Act: Inspiration

Fearless communes: An interview with two Chilean mayors

January 10, 2022

President-elect Gabriel Boric is a testament to Chile’s changing tides. No longer afraid, a new generation—with help from the old—took to the streets on October 19th, 2019 to win back the rights that the Pinochet dictatorship had stripped away. We interviewed Érika Martínez of San Miguel (urban) and Lorena Olavarría of Melipilla (rural) on the week of the uprising’s two-year anniversary to hear their perspectives. Both are young, recently elected mayors in the Santiago Metropolitan Region, which comprises 40 percent of the country’s total population in 52 comunas, or municipalities. Members of the same political party as Boric, Social Convergence, and subsequently the same coalition, “I approve Dignity,” their insights reveal a continuity between the massive mobilizations and the ongoing institutional overhaul. Fearless communes are rewriting their Constitution by feminizing politics and proliferating radically democratic spaces.

Francisco Domínguez: To start off, could you tell us a little bit about your trajectories?  

Lorena Olavarría: In my case, I’ve been in Social Convergence (SC) since its founding. The political activism I began for the presidential election of 2009, when I was 19 years old, made an impact on me, and I told myself, “Here we have to participate and be part of the transformations.” I didn’t collaborate as much in the student movements of 2006 and 2011 because of shyness, but, little by little, that desire was articulated in the territory through my cultural and environmental work. That’s how I kept nurturing this commitment beyond, to become part of—not only as a listener, but also to put issues on the table. So, I decided it was necessary to advocate politically, criticizing either theft, corruption, neglect or, above all, the lack of affection in politics.

Érika Martínez: Well, my story is a bit longer. Although I’ve been an activist since the age of 19 as well, in reality all my life I’ve been involved in politics. My mother and father were students at the State Technical University. They both went out on September 12th the day after the military coup, becoming political prisoners at the National Stadium. They were tortured and from there began struggling clandestinely against the dictatorship. As a kid I remember playing, running through white corridors, but now I know it wasn’t a game. My uncles would shout, “Run, run! Come on, let’s play!” But no, the police were raiding the Vicariate of Solidarity. That was the starting point for my involvement in politics and protest.

I entered university with a deep conviction that I wanted to do more. In 2002, I joined the youth wing of the Communist Party (CP), and in 2004 I ran my first campaign for mayor of San Miguel. I started working more closely with cultural centers and social organizations. In 2008 I was a candidate for councilwoman, just short of winning, and finally in 2012 I was elected. By that time I was a full member of the CP, but in 2016 I began having problems with the party due to its entrenched patriarchy. The same year I was re-elected councilwoman, resigning from the CP at the beginning of the next. That was difficult, because I am deeply Marxist; I declare myself a Marxist. After some time away from political militancy, I struck up a conversation in my district with Congresswoman Gael Yeomans, who was from Libertarian Left, one of the parties that forms SC. She invited me to be part of the construction of a new party that would serve as a tool for social transformation. Out of eight candidates for mayor, I was the only woman. And I was elected under SC.

Social Convergence candidates sign a commitment to promote “Cities with Women’s Lenses” through 23 proposals that advance gender equity in their communities. Present were Érika Martínez (front row, third from left) and Lorena Olavarría (back row, third from right). Source: Facebook.

FD: I think anyone reading us, wherever they may be, will have heard of Chile’s landmark protests thanks to Las Tesis and related demonstrations. How has feminism shaped you personally, and how is it revolutionizing Chile?

LO: Feminism sparked an unexpected collective consciousness in me. I always had compañeras who were committed, who possessed that inner fire, but even so, feminism shook me like an earthquake. One enters into a process of endless questioning of how one does or doesn’t do things. I’m convinced feminism has strengthened the social fabric—that space for training, collaboration, horizontality and awareness. It also means wanting to participate in political spaces that have been historically machista, masculinized, vertical and violent. Opening those doors has taken decades. We are the ones who, at last, are putting into practice what many other compañeras have been developing for a long time. One of the purposes of SC is to assume a greater role in the dispute for these spaces that, as feminists, we demand.

FD: In your views, who played key roles during the 2019 uprising, and how did you experience it?

EM: In 2019, something which had been building up for a long time finally explodes. When the dictatorship ended, a coalition government came into power that compromised with the right and left many things tied up, among them, the binomial system. It took many years to break the Concertación, succeeding for the first time in 2008. The popular movements, the more leftist political parties were able to gain access to Congress in 2011. Representatives such as Giorgio Jackson, Camila Vallejo, Karol Cariola and Gabriel Boric provided some political articulation to the social demands. Still, real solutions to the many conflicts prevailing in the country were never found. Education isn’t free; there’s healthcare for the rich and healthcare for the poor; no rights to the city exist.

The feminist movement’s breakthrough brings us to October 19th, when the citizenry gets angry. The government intimidates them by raising subway fares, arguing, “Just get up earlier; the earlier, the cheaper.” This arrogance on the part of authorities leads to public unrest. I start that day at home and end that day at the police station protecting compañeras, some of them minors, who are abused there. I was a witness at the trial, and as a municipality we participated in the lawsuit. Indeed, I had to live that inside the police station defending those who had been detained.

