Interview conducted by Kevin S.
José Antonio Gutiérrez is a regular writer for the international anarchist site Anarkismo and a Chilean immigrant in Ireland. Before immigrating, he participated with anarchists in the labor and student movements in Chile, and has since been active in the international solidarity movement.
This interview was conducted over email in January, before the earthquake that shook Chile, hence no mention of that event or its aftereffects was made in our exchange. It also happened that the earthquake in Haiti took place about halfway through our interview. While not expressly mentioned, it forms an obvious and important subtext to the second half in which we discuss international solidarity. The other subtext, in the first half (and again not expressly mentioned), is the recent student protests in California, and to a less extent the student riots in Greece more than a year ago, which grabbed international attention. Student comrades would do well to take note of the anarchist experience with the student movement in Chileone of the more optimistic experiences of our international movement in recent years, and one that points the way to how anarchism can become a force in mass movements. One last note that should be made, in agreement with comments made in the interview, and which forms a running theme of this interview, is the need for anarchists to be open to their own and others’ lived experiences, to learn from those experiences and to also criticize, and be open to criticism, in a constructive and comradely way. Having said that, readers need not agree with every point made in the interview to enjoy and appreciate it.
Kevin: Revolutionary greetings Jose! So to start, some personal intro…. How did you become an anarchist? What sort of background did you have, if any, in social struggles or political activity etc. before joining the movement? Have there been any non-anarchist influences on your thinking, prior to or since “converting”? Did you know much about or interact with any anarchists before then?
José Antonio: Well, I became an anarchist in the mid 90s by going to a place called TASYS in my town, Concepción, that was a social centre where trade unions, community organisations and the anarchists came to meet. Around that time there was a lot of movements and strikes among coal miners in the region and the anarchists were very active in a solidarity committee with that struggle, so I decided I would join them. Before that, I could say I had a very politicised life from the start, since we were living under the dictatorship of Pinochet and my family was in the opposition, so there was always a lot of political debate going on, and we were all aware of the struggle going on and some in my family were very active in the anti-dictatorship movement. My grandmother indeed was a huge political influence, and she would sometimes call herself an anarchist. So obviously I grew to have from a very young age a rabid hatred for US imperialism and an instinctive and natural sympathy for socialism. The collapse of the Soviet Union messed up things a bit, but I had a strong feeling that capitalism was fundamentally wrong and that the left was fundamentally -if not at all times- right. So I started frequenting left wing activities and got active in anything I could, usually in the revolutionary left that appealed to me the most.
A very important thing when I was young, that really struck me was a church we used to go to, that the mass was given by a so called red priest, so the social aspects of Christianity and theology of liberation were a huge influence. Paradoxically, Bakunin and his “God and the State” which I read when 14 was another huge influence. But in general, my biggest influence was a deep dislike for the Pinochet gang of thugs and morons. So the “left” as such had a natural appeal to me. There weren’t many anarchists around back then, so it was hard to interact with them before I went to TASYS where they all gathered. Most people in the anarchist movement in my town were very open, warm and frank and not quite so judgmental, so it was easy to become an anarchist. I think that had I run across first those sectarian and dogmatic type of anarchists that go around snapping at everyone that doesn’t think exactly as them, I would have found it very hard to become an anarchist myself. But anarchism eventually grew in Chile, I think because the political system was so closed and hermetic to alternatives, that anarchism became a natural option to youth that really did not have much of another chance if they wanted to have a voice. Then, of course, we turned this “we are anarchist because there is no room for us” into a conscious movement that has put forward its own alternative.
Kevin: It’s interesting, that last part…. Some writers attribute revolutionary or anti-establishment sentiments to the “stifled ambitions” of individuals or social layers. What can you say about this for your own part, personally, and what can you say about the social demographic of anarchism in Chile to shed light on that theory?
José Antonio: I think that certainly if there were equal opportunities to all, and a fair society there would be no quarrels and therefore no revolutionary movement. The origins of social protest lay in some sections of society being excluded, marginalized, impoverished, etc. Now, the big challenge is how you turn away from mere “resentment” or from mere dissatisfaction with your lot, into a collective will for changing society. And at that point is when a movement turns really revolutionary, when it is not about begrudging individuals trying to improve their own personal lot but it is a collective movement trying to bring about a new form of society where no one is excluded, exploited, impoverished, etc. This is the constructive, as opposed to the destructive, side of the revolutionary movement. The two sides exist, but we certainly need to put more emphasis on the constructive aspects for they are the ones to bring about lasting change and our futures cannot be improvised thinking that spontaneity alone will look after it.
