The following is a transcript of the March 12 KPFK program, ‘Beneath the Surface.’ The complete audio of the interview is also archived below via SoundCloud.

Mural from Cooper’s photo essay for Truthdig, “The Radical Walls of Santiago”

Suzi Weissman  00:38

Welcome to Beneath the Surface. I’m Suzi Weissman, and I’m really pleased to have Marc Cooper with us today. 

Veteran journalist Marc Cooper is not any stranger to the airwaves. He was a translator to President Salvador Allende in Chile in the Popular Unity Government from 1970 to 73. Marc has memorialized his experience in Chile in his book, “Pinochet and Me: A Chilean Anti-Memoir,” that came out in 2001, but is still available, and is a very good read. 

Related Two Allende Supporters, Two Nights in Jail and a Gun

He just returned from a month in Chile looking at Chilean politics 50 years after the coup, and one year since the new left-wing government of Gabriel Boric was elected in a landslide. The first installment of Marc’s writing on Chile went online March 8, International Women’s Day, on with more to come. 

The series of articles is called “Chile’s Utopia Has Been Postponed.” On Sept. 4, 2022, Chileans held a referendum to approve or reject the new progressive constitution, born in response to the massive social protest movement and revolt of October 2019, just before the pandemic. The demand that grew out of that movement was for a new constitution to replace the reactionary Pinochet constitution imposed in a fraudulent plebiscite in 1980. We’ve covered this quite a lot on this program. A Constituent Assembly was elected representing the most diverse sectors of the population and excluding the political class, which is to say, members of the governmental leaders of political parties. 

Their work produced the most ecologically advanced constitution or founding document in world history, even granting personhood to nature, protecting rivers and air and forests. It extended democracy, established gender parity, and popular participation granted indigenous peoples the recognition that they had never had before and answered the need for universal health care, decent education, pension funds, access to water, sovereignty over mineral resources, care of animals and children and so much more.

[These were] things that Chileans had been fighting for, but funnily enough or not, the plebiscite or referendum to either approve or reject the Constitution — the new one — was trounced with 68% of Chileans voting to reject it, and this changed the trajectory of the new Boric presidency. And he has since backtracked, allowing former members of the Concertación, which Marc will explain, into the government and into writing yet another draft for the new constitution. 

Journalist and author Marc Cooper, 1983

So Marc Cooper is going to join us and help us understand how Chileans view Boric and where he can go from here. Let me just one more time say Marc is a journalist; he served as the translator to Chilean President Salvador Allende when the ’73 coup led by Augusto Pinochet forced him to flee the country. This January, Marc returned to Santiago to observe the country’s political situation 50 years later. He found a Chile transformed, but uncertain, struggling to chart a course forward one year after the election of its first leftist government since Allende.

Let me say one more time that Marc’s article, part one of his package of articles on Chile 50 years since the coup, can be read at So Marc, welcome to the program.

Marc Cooper  05:35

Thank you, Suzi. Just a clarification, what we’re doing is something a little different that what I’m doing with Truthdig, I’m actually curating a Dig, an archeological journalistic Dig. So this is going to extend over three months. And this article that came out on March 8, which is currently on Truthdig, is one of the pillars of that project, but only a pillar. So there’ll be more content added to it. I have a lot more that I’ll be adding over the next few weeks. And even another big feature piece down the road and a little bit on the legacy of Pinochet.

Suzi Weissman  06:17

No, I’m really glad that Truthdig now is featuring Digs. That’s what it’s supposed to be doing. And this, and we’re not seeing enough of this kind of investigative journalism, at least, you know, on the online platforms that so often turn into just discussion and debate.

Marc Cooper  06:30

Right, and I want to make a plug for it, not so much for me, but for the website, because I give them credit for getting this format, because it’s very easy to get clicks and likes and even advertising if you run a bunch of hot takes that run 500 words and provoke people and then run off. This is a different idea. This is actually about knowledge, and about going beneath the surface of things and really digging to find out what’s going on. And this is the first piece so I would encourage listeners to take a look at it. Again, not so much out of my own interest. But this type of journalism needs to be supported. And we need to see support for it shown and manifest. It’s all yours.

Suzi Weissman  07:18

Great. So I’m wanting to ask you a couple of questions by way of background before we dig in. And I know the listeners will very much want to get to the present. But this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Pinochet ’73 coup that ended up with President Allende dead, massive torture and detention, and brought a nightmare to Chile for decades. You were there from 1971 to 73 to experience that; what’s called a blossoming of a revolutionary process and its brutal end. And of course, you fled the country along with thousands of others, let’s say being lucky enough to avoid the brutality of Pinochet’s savage dictatorship. But without taking too much time, I’d love for you to just kind of quickly, concisely describe that experience and then, you know, we’ll move into a little bit prior to what happened or what is happening now.

