2023 in Chile: 50 Years of the Military Coup


Neoliberal Consolidation after the Revolt of 2019


In 2019, an uprising broke out in Chile, wresting control of the streets from police and politicians. Eventually, the authorities managed to redirect this momentum into an effort to replace the constitution, itself a relic of the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The attempt to ratify a constitution more aligned with the values of the demonstrators failed, however, illustrating the risks of channeling grassroots movements into seeking change through institutional means.

As a result, a resurgent right wing has regained the initiative in Chile, while the left politicians who came to power have subordinated themselves to the market and the police. To this day, Chile is governed according to the constitution that was introduced as a consequence of the military coup. In the following account, members of the Anarchist Assembly of Biobío trace this story through the end of the year 2023, chronicling the consequences of the cooptation of the uprising of 2019.

Perhaps the moral of this story is that, rather than simply attempting to reform the ruling institutions, the participants in movements for liberation must understand themselves as the ones who must directly implement the changes they desire.

You can listen to an interview with two members of the Anarchist Assembly of Biobío in the last episode of our Radio Evasión podcast series about the Chilean uprising of 2019. We note that former Chilean president Sebastián Piñera died in a helicopter accident after the events reviewed below—a case of poetic justice if ever there were one.

The river Biobío.

2023 in Chile

In 2023, Chile observed the fifty-year anniversary of the military coup that changed the history of the country in September 1973, establishing a neoliberal laboratory which has served as a model that is still expanding in various corners of the planet. After half a century, the wounds of the past have not yet healed, as the impunity of many human rights violators continues, the Constitution that was drafted during the dictatorship is still in force, and, consequently, there is no official condemnation of the apologies for state terrorism.

In the years preceding the commemoration, the political climate was shaped by the process that opened in 2019 with the popular revolt that shook the country for several weeks—a powerful rejection of the decades of precarization that the neoliberal experiment imposed on the lives of ordinary people. Disenchantment with a political class that has been dedicated to deepening this model since the end of the dictatorship and the return of democracy in 1990 turned into anger that flooded the streets with street violence and clashes with the police and military as never seen before. At the same time, spontaneous assemblies emerged in neighborhoods and communities, discussing the possibilities and experiencing politics and social organization in ways that democracy had never offered.

Almost a month after the demonstrations began, the entire political class closed ranks against the insurrection and the political parties signed the Acuerdo por la Paz [“Peace Accord”], which included the participation of the new institutional left represented by Gabriel Boric—a showcase that enabled him to raise his media profile, to make a pact with the elite, and eventually, to be elected president. The Acuerdo committed the state to a process of coming up with a new constitution, which was trumpeted by the political class but simply served to rebuild popular trust in the elite, in the state, and in their institutions, which had been discredited since the beginning of the revolt. At the same time, the population once again suffered massive human rights violations at the hands of the police and military, which inflicted 31 deaths and 11,000 injuries, including eye trauma to 460 people as a result of being attacked by uniformed personnel.

A feminist demonstration in Chile on November 2, 2019, after the first cases during the uprising in which carabineros intentionally inflicted damage on demonstrators’ eyes.

The institutionalization of popular struggles as a consequence of the Peace Accord exacerbated the natural attrition resulting from weeks of street protests and the isolation and containment measures taken against the most radical participants in the revolt. This lowered the temperature of the streets, so that the movement was ultimately buried during the COVID-19 pandemic via state-imposed mobility restrictions.

With the military back in control of the streets, the focus of attention shifted back to traditional politics and the elite skillfully channeled the energy of the revolt into the process of drafting a new Constitution as a way out of the crisis. This has made for a turbulent cycle that has involved constitutional plebiscites, electoral campaigns, and presidential elections in less than three years, with two consequences. On the one hand, it has given new life to the political institutions that the revolt called into question. On the other hand, it has generated a deep exhaustion and even boredom with politics and social struggles among the general population.

The latter is the consequence of the past three years. In the constitutional plebiscite of October 2020, a majority of 78% voted in favor of drafting a new Constitution. The drafting of a new Constitution was entrusted to a series of constitutional conventions, comprised of representatives elected in May 2021, most of whom were independent of political parties and more or less aligned with the demands expressed in the street. This convention went to work during a presidential campaign in which the left was in favor of the work of the convention and the right was against it. Gabriel Boric won the presidential elections of November 2021. Yet despite campaigning under the banners of revolt and against the traditional political class, it only took a few months in power for him to show his true face, governing alongside the neoliberal parties and continuing the neoliberal model.

