Twilight of the Dinosaurs in Chile at Last?

A new generation of young politicians has risen from Chile’s enormous student protests of 2011-2013. Can they lead the country to a more democratic political and social system, asks Josefina Licitra in Brando magazine.

Chile’s bizarre ‘binomial’ electoral system was designed in the last days of the right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet, to prevent leftists from threatening the military’s interests. The country is divided into electoral constituencies; in an election, any party that gets at least a third of the votes in a constituency is given one of the two parliamentary seats from that district. Effectively, in most districts, then, each of the two major parties gets a seat: perfect and eternal political gridlock.

On November 17, 2013, I spent the entire afternoon glued to the television. It was the day of the presidential and parliamentary elections in Chile, but that was not exactly the important thing. Rather, it was the promise that this election, unlike so many before it, held out.

There were numerous candidates who had been prominent in the student movement [which had shaken the country for the past two years], and for the first time in decades there was a threat to the status quo established — many felt forever – during the era of Augusto Pinochet. The outcome of the election was encouraging. Although my own favorite candidate (Francisco Figueroa, perhaps the movement’s most brilliant mind) did not win, others with a bigger media profile did win. The most prominent winner was Camila Vallejo, but she was not alone; with her election came Giorgio Jackson, Gabriel Boric and Karol Cariola. These few victories, four new representatives who arose from the student movement, are filling Chilean institutions with a strange feeling. These kids are seen as the beginning of something, perhaps the starting point of a series of education, tax and even constitutional reforms that, if they are carried out, would make Chile a different, possibly more just, country.

I spent the afternoon in front of the television, I told myself, not just out of political curiosity but also because I’d met several of the candidates a few months before for an article I had written for a foreign magazine. During that time I had traveled to Santiago to write a profile of Camila Vallejo (the girl who has taken all our breath away; we have all wanted to be close to that lucid beauty), but once I was there, the story went further than I expected. Camila was a single link in a nearly revolutionary movement that was rearing its head during a key moment of complexity and rupture.

In a bar, Jaime Parada, a councilman, civil rights activist for sexual minorities, and Camila’s best friend, summed up the movement and its fine print by telling me a shocking story. It occurred May 21, 2012. That morning in Valparaiso, a coastal city located 120 kilometers from Santiago, [conservative]then-president Sebastian Pinera was set to give his annual address to Congress. That day, unlike so many before it, was especially tense. Student protests were are their peak, and any public appearance by Pinera guaranteed problems.

Outside of Congress, protesting against the government, a large part of the students were led by Giorgio Jackson, Francisco Figueroa and Camila Vallejo leaders of Chilean student federations.

Jaime Parada was also in the middle of the tumult: He had just left the Congress building and was searching unsuccessfully for Camila. Then he spotted her. In the middle of the chaos of the protests and from a block away, the girl came walking up, ringed by a group of members of her Communist Youth party (of which she is still a member) who were protecting her from the mob flinging itself at her: A horde of far-left wing activists yelling “sell out”, “tabloid whore”, and “lukewarm”; dozens of news outlets lobbing questions into the air, and a group of leeches looking to take advantage of the moment to grab her ass yelling “have my baby”, “let me suck on your tits”, “friend me on Facebook”.

“It was like a wild pack of dogs around Camila, and she was walking stoically with her group of people around her. Camila is very admired, but she is also very hated, and even more so by the extreme left, where she is considered ‘sell out’, and they aren’t afraid of letting her know. But she can live with that. I saw her walking and it was like nothing was happening. For me, that scene explains like no other the complexity of the movement.”

That’s what Jaime Parada told me that day in Santiago. During our chat he would say other things as well, but it would by that cinematic image he would return to time and time again, every time he had to remember the content of “La Camila” and, consequently, the content of the Chilean students movement: The largest social uprising that has occurred in Chile since the end of Pinochet’s rule and a political feat that found its pivotal moment in the last elections.

