The letter of intent signed by the IMF remains, and if there are no cuts to fuel subsidies, there will have to be cuts elsewhere. At one time or another, this will cause a new movement and a new insurrection. The urgent task is to learn the lessons and prepare a leadership that is up to the tasks posed.


The Chilean explosion that began in October is extremely significant. This is a country that was considered a “model of the success of neoliberalism,” and an “oasis of social peace” in a continent shaken by revolution. And that country has just produced the biggest revolutionary outbreak of the recent period. Behind that showcase of peace and social stability there was an extremely unequal society, with a huge concentration of wealth at the top at the expense of the exploitation of the majority. The Chilean “success” was built on the basis of a policy of privatization, destruction of rights and protections that began under the boot of the dictatorship but has lasted through the years of the so-called transition.

This situation caused an accumulation of discontent that began to be expressed in a whole series of mass movements, beginning with the secondary student youth. This is explained in detail in the article by Carlos Cerpa in this same issue of America Socialista. Most notably, this situation caused a deep crisis of legitimacy of the entire regime, including the “center-left” parties of the Concertación, which managed it for 20 years.

This crisis of legitimacy of the regime, which has worsened with its response to the revolutionary uprising, is what feeds and sustains the protest movement. Its depth is what has prevented the regime from being able to restore equilibrium, even with the most brutal repression (thousands of detainees and injured, hundreds of them with loss of vision, and systematic human rights abuses), nor with the apparent concessions (even the deception of a constitutional convention).

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The powerful eruption in Chile, a country held up as an exemplar of the “neoliberal model,” is very significant. / Image: Fair Use

One of the slogans of the rising was “it’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years.” It accurately reflected the origin of the movement and announced its character as a challenge to the entire system.

The most recent opinion poll, published by the CEP in January is a true reflection of this statement. According to this survey, 47 percent of Chileans think that democracy in Chile works badly or very badly, against just 6 percent who think it works well or very well. When asked about different institutions, the percentage that says they have a lot or a fair amount of confidence is very small, and has collapsed as a result of the movement in all cases. The institutions that suffer a major drop in their confidence, compared to 2015, are precisely the hated repressive police Carabineros (from 57 percent to 17 percent) and the armed forces (from 50 to 24 percent), television (from 24 percent to 8 percent) and the newspapers (from 25 percent to 11 percent), and also the Catholic Church (from 31 to 14 percent). In other words, the repressive apparatus and the ideological apparatus of the bourgeois state are totally discredited.

On the other hand, trust in the institutions of political representation of bourgeois democracy, which were already very discredited, have fallen to historical lows. The government has gone from 15 percent to 5 percent, Congress from 6 to 3 percent and the political parties from 6 percent two years ago to 3 percent now. 10 years ago, 42 percent of the population identified or sympathized with a political party. Now the figure is only 14 percent.

The explosion, which began as we know, with an almost accidental spark—a fare hike on the Santiago metro—became a spontaneous uprising against the entire regime, unleashing enormous rage from below that swept aside everything in its path.

Also in Chile, the central slogan was “Down with Piñera the killer.” In this case, the mass movement, although it had a series of concrete demands (salary, pensions, health, education) was directed against the government as a whole, and even more so, against the whole system.

From the first moment we saw the emergence of bodies through which the masses tried to organize themselves and that had the potential to become bodies of dual power. The territorial assemblies and the self-convened cabildos (councils) that emerged in the neighborhoods of the big cities in the first days of the uprising even took measures to protect small businesses against looting, organize supplies, recovering revolutionary traditions from the 1970s.

During the struggle, self-defense organizations also emerged from the movement. Spontaneously, out of necessity and learning through experience, with the youth at the forefront, the Primera Línea (Front Line) emerged. Like the Indigenous Guard in Ecuador, the Front Line (under this or other names) defended the movement against repression, with rudimentary but increasingly sophisticated means, faced the brutality of the police, and guaranteed the possibility of demonstrating in Plaza Italia, now renamed Plaza Dignidad. The government engaged in a battle of weeks to regain control of the streets and never succeeded. The Front Line was assisted by a second, third and fourth lines, which were in charge of medical care, supply of projectiles, etc.

In Antofagasta, at the initiative of the Teachers’ College (union) and other organizations that coordinated in the struggle, an Emergency and Protection Committee was created, which was responsible for selfdefense and medical care for those injured in the repression.

