AN INTERVIEW WITH JAVIER SANDOVAL
On October 25, 2020, the people of Chile voted “yes” on the referendum which asked voters two questions: should Chile convene a constitutional convention to write a brand-new constitution? If yes, who should write that new constitution – an assembly comprising half congressional representatives and half citizens, or an assembly comprising just citizens?
After a year of fighting in the streets, this vote was a very defining moment in the struggle, and a key example for other Latin American countries fighting towards a similar goal. How was the vote achieved and what does that mean for what comes next? For our third conversation as part of our series, Resistencias Beyond Borders, we spoke to Javier Sandoval, a seasoned organizer in student movements, political education, environmental and housing struggles, as well as an inhabitant and regional advisor for the Biobío region of Concepción in Chile. What he calls, “that beautiful mighty river, called Biobío.”
A struggle sparked by high school students calling for fare evasion of public transportation escalated on October 18, 2019.
“[The uprisings] opened up a totally new scenario of constituent struggle, of structural transformation of the pillars of the model of the dictatorship-inspired ‘democracy’ that we have in this country,” says Javier. “And that is the form of control.”
He is on a zoom call with us from an “ayuno” to call attention to the hundreds of political prisoners that were captured during the revolts. This initiative consists of national 24-hour fasts where the organizations rotate every 24 hours. Today was Javier’s turn to do the fast as part of his assembly in the Pedro del Río neighborhood. “Protesting is not a crime, and this action is stressing that.”
Javier shares that the current Chilean scenario is the result of the accumulation of inequalities, injustice, and abuse since this neoliberal model was established, conveniently after Pinochet’s coup. Chile is historically the United States’ neoliberalism lab rat, and what we’re seeing is the deep dysfunction and violence of that model.
So, what started as a protest against the metro fare hike of 30 pesos, turned into the slogan “Not 30 pesos, 30 years,” referring also to the Pinochet-era constitution that was written in 1980 and that still remains.
“During all that period of frustrations, betrayals, abandonment and neoliberal consolidation, different social movements with different moments, managed to raise experiences of resistance,” says Javier.
THE PATH TO A NEW CONSTITUTION
Like Canela and Gahela, Javier also feels like the revolts have been a wonderful rebirth, and at the same time, have had a tremendous cost.
“It has been a cultural, psychological, affective, epidermal upheaval of our society,” Javier tells us. “The social fabrics, destroyed by this [neoliberal] model and by repression, are slowly beginning to rebuild.”
Javier says that after a year of intense mobilization the social fabric is healing through solidarity for survival during the pandemic and to also face ineffective and poorly designed policies. “Badly thought out, ill-intentioned policies,” he says, “of the government in power to manage the health crisis that we are experiencing.”
He tells us that to put it simply, at some point a drop of water overflowed the glass, and with it came the uprising. The costs have been many, including mutilations, torture, staging, illegal detentions, abuses, humiliations, rape as well as dozens of neighbors, young people that lost their sight completely such as Gustavo Gatica and Fabiola Campillai.
“These are very cruel situations because there are no substantive advances in the investigations. These institutions simply enjoy impunity,” Javier tells us.
According to Javier, all this is what brought forth the call for a constitutional convention to rewrite the Chilean Constitution, the Magna Carta. He says that the government and political elites have tried to do everything to “save their skin, ensure their privilege, hinder the advance of the proposal for this structural change and to weaken the wave that occurred.”
There are many perspectives from different organizations. Javier shares that there is part of the social movement that wants to participate in the creation of this new constitution, in fighting from within it and also outside in the street. There is also a part that is not interested in participating and that only chooses to strengthen the organization and mobilization in the streets without entering this constitutional rebuilding process. And there are also organizations that want to participate, but from outside the political parties.
“Until now, because the plebiscite is so recent, the discussion was mainly about participating or not participating,” says Javier about the creation of national assemblies that would together draft a new constitution depending on the final vote next year.
He explains that there are a series of reserved spaces in what would amount to this constitutional assembly that are specifically for First Nation communities. Currently there are other sectors of the population that are also demanding their own participation and reserved spaces, such as conversations around disability and gender parity.
According to Javier, the election of the constituents and the formal start of the process will be on April 11. “So what we seek to generate before that is the positions, the deliberation, to know what to do and see the possibilities of agreeing amongst ourselves,” he says.