Marc Cooper  08:12

Well, for anybody who lived through the Sept. 11, 1973 coup in Chile, either directly or indirectly, by perhaps sending a loved one there. It’s a life-changing experience. It’s for all of us, you know, we have two lives, the ones before Sept. 11, the one after, right. That created some problems for me on this reporting trip, because I’ve been back to Chile four or five times over the last 50 years, usually for a short stay of a few days here and there, never for this intensive period. I was there for a month. And really the country has changed quite a bit. In some ways it hasn’t changed at all. But in other ways it’s changed significantly. And to see this kind of political process play out under these new conditions, one has to keep an open mind and be on their toes because the references of 50 years ago don’t work. Which is to say the schematic that one is tempted to impose upon the situation saying, “Well, gee, this is the Chile I knew 50 years ago, so therefore this must be X.” That doesn’t really work because a lot happens in 50 years. And in fact, in the case of Chile, there was a huge, spontaneous, completely spontaneous, leaderless uprising, nonviolent one for the most part, in October of 1973, in which it’s estimated that 4 million people participated.

Suzi Weissman  09:57

2019 you mean, don’t you?

Marc Cooper  10:00

2019, sorry. You know, a 4% hike in the subway fares.

Suzi Weissman  10:06

Wait, Marc, I want to stop you for half a second if you don’t mind, hold on to that thought. But I want to just say to the listeners something that kind of leads up to that because we stopped in, you know, September ’73. The historian in me wants to fill a little bit in in the intervening years, and to also say that Pinochet destroyed Chilean democracy in order to quote “rid the country of its Marxist cancer” and then implemented, and I think this is important, the Chicago Boys economic program, an extreme free market regime that produced widespread inequality. And it could be said that Chile represented Milton Friedman’s dreams come true. Not enough has been said, I think, about the slogan that free market economics require democracy, which was actually reversed in Chile — that they couldn’t do it without destroying democracy. The model was imposed by force. And it wiped out the democracy that existed and flourished under Allende. And then this system lasted until the plebiscite, if those, if some of your listeners watched the great film “No,” there was a plebiscite in 1989, where Chileans were asked yes or no, sí o no, about whether or not Pinochet should be president for life. And he was defeated. But as you say, in your article, Marc Cooper, that can be found on, Chileans were voting no to bring the alegria or happiness. So yeah, go ahead.

Marc Cooper  11:39

Right. The necessary background is that when Pinochet left power in 1991, a civilian government came into power, which has alternated between the center left and the right a couple of times, but has remained in power until today. It was the civilian government. And the problem is that expectations were raised very high by the defeat of Pinochet, and by the return to democracy and conditions in Chile certainly improved over the last 30 years, in many ways, including economically, politically, democratically. There’s been a big difference between now and the dictatorship. However, in part because of the Constitution, in part, only the economic system that was imposed by Pinochet has been modified, has been humanized to some degree, but is still quite a brutal, private-centric program.

Suzi Weissman  12:40

So somehow, we got just from calling it free market economics, Milton Friedman-style to neoliberalism.

It’s not so much the difference between the rich and the poor. It’s the difference between the super rich and everybody else.

Marc Cooper  12:48

Actually, to nitpick about it, the Milton Friedman model actually came and went. That was imposed in 1981, and drove Chile into bankruptcy and into a deep recession under Pinochet. And they had to jettison a lot of the pure Milton Friedman program and go back to some state intervention. Now not to get involved in a big economic debate, which I’m not really capable of being expert in, I will say this: One of the interesting aspects about Chile that goes unreported is that the Chilean state is very weak and underfunded. However, it plays a central role in supporting the private sector. In other words, the private sector isn’t just overcoming the state, the private sector relies on the state to help fund it and fuel it, which is a particularly nasty situation for Chileans, because it means that when it comes to social services, health, education and retirement, most of that… we’ll put an asterisk next to education, just an asterisk… that all of that is basically privatized. And so the pension system has failed completely. The average pension in Chile is about $250 a month, which is half of the minimum wage.

Suzi Weissman  14:20

Right. And this is the system that George W. Bush wanted to emulate and could not instead of social security.

Marc Cooper  14:27

It was actually cooked up at the Cato Institute by the brother of the just former President Sebastián Piñera. So this comes from American think tanks, and it’s all about privatization. It’s a brutal system for most Chileans, because they can’t retire. There’s no pension. You can’t live on $200 or $300 a month in Chile, not when the minimum wage is $500. And you can’t live on that either. The point is that there was enough disappointment generated by the 30 years of the civilian government, including most of that time governed by the center left coalition called The Concertación.

Suzi Weissman  15:13

And maybe you can just also, say just a footnote that Chileans elected someone, and then they only serve one term, but they can serve another term, just not consecutively. That’s my understanding. So you went back and forth between Piñera, Bachelet etc.

