Manuel Riesco is the vice president of Chile's National Centre for Alternative Development Studies (CENDA). He has been active in Chilean politics for many years.

Our vast land full of murmurs again

Nuestra tierra, ancha tierra, soledades, se pobló de rumores...

"Our land – wide land, wilderness –
was filled with murmurs, arms, mouths.
A mute syllable kept burning,
congregating the clandestine rose,
until the meadows shook,
trampled by metals and gallops."
Pablo Neruda

The Chilean laureate opens his vibrant poem "America Insurrecta (1800)" in his epic Canto General with a beautiful bow to rumours. His land is again full of them. It has been for some time now. They may be a presage, announcing that something important is about to happen.

Change is needed, once again. Those above seem no longer able to continue doing their business as usual. Those below want change to happen. And increasingly, they are becoming angry enough to bring it about.

They have done it before, twice in a lifetime. Twice they have been defeated. But, "the thing that they fought for came about in spite of their defeat, and when it came turned out not to be what they meant," as William Morris pondered wisely over a century ago.

First they fought and died for socialism. Indeed, they brought revolutionary terminus to the country's secular agrarian backwardness, and recovered its copper. They cleared the way for rapid development... of modern capitalism.

Then they fought and died for democracy. They unseated Pinochet from his throne of dictatorship – only to watch him retain his baton of commander-in-chief and then flip to the more comfortable sofa of senator-for-life. He did not lose his grip until he was detained in a London clinic on call by the Spanish judiciary, not until the human rights movement brought him and hundreds of his stunts to Chilean justice. Now he is dead. Or is he?

They elected a couple of presidents whom they did not like but felt they could bear. Then another whom they thought would be better but it turned out he was not. The fourth time they made sure, and imposed a pretty decent woman they knew to be one of them. Nevertheless, she is not acting as forcefully as they would expect her to.

Meanwhile, the happy few who sustained Pinochet became richer than ever. They have profited immensely from privatized public companies, health and education, and grabbed most social security contributions. In addition, they have enjoyed better products and services, for which they can afford to pay. And afford they may, because the richest 10 per cent grab over 40 per cent of all income, while the poorest 40 per cent get just 10 per cent of it.

Workers command slim rights and even less respect. The same is true for Chileans at large, whose political rights are still bound by Pinochet's constitution – with some improvements. Over two-thirds of the copper has once again slipped into the hands of a handful of foreign companies that do not pay taxes and, every year, carry away the equivalent of the state budget. Chile itself has drifted apart from Latin America and lost its only chance of shared sovereignty in the 21st century, condemned to become a subservient vassal to the power of the North.

So far, people have watched all this with patience because the country has been modernized and they have improved their lot. But time seems to be up. Now they are demanding decent pensions and good education and their president is working on it – up to a point. They're also demanding the other things and pretty little is being done about that. Discontent is mobilizing the young majority, mostly millions of workers constantly hired and fired from scattered jobs with poor salaries and even shorter rights, who work informally in between. Recently, they have become especially pissed off in Santiago, home to almost 40 per cent of them. Early, before the sun rises, on their way to their jobs, they find that the new transport system in the hands of a few large companies and the banks is even worse than the previous chaos of thousands of unreliable private buses which had initially replaced a decent public transport network built by the state.

Will they fight again? Probably. Will they win this time? They are wiser. They have learnt to unite and isolate those who hurry at it in a frenzy in order to firmly impose themselves over the powerful few who want things to remain forever the same.

But then, who knows?



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