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“Some of the young people in Chile are not aware of how easy it is to lose democracy”

The Chilean historian Sol Serrano Pérez, photographed in 2019.UC

The Chilean historian Sol Serrano (Santiago de Chile, 1954), 2018 National History Prize winner – she was the first woman to receive it – reflects on the causes of the social unrest that exploded in her country in October 2019, the value of democracy in the complex Chilean society and the validity of the tragedy of the coup d’état of 1973. “Polarization, tension and anger revived from our sewers,” he points out in this interview conducted at hours of the plebiscite that will define the future of the drafted Constitution in 1980, under the Augusto Pinochet regime.

Question: What was it that exploded in Chile with the social unrest of 2019?

Answer. Every day something seemed to explode, from the young schoolchildren jumping the subway turnstiles to evade the 30 peso hike [0,040 dólares]; then the simultaneous burning of many stations in Santiago, the capital; demonstrations throughout the country; the violence unleashed against small businesses and public goods; the brave football bars showing that the streets could be theirs; a Government without a Government; not only ineffective public forces, but repressive as in the worst times; and in the midst of the chaos the background scenery appears: a million and a half very diverse people, from groups that dance in imaginative costumes to families of three or four generations. Society seemed like a minefield with so many different explosions. Some violent, others peaceful, others silent.

P. Was it the expression of discontent?

R. A discontent that did not admit deafness and that we all had to listen wherever we were. How to hear so many voices? Moreover, like any moment of rupture, the revolt was rapidly acquiring its own dynamic. The feeling of crisis was already installed long before. And although today several analysts argue that the outbreak was obvious, none is.

P. Is it the rejection of a single phenomenon –such as inequality–, or did the riots respond to multiple causes?

R. There are many and it is early – at least for historians – to make a whole intelligible of them. Chile has always been an unequal society, but the experience of it is now totally different. Chile drags an ancient past of hierarchical relationships that our modernization processes have changed, but that return. At the last minute, development has not been stable enough to further change, not only economically and socially, but culturally our relationships.

P. There is talk of the Chilean paradox …

R. What is paradoxical is that the profound changes of the last decades clearly empowered many sectors that no longer required unions, unions and parties to make their voice heard. They had their own for two generations that arose through their own efforts motivated by the promise that in that effort there was no way back. But there was. It wouldn’t be that dramatically poor man from the fifties, maybe not. The return passage, basically, was that the next stations were closed.

P. Was the promise of prosperity of the transition and the central-left governments a sham?

R. The promise was no sham. Poverty in Chile fell from 39% in 1990 to 9% in 2017. In the period, GDP grew from around $ 4,000 to $ 15,000. But progress is not linear. It generated new demands and new frustrations. “What about me, what?” Those who, as all surveys indicate, feel that they are better than their parents, but less than they expected, may rightly ask themselves. The answer is difficult. More clearly, parents feel that their children are much better off than they are at their age. Sociology has typified this by various names: the syndrome of average growth, the discomforts of modernity. This is a story with several faces that at one point seem to strangle each other. Because one is undeniable: the last 30 years have been the most prosperous and the most democratic in the entire history of Chile. It is not a great comparison, but it is not small.

P. Among the different ruptures that Chile has had, there is a peculiar one, that of 1957, when secondary protests in the center of Santiago due to the rise in the bus passage and the city was devastated. How do you interpret the similarity to October 2019?

R. Once again in the history of Chile, cars are decoupled between expectations and development. In 1957 it was about the rebellion of urban poverty and a nearly bankrupt state. Today is different. It is a disconnect between the individuation of the children and grandchildren of ’57. They are a generation that grows old believing they did their part of the bargain and a highly educated generation that may not have found the job they thought they deserved, but knows very well what they did to deserve it.

P. Those revolts of 1957, you said, were premonitory of the democratic breakdown of 1973. Of what could the crisis of 2019 be premonitory?