Also in Chile, we have been able to observe, although in a very embryonic stage, elements of cracks within the bodies of armed men. The case of a soldier who refused to be mobilized to Santiago to repress the movement is the best known, but there is no doubt that there were others, and that this case reflected a more widespread mood among rank-and-file soldiers. Undoubtedly, that was a factor that forced Piñera to withdraw the army from the streets and leave the job to Carabineros, a body inherited directly from the dictatorship without any purges, and trained to perform the most brutal repression work.

The government was really against the ropes. Neither the army on the streets, nor the vicious repression stopped the movement. Not even the announcement of concessions and social measures managed to placate the protests. The popularity of the government was at historical lows in November, and in free fall. The vast majority of the population supported the protests and a very large percentage had participated either in marches or in cacerolazos (banging of pots and pans). The general strike called by the Social Unit could have been the turning point.

Moreover, all the attempts by the regime to try to mobilize its social base and recover the initiative, using for example the excuse of “looting” and “violence,” failed miserably. In fact, a majority of the voters of the right-wing parties declared themselves in favor of the marches.

However, the government remains in power. Who saved it? In the first place, the opposition saved it by signing the Agreement for Peace and the New Constitution. And secondly, it was saved by the limitations of the union leaders, who never considered the task of bringing down the government.

In this, the role of the Frente Amplio was very important. The FA represented, albeit in a distorted way, the political expression of the great waves of student protest in 2011 and 2013. It had become a factor in national politics that represented, in one way or another, opposition to the strongly bipartisan system of the transition. At the decisive moment, its main leaders saved the Piñera government. In particular, Boric played a crucial role, negotiating with the right-wing parties and ensuring that the vast majority of parliamentary forces were in the photo of the National Agreement.

The Agreement, of course, was a trap. Relying on a very popular demand of the movement for a new constitution, what it actually did was try to divert the insurrectional movement against the regime towards the safe channels of bourgeois constitutionalism, and even then, of a very limited and controlled kind. At a time when the government was cornered and all the institutions of bourgeois democracy greatly discredited, this offered a way to re-legitimize it.

The question of the Constituent Assembly

The fact that the constitution of 1980, written under a dictatorship, is still in place in Chile is a graphic example of the farce that was the transition to democracy: a pact from above to avoid an overthrow from below, which left all structures of capitalism intact and the dictatorship unpunished.

However, what was driving the outbreak was not the need to change a piece of paper, but the struggle for a living wage, for decent pensions, for free education, for health care etc. All opinion polls conducted in recent months show this. For example, the CEP survey, when asking “what are the three problems to which the government should devote the greatest effort to solve?”, the answer is as follows: pensions 64 percent, health 46 percent, education 38 percent and wages 27 percent. The constitutional reform appears only in eleventh position, with 11 percent.

We must be clear about this issue, which has become central in Chile. For the mobilized masses, the constituent assembly is understood as the mechanism to change everything. It has become an expression of rejection of the entire regime.

But it is the duty of revolutionaries to say things as they are. A change in the constitution would not solve the problems of pensions, health care, wages… The most democratic bourgeois constitution in the world remains the legal framework for the defense of private ownership of the means of production. In Chile, the problem is not that there is no democracy. There are already elections in which deputies and senators are elected. True, the Chilean electoral system is not the most democratic, even from the point of view of formal bourgeois democracy. But the central problem, which has caused an insurrectional uprising against the entire status quo, is not the lack of formal democracy, but the material problems that affect the majority: the working class. And those can not be resolved with some constituent deputies gathered in a room preparing a new constitution, but only by expropriating the ruling class and putting their resources in the hands of the working class to plan the economy democratically for the benefit of the majority.

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Youth have been at the forefront of the struggle in Chile and elsewhere in resisting state repression. / Image: Fair Use

The danger of the slogan of the Constituent Assembly, as we pointed out from the beginning, is that it could be used by the regime to divert the movement, as they tried to do with the Peace Agreement.

Does that mean that Marxists reject democratic demands? No, not at all. We are in favor of the broadest democratic rights, against repressive laws and certainly against the farce of the 1980 constitution, so that the working class can use those democratic rights to organize and fight against the capitalist system. However, we must warn against any illusion that a new constitution will solve any of the fundamental problems that the uprising has raised.

