We need idealism

in conversation with Fabien Bourlon

Talking about a revolution (Issue II/2020)

Mr Bourlon, since October 2019 many people in Chile have been taking to the streets.Why?

They’re calling for a new constitution. On April 26th 2020 there’ll be a referendum to decide how we can create it. People also want a reform of the pension system and other forms of social policy, as well as better access to education for everyone. The fundamental issues here are the same as ever: how to reconcile the idea of the common good with that of private interests owning public resources? What common interests should the state safeguard? Until now, Chilean state authorities only get involved in solving problems when the private sector is unable to. That’s a completely different system than in Europe, where the state is expected to operate in the interests of most citizens.

You often see the flag of the indigenous Mapuche people at the demonstrations in Chile? Why? 

The Mapuche flag symbolises that everything needs to change – how people work, produce things, dream and relate to one another. We have to remember what this country was like before the neoliberal system was put in place under Pinochet in the 1980s, and also how the country was before it gained independence in the 19th century. The whole of society was closely connected to nature before. Over the last few decades there have been a lot of fights over the restitution of land that representatives of the state took away from indigenous people in the19th century. But the protests now are about reassessing the neoliberal system and how we should connect with nature, the environment and with our neighbours.

You live in Coyhaique, the provincial capital of Aysén, a region in the Chilean part of Patagonia. Environmental protection played a big role in the protests in Aysén, for instance with the movement “Patagonia sin Represa” (“Patagonia without Dams”).

There were protests in Aysén about the construction of a hydroelectric power station and against the mining industry, and indigenous people also play a role here. Let’s take water as an example. Water is privately owned in Chile. If you want to think about the common good, you have to change the constitution. This was rejected by the Senate at the beginning of the year. There are powerful economic interests at stake, because those who hold ownership rights to water sell these on. If you think about the older system, based on the idea of sharing, this automatically leads to indigenous people’s ways of life and their relationship with natural resources they had earlier.

When did the protests start?

There were protests in the 1990s against the selling off of land to large companies. Then in 2012 a new movement sprang up, called “Your Problem is My Problem”. This was driven by fishers, who were having huge problems because the amount of fish they were catching was plummeting as fish stocks dwindled. Their concerns dovetailed with those of lorry drivers and with those of people working in small-scale agriculture. For example, they called for a reduction in electricity prices, for more streets to be built, for more ferries to be introduced, to connect Aysén, a pretty isolated region, with the rest of the country. 80 percent of Aysén’s inhabitants supported these demands.

What do the various protests in Chile have in common?

At the start, all these movements were focusing on individual demands. There were also ecologically engaged groups fighting for environmental protection, and particularly against climate change. And then again there were Mapuche people who weren’t only struggling to get their lands back but also to be acknowledged as part of Chilean society. A new protest movement was initiated by schoolchildren and young people who were saying, “We’ve had enough.” The spark was the rise in metro tickets in Santiago. The young people were calling for everyone to travel without a ticket. That first of all generated a feeling of solidarity and then led to a real explosion of dissatisfaction and anger. They were saying that the state was always increasing the financial pressure on poorer people.

Are all these old and new movements coming together now?

I’d say so, yes. And particularly with this idea of changing Chile’s constitution. Everything’s shifting away from individual problems to one main demand. Before April 26th, the day of the vote on how a constituent assembly should be composed, there are lots of local debates and round tables (so-called “cabildos”) being organised, to find out what people want.

What’s the government’s perspective on this process?

They’re really supportive of it. There’s a lot of violence on the streets of Santiago and also in smaller towns like Coyhaique. Everyone’s afraid of this violence. But everyone also understands the massive frustration people feel about a political class that has abused its power to enrich itself. Only a tiny percentage of the population profits from the country’s wealth. The violence – which is bad for investors – and the overwhelming support for the protests have forced the government to agree to hold a referendum. So now it’s about deciding between a citizens’ constitution and yet another new one, one that was still drawn up by the elites. The last constitution was written by the military and ruling classes. After the Pinochet era, Chile became a laboratory for neoliberalist ideas. The first law in the Chilean constitution governs private property. The second is the right to engage in mining! So the constitution is designed to exploit resources and to protect private interests. Up to now everything’s been based on the notion that “the best will win out”. That was the basic law that everyone hoped would increase the country’s prosperity. But you can’t use that idea to address the issue of common welfare.

What in your view would represent success in terms of the protests?

If there are possibilities to participate in the future. If we can reach collective decisions together. Before now, we’ve thought that idealism is no use, but now we’re realising that we need it to move away from an existence as consumers and towards a society that really thinks about economic values. Perhaps that’s the most important transformation that Chile needs.

The interview was conducted by Insa Wilke

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