Chile: Boric’s ‘trigger happy’ law opens the way to reaction

The International Marxist Tendency has warned from day one that the government of Gabriel Boric has been marching to the drumbeat of the right. As early as the second round of the presidential elections in 2021, we denounced his populist use of immigration and public security issues in the campaign. With this repressive agenda, he aims to win the support of moderate or depoliticised layers of society and draw them away from the right. Ultimately, this merely adds grist to the mill of the far right. Last month, President Boric spearheaded a policy that was overflowing with betrayals and inconsistency by supporting the enactment of a ‘trigger happy’ law for the police (the ‘Carabineros’, popularly nicknamed the ‘pacos’), known as the Naín-Retamal Law.

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The Naín-Retamal Law, which owes its name to two police officers killed on duty, toughens the punishment for those who attack or kill police officers, among other measures. The most reactionary aspect of this law is the so-called ‘privileged self-defense’ clause, which presumes rational intention when a police officer uses his service weapon. That is, it greases the wheels of impunity for police officers, while the victims of the shootings that took place during the 2019 social uprising continue to wait for justice.

During the legislative process, the executive introduced a number of motions to moderate this last element. The ruling coalition parties from the Frente Amplio (FA, the ‘Broad Front’) and the Communist Party of Chile (CPCh), opposed the clause on ‘privileged self-defense’ and threatened to challenge the bill in the Constitutional Court. They vacillated, however, under the pressure of events as another police officer was killed the night before the vote, while the president hastily signed the bill into law, which places it beyond challenge in the Constitutional Court. The MPs of FA and CPCh thus found themselves out-maneuvered.

The government is unleashing forces that it cannot ultimately control. They have paved the way for reaction and a more openly authoritarian regime.

A reformist government?

The ruling coalition is formally composed of the FA and the CPCh, and it takes the name Apruebo Dignidad (‘Approve Dignity’), a name that is now obsolete given last year’s rejection of the coalition-supported draft constitution, which it was claimed was intended to protect ‘human dignity’. Although some communists remain in important positions, its centre of gravity has been increasingly shifted towards those figures coming from the former Concertación coalition (the Socialist Party, SPCh, and the Party for Democracy, PPD), with whom the FA and CPCh maintain an uneasy governing alliance.

At the time of taking office, Boric appointed Mario Marcel, the former President of the Central Bank who is close to the SPCh, as Minister of Finance. In this role, he has pushed a policy of austerity attacks and ‘fiscal responsibility’. More recently, de facto power has shifted to the new Home Secretary, Carolina Tohá, the former PPD president, who is tainted by scandals around the irregular financing of political campaigns, and who is the face of thirty years of Concertación governments.

In December 2021, immediately after Boric won the election, we explained that this was a government of class conciliation:

In any case, Boric has not even presented a programme of profound reforms. He talks about fiscal responsibility, and change through “slow but firm steps”. In his programme, he insists: ‘Our Government will have as a priority recouping a trajectory of credible fiscal consolidation, with a gradual and sustained reduction of the structural fiscal deficit.’ He wants to prove himself to be a good manager of the business interests of the capitalist class and to thus put the bourgeoisie at ease. His message to the capitalists is: ‘the social divide needs to be healed so that the country can grow.’

Carabineros Horses Image SEGEGOB Wikimedia CommonsA militarisation policy has been established in the north, giving extraordinary powers to the military in controlling the borders / Image: SEGEGOB, Wikimedia Commons

The “transformative program” of Apruebo Dignidad promised, among other things: a universal healthcare system; decent pensions and the end of pension fund private managers (AFPs); free, public and quality education; and to be an ‘environmentalist’ and ‘feminist’ government. To make the profound changes that were promised, including an increase in the publicly funded Universal Guaranteed Pension, these reforms were linked to additional financing, supported by tax reforms. But the latter were thwarted by the unexpected voting down of the bill in Parliament. The government believed that by moderating its programme it could appease the right. In reality, the right turned its back on the government.

Another crucial policy for the government, and in particular for the CPCh, was the ‘40 hour law’, which aimed to fulfill a historic demand of the working class on the length of the working week. The project was negotiated over months in meetings between the main trade union confederation, the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT, which is dominated by the SPCh), the bosses, right-wing legislators and the government. But the result of these negotiations was to give way to full flexibility of labour, something so longed for by the capitalists, placing workers in a disadvantageous position in the face of unilateral decisions by the employers.

From dissolving and defunding, to reforming and financing

Although it was promised to bring an end to the infamous Anti-Terrorist Law and the militarisation of the Mapuche ancestral territory in southern Chile, this has not happened. Indeed, militarisation has increased. Under this government, extensions to the state of emergency in provinces of the so-called ‘Southern Macrozone’ continue to be approved. Furthermore, another militarisation policy has been established in the north, giving extraordinary powers to the military in controlling the borders.

The only question now is, when will the militarisation of the ‘Central Macrozone’ come about? SPCh senators have already advanced this idea, proposing a state of emergency to combat drug trafficking and crime in Santiago and Valparaíso. For the time being, this initiative has had no echo in the government. Nevertheless, it shows the slippery slope we find ourselves facing. Working people find themselve unable to impose the demands they raised in the October 2019 uprising, whilst the right is unable to establish its complete control over the situation. These are the conditions in which elements of Bonapartism can emerge, in which power is becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of the police and army.

