The tight US presidential contest has understandably diverted people’s attention from two hugely important elections, separated by half a century, in a small country of the Global South. Fifty years ago, Salvador Allende, Chile’s martyred president, made history with his November 4, 1970 inauguration. And on October 25, 2020, worlds apart from Joe Biden’s tiny margin of victory, a colossal majority of Chileans voted to draft a new constitution, prying open the grandes alamedas that had been slammed shut by the 1973 military coup that crushed Chile’s socialist experiment. After decades of marginality, Chilean workers have roared back into the streets and voting booths, at long last resuming what is certain to be a grueling fight to reclaim genuine political and economic democracy. Allende and the thousands of militants killed or disappeared by Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship are smiling down on this unquestionable victory.
Chilean workers wrested the chance to rewrite the country’s Pinochet-era constitution through costly struggles. Coming after years of revitalized protest, October 2019’s popular rebellion forced the country’s ruling elites to concede a plebiscite on a new national charter. Chile’s battered working class was unequivocal: one year later, Chileans voted by an overwhelming four-to-one ratio to sweep the reigning constitution, and with it the whole neoliberal democratic order and political class, into history’s basural.
Chile’s insurgency does not yet spell the end of neoliberalism in one of its first laboratories. But the plebiscite, and the prior estallido, or explosion, that shattered the world’s showcase for free-market reform, have indisputably laid bare the contradictory merger of political democracy and harsh economic liberalization. More important, Chile’s revived mass rebellion has opened a political revolution from below that can forge a path to far-reaching reforms while fending off far-right, authoritarian populism. With Latin America in the throes of its second major crisis of neoliberal rule, all eyes are again on Chile. As it begins to chart a new road to socialism in the region, it will need to overcome the harm inflicted by a prolonged and brutal pro-business counterrevolution.