The Chilean experience of building an alternative left

José Antonio Vergara

Following the recent election of centre left President, Michelle Bachelet, in Chile, and the relatively successful experience of the Chilean left in standing a united progressive candidate, Tomas Hirsch, we spoke to Chilean activist, José Antonio Vergara:

Socialist Unity Network: In the British press the newly elected President, Michelle Bachelet, is being described as centre left, would you agree with that description?

Vergara: Yes, but I'd say that she is more ethically and politically engaged with the democratic, emancipatory and egalitarian values of the Left than many in the big coalition supporting her. Leaving aside the Christian Democratic Party, which belongs to another political culture, there are three left parties in this coalition, self descripted as "progressive", all having contacts with the international social democracy (each belonging to the Socialist International) : the Party for Democracy (PPD), which was born as an instrumental party during the late dictatorship to take part in the then coming elections and has became to behave as a left liberal force or a Blairite one; the Socialist Party which having had useless ultra radical positions during the Allende regime now is very close to the Spanish social liberal PSOE; and the small Social Democratic Radical Party, which is a very old traditional centre party, a middle class left liberal party not "radical" at all. Unfortunately, in Chile the crisis, alienation and degradation of politics into marketing and power playing by the elites above, caused and maintained by the generalized commoditisation linked to the neo-liberal model of development, makes these parties act mostly as electoral machines and structures for political clientism, with no real functioning social basis.

Socialist Unity Network: I read that Bachelet was tortured and her father murdered under the Pinochet regime. To what degree does the ghost of Pinochet still have an influence in Chilean politics?

Vergara: Her father was an Air Force General, with deep republican (not in the USA sense !) and democratic convictions, who remained loyal to Allende and the constitutional order broken by the extremely violent coup d'etat given by Pinochet with the help of the CIA. He died from heart attack after been mistreated and tortured by his ex military comrades. Bachelet and her mother were imprisoned and tortured too, and then left to exile in the German Democratic Republic and Australia.

Pinochet has no influence in Chilean politics, but as a symbol of the real face of dictatorship : cruelness, violence, torture, cynicism, and an astonishing level of corruption. He is under trial now for what he actually always was : a murderer, a coward and a thief. It is tragically funny that he is the only one of the Junta from 1973 who remains alive to face the complete fall of his public image, and it is difficult enough for the now "democratic" right wing in Chile, representing those who supported the dictatorship and enriched themselves thanks to the joy of the neoliberal laboratory so celebrated by Thatcher, to defend his "work" in the so called modernization of Chile.


Socialist Unity Network: Has the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia, and the continued high profile of Hugo Chavez been a factor in these elections.

Vergara: I don't think so. Unfortunately Chilean society has evolved to a point in which there are no significant subjective links to the rest of the continent, and the mass culture led societal model seems to be the USA.

But, on the other hand, it is evident that the Bachelet's election is moderately coherent with the left turn experienced by many countries in South America (Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia), and there is hope that this could bring real friendship and the opening of bridges to those realities. Bachelet has spoken about regional integration, and at her swearing in as the new President the presidents of all those countries were there, including Evo Morales. The first time a Bolivian president has ever been present at that republican ceremony in the history of either country. He received a warm welcome not only by Bachelet, but by the left and indigenous forces who arranged a public manifestation in solidarity with the Bolivian process. That was very nice and emotive to me.


Socialist Unity Network: Bachelet is the first woman president in South America, but Chile is a socially conservative country – do you think this is surprising?

Vergara: Well, times are changing ... The incredible joy and enthusiasm that one experiences in Chile during these days because of Bachelet's election makes me hope that an opportunity to advance women's rights and to stop the violence against them has started in our country.

Socialist Unity Network: The Humanist candidate Tomas Hirsch won 5.4% in the first round of voting. What parties were included in his coalition campaign? Was the cooperation between these different parties easy or difficult?

Vergara: The main group are the Communist Party, a traditional, Soviet-style force, and the Humanist Party, a group linked to a "spiritual" movement called SILO. There are another completely insignificant forces, such as a loony Stalinist-Hoxhaist sect ("the Chilean Communist Party - Proletarian Action") [Hoxha was the Maoist former leader of Albania]. And it is said that there are some social organizations. I guess the cooperation was not easy, since they belong to different political cultures.


Socialist Unity Network: How effective was the Hirsch campaign and do you think 5.4% was a good result?

Vergara: Hirsch was able to contact with the feelings of many discontents with the system. He was a good candidate capable of using the opportunities of showing an alternative vision by the mainstream media, usually closed to Left viewpoints. But in the end the result was less than expected.

Socialist Unity Network: Hirsch himself called for a null vote, while the communist party backed Bachelet in the final stage. Who do you think was correct?

Vergara: By his decision, Hirsch disappointed many on the Left who supported him in the first round (like me, for instance !) . He showed himself dogmatic and insensitive to the risk of having the hard right wing back in State power. I think that he made evident the typical arrogance of the sectarian Left of considering itself the only one who knows, understands, is ethically coherent, and so on. Those "masses" to whom everyone on the far left want to "represent" wanted Bachelet to become President, but that didn't matter to the sectarians.


Socialist Unity Network: Do you think a permanent progressive political force can grow out of the Hirsch campaign?

Vergara: Well, the unilateral decision by Hirsch with regard to the second round deeply wounded the project. "The Communist Party of Chile used to be one of the most important Western CPs, especially during the 1960s, making a real contribution to democratization processes, with a real working class base and a strong influence and presence in the intellectual spheres, but now it plays no significant role in Chilean politics. It suffered both from the violent repression during the dictatorship and from the fall of the Soviet Union and the s.c. "socialist camp" which it was blindly loyal to.

It is now facing a serious identity crisis after the last year's death of its hardline Chairwoman Gladys Marin. They haven't tried any serious ideological renovation process and uncritically support the FARC in Colombia and the Cuban one-party regime. It seems that the CP's subjectivity is still trapped by the old imaginery of the Third International, with dubious stuff like the anti-dialectical fallacy "the worse the better" ".

The alternative, plural, democratic, Red Green, nor Leninist nor social liberal, citizen's Left hasn't built its home yet, but inside the social movements there are some signs of beginning and regroupment.




March 2006

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