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Chile: Neo-liberal policies spark mass protest

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By Simon Hardy

A mass demonstration of tens of thousands of people has rocked Chile’s capital Santiago. The United Workers Centre of Chile (CUT - Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Chile), the biggest trade union federation, organised the protests, the biggest since the fall of the military dictatorship 17 years ago. They were against the government’s neo liberal policies. The Socialist Party and even some government ministers joined the demonstration. Despite the police violence that left over 50 people injured and 740 arrested the scale of the protests sent a clear message to the government that its failure to change would not be tolerated.

According to the United Nations, 47% of Chile’s wealth, primarily from copper mining, is in the hands of only 10% of the population. One of the main reasons for Chiles particularly unequal distribution of wealth is the legacy of the right wing military dictatorship under Pinochet. Chile was used as a test bed in the mid-1970’s for the experimental economic theories, known first as Monetarism then as neoliberalism. They all had one thing in common, to put the burden on the working class to pay for the economic problems of capitalism.

When Michelle Bachelet, candidate of the Socialist Party, was voted in as president in January 2006, many saw it as another blow to Bush and neo liberalism. She made promises of ‘social justice’ and measures to address inequality. There was even talk of her lining up with the Morales/Chavez axis. Instead she has proved to be much more like Brazilian president Lula da Silva, i.e. she has been broadly loyal to the IMF and the United States and her ‘social justice measures” have been feeble. Her government soon ran into mass school and university student demonstrations demanding major improvements in education.

In May-June 2006 there was the “uprising of the penguins” (pupils so named because of their black and white school uniforms) that culminated in a huge demonstration in Santiago, some 790,000 strong. There were more student protests in March this year on the anniversary of the Day of the Young Combatant, commemorating the deaths of two youth killed by the Pinochet dictatorship. The students transformed the demonstration from a just commemoration of the past to a living struggle for the future as they battled police across the capital raising the demands of the previous summer.

Workers and youth need to keep up the pressure on the government to force it to meet the demands of the movement. Last month 14,000 miners in Chile struck for better labour rights and won their demands after the state owned copper mining company lost around $40 million because of the industrial action. Workers faced with their employers soaring profits and their own stagnant wages, youth faced with failure to modernise the education system are more and more turning to direct action. More strikes and street protests, up to and including a general strike can halt the governments neoliberal policies but clearly a political alternative to these policies is needed and indeed to the Socialist Party – a revolutionary communist one.