On the social demographics of Chilean anarchism, I’d say that it is a young movement, with very few people older than 35 years, and it certainly comprises a couple of generations for which opportunities have been quite thin in the free market miracle of Chile, generations that do no fit in the representative game of traditional party politics and look for new ways to express themselves and a generation that, having lived only the last part of the dictatorship or in post-dictatorship Chile, have no direct experience with the traditional forms of social movements and in one way or another had to re-invent mechanisms for participation and organisation -at that point, libertarian politics had a lot to say, as was proved in the massive and quite libertarian protests of students a couple of years ago. I should add that most of the Chilean movement today belongs to working class background or lower middle classes, but who had access to education and a lot of anarchists have actually gone to universities, at least for a year, some making enormous sacrifices. How this affects that theory, I don’t know, but it is a movement knowledgeable enough not to believe those stories that if you study hard you will “get there”.
Kevin: It sounds like the student movement of sorts in Chile is quite active. What kind of student organizations exist, how many students have mobilized, what kind of demands have they made, and so on? What is their relationship to the anarchists?
José Antonio: Yes, the students movement is quite active and for many years it has been the most visible political actor in Chile with a capacity for national mobilisation. That was true in the mid ’90s more than it is now -at that time, most social organisations were completely battered and atomised. Only the university students kept some capacity to move forces on a national level and they kept their students federations largely intact. The secondary students movement was all but nonexistent by the mid ’90s, even though it had been quite important in the ’80s, in the struggle against the dictatorship, something recently acknowledged in a documentary about their struggle against the dictatorship called “Actores Secundarios” (Secondary Actors). So on the one hand you have the university students with their federations and a single body that brings them all together, but which has no binding capacity. On the other hand, you have the secondary students that have rebuilt their movement in the early 2000s, forming assemblies and coordinating bodies that have quite a libertarian ethos in their way of functioning and because anarchism is quite popular among the active Chilean youth.
The anarchists, of course, are an important force behind these protests. You have various types of anarchists taking part in the movement, but the only force organised nationally and with a capacity to have incidence in the movement through its own programme, is the Frente de Estudiantes Libertarios, or Libertarian Students’ Front (FeL), created back in 2002 by some comrades in Santiago, Concepción and Valparaíso, among whom I was counted. Now there are comrades in other towns as well, such as Osorno, Arica, Iquique, etc. It is an organisation that as most students networks has a fluctuating membership of around a couple of hundreds, although in times of mobilisation, like in 2006 when our comrades had a huge prominence it can expand significantly. It has managed to have an influence and it is the only visible libertarian force with a real national existence.
The capacity of mobilisation varies and it is quite cyclical. But we are talking of many thousands. At times, coordinated occupations of universities have brought up to 100,000 students mobilised, and in Santiago, students demonstrations have brought to the streets 30,000 university students in the period from 1996 up to the present. In 2006, the “penguin revolution”, that is how the secondary students are called because of their uniform, all of the Chilean schools we occupied and brought to a standstill, even the one school in Easter Island, a complete novelty since nothing ever happens in that remote Pacific colony. In one day of protest Police estimated that 1,000,000 students were out in the streets protesting -an awful lot since you consider that Chile has roughly 16 million people. Police brutality is always the norm in these protests -the students come out, the police harasses the students and all of a sudden, the place is in fire, water cannons, barricades, plenty of tear gas and riot sticks. And the students defend with whatever they can put their hands on.
The demands have usually been against the privatisation of education and against particular attempts to reform the education system to make it even more neoliberal than it actually is at present. The movement, in spite of its strength, has not managed to have a consistent set of demands beyond certain specific moments when such petition bodies are put forward to end up specific waves of protests. There are conflicting partial solutions to the problem and that is a weakness in strategic terms -obviously, there are political groups within the movement, particularly those centrists linked to the government, that are not interested at all in these set of coherent demands being discussed and try to boycott any attempt for such a debate to take place.
Kevin: It’s baffling that a movement of that strength, with such huge clashes, gets sadly little international attention in either the bourgeois press or the anarchist movement. How come that is, do you think, or do they in fact get much attention elsewhere?