Marc Cooper  15:27

Exactly. What happened was that the small subway fare increase in October 2019 of literally five cents or less, provoked reactions by high school students who began jumping the turnstiles. That turned into a confrontation with the police. That turned into a confrontation with the entire society. Because millions just had had it, and came out in this show of peaceful force of millions of people for weeks, and literally a couple months at a time being in the streets demanding change. And what did they mean by change? Well, different people were there for different reasons. And there’s been a lot of misinterpretation of what that meant, including yours truly. And you get set straight when you go and report in person. But if you ask most people, while they’re in the street, the one thing they had in common was they said, “Well, we’re against neoliberalism.” And that was the catch word, neoliberalism, basically meaning the economic system in Chile.

Suzi Weissman  16:42

And the privatization of everything and inequality, that sort of thing.

Marc Cooper  16:46

Yes, it’s complicated because extreme poverty has been reduced significantly since the dictatorship. There is a larger middle class than there was before but it’s a very tenuous one that lives on credit. Credit even to buy a meal. If you go to a restaurant in Chile or go to the supermarket you use a credit card as most people do. You’re immediately offered the option at the bank to pay it off in four installments. You can buy lunch for $10 and pay it off over four months, which a lot of people do.

Suzi Weissman  17:20

Does that make Chile have a super high level of personal indebtedness?

Marc Cooper  17:25

Yes, it’s the highest in Latin America. And it’s also the most unequal country with an asterisk. And it’s the most unequal because it’s not so much the difference between the rich and the poor. It’s the difference between the super rich and everybody else. The 1%, the top 1%, of Chile controls 25% of the country’s wealth. And that’s sort of amazing. So that set off this set of protests that were leaderless, did not have a platform, they were opposed to the big political parties, including the standard left parties that had failed while in government. And that’s why one of the slogans that came out was it’s not about 30 pesos, which was the hike. It’s not about 30 pesos, it’s about 30 years.

Suzi Weissman  18:16

They also said neoliberalism began in Chile, and it will end in Chile.

Marc Cooper  18:22

Right, but I’m not so sure it’s going to end anytime soon. We can get to that. But those protests went on from October 2019 and were still building in March 2020 when the pandemic hit and everything was shut down. The government took advantage of this to install a severe shutdown, including inability to leave your house without a pass, nightly curfews, et cetera. This extinguished the movement in the streets, obviously.

Suzi Weissman  18:57

Let me just say something from outside as one who was covering all of the protests of the year 2019 on this program. All of those protests had just one thing in common: People were fed up with austerity, and what they called neoliberalism. That Chile’s vanguard, because it was so huge, and as you said, and say in your article on, that it just immediately went from the subway fare increase to having millions in the street, overcoming everybody’s expectation. And I’ll let you talk about the response of the Piñera government to those protests. The other part of it was that we now think of it as the main slogan being about the Constitution, but that wasn’t even one of the initial demands. That was something –

Marc Cooper  19:46

It wasn’t one of the demands.

Suzi Weissman  19:48

Yeah, and I remember, you know, talking to people just that when Piñera conceded to having a Constituent Assembly, people were demanding Constituent Assembly, it seemed like “Wow, this is back to 1917 and Russia.” And this is a really radical demand. Let’s hear your take on that.

Marc Cooper  20:05

Well a month into the protests, an agreement was reached between some of the protesters, including the current president, Boric, and the outgoing president, Piñera, to hold in the next spring, a constitutional convention and then a vote on a new constitution, if it could be written. And this had not been a central demand of the people in the streets, but it’s one that they liked, because they knew that a rewrite of the Constitution would make it a lot easier to pass some of the basic social reforms that have been blocked by the Pinochet constitution that’s still in effect. Piñera, for his part, the Chilean government had a very repressive, immediate response to the protests, which only provoked more protests. It is really an idiotic response and backfired completely. By the time Piñera proposed the convention, he probably proposed the change in the Constitution under extremely narrow and opportunistic reasons, which was he was to leave power in any case the next year. And I think his calculation was better; the Chileans are in the streets talking about the new constitution rather than stringing me up to the lamppost for overthrowing the government, because the main demand has been to get rid of the Piñera, right. This was his way; it was a deft move on his part. But it’s also something that Chile needed. 

What happened was that the small subway fare increase in October 2019 of literally five cents or less, provoked reactions by high school students who began jumping the turnstiles. That turned into a confrontation with the police. That turned into a confrontation with the entire society.

There’s only one problem. And allow me now to fill in the space. Yeah, that was in fall and winter 2019 heading into the pandemic, okay. Pandemic shut everything down. The next year, May, the convention, the assembly to write the constitution was postponed because of the pandemic. We’ll talk about the assembly in a moment, but the assembly was held. This 388 article, mega-new constitution was proposed. It came out publicly in July of last year, right for discussion, and then was voted down robustly in September of last year. Well, to begin to understand that, in the middle of this, you have the election of a 36-year-old student leader, Gabrielle Boric, who is not affiliated with any of the big parties, who comes in with an independent leftist government, an independent leftist millennial government, right. But as we sit here today, one year after his election, one year after his inauguration, and six months or so after the Constitution was voted down, things are completely at a standstill. And people ask, well, how is it that you did have this big uprising? And you have this left-wing government that gets elected who’s supporting the new constitution and it gets rejected by three-fifths of the voters? 