R. ’57 was the premonitory of a crisis that could not be resolved. The development project of the revolution in freedom In the midst of the Cold War, it sought to integrate the marginalized into the system through the expansion of the market with agrarian reform and participation. It would have required several decades to be successful, but it was entirely surpassed. Reformism no longer fit in the revolutionary schemes, but the socialist revolution did not fit either and ended in the tragedy of the 1973 coup d’état. I will not bore anyone by referring to the global changes that followed. This is another society and another world.

P. Do you see another 1973?

R. I do not see anywhere near another 1973 in Chile. But we are at a crossroads. The crisis of 2019 can be a premonitory of populism of any sign or of a society that in democracy finds the agreements for a development model that assumes the epochal changes. I am inclined to believe that, despite the current polarization, the majority of society is for this kind of change.

P. How do you understand violence? What is behind it? Is it a devaluation of democracy?

R. Definitely. The appreciation of democracy, especially after the horrendous dictatorship that we live in, has been less profound than I personally believed it would be. I doubt how much it penetrated in certain sectors of the right and the left. Some on the left have been ambiguous, to say the least, about condemning the violence. Democracy seems instrumental and not substantive. The Communist Party has given proof of this and certain sectors of the Broad Front. When you accept a type of violence and not all forms of violence, it is because you do not believe in substantive democracy.

P. The fundamental force behind the riots is an evident generational fracture …

R. Part of the young Chileans were born in a democracy, they are not afraid and they are not more aware of how easy it is to lose it. It is impressive how denigrated democracy has been in the protests in Chile. The slogan as eloquent as it is dramatic, in my opinion, has been: “It’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years.” By the way, representative democracy is experiencing a crisis, but denigrating it does not seem to be the surest way to improve it.

P. Was violence the only way to achieve political change?

R. It is a horrible fallacy. Wouldn’t it have been stronger if it had been peaceful? Women’s movements have been a thousand times more effective.

P. Did the people take to the streets for a new Constitution?

R. No. The logic of events acquired its own autonomy. Faced with total ungovernability, a discredited political class finally managed to do politics and channel this multifaceted phenomenon through a constituent process that means transforming tear gas, pellets, the burning of museums and churches into words. Violence can continue, but increasingly limited and condemned by all. It will be short-lived.

P. What milestone does this constitutional plebiscite represent for Chile?

R. The most important: if before a plebiscite gave us democracy back, it could give us politics back. Politics in democracy that can only be sustained by words. That is the milestone: the value of the word before silence and before the shout.

P. How many generations will it take to detach Chile from the Pinochet dictatorship?

R. Tremendous and painful question. Polarization, tension and anger revived from our sewers as if it were 1973. It is ’73 that is deeply alive. In the demonstrations the same music returns, the same re-signified slogans. The ’73 is the historical memory of these young people that represents the defeat that the powerful inflicted on the powerless. He is an icon of memory more than history.

P. If the option of those who approve the change to the Constitution wins, as seems probable, what historical cycle will be closed and which will open?

R. We know the one that opens, but not the one that closes. It opens the possibility of a discussion in which no one is the same as before, not only because of the social upheaval, but also because of the pandemic and the economic crisis.

P. Will it be a re-founding of Chile?

R. Not at all. And I don’t think it will be a populist or caudillista constitution.

P. Will a new Constitution bring social peace to Chile, or will the country have to learn to live with conflict and violence?

R. You always live with conflict, but not with violence. The violence will end, not with the plebiscite but because of its obvious wear and tear. I see the problem in how to deal with social tension and political polarization. Sometimes I think that only the fear of losing everything forces us to defend something. Democracy and its ability to process conflict so that we don’t get stagnant and waste energy and creativity just fighting. I look with great interest at the new political generation on the right and on the left. I look with optimism at that same generation in business. And I look with frank enthusiasm at the incorporation of women into the world of business and innovation. There are signs of change.

P. What path remains if it is not the constituent process?

R. The violence. So, at some point, someone will ask: who can end violence? And like those who argue that there would be no change without violence, others will say that violence ends only with greater violence. Anything else to say?

P. Are you optimistic about what is coming?

R. A lot. I am optimistic about the return of politics. Democratic politics either stands by the word or hands its only weapon to arms.