“With the results in hand, one can see some interesting years on the horizon; there are no guarantees of reforms, but there is a lot of social pressure on politics,” says Francisco Figueroa — one of the candidates for the Autonomous Left party, the most radical movement in the elections — in an email. “The changes, if they come, will come thanks to the pressure applied by the students movement and the new forces that are starting to open up their space in politics. Because it’s clear they won’t come from the government. Just one example: (Chilean President Michelle) Bachelet appointed as minister of education Nicolas Eyzaguirre, an enthusiastic neoliberal who as finance minster under (former president Ricardo) Lagos approved the creation of a government-endorsed loans, which must be among the most inefficient government measures and the most significant example of the government catering to the private sector.”

twilight-of-the-dinosaurs-in-chile-at-last01Gabriel Boric at a rally. Photo CC

Camila Vallejo made it to Congress supporting, strangely, Michelle Bachelet. Karol Cariola (another Communist Youth member) and Giorgio Jackson, who has his own movement called the Democratic Revolution, did the same thing. This backing, in turn, is the biggest complaint the students’ movement has about these people, mostly about Camila. In her case, after saying endlessly during protests that she would never vote for Bachelet — whose administration backed (policies) that were not favorable to equality for the middle and lower classes –, the fact is she ended up obeying the orders of her party and did an about face that had its consequences.

A good part of the population supported Camila Vallejo — in fact, she won with 43.68 percent of the votes in her precinct — but many of the students reacted as one reacts to a scam. “Fake”, “prostitute”, “liar”, “politician”, “puppet”; these were a few of the tags Camila received for entering the ranks of the New Majority party, a political offshoot of the Concentration, a coalition of center-left parties and movements that Chile set up with the return of democracy, and that grew out of a promise — a promise many feel is unfulfilled — to give citizens back the rights they lost during the 17 years of dictatorship.

“I’m not a idealist. I have my principles, but I also know what tactics and strategy are, and I understand that to move forward with the demands Chile presents today, it takes a good constellation of political forces,” Camila said during our encounter, without letting a moments hesitation steal the grace from her composed face.

Camila’s decision — which is not really hers but that of the Communist Youth party, to which she belongs — has an explication. And trying to understand it requires a close look at the political system Chile has been dragging along since the time of Augusto Pinochet.

It may be long, but it is essential.

In Chile, there is a “binomial” system of government, which means the country is divided into 60 regions, and each region must elect two representatives (because of this there are a total of 120 representatives in Parliament). To elect them, there is a voting process by list: The two lists that win the most votes in each district will put their representative in Congress. The footnote is that the two lists are always the same: the Alliance — the right-wing coalition to which now ex-president (Sebastian) Pinera belongs — and the New Majority, which has found its most prominent figure in Bachelet. Since these two lists win the majority of the votes in every election and every region, the Alliance and the New Majority win seats and, while the smaller movements are left out, Congress is always divided into exact ideological halves. For decades, this had direct institutional consequences. Considering that laws are only passed with a majority vote in Parliament, that explains why, since the end of the dictatorship, it has been impossible to approve a raft of measures that would produce real, deep change in Chilean society.

The news is that this just changed. In some precincts, for the first time and thanks to the political power of the student leaders, the two open seats ended up in the hands of the New Majority and the left. And that means that from now on, progressives — to use a generic and debatable term — have 58 percent of Parliament and the country is facing the possibility of vital change in the lives of Chileans.

“This was the most important election in the last 20 years,” says Fernando Atria, a law professor at the University of Chile who has become the top expert on Bachelet and is today pushing for constitutional reform. “The 50 percent quorum has been broken. We now have more tools to change the political foundation set up by Pinochet’s government, which makes Chile look like an emerging nation when the truth is that growth has come at the cost of massive social inequality.”

Atria is talking about this: Until to 2011, when the protests broke out, Chile had been seen in the world as “the jaguar of Latin America”, a country — according to figures from the World Bank — that had an almost 100 percent employment rate, just 14 percent of its population below the poverty line, and an efficient government. However, the student movement exposed the underbelly of the model. The middle and lower classes, it was known, had to go into unthinkable debt to pay for basic rights like health care, nursing homes, and education.

twilight-of-the-dinosaurs-in-chile-at-last02Student March. Photo CC

Why, then, did the students rise up, and not the elderly and the sick? Because the Chilean transition — which is what journalists call the period of leaving behind the dictatorship’s institutional schemes — created an idea in education of social mobility which, despite its good intentions, maintained the Chicago School principles that Pinochet had installed. Everyone, it was said, could achieve individual success through study, but with the obstacle that universities were expensive, and obligated a large part of the population to go into debt with private banks.

As the years went by, this myth was undermined. Thousands of students graduated — or quit — laden with debt, and in the best of cases, with degrees that did not get them good jobs, because many universities, created only for profit, had an abysmal academic level, in one case even having the nerve — as happened with the The Americas University — to have their classrooms in a mall.

