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Chileans go to the polls tomorrow for the second round of presidential elections, in which the Communist Party is supporting Michelle Bachelet. But how significant would Bachelet’s re-election — she was last in office in 2010 — be for the left?
Camila Vallejo, the communist student leader who led the great protests of 2011, was elected to Chile’s House of Deputies last month.
She argues that victory for the Bachelet-led New Majority coalition could be “the beginning of a deeper transformation” for the country.
“We need to guarantee fundamental social rights, but also to advance them substantially,” Vallejo tells me.
“We need a more integrated approach to the democratisation of our country and the fight against inequality. We’re talking about major changes to the way this country has been structured since the end of the military dictatorship.
“The transition to democracy was never completed. Now is the time to finish that.”
Voting for Bachelet, she says, is the right choice for anyone who really wants to change Chile’s political and economic model.
This is why the Communist Party has agreed to be part of New Majority for the first time — but the party itself did very well in last month’s elections. It doubled its number of deputies in parliament. Among those elected alongside Vallejo are her successor as head of the Communist Youth Karol Cariola and party president Guillermo Tellier.
How does she feel about these victories?
“Neither I nor the party interprets the victories as our own,” she says. “They are important because they advance the demands and struggles of the people of Chile.
“Our party over its nearly 100-year history has always fought for democracy, the rights of the working class and the people.
“When we have advanced, Chile has advanced. When they have tried to make us disappear, the people’s victories have been snatched away.
“Today, despite massive Establishment anti-communism, we have managed to increase our representation in parliament.
“This means we have support from more than just our party members. It’s because we have played an important part in social movements, taking to the streets and waking thousands of consciences.
“We have managed to put the need to change our society to one which enshrines true democracy, social justice and equality back on the political agenda.
“Our progress is the progress of hundreds of thousands of men and women who want and need Chile to be different and who are willing to work hard for this.
“To succeed we will need ever greater effort, more organisation and more unity.”
Vallejo came to international attention for her role in the student protests of 2011. But student leaders quoted in liberal newspapers such as Britain’s Guardian last month said the vote would make no difference. What does she make of that?
“Well, first I’d clarify that this political stance doesn’t represent the whole student movement. It certainly is present among some trends, particularly those linked to anarchism,” she says.
“We don’t believe that the vote itself will make a revolution. But it is one tool in the struggle which can open the way to new possibilities for transformation.
“It’s true we have a dishonest political system, in many ways very undemocratic, and a constitution that is customised to serve the neoliberal model and acts as a barrier to social movements and to real change.
“However, leaving others to decide for us the reality in which we all have to live is no solution to the problem. On the contrary all it does is maintain the existing relations of power and domination.
“We say loud and clear that in order to fight inequality, to take on the empire of the market and of profit, it is necessary both to fight on the streets and to gain positions of power.
“A social movement without a transformative vocation has no soul. But unless it also seeks power it will not be effective in actually changing anything.”
Would a victory for Chile’s left affect Latin America more widely?
“I believe that a New Majority government would enable us to strengthen the integration of the ‘Latin American axis’,” Vallejo answers.
“We would deepen our partnership with other countries and governments, and with organisations of integration such as Merocsur, Celac and Unasur which ensure respect for the sovereignty and independence of countries and their citizens’ decisions.
“A government of the New Majority will give impetus to a new political chapter in the ongoing integration of Latin America and the Caribbean.
“We are seeking not only to increase GDP per capita, but looking at how the distribution of wealth affects economic growth.
“And the new left movement in Latin America is also about how we appreciate our own culture, whether intellectual, social or political, and how we give more space to young people, listen to what they are saying, and how to realise the vision of the social movements that have taken their demands to the streets.”
Latin America’s challenge to neoliberalism is quite possibly the most exciting phenomenon in the world today.
And Vallejo is surely right that a left government in Chile would be a boon to the whole continent.
Camila Vallejo is member-elect of the Chilean House of Deputies for La Florida and on the central committee of the Communist Youth of Chile.
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