The view of the world from the far side of the Andes is different.
I am based in Santiago, Chile this week, staying with friends who have long-standing family connections to the Chilean Socialist Party. Taking US politics as an example, rather than seeing Donald Trump as a strange aberration in the way most do in our part of the world, they see it as the curtains finally coming back on the US political system. Trump then is a more accurate facsimile of American society and its political system. He is the product of a mixture of the narcissist exceptionalism of the American Dream and a growing irrationalism taking hold in the USA.
This idea of curtains being opened on the political world has relevance elsewhere too. The Corbyn phenomenon in the UK is also evidence of how tired people have become of being force-fed a diet of conventional narratives on what is acceptable policy and what is not. In Chile something similar is happening. The outcome of next Sunday’s presidential election has been thrown in doubt by the growth of a radical alternative political movement called the Frente Amplio. The 20% they received in the first round of the presidential election sent shock waves through the political system.
The conventional wisdom had been that Sebastian Piñera, the conservative candidate, would win comfortably. In what has become a familiar story across the world, opinion polls failed to predict the rise of a new political force. Now the leftist candidate Guillier is running Piñera very close and the election is impossible to call. Guillier will win if the votes from the new movement Frente Amplio transfer en masse. Guillier is hoping the fact that 55% of the electorate voted for leftist candidates in the first round will be enough to get him over the line.
The new political dispensation in Chile has the most extraordinary origins. Effectively, it was created by a movement that first sprang up in the Chilean secondary school system in 2006. It was 14 and 15-year-olds that changed the course of political history here.
Tired of sub-standard state education, thousands of schoolkids started marching in Santiago. The Coordination Assembly of Secondary School Students was formed, which organised walk-outs and sit-ins across the capital. Naturally enough, the political establishment and the then-President Michelle Bachelet assumed this would all blow over; the kids would get bored and go back to class.
In failing to address the movement’s demands, Bachelet lit the fuse and the school system exploded. Schools were barricaded and occupied across the country and some 70,000 students took to the streets. They marched into the teeth of Chilean riot police and pictures of the police beating 14-year-olds protesting against privatisation of education changed the political narrative – perhaps forever. So, it took the children of Chile to throw back the curtain and expose the cruelty and folly of neo-liberalism gone mad. This model had been imposed on the country by the military dictatorship and became an orthodoxy for the main political groupings. There was no other way, or so everyone was told. Those who posited radical alternatives were accused of dragging the country into the past.
In what has become an established pattern, time is a political issue in this country. In a curious reversal, the Chile Right insist Chileans always look to the future, and thus the grotesque violence of the past disappears from view. They have been largely successful in defending the notion that economic policy is a technical issue best left to experts and that the main criterion for success is GDP growth. Their political discourse is a kind of hyper modernism which seeks to seal off the country’s present from its past and they have generally achieved this, in terms of the tightly-controlled media here.
However, politics emerge from other non-conventional spaces here. I spent many weekends in Chile in the 1990s, attending football matches. The diktat that the past is off-limits was never accepted in the football stadiums. Football fans here are both racially and politically divided. In a country with a long history of persecuting the left, the fans of La Universidad de Chile created a space within football stadiums where the brutal military regime could be criticised from the terraces. They fiercely defended their section of the grounds from any incursions from the police.
After the regime’s collapse in 1990 and the handover to civilian rule, the fans of La Universidad continued with the displays of leftist icons on the stands and chanting that they would never forgive that hija de puta se llama Pinochet (son of a bitch Pinochet). In a city which has the highest rates of mental illness in the world, the massive banner on top of the terrace in Estadio Nacional says ‘SCANNERS’. This apparent reference to David Cronenberg’s dystopian movie on the madness of modern city life is striking and a bit chilling.
The ultras of the fan base have named themselves los de abajo, perhaps best translated as “the lowly.” There are also powerful references to past episodes that are almost taboo here, including the position of the indigenous people. Before the other big Santiago team Colo Colo play, a massive indian head – a portrait of the indigenous leader during the early Arauco War – is made to dance across the terraces. Here, as elsewhere in the Americas, there was a genocidal war against the native populations.
Although Chile is no longer a dictatorship, it remains a very tightly-controlled society. A rigid class system is still in place, the indigenous are marginalised and for a generation the main function of the centre-left here has been to avoid conflict with a powerful establishment. Rates of inequality remain amongst the worst in the world and the mainstream media is anodyne / toxic. Most importantly, the political settlement that allowed for the commoditisation of what should be state functions is still intact, 27 years after the dictatorship.
A society is in trouble if football hooligans are reminding you of your past and it’s a mark of a very sick country when it takes your children to bring you into line. Why the march of the penguins? Because the tens of thousands of girls and boys were wearing their school uniforms when they shamed a country and a country shamed itself by sending riot police to assault their own children.