A protest in Chile in 2019.

A general view shows people gather in a massive protest at Plaza Baquedano during the eighth day of protests against President Sebastian Pinera's government on October 25, 2019, in Santiago, Chile.

(Photo: Claudio Santana/Getty Images)

Can the US Follow Chile out of Its Crisis of Representation?

Both countries find themselves with a growing disconnect between citizens and the institutions that claim to represent them, but Chile has gotten more democratic since 2020 while the U.S. has gotten less so.

On December 17, Chileans voted once again on a new constitution, opting to reject—for the second time in two years—an attempt at constitutional revision. Rejecting a highly conservative text, voters chose to keep the dictatorship-era constitution for the time being. A political saga that began amid immense hope has now devolved into a dismal disarray that’s left countless Chileans tired and frustrated.

Here in the United States, we face an equally bleak political outlook. According to a recent Pew Research Center report, 25% of U.S. adults feel that neither of the nation’s two major parties represents them adequately enough. Some 63% of Americans express little to no confidence in the future of our political system.

Both the United States and Chile, in other words, find themselves at the center of what we can call a “Crisis of Representation,” a growing disconnect between citizens and the institutions that claim to represent them.

Each time Chileans took to the street, they sang louder and danced harder. The more their voices resonated, the harder they became to ignore.

This crisis has spared few countries. In 2019, major pro-democracy mass mobilizations erupted in nearly half—44%—of the world’s nations, an all-time high that surpassed previous records set during the fall of the USSR and the Arab Spring. People all over the world are demanding dignity and democracy. People all over the world feel that their voices are going unheard.

The U.S. and Chile share other links as well. Chile, according to the U.S. Department of State, rates as “one of the United States’ strongest partners in Latin America.” Our countries have maintained diplomatic relations for over two centuries and share proud, longstanding democratic traditions.

Yet this relationship has not always been positive. To say merely that the U.S. has “meddled” in Chilean politics would amount to a gross understatement. The CIA and Nixon administration stood behind the “first 9/11,” the September 1973 military coup that violently uprooted Chile’s then 143-year-old democracy. The U.S. would go on to prop up dictator Augusto Pinochet’s regime for nearly two more decades—17 years of rape, torture, and murder.

The Pinochet years essentially birthed what we now call “neoliberalism.” The conservative U.S. economist Milton Friedman and his disciples used the captive Chile as a testing ground for our world’s now-dominant right-wing economic ideology. Under Pinochet’s neoliberalism, inequality deepened and worker power dwindled. Chileans found themselves forced to operate as consumers not citizens.

Since Pinochet’s ousting by plebiscite in 1990, the neoliberal economic model has continued to constrain Chilean democracy, just as neoliberalism has in the United States and many other countries across the globe. Today, the U.S. and Chile rank among the world’s most unequal nations.

Even so, according to Freedom House, Chile has been gettingmore democratic since 2020, with one of the highest rankings of any democracy in the world: 94. The United States has only becomeless democratic, with an 83 ranking. Here in the United States, we clearly have a lot to learn from the recent Chilean political experience.

Twenty-first-century Chile has been a progressive success story. Starting in the mid-2000s, three cycles of protest changed everything. Chile’s 2006 Penguin Revolution, 2011 Chilean Winter, and 2019 Social Explosion each began with student protests and developed into mass movements. Each cycle grew larger than the last, forcing politicians to pay ever greater attention to the widely shared popular demands.

Before the December 17 election, I spoke with two 31-year-olds, the psychologist Gustavo Ignacio Mancilla Andrade and the professor Jose Luis Escalona Muñoz, about their experiences as student leaders in the Valparaíso region.

“2006 made us realize that change was possible,” Jose told me. “2011 was chaotic at first, but soon we became highly organized. We got to the point where we were all speaking the same language, all calling for education to be recognized as a human right.”

We can see the power of these mobilizations in the policy changes they helped trigger, everything from landmark education reforms to a national plebiscite. Each cycle’s expressive intensity correlated with its impact. Each time Chileans took to the street, they sang louder and danced harder. The more their voices resonated, the harder they became to ignore.

“The arts kept the movement alive,” Gustavo explains. “If you march every day, you reach less people. If you adopt creative tactics, you draw people in. For this reason, you can trace the evolution of Chilean social movements just by looking at how protesters sing.”

Through protest, song, and dance, Chileans had begun resolving the Crisis of Representation.

The 2019 anti-inequality mobilizations turned out to be the largest in Chilean history. Millions flooded the streets to demand new forms of political representation.

“Pandora’s box is now wide open,” as Franco-Chilean historian and sommelier Francisca Herrera Crisan put it at the time, “letting the ghosts of the past escape, finally forcing us to face them. In pain, certainly, but also in the hope set free from the box: that of a people rediscovering themselves.”

Only a worldwide virus, notes the psychologist Gustavo, proved strong enough to slow that opening. Even so, Chile’s then president, the right-wing Sebastián Piñera, would soon concede to protester demands and announce a plebiscite to determine the fate of Pinochet’s constitution. In October 2020, 78% of Chileans voted to scrap the document, initiating a new and historic constitutional drafting process.

By early 2022, the future looked bright. A new constitution was taking shape, and Chile had just inaugurated its youngest president ever: the 36-year-old Gabriel Boric Font, a former student leader elected on an ambitious reform platform. Boric’s election signaled a new direction for Chile. He represented the voice of the young and the dispossessed.

But that hope soon dissipated. Assorted scandals plagued the constitutional assembly, and, after a concerted disinformation campaign, an overwhelming majority of voters rejected the assembly’s draft constitution. Chile’s far right used this political blunder to seize control of the constitution’s second drafting assembly.

In the meantime, Boric has faced strong political headwinds. Inheriting a deeply polarized country, he has found it difficult to build the broad coalitions necessary to pursue crucial reforms.

The story doesn’t end here.

The only way past the Crisis of Representation turns out to be through it, and in Chile the gears for change are still turning. Recent political setbacks have not detracted from Chile’s inspiring victories in deepening democratic engagement.

“These movements served as an important cultural catalyst,” explains the professor Jose. “They made us realize that it was possible to protest and demand a better future.”

Pushback, of course, will always come. Newton’s third law promises that. But if we look at the long trend, we’ll see it traces a positive trajectory. The social process initiated in 2019 has not run its course. The struggle remains alive, now more than ever.

During periods of demobilization, we must pause to regroup—using the lull in momentum as a chance to learn from the past and envision the future. This is the natural rhythm of change, the ebb and flow of progress.

I leave you with the last words of President Salvador Allende, delivered while defending Chile’s presidential palace from the conspirators of the 1973 coup:

“Neither crime nor force can delay social processes,” said Allende. “History is ours and it is made by the people.”

“Go forward,” he assured, “knowing that, sooner rather than later, the great avenues through which free men pass to build a better society will open once again. Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers!”

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