Sebastián Piñera addressing Chile in 2019, flanked by military officers. From 1973 to today, both the force of the military and the stratagems of democracy have played a role in imposing neoliberal capitalism on the population.

At the same time, the constitutional convention’s work was hampered by media scandals revolving around some of the drafters. The right wing took full advantage of this with a smear campaign, alongside other misreporting and false information, all aimed at infecting the public opinion with fear of the changes proposed by the constitutional convention. Given that lay of the land, the plebiscite vote to decide whether to approve the new constitution was made obligatory for all eligible Chilean voters. This completely changed the scenario and the projected electoral outcomes, resulting in a surprising and overwhelming rejection of the drafted constitution in September 2022.

Nevertheless, the process had to continue in order to respect the results of the first plebiscite, which had demanded that Chile must have a new Constitution. That meant that it was necessary to elect a second constitutional convention, but this time in a political climate of resignation and popular exhaustion, manifested by less excitement for independent candidacies among the drafters. This diminished enthusiasm for new political voices enabled the political class to safeguard the participation of traditional parties by fixing certain seats in the constitutional convention for members of congress—previously excluded by voters from the first constitutional convention—to join the drafting process. Consequently, the pro-Pinochet right wing won the elections of May 2023 by a wide margin and began drafting the new constitutional proposal in a situation in which most the population was completely disaffected with the process.

September 2023 marked the 50th anniversary of the military coup, in an atmosphere of polarization fostered by the press and, at the same time, widespread popular indifference to the subject as a result of exhaustion with politics in general. In spite of everything, there are still organized groups among the people who held commemorations of the 50th anniversary throughout the country, in a political scenario that still does not close the wounds of the past and in which the worst legacy of the dictatorship—neoliberalism—is still in force.

In this environment, the right wing tried to introduce a kind of historical revisionism to whitewash the dictatorship, exemplified by false equivalence that former President Sebastián Piñera made between the military coup of 1973 and the revolt of 2019 on the grounds that they were both moments of democratic breakdown. This explains the reaction of the political class after the revolt and the effort to prevent future revolts by strengthening repressive laws that give more powers to the police. One of these laws is the so-called Easy Trigger Law, which was approved in April and establishes “privileged self-defense”—that is, if a police or military officer uses his service weapon, it will be presumed that it has been “correctly used” when acting in self-defense.

This law was followed by the Anti-Tomas Law, which facilitates the evictions of occupied properties and land. It affects thousands of people who must resort to occupying land in order to live, in addition to accentuating the conflict between the state and the Mapuche people seeking to reclaim ancestral lands that have been usurped by landowners and forestry companies. On November 27, three days after the enactment of the Anti-Tomas Law, the Mapuche community Aylla Varela became the first to be evicted after occupying a farm in the commune of Collipulli as part of their claim to these lands.

“Solidarity with the Mapuche people.” A poster from the Anarchist Assembly of Biobío.

On the level of symbolism, the new “progressive” government’s support for the forces of repression was already made clear for all to see when Boric took office and kept on Ricardo Yáñez, who had headed the police responsible for repressing the revolt. Once elected, Boric also shifted his rhetoric: in his electoral campaign, he had harshly targeted former President Piñera, blaming him for his responsibility in the repression during the revolt, but as the months went by, he described him as a “democrat.”

The model of neoliberal governance has been updated to become more sophisticated in the field of repression; but this is also accompanied by a modernizing of neoliberal extractivism. Under the new government, extractivism has taken on an apparently more environmentalist aspect, but in reality, the capitalist plundering of the country continues, with new forestry projects, lithium extraction, and green hydrogen plants.

The year 2023 concluded with the plebiscite of December 17, in which voters rejected the proposal from the second constitutional convention, the one with a right-wing majority—a proposal at least as bad as the Constitution that has been in force since the dictatorship. This is how the constituent process that the political class had opened in response to the revolt has closed—leaving the impression that here, in the cradle of neoliberalism, everything changed so that everything might remain the same.

Anarchist Assembly of Biobío, Chilean region.
January 2024.