Nearly 50 years after the military overthrew Salvador Allende’s democratically elected government, today’s constitutional convention has resumed the unfinished business of the Chilean revolution. The invocation of “dignity” is important, and it signals that the vote in the Convention is part of a much longer story of the Chileans’ struggle to achieve a dignified life. Tracing this history not only helps us understand the multigenerational demands that Meneses refers to, but it also highlights that after 42 years of neoliberal governance, the Chilean people have promised to revive the power of the state as a guarantor of a dignified life.
Elected in 1970, Allende promised a socialist revolution rooted in the country’s pluralistic political system – his government would use the mechanisms of Chilean democracy to place the country on the path to socialism. By the end of 1971, the signs were promising: the government had successfully nationalized the country’s mining industry by unanimous vote in Congress, and the governing coalition had won several elections outside the year.
As historian Peter Winn revealed, the government’s Keynesian economic policy had also produced tangible everyday benefits for the people, such as allowing a majority of Chileans to buy bedding for the first time in their lives.
In July 1972, Allende addressed a gathering of Chilean youth in downtown Santiago to mark the anniversary of the vote to nationalize the country’s mineral wealth to serve its socialist goals. “We did not buy our dignity,” Allende declared, “we have conquered it through popular struggle.” He continued, “we live in dignity now, and we will continue to live it. We will not bend, and we will not break.”
When Allende gave his speech in the center of Santiago, the workers and inhabitants of the city’s industrial belts began to organize themselves in new and creative ways. Instead of organizing themselves exclusively as trade unions, structured by trade or industry, the workers began to organize themselves territorially. These grassroots organizations operating under the name Cordones Industriales sought to coordinate a pan-industrial breakthrough that would overcome growing resistance and allow the government to continue the country’s socialist transition.
Cordones became the government’s first line of defense later that year when the country’s business elite turned an isolated trucking strike in southern Chile into a nationwide lockout known as the chiefs strike. The workers of the Santiago Cordones seized their factories, reorganized production, and developed new forms of distribution that enabled the government to maintain an adequate supply of basic necessities.
The history of such an organization, known as the Cordón Industrial Vicuña Mackenna, is illustrative of the importance of the Cordones in the struggle for dignity. Located in southeastern Santiago, the Vicuña Mackenna industrial zone included some of Santiago’s largest, oldest and most important industries, such as the Sumar Textile Company, the Cristalerías Chile glassworks company, and the Elecmetal metalworks factory, which introduced the first electric furnace in Latin America. .
Workers from 12 companies actively participated in Cordón’s direct actions, and the organization controlled nearly 2.5 square kilometers, which it referred to as “workers’ territory.”
During the October crisis, Cordón Vicuña Mackenna published a manifesto claiming that it was a “crime for a minority to continue using Chile’s fundamental wealth to maintain their privileges instead of giving a dignified life to all Chileans.”
The authors of the manifesto, who referred to themselves as the workers’ command of Vicuña Mackenna, proactively included the phrase “a dignified life,” which they identified as the primary goal of popular struggle. They did so to reflect the solidarity between the workers of the territory and the poor of the cities. Known as pobladores, Santiago’s urban poor had been fighting since the late 1950s to win the right to “a dignified home” that would be protected from government eviction. One of the defining features of Cordón Vicuña Mackenna was the high level of coordination and cooperation between the workers of the territory and the pobladores.
Cordones successfully defended the government during the bosses’ strike. But they were unable to prevent the 9/11 military coup that included the bombing of the presidential palace and ended the revolution. Vicuña Mackenna’s territory experienced some of the toughest fighting, with Miguel Salazar, a local textile worker, describing the “fight” against the military rebels and civilian shock troops as “hell on earth.”
In the late 1970s, the territory became a central site of resistance to the civil-military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, which was centered in the center of Santiago and enjoyed strongholds in the city’s Far Eastern municipalities. The language of dignity resonated as the workers and inhabitants of Vicuña Mackenna united in their opposition to the dictatorship.
Take, for example, the case of Manuel Bustos, a textile worker at the Sumar cotton factory, who became president of the National Union Coordinator – the central workers’ organization under the dictatorship. When the coordinator was officially founded in 1978, one of its first public statements reiterated Cordón’s 1972 manifesto declaring its intention to “fight for the restoration of freedom” and for “a dignified life.” The coordinator operated in direct opposition to the dictatorship. As a result, security forces arrested, imprisoned, and even forcibly deported Bustos at various times during the 1980s.
In 1980, the dictatorship sought to institutionalize its vision for Chilean society through a new constitution. After the coup, the military had suspended the country’s 1925 constitution and ruled by decree. Bustos and the coordinator spoke in opposition to the proposed constitution, calling on “all Chileans”, including “workers, farm workers” [campesinos]urban poor [pobladores]and students, “to” reject the attempt to legalize the dictatorship. “Bustos ended his speech by declaring the Constitution to be” a violation of our dignity as a free and sovereign people. “
While the military nevertheless adopted the proposed constitution, the text opened the door to defeat the dictatorship. It included a provision that in eight years’ time there would be a public referendum on whether Pinochet would serve another term. In 1988, the campaign to oust him won, and provisions were made for Chile to hold its first presidential election in 29 years. Although free and fair elections returned, Chilean democracy continued to function under the structures of the dictatorship’s constitution for decades.
Then, between October 2019 and March 2020, Chileans took to the streets demanding an end to the political-economic model that the dictatorship had introduced. The cry of “Dignidad!” called during estallido social (social upheaval), which witnessed the largest protest in Chilean history on October 25, when an estimated 1 million people in Santiago marched to Plaza Italia – which the protesters renamed Plaza Dignidad. The uprising succeeded in pressuring the government to hold a referendum on whether to rewrite the constitution, and the approval vote received 78 percent of the vote.
In early 2020, I spoke with members of this movement at Plaza Dignidad. They told me that their movement was not only about the proposed price increase on public transport, which had apparently triggered the protest, but rather, as someone told me, it was a protest against the last 30 years: “no son treinta pesos, son treinta años” (it’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years).
By September, Chileans will return to the ballot box to decide whether to adopt the text of the new constitution, which is currently being negotiated. Although the outcome is unknown, the inclusion of social rights represents a new phase in the struggle for a dignified life, one that fulfills Allende’s last words of “believing in Chile and its destiny … to build a better society.”