LO: Two weeks before that day, like Érika said, there was a 30-peso hike in public transportation. High school students jumped the turnstiles, a tactic marking a before and an after. Taking into account a long history of struggle, I believe the feminist, student and environmental movements were the main protagonists. Despite the fact that during the democratic transition there was a more complacent left, there always remained a critical left waiting for that promised joy. Such a cultural and political heritage was passed down to the new generations in several ways. We see in 2006, the Penguin Revolution; in 2011, the student demonstrations; in 2018, the Feminist May, where universities were occupied after accusations of abuse, harassment and countless complaints were made public. Thus, these events mark and the last one serves as a prelude to the uprising.

While I participated in the protests—through panel discussions and creating cooperation and human rights protection networks—I was very cautious. Perhaps I could be criticized, but what was happening felt so powerful it drove me towards self-preservation. I participated in some marches, but I connected more inwardly, repeating to myself, “Something big is coming.” I took care of that energy, and, effectively, that’s exactly what came to pass.

FD: A week before the uprising there was a gathering in Quilpué that addressed the century-old relevance of cabildos in public life, then these resurfaced. What purpose have the cabildos served?

EM: My electoral victory responds, I believe, to the fact that after October 18th I played a major coordinating role in San Miguel’s Territorial Assembly, and as a result we generated thematic and cross-cutting cabildos. Lots of people gathered in the squares to talk, give their opinion, or express their annoyance, anger and impotence with regard to the political system. It was an amazing process, because neighbors came out of their homes to speak and listen to each other in an age when it isn’t so easy to understand differing viewpoints and reach an agreement. Cabildos achieved this very much from the street and the heart, from anger and the need for change. The pandemic somewhat killed those processes, but they continued operating via Zoom and radio programs. At one point, there were so many of us who wanted to participate in the assembly that we had to divide it into six territories, each of which collectively organized their own assemblies.

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LO: Self-convened cabildos arose within the framework of the popular revolt, generating spaces for dialogue about how to deal with what we were feeling and thinking. We see that everything’s wrong, that it’s not working or that it only works for a very small group. Problems in health, education and housing persist, in addition to all the indignities of repression—frankly speaking, bullets fired into the eyes, mutilation, abuses. All that was channeled into cabildos in positive ways, tackling problems by theme and intersectionally; for example, in the dissident cabildo, which brought together LGBTQ+ communities.

It’s a difficult task. For so many years we were on just one side of the fence, criticizing, “This is lousy. Look how they’re spending our money!” But being in the institution now means intervening constructively: “How do we do it?” That’s where the dynamics of direct democracy come into play, and, although they were lost at the time, they were recovered and should never again be let go.

New Chilean mayor

Mayors Lorena Olavarría, top, and Érika Martínez, bottom, at a campaign event for President-elect Gabriel Boric. Source: Facebook.

FD: How did the energy in the streets and cabildos translate at the ballot box?

LO: So, we’ve done this social-electoral analysis in relation to the uprising. There remains interpretative ambiguity regarding the approval/rejection, that is, between those who did want a new Constitution and those who didn’t. Add to that a fear campaign still in force, it’s easy to see that those afraid of losing their privileges are getting desperate. Nonetheless, tomorrow, October 25th, marks the one-year anniversary of the plebiscite that overwhelmingly approved the drafting of a new Constitution through an elected constituent assembly. The fact that this process is being presided over by a Mapuche woman should be emphasized—it deserves not only praise, but further action.

Érika may also have experienced this, but I wasn’t sure if we were going to win our local elections or not, since electoral analyses prior to the social revolt had become obsolete. Something similar is going to happen with the presidential elections. An unprecedented youth participation was the overriding factor for both the plebiscite and local elections. The challenge is how we manage to reinforce this confidence.

The future of Chile and even Latin America is at stake in the Constitutional Convention. Without a doubt, a political movement is being fostered here at the regional level that had already begun in Ecuador and elsewhere. Our role at the municipal level is to facilitate discussion forums that address a host of issues, so that the new Constitution has a sense of belonging.

FD: Érika, since you already shared with us that you left the CP and joined SC, what do you think it says about the Chilean left that within both Jadue’s and Boric’s candidacies municipalist projects stand out?

EM: Our national political model is very strict. The State can’t do many things that municipalities can, such as creating businesses, and Daniel Jadue shrewdly finds those cracks; for example, the popular pharmacies, optical centers and real estate groups in the commune of Recoleta, where he serves as mayor. In addition, we make use of something created by the dictatorship and the Concertación called municipal corporations, in order to manage private money. Historically, municipal money has been stolen through this mechanism, but, as they are private law corporations, we can—without stealing money—use them for the benefit of society. Jadue is very smart to do that. He positions himself as a mayor who can advance revolutionary measures in terms of public policies led by the municipalities.