José Antonio: I think this is the case for various reasons. First, because there has been an attempt to show Chile as a sort of economic and political oasis in Latin America, and this means that political repression or even the struggles are somehow concealed from the international media. I don’t think there’s any conspiracy behind it apart from the biases and filters of the media. In relation to the European or US anarchist movement, I think that the fact that the movement has been for years doing a very persistent and patient work of organisation in the rank and file means that our work is not really that spectacular, in comparison to, let’s say, the thrashing of Seattle a couple of years ago. I also think that issues such as sectarianism and even the language barriers have played against these experiences being a bit more known. But since anarkismo.net has been running I think there is permanent platform where people can find information of what our movement has been doing and building. Still, the amount of material from Chile in English is negligible, let alone other languages.
In South America, on the contrary, among the anarcho-communist circuit, we exchange a lot of ideas and experiences with other organisations, mainly in Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia and Ecuador, and I would say that we have a fair knowledge of what we are doing at present. Also, we are doing similar work in similar circumstances. I mean, there are differences, Colombia and Chile are massively different, but we still can relate with one another much easier than, let’s say, people from another continent, because of cultural reasons and because we know where we are coming from. I think that the fact that we have similar work helps.
Kevin: Now, in recent years there has been some growing interest by Anglophone comrades in “especifismo” as practiced in Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina…. How are the anarchists organized in Chile? What role do anarchist groups play in mass activity of the type that you have been talking about?
José Antonio: Well, in Chile, the anarchists started a distinct process of organisation and collective involvement in struggles a decade ago. In 1999, a number of comrades that saw the need of advancing the levels of anarchist organisation and permanent presence in social organisations and struggle, decided to launch a call for an anarchist-communist (i.e. platformist) conference. We just celebrated the tenth anniversary of that conference recently, and it was a very interesting event, in which we could see the enormous experience accumulated since then. Anyway, in 1999 we came to realize that we needed a proper political organisations as anarchists and that we needed to develop a collective approach to the struggles and experiences where we participated on an individual basis. This may all sound common sensical, but because of the sometimes extreme “autonomist” and individualist tendencies present in anarchism, it was an actual struggle to get to that point and we were labeled all sorts of things, from leninists to social democrats. Anyway, with ups and downs, I should say the experience was highly successful and we turned anarchism from a disorganised movement of very committed individuals, some of them with a lot of experience in this or that struggle, into a coherent movement with a collective experience in a number of struggles and a real presence in some trade unions, in some neighbourhood struggles, such as the struggles of people with no house or with little capacity to pay their mortgages and in the students’ movement of course. I think this range of work was expressed in the anniversary, where also some cultural expressions find a space -in Chile there’s a long tradition of political murals, and we have started our own brigades with wonderful results.
The model of organisation runs largely along the following lines: we have a political organisation, social-political spaces or tendency groupings, like the FeL, that are wider than the political organisation and are organised in one sector, whether it is students or neighbours. Finally, we have the social organisations where we operate, the trade unions and so on. It has to be said that at the level of social organisations, I think we have brought a very positive influence, strengthening most of them and giving them a combative edge. In those organisations we are organisers and activists, we push forward for a direct action approach, with clear objectives intending on empowering the people from below and challenging the extremely anti-popular politics coming from above. The level of the social-political groupings, has been relatively successful, particularly with the students, but also with neighbours, trade unions being the slowest work -we have managed to create large organisations with a capacity to put forward a libertarian perspective on a number of struggles. It is not an exaggeration to say that anarchists had not been at the forefront of social and political struggles in 40 years in Chile and all of a sudden we were back there. The level of the political organisation remains difficult, since there has been a number of quarrels and divisions that have split the movement, but not necessarily our grassroots work, fortunately.
Kevin: So, in terms of trade unions, how do things look in Chile? Probably you know the situation in unions in the “developed countries” is dismal — being largely run as political party machines, government interference, rampant compromises and “partnership” with management, etc. etc…. What is the case like over there?