Well, the partial answer is that the referendum took place three years after the Constitution was called for, two and a half, almost three years. And what happened in between? Well, we had a pandemic, we had an economic shutdown, we had an economic collapse. We had record inflation, record unemployment in Chile. This set of demands and things that were on people’s minds had changed radically, in three years. In 2019, maybe, maybe, there was a majority. I’m not sure there ever was. Maybe there was a majority for granting personhood to nature, right. But in the fall of 2022, three years later, people want to know about bread and butter, they want to know about concrete, real-life reforms in their life. And what are these going to mean to me? And the Constitution had a lot of that in it. But it had a lot of what you might call cultural issues that here we refer to mostly as gender politics, environmental politics and a ton of gender politics and a ton of identity politics about the native Chileans’ rights — the Mapuche, and frankly, that discussion in Chile is very new. Okay. Surprisingly new. I was surprised by the degree to which Chilean society in certain areas was so open now about facts and gender, etc. Used to be very closed, but it’s still very new. This is not a discussion that’s been going on for 50 or 60 years in Chile like it has been here. It’s just been going on for 10 years.

Suzi Weissman  25:06

And you could say, just to kind of put it into context, Chile only recently allowed divorce. It was a Catholic country and super conservative, despite its radical politics.

Marc Cooper  25:19

Right, Chileans are somewhat conservative in their views. But also, one has to understand that Chile also has the largest organic right-wing in Latin America. Right? The support for Pinochet… Pinochet is not ephemeral. It’s not tenuous, it’s concrete. And it’s integrated into the system. So you’ve got 35% to 45% of the electorate, who is going to always identify as conservative or right-wing to a degree. Now we have a new extreme right, that got 44% of the vote.

Suzi Weissman  25:56

This guy Kast who’s like, to the right of Bolsonaro, I think.

Marc Cooper  26:00

Yeah, well, he has admired Bolsonaro and Pinochet. He’s trying to become the leader of the Chilean right. Other sectors of the right that are more moderate are resisting that. But the point is that the Constitution, the assembly, let me see if I can make sense of this. Because I think for people who follow this, the biggest question is, how could you have this assembly, that has such a popular base against the background of that uprising a few years before and produce the Constitution that became so unpopular that it got voted down? Well, there’s a couple of facts: number one, the vote to elect the assembly members, the constituent assembly, that was a voluntary vote, okay. We do not want a constitution, they just weren’t in the demonstrations. There are 4 million people in the uprising. There’s 19 million people who live in Chile. So you have a big silent majority or a silent minority who wasn’t present in the uprising that didn’t want any part of it. They didn’t want to vote either. So-

Suzi Weissman  27:09

But they were, but could you just clarify, Marc, because it was my understanding that they had mandatory voting for that one, but not in the presidential election? Or is it the reverse?

Marc Cooper  27:17

Mandatory voting was for the approval of the plebiscite.

Suzi Weissman  27:21

So a lot of people were pissed off that they had to vote.

Marc Cooper  27:25

For the assembly, it was somewhat of a self-selecting audience. Okay. Somewhat. You had some conservatives voting, and some conservatives got votes to be in the assembly, as did some people from the old center left The Concertación coalition. But the overwhelming majority were independents. And they were young people who had nothing to do with the political system, which means they didn’t have much experience in it either. So their volunteerism, if you will, their enthusiasm, the ability for the first time to talk about gender, and the environment, and the Indigenous in a constitutional setting. This is the first time in Chilean history. But I think one can say with a certain amount of clarity that they got carried away and didn’t understand that there’s a whole other millions of people out there who don’t understand what you’re talking about, right? They don’t understand your language. They don’t understand the language and gender politics. They don’t understand what was called pleura nationalism, where the Constitution actually said we should dissolve the Republic of Chile, and Chile should become a tripartite state. Whatever was left of Chile, and the Indigenous and Indigenous are 10% of the population. Now 60% or 70% of the Chilean population is Mestizo. They’re mixed but they don’t identify as Indigenous, they don’t even identify as Mestizo. 

Related Allende, Pinochet and Beyond: 50 Years of Chilean Politics

So even race in Chile is a very complicated issue, where the Mestizos don’t really recognize their Indigenous half. So, while the Indigenous, Mapuches certainly deserve the full civil rights and civil liberties, the fact that they deserve it doesn’t mean that people immediately agree to special circumstances for them, including a proposal that the Indigenous should have their own justice system. Now, I’ve never met a Chilean who can explain the current justice system. So having a second one… And then there were other issues involved, for example, this one is really important. I had at least two analysts use very similar words and tell me that neoliberalism is not just an economic system. It’s a cultural system. It’s a mindset. It’s a way of life. It’s a set of values. 