“Education is a perfect example of how Chile is full of institutional traps that sustain the societal model,” said Camila during our brief encounter in Santiago, “Education as a consumer product and the possibility that the private sector do business are guarded by our current constitution. With the movement, we broke this very large cultural hegemony. We gave it a little push, but people were already tired of it.”

I saw Camila one Wednesday morning. Her press team had only given me half an hour to interview her in La Florida, the working class neighborhood that had ended up voting Camila into Congress, and the center of her campaign. The office consisted of one room with an immense poster of Camila’s face — her luminous skin, her nose ring — and long table where seven people were drinking coffee.

At some point Camila arrived. She had a little belly pushing against her black clothes — she was six months pregnant — and, above all, was shockingly beautiful. She was even more gorgeous in person than in the pictures. Francisco Figueroa, my favorite candidate — who did not win –, made a precise analysis of the aesthetic influence on political life in Chile.

“Camila’s beauty helped a lot,” he said, “There was this idea that the student leaders were Apollonian gods, but that was a big lie. Gabriel (Boric) was overweight, Giorgio was losing his hair, I have these massive ears, and during that time none of us showered… But Camila’s beauty created this idea of the good and the beautiful.”

“References to my person are a recurring theme,” Camila said as she sat down, “During the protests we knew that was going to be used, because I was conscious of the society I live in and that the right wing was going to use it to trivialize the movement’s demands, although I didn’t think it would be so strong.”

As she spoke, Camila was interrupted with questions about her schedule. Around that time she was supposed to take an important symbolic step: She had to agree on a date to take a controversial picture with Michelle Bachelet. I asked her about it.

“I think the argument about Bachelet exists within the debate of what it means to be left wing. One of the problems with the left is precisely not being able to resolve who is further to the left than the other. Making things personal doesn’t make sense. Today all the presidential candidates have questionable pasts, and if you use that as a base, you’re going to be very alone.”

Despite what one might think, this conciliatory attitude provided massive support not just for Camila Vallejo, but also for Karol Cariola and Giorgio Jackson, whose group finally supported Bachelet and won 48 percent of the votes in his precinct. Giorgio has always perhaps been the most elegant figure in the students’ movement. At 24 — he is now 27 — he was a well-groomed engineering student. The girls liked him and the girls’ mothers liked him because he showed up on Al Jazeera giving interviews in perfect English. Back then, when he led a movement that put more than 100,000 protesters in the streets, he lived with his mother and four sisters in Las Condes, an upper class neighborhood he left two years ago.

Now he lives in Providencia in an old house, sharing the rent with five friends. I met him at the house, which was big and well-built but unadorned, and with that collective disorganization of clutter that comes with places where too many people live.

“There are comrades who criticize us for wanting to get into Congress, but that’s where we fight the battle from,” he said. “In Parliament more than 90 percent (of the representatives) go for reelection. They don’t want to leave. Who would want to leave? We have to get them out of there. Let’s get in there. Let’s not give anything away. When the government says there can’t be free education in Chile because there’s no money for that, we say, ‘What do you mean there’s no money?’. We are a country with $20,000 per capita. It’s just a question of tax reform, because that $20,000 average only reaches less than 10 percent of the population. And what’s more, in Chile one percent of the population accumulates 30 percent of the income. So, when you talk about averages, that’s hidden and people say in Chile we are doing very well, but it’s hidden that 50 percent of the population makes less $500 a month.”

Giorgio threw around numbers like it was a sport. That attitude, in fact, had been the calling card of the students’ movement: Knowing they were young and middle class, and that they would be criticized for it, they had decided to study and overwhelm with facts and figures.

“The older generation always labeled us as ‘lazy’ or as ‘young idealistic dreamers’. How could we eliminate that prejudice? By being super nerds, rolling out numbers, talking about poetry, and saying, ‘Answer that’. And the truth is that people believed so little in the politicians that we didn’t have to do much to make them believe in us,” Giorgio smiled, “We just had to be better than mediocre.”