We in the Broad Front understand there is a distinct leftist movement that requires us to ally with other leftist parties to win national elections. Since the creation of the “I approve Dignity” coalition, we understood that the alliance between the Broad Front and Chile Digno should go through a primary where the winner was expected to be Daniel Jadue (of the latter). Yet two decisive elements favored Gabriel Boric: The Communist Party has (1) a rough history and (2) a certain intransigence within its own internal dogma. Jadue overcomes opposition to the CP, but in the process creates a personality around himself with authoritarian overtones—something that Boric breaks. Instead, he proposes a more horizontal model and much more democratic initiatives, placing himself at the disposal of being merely the visible face of a transformative political organization-articulation-alliance. This is how Boric wins.

FD: Now that you’re in power per se, how do you resolve the dilemma between leaders and the led? 

LO: I’ve experienced this a lot in Melipilla: People aren’t used to being led by women. The level of machismo and ‘mansplaining’ is incredible. The Melipilla Municipal Council is made up exclusively of men, eight men. And they all want to be mayors. A constant dispute of power that exhausts.

Our vision for municipal governance is feminist, that is to say, of accompanying each other. Ultimately, we are people working at the service of the people all day, every day. And if the political-administrative responsibility is vertical, everything falls on the mayor. I am the one responsible for something to be done or not; not the team, not the department head, not the director, but me. So, transforming this rigid structure into one of dialogue, participation and transparency is like using WD-40.  It takes time, but I believe that thus far it has created openings, and the community is expressing it. You feel it. Now I go and they help me, they resolve issues. They listen.

When we visit rural or peripheral areas, it’s as if a mayor had never visited before. There we generate territorial empowerment but also calm expectations. What we want to change isn’t going to take us one day, it’s going to take years. In four months we aren’t going to solve what they didn’t do in 30 years, but these small gestures are the beginning. Change is being sown.

EM: The same has happened to me, except that in my council there are three men out of eight; the majority are women, at least. But the men still want to be mayor.

(President of the Constitutional Convention Elisa Loncón atop an empty pedestal covered with posters that read: “The feminist general strike is on!” International Women’s Day, March 8th, 2021. Source: Facebook.

FD: What relation do you see between the issues of security and territorial inequality? 

EM: Look, territorial inequality in Chile is appalling, especially at the municipal level, and even within Greater Santiago itself. Take my commune for instance. With education and health spending aside, it spends around 160,000 pesos per person (or 190 USD). Whereas in Las Condes or Vitacura, Chile’s wealthiest communes, they invest around 1,200,000 pesos per person, an amount 7.5 times greater. In the south, Graneros has 53,000 pesos per person.

LO: Since my commune is assigned as ‘Rurality,’ we have about 8,400 pesos per capita for health services, which is very low.

EM: Gabriel Boric proposes that the per capita budget should be at least 300,000 pesos, because otherwise the municipality is unable to carry out works. Furthermore, the municipality doesn’t have enough resources for everything it needs to do. It has to apply for government funds in order to apply those funds elsewhere, and if it doesn’t have money to work with, it won’t be able to hire professionals to apply for funds in the first place. Obviously, in Vitacura they can have 60 public security vehicles, because the budget can afford to buy them. But some communes, like mine, lack the cash to invest in communal security.

The law is clear: Carabineros are responsible for security. However, carabineros are neither adequate nor evenly distributed in the population, rather they tend to concentrate in the richest communes. Inequality grows to the point where society becomes segmented, creating first, second or third tiers based on a stupid formula dictating how much money your commune receives. Far from citizens’ needs being the primary factor, communes are allocated money according to the amount they can raise from their own resources. Chile has 352 communes, each one with its own particularities. It is unfair that any citizen in any part of the country has less rights and social investment for living in commune A or in commune B.

LO: Absolutely. Justice in terms of municipal financing is denied, affecting security too. We have to rethink how we see security. Our approach is based on humane security, because we believe safety is holistic. If you have dignified health care, where you get good and prompt attention, that is also security. As long as you feel that you will receive dignified treatment in any public service, you will feel safe. If I am able to study or work without worrying that, “Damn, I have to have connections or cash,” I will feel safe.

FD: Almost our whole conversation revolved around citizen, or popular, sovereignty. Before closing, could you comment on those in your commune who don’t have Chilean citizenship, especially the most marginalized? 

LO: For several years I actively participated in the Melipilla Migrant Working Group, composed of various public organizations. That was lost over time but is something we’re resuming. Next year we want to launch the Migration Program with the aim of strengthening tolerance and respect, emphasizing multiculturalism. For borders were drawn by power-hungry men to restrict the rights of certain people. All matters related to migration, security and inequality—which we could call territorial justice—are among our highest priorities. They are human rights.

Featured photo: Embroidery that reads: “Until dignity becomes custom.” Source: Facebook.



This content is reposted here under the CC BY NC SA license.

Francisco Dominguez

Dr Francisco Dominguez is a senior lecturer at Middlesex University, where he is head of the Centre for Brazilian and Latin American Studies, and secretary of the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign. Dominguez came to Britain in 1979 as a Chilean political refuge. Ever since he has been active on Latin American issues, about which he has written and published extensively.

Tags: Chile, direct democracy, municipalism