If you have to scrap it out to survive, as you do in a neoliberal system, that rubs against social solidarity and mutual aid. It rubs against collective action. It runs against politics because you’re too busy working to try and make ends meet or to pay off your credit cards. And you also are inculcated into a hyper consumerist society, where your value is really measured by the size of your television set, right? These television sets weren’t even around 15 or 20 years ago, couldn’t get one. So even consumerism in Chile, which is hyper consumerism, is something of the last 25 years. It didn’t really exist before the turn of the century. So you have a country that’s inundated with hyperlocalism. That is paying all of it on credit, that has insufficient wages in retirement, and is then exposed during the run up to the vote. There was a massive disinformation campaign. And they hit on two points, which are kind of interesting. One is they found some wording somewhere in one of the constitutional things that your house was going to be expropriated, which of course is ridiculous, right? Your house is going to be expropriated, which means for the middle class, your summer house was going to be expropriated. And then the other thing they did, which is astounding — it’s not astounding, it’s depressing that it worked — because I talked to a lot of people upon whom it worked, I can hear them repeat it back to me. The Chilean pension system is hated by everybody. Okay, everybody hates it, including part of the business class right. But, to not get too deep in the weeds, but Chileans, Chilean business doesn’t have to contribute anything towards social security. Social Security pension is paid completely by the contribution of the workers. And the workers have 13% of their check deducted every month by their employer, who sends the money to a private stock brokerage, which is picked by the worker. The stock brokerage called an AFP then takes your money, creates an individual account with it and invests it in stocks, according to your tolerance level, your risk tolerance. 

The support for Pinochet… Pinochet is not ephemeral. It’s not tenuous, it’s concrete. And it’s integrated into the system. So you’ve got 35% to 45% of the electorate, who is going to always identify as conservative or right-wing to a degree. Now we have a new extreme right, that got 44% of the vote.

So you can sign up for heavy, light, or medium, but that’s all you sign up for. And the rest is dependent on the brokerage, which means two things. One, if the market pops, the market cracks, too bad, you’re out of luck, there is no floor, you just lose your money. The second thing is that while you cannot access your money until you retire, you can see it and your account. Unlike an American Social Security account, you cannot see the total how much you’ve got in the account. It doesn’t work that way. You put in money, and then you get back a corresponding payout. In Chile. It’s based strictly on the amount of money in your account under your name. So you can say, well, I’ve got $50,000 in my account, most people don’t have exactly $50,000, but if that’s in my account, if I retire when I’m 62, I’m going to get $150 a month, whatever the equation is. Well, the Boric government through the… in the new constitution proposed in short, an American-style Social Security, a modified one, that basically one in which actually the social security payment would be increased somewhat. Right. And then you’d also be something put in by the employer. But that would go to the state, that will go to a central fund, in which everybody who works and has worked or everybody who retires would get a pension based on some calculation and others but not on an individual account.

Suzi Weissman  34:17

And is this also a state pension then or is it partially-

Marc Cooper  34:21

In shorthand, it would be basically a state pension. Okay. There are some modifiers there where you can continue to put some of your money into private but basically, it moves to a centralized state social security system, right. Much like the United States, that would greatly improve the system. Well, the right-wing, started getting on this saying they’re going to take your pension away. They’re taking your account away, and they’re going to be giving it to poor people who don’t work. I heard this repeated by ordinary people by common workers, who said they were sympathetic to the government, that they hated the current pension program. But the one that was being proposed was worse, because it was going to take away their private plan. So, as one analyst told me, after 50 years of this, the system people buy into the system, right? There is a buy-in. So you’ve got, for example, the UDI, which is, until recently, the ruling party in Chile is a right-wing party. This party was founded by the secret police right under Pinochet, it was founded by the DINA and was a hard right-wing party. 

Today, that party does a lot of politicking in the poorest shanty towns where they have a base support of people based on their support of private property. Because when you live in a shanty town, private property doesn’t sound so bad, you know if you can get some. So some of the assumptions that the left, the traditional left, had made about Chile, about Chile in the 1970s and 80s. and in fact the whole 20th century, are null and void. Right? They’re null and void. The working-class movement, for example, doesn’t exist. Because the working class no longer exists in Chile. There are no factories in Chile, there’s a few, but there are no unions, because nothing is produced. What there are tons, legions of young people on bicycles, doing gig jobs, delivering food or doing Uber. Uber is actually a higher class gig job. Uber pays well in Chile.

Suzi Weissman  36:46

What you’re describing, Marc, could be said about here or Britain or anywhere else. It’s sort of like this new dealignment or realignment, also the same question about how the working class has been decimated. And what you get is a lot of poor people who are very confused, or who see the traditional representatives who they used to vote for have never ever represented anything.