The Spanish “transition” produced a constitution that, although restrictive in many aspects (monarchy, denial of the right to self-determination, etc.), contains very beautiful words about the right to housing, healthcare, education, work… However, in the framework of a capitalist system in crisis, all these promises are not worth the paper they are written on. Hundreds of thousands are evicted from their homes, there are brutal cuts to healthcare and education, and more than 90 percent of new jobs are performed in precarious conditions.

Moreover, the slogan of the Constituent Assembly—at a time when overthrowing the government and striking blows to the entire regime were being proposed—was actually a distraction from the central objective. In practice, the same bourgeois-democratic institutions that were totally discredited and without any legitimacy were being asked to call a Constituent Assembly. The only thing that could result from this was precisely what resulted from the Peace Agreement: a fully controlled constitutional farce.

The agreed Constituent Convention, as we know, is totally corseted with rules of operation designed so that nothing fundamental changes. These include a method of election that favors existing parties (which only 2 percent of the population trust!), a 2/3 majority for taking decisions (which really means the right of veto of a minority of a third), and a prolonged period of operation (calculated to demobilize the masses).

Now that the movement in the streets has partially receded, the right-wing parties have come out in opposition to even this controlled Constituent Agreement.

The slogans raised at the time should have sought to help the movement understand the central question being posed: that of power. “Down with Piñera!”, the slogan that was already in the mouths of millions in the streets. “For a National Convention of Assemblies and Cabildos,” that is to say, the movement decides the way forward and takes the situation under its control.” For a workers’ government,” that is, the alternative to Piñera and his capitalist friends is for the working class to govern.

Regarding the question of the Constitution, a just and strongly-felt demand, it was necessary to explain that, once we get Piñera and his government out of the way, and once the working class, the organized people are in power, then we can give ourselves any Constitution that we want, and we will also have the means (through the expropriation of the capitalists and multinationals) to put it into practice.

The main problem was that, at the key moment, nobody clearly raised the question of power, nor an adequate plan of struggle to acquire it. Even the leaders of the Communist Party and the Social Unity, which correctly rejected the National Agreement, did not really propose any alternative. At no time did they even raise the slogan of “Down with Piñera.”

The leaders of the CP, for example, in the first weeks of the movement, insisted on the idea of a political trial of Piñera. That is, instead of proposing that the masses overthrow him in the streets, they focused on a parliamentary mechanism (in the same parliament that was already totally discredited) that allowed him to be removed through a legal and institutional way. In fact, regardless of their objective intentions, they were making proposals that helped those discredited bourgeois institutions regain legitimacy, instead of advancing slogans that would help to bring them down once and for all. To call things by its proper name, the leaders of the CP lacked a revolutionary perspective

In practice, the Social Unity, instead of leading the movement, was tailending it. The first call for a general strike, on October 21, started from below. Then, not to be left behind, the leaders of the Social Unity made a series of calls for general strikes, but only from above, without putting the means, or organizing the necessary assemblies in the workplaces to make the strike a success. The calls in any case were not part of a clear plan of struggle with the aim of overthrowing the government, and therefore became a regular ritual that did not help strengthen the movement and take it forward.

In Chile, as in Ecuador, what was missing was a revolutionary leadership that could have channelled the insurrectionary energy of the masses towards victory. In his History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky explains the importance of leadership in a revolutionary situation with the following analogy:

Only on the basis of a study of political processes in the masses themselves, can we understand the role of parties and leaders, whom we least of all are inclined to ignore. They constitute not an independent, but nevertheless a very important element in the process. Without a guiding organization, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.

In Chile, the revolutionary crisis was not closed in the same way as in Ecuador (where CONAIE leaders called on the masses to go back home), but the truth is that, inevitably, the uprising has receded from its peak, around the November 12 general strike. The masses cannot remain on the streets indefinitely, particularly in the absence of a clear perspective of where to go and how.

But that does not mean that the waters have returned to their channel. Neither the government nor the bourgeois institutions have restored their legitimacy, on the contrary, their discrediting has deepened.

Inevitably, one or another accidental factor that we cannot predict with precision will cause a new surge for movement. The uprising has left a deep mark in the consciousness of millions, whose political understanding has advanced by giant steps. This has had an impact, although not directly, on the existing organizations, whose program has been put to the test. We have seen divisions and splits in the Broad Front, which is perhaps the organization that has been hit the most, but also in the Socialist Party. There will be more in the next period.

