Chile’s constitutional convention has adopted a series of “fundamental rights” into the text of the proposed constitution. These social rights include, among others, the right to health care and social security, the right to unionise, strike and collectively bargain and “the right to a dignified and adequate home.”
Janis Meneses Palma, the co-coordinator of the fundamental rights commission, argued that the vote represents “a significant advance in the demands of multiple generations.” Indeed, the vote marks the first time positive social rights will be included in the Chilean constitution.
Nearly 50 years after the military overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, 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 forms part of a much longer history of Chileans’ struggle to achieve a dignified life.
Tracing this history not only helps us better understand the multigenerational demands referenced by Meneses, but it also highlights that after 42 years of neoliberal governance, the Chilean people have pledged to revive the power of the state as the guarantor of a dignified life.
Elected in 1970, Allende promised a socialist revolution anchored in the country’s pluralist political system — his government would use the mechanisms of Chilean democracy to place the country on the road to socialism. By the end of 1971, the signs were promising: The government had successfully nationalised the country’s mining industries by a unanimous vote in congress, and the governing coalition had won several off-year elections.
As historian Peter Winn uncovered, the government’s Keynesian economic policies had also produced tangible everyday benefits for the people, such as allowing for a majority of Chileans to purchase bedsheets for the first time in their lives.
Country’s mineral wealth
In July 1972, Allende spoke to a gathering of Chilean youths in downtown Santiago to mark the anniversary of the vote to nationalise the country’s mineral wealth to serve its socialist goals. “We did not buy our dignity,” declared Allende, “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.”
As Allende delivered his speech in the center of Santiago, the workers and residents of the city’s industrial belts began organising themselves in new and creative ways. Rather than organising solely as shop floor unions, structured by trade or industry, the workers began organising territorially.
Operating under the name of the Cordones Industriales, these grass-roots organisations sought to coordinate a pan-industrial breakthrough that would overcome growing opposition and allow the government to continue the country’s socialist transition.
The Cordones became the government’s first line of defence later that year when the country’s business elite transformed an isolated trucker’s strike in the south of Chile into a nationwide lockout that became known as the bosses’ strike. The workers of Santiago’s Cordones seized their factories, reorganised production and developed new forms of distribution that allowed the government to maintain an adequate supply of basic necessities.
The history of one such organisation, known as Cordn Industrial Vicua Mackenna, is illustrative of the Cordones’ importance in the struggle for dignity.
Located in southeast Santiago, the Vicua Mackenna industrial zone contained some of Santiago’s largest, oldest and most important industries, such as the Sumar Textile Company, the glassworks company Cristaleras Chile and the metalworks factory Elecmetal, which had introduced the first electric furnace in Latin America.
Workers from 12 companies actively participated in the direct actions of the Cordn, and the organisation controlled nearly 2.5 square miles that it referred to as “the workers territory.”
During the height of the October Crisis, Cordn Vicua Mackenna published a manifesto in which it argued that it was a “crime that a minority continues using the basic riches of Chile to maintain their privileges instead of providing a dignified life to all Chileans.”
The Cordones successfully defended the government during the bosses’ strike. But they were unable to prevent the military coup on Sept. 11, 1973, that included the bombing of the presidential palace and which ended the revolution. The territory of Vicua Mackenna saw some of the fiercest fighting, with Miguel Salazar, a local textile worker, describing the “battle” against the military insurrectionists and civilian shock troops as “hell on earth.”
Then, between October 2019 and March 2020, Chileans took to the streets demanding an end to the political-economic model put in place by the dictatorship.
The cry of “Dignidad!” rang out during the estallido social (social upheaval), which witnessed the largest protest in Chilean history Oct. 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, with the approval vote capturing 78 per cent of the vote.
In early 2020, I spoke with members of this movement at Plaza Dignidad. They told me that their movement was not simply about the proposed price increase for public transportation, which had ostensibly sparked the protest, but rather, as one person told me, it was a protest against the past 30 years: “no son treinta pesos, son treinta aos” (it’s not 30 pesos, its 30 years).
This September, Chileans will return to the polls to decide whether to adopt the text of the new constitution currently being negotiated. While the outcome is unknown, the inclusion of social rights represents a new stage in the struggle for a dignified life, one that fulfils Allende’s final words of “having faith in Chile and its destiny ... to build a better society.”
Nicholas C. Scott is a PhD candidate in Latin American history at the University of Virginia where he is writing a dissertation on the history of the Vicua Mackenna industrial zone between 1957 and 2010.