Marc Cooper  37:11

There’s complicating factors because the pandemic created an inflationary cycle, it’s still in progress, which has raised prices very high. So prices right now in Chile are competitive with that in the United States, with the minimum wage being, what, $4 an hour, $3 an hour is the minimum wage. So you know, you can do the math on that. Also, there’s been a huge influx of migrants. And I wanted to ask you about that, ironically or not so ironically, most of them come from Venezuela. And there’s reasons for that. Not only are they fleeing Maduro, but the previous president of Chile, the right-wing president went to Colombia a year or two ago to support the movement against Maduro and he invited the Venezuelans to come to Chile. They took him up on it. So currently, there’s a half million Venezuelans.

Suzi Weissman  38:11

We should probably just add there, Marc, you know, Chile is a very insular country. It’s got the Pacific on one side and the Andes on the other end. It’s never had anything but Chileans.

Marc Cooper  38:22

In the last 20 years, they had an influx of Peruvians, fortunately. It has greatly improved the cuisine in Chile. So we applaud that. Then there was an influx of Haitians who got scooped up as butlers because the ruling class, the rich people in Chile, decided to be very classy is to have a Black butler. So they became butlers, then the first wave of Venezuelans came in. They were mostly professional class and have taken professional jobs, creating some bad blood among the Chileans. The second big wave that’s currently in course, is much poorer Venezuelans from the shanty towns around Caracas. A lot of them were gang members, and they had brought with them a certain spike in violence, right? Not that violent crime didn’t exist in Chile and not that Chile is very dangerous. But Chileans right now think that’s very dangerous. It isn’t. But there’s a national psychosis now.

Suzi Weissman  39:27

Did you also write in your article, I think that the pervasiveness of the anti-immigrant hysteria played up by the media has made everyone pay attention to this issue and buy into the, I guess, the trope that crime in Chile is because of these immigrants.

Marc Cooper  39:45

The three big issues in Chile right now are crime, immigration and inflation. Sound familiar?.

Suzi Weissman  39:50

So can we back up for one second on that because we’re talking now about the one year anniversary of Boric and he rode the wave of the protest movement and the Constitution, you could say, to come into power. But he also, you know, in his campaign made a lot of promises about as you’ve talked about pensions and, and raising the minimum wage and the health care system, you know, he always was going to face tremendous challenges because he came in with a divided parliament and a divided government and divided country, a tired population, you know, and, and also a huge economic downturn that was exacerbated by the pandemic. So, you start out, you know, your article about talking to people all over the place in Chile about what they thought about Boric. And I, you know, last night had a Chilean friend visiting from a left-wing family, and I asked her and she goes, I’m not a fan, and then goes into explaining why in terms of how he came to power and what he hasn’t done and what he hasn’t handled. So let’s hear from you, and taking up this narrative, the anti immigrant hysteria, how you see what Boric has done, and how we…You have to remember that Boric was elected in the beginning of last year, right. December of 2021. And then inaugurated I think in March.

“The Red Devils of Victor Jara” dance during a vigil marking the anniversary of the 1973 U.S.-backed coup, in Santiago, Sept. 11, 2019. Victor Jara was a singer-songwriter and one of the first victims of the dictatorship. AP Photo / Esteban Felix

Marc Cooper  41:13

That’s so, that’s already two years into the pandemic. So a lot of the enthusiasm from the October 2019 uprising had already been crushed, or had been pushed aside by the pandemic. You can’t continue to celebrate the social mobilization that took place for a month or two, when you’re locked up for two years, and people around you are dying of COVID. By the time he was elected, there was already a very difficult situation. And he was already facing a very difficult situation that a more intelligent person might have decided to resign at that moment, looking at what was in front of him. He came in and immediately raised the minimum wage, he added a little bit of money to the poorest pensions. And he didn’t make all these promises. He also made a mistake. And the mistake he made was, by agreement by many of even his own supporters, that he held off on pushing any of the major reforms and instead invested all of his political capital in passing the Constitution, which didn’t pass. So that was a mistake. 

Now, I don’t know how successful he would have been if he had proposed some of this stuff, because Congress is basically 50/50 or 51/49, leaning to the center right, sometimes 51/49 leaning to the moderate left. Basically he does not have the votes in Congress to do whatever he wants, it has to be negotiated. And now, what needs to be understood is that when that constitution was voted down in September, it was a gigantic body blow to the government because it had stopped. He’d only been in power for four or five months. He came to power in March, that referendum was in September, but they were on hold waiting for the Constitution. And they were pushing the Constitution. And they were pushing a lot of the parts of the Constitution that weren’t in their pocket, right? Again, this kind of middle class and you’ll excuse this, but I can’t, I’m sorry, I have to use this, people are gonna get pissed off. But it was woke and wokeness — whatever one thinks of it, I don’t have a high opinion of it. 