In the municipality of Central Santiago, the ‘communist’ mayor Irací Hassler is already implementing a public security policy, characterized by the persecution of street vendors and the repression of secondary school students. Metro stations now have ‘tactical guards’ to stop ticket evasion. Ultimately, who will benefit politically from this? Those mayors and right-wing candidates who pursue a more consistently reactionary policy.

Pinera Image Fotos TVN FlickrThe reformist left approved bills passed by the Piñera government to increase the repressive power of the police against social protests / Image: Fotos TVN, Flickr

As a result of the discrediting of parliament, we’ve seen a ‘mayoralisation’ of national politics. This phenomenon is, in part, a legacy of the military dictatorship, which put an end to the social rights secured at the state level, and transferred the administration of public policies to the municipalities and appointed mayors.

The latest strategy announced by the executive is a security plan across 30 municipalities, which are home to one third of the population, and 50 percent of violent crime. It was also announced that the use of the Uzi submachine gun by carabineros will be resumed, which were restricted after the murder, using this weapon, of 16-year-old Manuel Gutiérrez during the student protests of 2011.

This generation of reformists and postmodernists went from demanding the defunding of the Carabineros and the dissolution of the Special Forces during the uprising, to talking about reforms and ‘modernisation’ during their election campaigns, to granting greater impunity and funding for this criminal police force now they are in power. We already remarked on this fact in November 2020, when they approved reforms passed by the Piñera government to increase the repressive power of the police against social protests.

The fox is in charge of the hen house

The experience of the War on Drugs in Mexico and Colombia shows that militarisation and increased funding of the police only increases the number of innocent victims. Weapons end up in the hands of criminal gangs, as we’ve already seen in Chile with weapons being ‘lost’ from the military and Carabinero arsenals.

Let us recall that the Carabineros are the most corrupt institution in the country. ‘Pacogate’ (a corruption scandal uncovered in 2016, involving massive misappropriation of funds) was the largest fraud in Chile's history, valued at 35 billion pesos (roughly $35 million). Leaving aside the thousands of police abuses – including murder, torture and mutilation over the course of the 2019 uprising, and ongoing today in Mapuche territory – how on Earth can we justify granting funding and immunity to this criminal police force?

Corruption linking the state, capital and drug gangs are as lucrative for some as drug trafficking itself. A ‘war on drugs’ may realign the relations between the criminal gangs and the state – favoring one group, which violently displaces another group – but the pre-existing corruption remains. Increasing violence between gangs and the Carabineros is a symptom of this developing friction. The police are just one additional player in the war to control the drug business.

The pandemic, political upheavals and mass migration have upset the previously relatively peaceful balance between international trade, state institutions, and criminal groups. The workers and the youth will continue to suffer the consequences, until a new equilibrium is once again reached, and then members of the armed forces, businessmen, state bureaucrats, and drug cartels can go back to quietly making their profits – unless the organised working class intervenes to put an end to their filthy dealings.

The youth resists

It was in this sordid context of police fanaticism and xenophobia, that another Day of the Young Combatant was commemorated on 29 March. On this date, we remember those young people who fell in the fight against the dictatorship, to which we can now add a list of young people who have also been killed under ‘democracy’. On March 30, we also remember the kidnap and murder of three communist teachers, a crime committed by Carabineros in 1985 under the Pinochet dictatorship.

As in the previous year, Boric spent these two days giving his full backing to the police. Meanwhile, hundreds of high school students gathered in the center of Santiago in a ‘backpack demonstration’ to commemorate the date, while also pressing their demands for education. This government of former student leaders, who made their political careers by standing on the shoulders of the giant student movements of the past, are today, once more, criminalising and repressing the youth on the streets. Boric and Hassler are playing with fire, and as a result they could get burned.

Carabineros Image Alex Proimos Wikimedia CommonsWithin the movement of secondary school students, several revolutionary groups have emerged, which have mobilised to protest and fight with Carabineros / Image: Alex Proimos, Wikimedia Commons

Many of the leaders of the CPCh, particularly those in closest proximity to the government, have lost all confidence in the possibility of revolution and in the struggle for communism. But among the rank and file, their political backsliding does not go unnoticed. What will happen the next time a police officer murders a young student, a Mapuche or a striking worker?

The university students’ organisation has been bankrupted by the FA and the university left. But within the movement of secondary school students, several revolutionary groups have emerged, which have mobilised to protest and fight with Carabineros. They raise local demands, such as for improved infrastructure and food scholarships, as well as demands for funding for public schools and non-sexist education. They have denounced the constituent farce and the so-called ‘progressives’ in power who unleash repression against them.

It is among this young layer that the spark of rebellion remains alive, and an opposition to the government exists, which can pose a revolutionary alternative. Its success depends on its ability to connect up with the working class. To do that, it must overcome anti-political sentiments and an overemphasis on ‘spontaneity’, and build a militant organisation with a political programme for the revolutionary transformation of society, for the abolition of capitalism, and for a workers’ government.

In response to the repressive agenda against crime, they must demand housing and jobs for all; sport and cultural facilities in the neighbourhoods to promote healthy leisure for young people, under the control of territorial and workers’ organisations. They must demand the expropriation of the drug dealers’ profits and the abolition of secrecy in banking to expose the many streams by which business and the state enrich themselves through the same trade. They must stand against the impunity of the corrupt police force, and for workers’ defence organisations in the neighborhoods to combat drug dealers locally. And we must stand for the unity of Chilean workers and foreign-born workers, in the struggle for equal rights for all.

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