Across organizations and nationally there are many discussions that are taking place in thematic groups and territorial organizations around what this new constitution might look like. “The Constitution [change] does not resolve everything that has to be resolved, because everything has to be transformed, starting from there,” says Javier.
Yet, there are also the laws and regulations that have always been there as obstacles so that the people never reach the constitutional discussion. “But now we go from above, from that discussion and from below, from organizations trying to unite and articulate demands, articulate problems, articulate proposals,” he tells us. “There are many proposals in the Chilean social movements. There have been decades of learning, of struggle, which ultimately show that the stage of assertive criticism of the pillars of the model has been surpassed.”
“And I dare to add, in my case, let’s say, as a condiment of all this collective reflection and also confronting the authorities, that one thing that is striking, which has always disturbed me at least,” says Javier, “is that the struggles often focus on national demands and they rarely address the local powers at the regional level.”
Javier says that he sees this moment as a great opportunity, and that the issue is for folks to agree to face it together and with the force of the popular movement. “This process is energizing the possibility of giving a systemic response to all this. So we are still optimistic and we are struggling, working, talking, discussing, organizing ourselves so that we can confront, as with much more force, with much greater unity, those who defend the current model in government and outside of government,” he shares.
“Young people have become part of this debate of the territorial discussion in a surprising way. They are no longer just neighborhood organizations with older people,” says Javier. “And there is also a very notorious attitude on the part of traditional neighborhood organizations to face together the threats and problems of extractivism. Of this public-private alliance that is embedded in a devastating way in our habitat, in our ecosystem, in our territory.”
Javier shares that he feels like many of the struggles are territorial and spring from that as a root. He tells us that there are assemblies like his where they see that the problems that are affecting them are related to this matrix of environmental extraction. It is becoming apparent to Javier and his communities that these issues are related to taxes and regional sovereignty, sustainability of water, care of ecosystems, and housing.
Extractivist forestry projects have major impacts for many territories in the areas of Arauco and rural areas where Javier says they now know they have usurped land, expelled entire communities, seized and privatized lands where people cannot live. “They have deforested, destroyed the valleys, they have usurped and stolen Mapuche territory. And besides all that, they are producers of catastrophes, they produce drought and that drought today threatens our region, just as other regions are already in drought.”
Javier shares that feminist groups and gender and sexual diverse communities have been leading many of the struggles as well. He understands this queer and feminist presence as continental and international, but with a very strong and local presence reflected in all the struggles, in leadership, in organization, in direct action, on all levels.
“It is very powerful and enormously invigorates this attitude of rebellion, of being daring, of having the courage to face the enemies of our people who can no longer manage to control the tide, at last truly from us,” he says, “and what we can achieve this time.”
“I have a public position, I am a regional councilor. I’m supposed to give advice,” he says laughing. “But more than anything, I think that we can build together to defeat what we are all facing which is based, ultimately, on the same nationalized conformist model in alliance with the powers, and the local bourgeoisie.”
Javier shares that he has been observing the struggles of the people of Latin America with a lot of hope. He leaves us with a message to the people who are fighting.
“There are wonderful experiences that Latin America is producing everywhere. All these struggles and processes that are being experienced in our countries are related. And there is the feeling that we are returning to Latin America, we are seeing each other again, we are returning to each other and it makes sense, eh?” he shares.
“We have to fight together. And we have to keep in mind the need to generate a common project. It has been tried, attempts have been made in the last decade, but it’s still a challenge. This irrational system is finally breaking down. And it is crumbling even at heart.”
Javier says, “it is also a regeneration between people and that this also produces a model of what we call wellbeing, that allows us to solve the material problems of our people. People can’t eat or heal only with words, only with ideas, they have to generate viable structural changes that mark a new north and a development of harmony. Satisfaction of our basic rights and basic dignity.”
“Because, deep down, Chile has not become or was never even a republic. And that is a bit of the tragedy that our continuum in general has shown. We do not want this system, this model, this capitalist system of unequal exchange that prevails in the world. We can live differently. Together we can do it well.”
[part of the series: RESISTENCIAS BEYOND BORDERS by Ebony Bailey and xime izquierdo ugaz]