There should be a warning here to the American leftists about what happens when you actually have a country that has a history of popular and working-class mobilization as Chile does, even if the working class has been hard hit by the disappearance of industrial production, etc. There’s still a working class, 40% of Chile is in the informal sector. They’re selling stuff in the streets, right? So there’s plenty of people who work for a living, and they’re not traditionally on the right, we don’t have that kind of white working-class problem that we have in the United States, right? Working class tends to vote left in Chile, but if you can confront them with a bunch of secondary, I consider them secondary. I know, I’m gonna get hell for this. If you mix in a number of social issues, that to them, at least are secondary, stuff they’ve never heard of, stuff that makes no sense, stuff that they have no education on, stuff that they have no exposure to, stuff that nobody in their town or or out in the countryside knows anything about, but instead, you know comes from the more elite parts of university life about personhood for nature and gender equity across everything, and reserved seats, and getting rid of the Congress and replacing it with some angle amorphous, ill-defined regional councils, it’s too much for people. And it was too much under any circumstances. 

After the pandemic, it was a real overload. So they, the Boric government, had inherited this awful situation from the first day. But it got further complicated by the Constitution. Right now the three big issues are crime, immigration and inflation. And the Boric government has had no alternative; one can disagree with me but I think it’s unfortunate but true. It has no alternative other than to make concessions in that area. Boric had criticized Piñera’s government for militarizing the south of the country where there’s a simmering revolt of the Mapuches. Well, so has Boric. He’s used different words, different methods that definitely is escalating militarization of the South. He’s brought into the core of the cabinet some historic center left figures from the previous failed Concertación governments right, and put them in key situations to try and give people some notion of confidence because he was he was criticized not only for his inactivity during the first few months, but the trope that was plastered on him is these are a bunch of kids who don’t know how to govern. They’re just kids. Of course, the adults had failed for 50 years and we don’t talk about that, but we brought in some of the failing adults now to try and give the government some more gravitas. 

There should be a warning here to the American leftists about what happens when you actually have a country that has a history of popular and working-class mobilization as Chile does, even if the working class has been hard hit by the disappearance of industrial production,

Also, there was, and the situation with crime is serious. There is crime in Chile. Not a lot, but there is more violent crime than ever before. And it gets pinned on the Venezuelans partly correctly and partly not right. But as you pointed out, apart from whatever the Venezuelans do, or do not drink, you can’t think of two Latin American peoples who are that different from each other. The Chileans are quiet and reserved and introverted, and they’re called the Swiss of Latin America. The Venezuelans there, the Venezuelans of Latin America, they’re loud, they’re boisterous, they’re extroverted, you know, they like to dance and sing and party, and a lot of them are Black, and they’re poor. And the Chileans are afraid of them to a great degree. So, and one analyst who’s pretty left-wing and who’s certainly was an analyst who helped the Boric campaign said, the way he said it was this, it’s like this, he said, you know, we had these other governments in before the Concertación, you know, the Christian Democrat Socialists, they didn’t have a roadmap, they knew how to drive the car, right? These kids are in power now. They had a program, their program was clear by 2017. They had an economic program, but they don’t know how to drive the car. He said, what would be ideal is to let the old people drive the car, and let the kids with the map, tell them where to go. But that’s not going to happen. So right now, as we speak today, the older and they are older, it’s an older generation, the older generation of Socialist Party and Christian Democrat politicians, mostly Socialist Party politicians, who are part of the failed Concertación governance. They now have a foothold inside the Boric government. And they’re fighting for more space. They’re open about it. They want more ministries.

Suzi Weissman  49:03

Right. So Marc, you spend a lot of time talking to all kinds of people from former government officials, current government officials, leftists, young people because you know, even as I sent you a couple of names you said, wrong generation. And you wanted to get a kind of sense of what people thought and from what I gather, Boric has mishandled his first, I guess, he has not learned how to spread the message. He also didn’t pay attention immediately to the economic issues or popularize them. We’ve seen that before and other governments, including our own. People don’t really like Boric that much. But is there a sense that okay, he’s new, he’s young, he was 35. Now he’s 36. He’s got decent politics, but he’ll do better or it was just like, no. What do you think is the overall sense of that?