José Antonio: Things have changed a lot when it comes to trade unions since I left, back in 2003. When I left there was one main trade union, CUT, which since fragmented in three main forces. So the scenario is far more fragmented than it used to be. What I can say, in comparison to the trade union movement in Ireland -which on the basics, I don’t think is really that different from that of the US- is that even the mildest of the trade unions in Chile still would care about their own rank and file. I mean, trade union officers here are so far removed from their grassroots, so bureaucratised, so integrated in industry and the State, that is hard to consider them anything BUT a State apparatus in the strict sense as Gramsci saw it. To a greater or lesser degree, the most bureaucratic of the Chilean trade unions can still be rocked by workers in it. Here it is almost impossible by the way it works, and this gives far more sense to the idea of dual unionism or to work on alternative unions, than it would in Chile, for instance, where you can still push from within the union movement.
Kevin: What do you think are the reasons for this? Why are the trade unions in Chile not as bureaucratized as those in Ireland or the US? Why has the CUT fragmented, and what are the main forces in the split? What are examples of the unions being “rocked” by the rank-and-file workers?
José Antonio: Well, I am not too sure to be honest with you of what are the main differences, but I would assume that in Europe, unlike the US, you had a proper welfare state that bought in the trade union movements into the partnership and turned the trade union movement into an actual mechanism to keep the workers in line, turning it into an effective apparatus of State as I was saying. In the US you may know better why, but there seems to be a long tradition of conservative unionism, actually predating the emergence of “red” unions and the unions evolved as real corporations quite dominated by traditional party politics. I would be inclined to assume there has to be some role of US imperialism in that -how workers were brought in line with the wars of the 20th century as a force behind US expansion (surely with resistance, no doubt), how McCarthyism and the Cold War ended up isolating the left from most of the visible social spaces, so on and so forth.
I think that in Chile, as in most of Latin America, there has never been a proper welfare state and therefore the workers have never been brought so much in line with the State and the ruling classes. It is true that populist governments and even some dictatorships have managed or attempted to curtail workers autonomy in some countries, but it has never been a fully complete process, because the most urgent material conditions force workers to fight back. In the Chilean case, this has never really been the case, but also, there’s such a low level of struggles at the moment that the ruling class can basically ignore the workers as a real force they would depend on eventually. Only in one moment in recent history the trade unions were tried to be made part of government, one being actually during the dictatorship of Pinochet in 1975, when the government proposed after colonel Estrada proposal, that fascist inspired three party commissions between workers, business and State were formed, but this project never took off and in the end, by 1980, the typically neoliberal solution of trying to get rid of the unions altogether by passing laws that made it almost impossible to organise came into effect. What is remarkable, is that although repression strongly hit the unions, they were intervened, many of the trade unionists were murdered, exiled or disappeared and incarcerated, etc. they still managed to express workers discontent in spite of leaders chosen by the dictatorship. There was a generation of mainly Christian Democratic trade union officers which were tolerated by the dictatorship but in the process of the dictatorship sponsored commissions came under heavy pressure from the rank and file and had to give in to it to a greater or lesser degree, and different forms of industrial action and sabotage happened in the copper mines in 1977 in an extremely repressive environment. That lead directly to the prominence of copper miner unions in the call for national days of protest against the dictatorship in 1983. I think that as soon as the dictatorship saw the trade unions, no matter how tame they were, were a double edge blade, they opted for the typically neoliberal solution of getting rid of them altogether.
To be sure, there’s a lot of bureaucratism and party politics in the middle. This traces back to how the trade union central, the CUT, was regenerated in 1984, lead mainly by opposition parties and not by rank and file workers. And this explains quite well that its leadership in 1990, as the dictatorship was formally coming to an end, agreed not to take actions that could destabilise the democratic government, that is, to postpone workers interests for the sake of an elite agreement to get rid of Pinochet from the Executive power. But still, I think the whole thing is not quite the same as in Europe, where trade unions respond far more to the demands of capitalists than to those of workers and for sure there are structural conditions for that. In the case of Chile there is still capacity in some unions to call for quite radical struggles and to drag along with them a number of other unions. I’m thinking of copper miner unions, lumber workers, who are in some very strategic sectors for our economy, but also you have a clear left wing and class conscious element active in some other unions, like construction workers where anarchists have a real presence.
So the split in the trade union movement came after all this pressure -on the one hand party politics, on the other hand pressure from the rank and file who grew impatient of the inability of the CUT to face the bosses. It is not easy, but real attempts to create a class based unionism have been multiplying with varying degrees of success since 1998, when there was an important trade union meeting attended by some 200 trade union officers. Some of the splits, like CGT, involve people trying to create this type of trade unionism.
See Part 2 of the interview