It turned out well, or almost. Of the six candidates that came out of the students’ movement, Camila, Karol Cariola, Giorgio Jackson and Gabriel Boric — from the Autonomous Left, the most radical — four were able to get into Congress. Those who didn’t make it were Sebastian Farfan (the former spokesperson for Chile’s Students’ Confederation) and Francisco Figueroa, who belongs to same group group as Boric but ran in an area — the Providencia-Nunoa neighborhood — that didn’t support him. He also ran a low-budget campaign and didn’t have the media presence of Giorgio, Camila and Cariola, who all supported Bachelet.

I’m sorry Francsico didn’t win. He is seen by everyone as one of the sharpest minds in the students’ movement. And he was the only who did not write a victory speech going into the November 2013 elections.

“This is a long fight and right now we are down. We are losing,” he said when I saw him, “Bachelet had her chance to do something and she didn’t do it, and now she’s absorbing parts of the movement. We have to be level-headed. Bachelet won this election, but it’s still not a reflection of what is really happening in the country. The transition is going to end when this model of government ends. We have time.”

Francisco, pale and thin, talked like someone slowly sharpening a knife. He looked innocuous: wearing glasses. And it was perhaps this look that had generated the biggest misunderstanding among career politicians. Then 26 years old, Francisco vaulted into newspaper headlines during an interview with CNN Chile in which he was able to completely fluster Sergio Bitar, the former education minister for Ricardo Lagos — ex-president of the Concentration, the same coalition as Bachelet’s — and the man who implemented the famous ‘government-endorsed loans’, a way of going into debt with privates banks to pay for school that ended up sinking Chilean families. Bitar was one of the three biggest enemies of the students’ movement, and Francisco had him at his side in one of Chile’s biggest shows about politics.

“The Concentration and the right have to decide if they are going to continue being the political wing for the banks,” Francisco said at one point in a discussion filled with technical details, “Because the banks went knocking on the Concentration’s and the right wing’s door to assure themselves a profitable niche and you, Mr. Minister, opened that door.”

Before Bitar could open his mouth, the host — Ramon Ulloa — showed a graphic where the scope of student debt could be seen. While Ulloa read the numbers, Bitar seemed to be breathing hard.

“It’s insolent,” he said, “to suppose that you have moral authority and that the rest of us haven’t fought for…”

“You don’t have moral authority.”

“You want better policies, get into politics and respect the people! No one knocked on the minister’s door saying ‘I want to do business’! Please, I’ve dedicated my entire life to politics! I was a minister for (former president Salvador) Allende and I was a political prisoner and I’ve been exiled so a child can come along and qualify me in this way!”

Francisco looked at him with alert eyes, but in an unsettled state. The host tried to moderate and decided to give each of them 30 seconds more. Bitar went first. Francisco waited for his turn and, without imagining the scene would turn into a clear summary of the rift between the old politics of the Concentration and the new politics of the students’ movement. Social demands had been on the lips of a generation born in democracy, that did not know fear, that was free of the traumas of the dictatorship and to whom the conventional credentials — “I was persecuted”, “I was with Allende” — were important, but did not seem a valid safeguard capable of purifying any and all political errors.

“I didn’t understand that interview had been so meaningful. I spoke and then I took off,” Francisco said to me. “I knew Bitar was a guy with a short fuse, but…”

“Do you have a copy of that program?”

“You can find it on YouTube.”

“Under what name?”

“Search for Sergio Bitar,” I write it down, waiting for what comes next, “goes crazy.”

‘Sergio Bitar goes crazy’. That’s how I searched it on my phone and that’s how I found the video: A 15-minute argument with highly theoretical moments that ends with Bitar out of his mind, and moments when the host Ulloa must intervene with equanimity. He gives 30 seconds to Bitar first, and 30 seconds to Francisco next.

“The good thing about all this,” Francisco finally says when it is his turn,”is that these indecencies that have been committed with the students and their families are not going to continue, because our generation has entered politics to stay, and that is what really irritates former minister Bitar. They have had a monopoly on politics,” Francisco says looking at Bitar, “and that is going to stop.”

twilight-of-the-dinosaurs-in-chile-at-last03Student March. Photo CC

While I finished watching the video, Francisco got out of his seat, went to his room, and came back with a book written by him that had picture of the street protests on the cover. The title was (is) “We Have Come to Stay” and inside — I would later learn — was a harsh chronicle of the student uprising, but also a warning about the years to come; a future that, everyone knows, will belong to people like Francisco Figueroa, who lost, but has all the time in the world ahead of him.

Josefina Licitra Translated from Spanish by Brian Hagenbuch for International Boulevard