Marc Cooper  49:59

First of all, his popularity rating was around 30% to 35%, the government just went up to about 40%. That just took a big jump upward in the last couple of weeks. The reason it did is because there were big forest fires in the South of Chile and Boric went to the forest fires and did his, you know, Mayor Giuliani thing standing in front of the fires. And apparently, it worked. People liked that he gave a sense that he was somebody who was responsible. He’s also gotten some acclaim in the press for being very transparent and honest. Some people don’t like that. They say, well, he’s wishy-washy. He changes his mind. He doesn’t change his mind, when he makes a mistake, he’ll admit it and he’ll fix it. And you don’t get that very often in politics, you don’t see where somebody says, hey, we were wrong about this. And he says that a lot. Not exactly those words, but essentially, we need to fix this, we did this wrong, we need to do this instead of that. I don’t think he’s burnt out at all overall. And I think that there’s a sense of great discontent. But you know, I would compare it in many ways to the United States. Right now, if the sun falls out of the sky, we know that Joe Biden is going to be blamed for it. Right? It used to be Obama right? Now, with Boric, you know, anything that happens in Chile is obviously his fault, right? He’s personally letting in the Venezuelans and giving them machine guns or whatever, right? I think that there’s an acute understanding that he needs to deliver in the next year or so. The presidential elections are coming in 2025. And he can’t run, but somebody else can. And this is not a personalist government, right. He’s got a strong persona. But the government isn’t built around him. It is a genuine coalition government. And there are other people in the government who have a high profile who could easily be acceptable candidates, including from his own generation. So there’s an acute awareness that those elections are in 2025, there’s an acute awareness that in the runoff election in which he got elected 13 or 14 months ago, the extreme right-wing Jose Kast, got 44% of the vote. That’s a lot of votes. Yeah. Now, in both cases, there was anti-partisanship. A lot of the 44% of Kast vote were people voting against Boric, and a lot of Boric’s 55% of the vote were people voting against Kast, right? There is an assumption that there’s going to be a civil war inside the right-wing. It’s already brewing between now and 2025, with Kast trying to dominate the right, and he is much worse than the others. I mean, he really is an open Pinochet and Bolsonaro supporter, while the current Chilean right tries to take a little bit of distance from that stuff, right and tries to look forward instead of backward. So there’s an awareness that things are very much in the air. The new constitution, now, there’s a new process that was immediately agreed upon. But after this defeat on the referendum in September, a new process was agreed upon, which was a compromise, if not a capitulation by Boric, which allowed the Congress basically to take over the process, right, who immediately set up a fairly anti-democratic system, and laid down 10 points or 12 points, that are to be the guidelines that cannot be violated. 

Cooper’s “Chilean Anti-Memoir” published by Verso Books, 2002

The process from the new constitution includes a dozen limitations, boundaries set in stone, inviolable, and those include, unfortunately, the right of private enterprise to provide essential social services. Now, to what degree that will happen, we don’t know. But this stuff, you don’t get rid of overnight. The private medical collectives that are also criticized as being expensive, and inefficient, etcetera, they’re currently going broke. And the debate is, should the government bail them out or not? Now, logically, the government doesn’t want to have anything to do with these things. Practically, there’s 10 million Chileans who have their health care through these things. What do you do? These are not easy answers. And what it is, is that for somebody like me, it’s interesting, because when I went to Chile in 1971, as a 20-year-old, in the middle of the 1960s, exuberance and the rise of Allende. One can sort of see as a 20 year old, you can sort of see your most romantic dreams, trying to play themselves out. In that, you know, here you had a true revolutionary process that was going to be democratic and feasible. Could they make it, you know, did they change that you have this kind of operatic drama going on. Now, 50 years later, I come back. And it’s a different world in a different country, and a different set of values. And now, the question is, can this government survive? Can it make it? Can it not get voted out in 2025? Because a lot of the assumptions that one made, or that I made, didn’t pan out, right. I expected when I got there, I expected to see effervescence. Now it was summer, but there was no effervescence, there was a lot of riot police in the street just as a precaution. There was no effervescence; what there was was a hangover. As I say in my article, people were still recovering from the defeat of the new constitution, and trying to figure out a way forward that made some sense.

Suzi Weissman  56:23

A lot of disillusionment too.

Marc Cooper  56:25

Some disillusionment. The other thing is that we’re looking forward. And I didn’t deal with this in my article, which I’m gonna hype one more time.

Suzi Weissman  56:33

Well, let me also say, too, just as you think about how you’re going to say this, that one of the subheadings in your piece that’s on is called “A stab at utopia.” And utopia is around there a lot. And of course, maybe that’s what some of us thought this government would help to usher in, not a utopia, but just, you know, a revival of that kind of politics.

Marc Cooper  56:57

The constitution was certainly utopian.

Suzi Weissman  57:00

Good, okay, so we’re talking about the balance sheet then. And yeah.

Marc Cooper  57:03

Yeah. Well, getting back to that there’s some speculation, I have no idea, there’s some speculation that when the plebiscite is held on the new Constitution, which is going to be in December of this year, we haven’t seen the draft of it, the work on it has just begun this week, it might get voted down as well, this time by the left, who is going to be disappointed. Now. I think that’s a bit of a stretch, but only a bit. I would not be shocked if that happened. We have to see what’s going to be in the Constitution. And it’s not going to be much, it’s going to be different than the Pinochet constitution,  it’s going to get rid of the most noxious parts. And there’s going to be some nice rhetoric in there about the rights of individuals and society and the Earth and the environment, etc. The question is, what are going to be the contrary proposals? And the Constitution currently has a lot to do with day-to-day policy in Chile, and so will the new Constitution. So there’s a lot no one knows.

Suzi Weissman  58:13

We’re gonna have to leave it there, Marc, but you’ve given us so much that is so rich to mine in future interviews. I can’t thank you enough for spending this time with us today. And I should just tell everybody, Marc is a journalist who just spent a month in Chile. He was there during Popular Unity as the personal translator to Chilean President Salvador Allende. There will be a package of articles on Chile at

Marc Cooper, thank you so much for joining us today. 

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