It is important that the most advanced sectors are grouped on the basis of an in-depth discussion of the main lessons of the uprising, to build a revolutionary Marxist current that is prepared for the next wave of struggle.

Perspectives and tasks for revolutionaries

It is important for revolutionaries to study in detail the lessons of Ecuador and Chile (and also those of the counterrevolutionary events in Bolivia) to prepare for the upcoming battles. Ecuador and Chile, as we have pointed out, are not two isolated examples, but they are the advance guard that announces the new period of sharpening of class struggle, in Latin America and throughout the world.

Latin America, which recovered relatively quickly from the global recession of 2008 (thanks to the pull of China), suffered very sharply as a result of the slowdown in the Chinese economy from 2014. Actually, the last six years have seen economic stagnation. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL), the 2014–20 period will see the lowest economic growth in seven decades, that is, even worse than the lost decade of 1980. The year 2019 ended with economic growth of just 0.1 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean, which in South America was a contraction of 0.1 percent, weighed down by a strong recession in Argentina (-3 percent).

Workers left front Image Gastón Cuello
Argentina is a prime candidate for unrest in the next wave of Latin American class struggle. / Image: Gastón Cuello

This period of stagnation has been paid, as always, by working and poor families. GDP per capita in the region has contracted by 4 percent between 2014 and 2019 according to official figures. This is the root cause of the processes we are analyzing. And after this period of 7 years of stagnation, the continent is preparing to face the next international capitalist recession in conditions of extreme weakness.

This situation of economic stagnation and increased inequality after a period of growth has caused a very strong erosion of the prestige of bourgeois democratic institutions throughout the continent. According to the Latinbarometro, trust in governments, which between 2006 and 2010 exceeded 40 percent across the continent, had already fallen in 2018 to just over 20 percent. The Economist Intelligence Unit, commenting on the outlook for Latin America, notes:

This has, in turn, created the impression among vast swathes of the population that Latin America’s traditional political elite can skirt the rules of the game with impunity. The region’s citizens now consider the political system to be part of the problem, not part of the solution, and view public protests as a necessity to bring about any sort of accountability for those in power (my emphasis). —Where next and what next for Latin America?, EIU

In this period, we will see more insurrectional uprisings and revolutionary outbreaks. Countries are not watertight. The masses in one country observe what happens in others and draw lessons. There is no doubt that the uprising in Ecuador had an impact on the Chilean explosion. And it is clear that the national strike movement that began on November 21 in Colombia was strongly influenced by the Chilean rising. There is fertile ground for the idea that only the mass struggle, in the street, against the whole regime, is sufficient. We saw in Bogotá how a Primera Línea of selfdefense for the marches was created, directly copied from the Chilean experience.

Argentina is another candidate for a social explosion, which would have already occurred in fact, were it not for the electoral channel towards which the union leaders and Kirchnerists diverted all of society’s accumulated rage. But Brazil is also in the vicinity of the revolutionary movements that we are going to witness in Latin America in the next period. Colombia, where the Duque government is reaching unprecedented levels of unpopularity, is not far behind.

The same report of the Economist Intelligence Unit states: “[t]here is a strong chance that 2020 will be another volatile year for Latin America.” It has put together a “political instability heat map” in which most countries are classified as at “moderate or high risk for renewed volatility in 2020.” The general conclusion of the report is one we share with these analysts of the ruling class: “Latin America faces substantial economic and political challenges, and the seeds are there for renewed unrest in 2020.”

The question therefore is not whether there will be social unrest in the next period in Latin America, but rather how the revolutionaries prepare for them. The main lessons of the revolutionary October of 2019 are three.

  1. The profound nature of the crisis of the regime and the discrediting of the institutions of bourgeois democracy.
  2. The enormous capacity and willingness to struggle on the part of masses, who do not back down in the face of repression, nor with promise of concessions.
  3. Despite the favorable balance of forces, there is a conspicuous absence of the subjective factor—a revolutionary leadership that can advance the working class towards the seizure of power.

Our task is to try to solve precisely this last question, by building a powerful Marxist tendency, rooted in the movement of the working class, with an internationalist perspective, which can intervene in the insurrections that will inevitably occur, to change the course of events and achieve, in one country or another, a victory that will transform the entire continent, and the whole world.

January 17, 2020, published in America Socialista, issue 21

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