Chile shifts left to rewrite Pinochet-era constitution, as Goldman Sachs eyes its copper reserves

Ben Norton speaks with Chilean activist and politician Pablo Sepúlveda Allende about the historic May 15/16 elections in which left-wing and independent candidates won two-thirds of the seats for a convention to rewrite the constitution, which dates back to the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

Sepúlveda Allende, a grandson of Chile’s legendary socialist President Salvador Allende, also discusses Chile’s enormous copper reserves, which are some of the largest in the world, and are now being targeted by US corporations, after Goldman Sachs dubbed copper “the new oil.”


BEN NORTON: Hi, I’m Ben Norton with The Grayzone, and I’m speaking with an activist, doctor, and revolutionary from Chile, Pablo Sepúlveda Allende. He is a grandson of Chile’s legendary President Salvador Allende, and he is an activist, and is involved in the social movements in Chile.

He also spent a lot of time living in Venezuela. In fact here at The Grayzone I published an interview with Pablo when I was in Caracas, I did an interview with him.

And today we are going to talk about Chile’s elections. This May there were municipal elections and constituent elections, to write a new constitution, because today Chile still has a Pinochet-era constitution, which was written in the time of the military dictatorship, of Augusto Pinochet.

So Pablo, you were a candidate in the constituent elections. In those elections, the left won in a historic victory. The results show that the left, progressives, and independents won two-thirds of the seats in the constitutional convention, to write a new constitution.

So what is the importance of this election, this vote, and the left’s victory in Chile?

Especially because around the world, for those of us who are foreigners, Chile is associated with neoliberalism and very right-wing politics. So what is the importance of this electoral victory?

PABLO SEPÚLVEDA ALLENDE: Yes, thanks Ben for the opportunity, the invitation to this program.

Yes, Chile in recent years has had a very active social and political environment. I think there are 2 or 3 big milestones, first, the great mobilization of October 2019, commonly known as the Social Outburst, or more like an uprising, an unsettled revolution, a popular rebellion against the neoliberal model.

All of the historic demands were brought together, of historical struggles, and it all became one single demand, which quickly became changing the constitution of the dictatorship, the constitution of Pinochet, a demand that was very old, but had not had the momentum that October 2019 gave it.

And as a result, in less than a month, the government and the political elite of the dominant political parties had to call for a plebiscite to see if people did or did not want a new constitution.

They did not call it a constituent assembly, which is what was demanded in the streets, but rather a constitutional convention, which, yes, has certain limits; it is not a sovereign assembly; it can’t influence the free trade agreements; and everything that is written there must have the approval of at least two-thirds, which truly limits the room for action.

But the constant mobilization and social pressure has been changing those rules a bit. First was that it was turned into a representative convention, which it wasn’t in the beginning, with the agreement made by the political elite.

Next they made seats for Indigenous peoples. They are not sufficient, but they opened several seats.

And when there was the vote, on October 25, 2020, nearly 80%, 78% to be exact, approved a new constitution.

Even with those rules, which we know are limited, that it isn’t a constitutent assembly, sovereign, with insufficient Indigenous representation. And in conclusion, this weekend (May 15 and 16) the constituent representatives were elected.

It was also a great surprise for many of us, truthfully, because one of the rules that was changed is that independents were able to participate, forming electoral lists, something that was not allowed in the Chilean electoral system, which is what they wanted to use, with the same electoral rules used to elect a parliament, an average parliament, which is through political parties, and independents don’t have an opportunity, unless a party gives them a spot in their party.

This rule was changed also, due to the social pressure, and it was possible to form lists of independent candidates, without a party.

Not having a party means having no funding. The state gives millions to the political parties, the bigger a party is, the more funding it gets from the state, and there isn’t as much of a quota in the electoral TV slot, the ads on TV for the campaign.

The rules establish a quota. For us independents, we literally had one second, exactly one second to say something on TV in the electoral slot.

But anyway, the point is that, despite all of those inconviences, all of those rules, all of those many difficulties, many independent candidates, despite all predictions to the contrary, they were able to win around 44 seats out of the total of 155.

And the traditional political parties that have governed Chile for the past 30 years in a bipartisan coalition between the right and the so-called “center-left,” in scare quotes, which is an alliance called the Concertación, which includes the Christian Democracy party, the Socialist Party, the PPD (Party for Democracy), and the Radical Party, they got the smallest results in these elections.

So much so that the Christian Democracy party only got two seats. The Radical Party [got one seat]. And the Socialist Party did survive.

But what is important is that the social movements and the independent candidates won a lot of space. And the alliance of left-wing parties, defined as anti-neoliberal parties, which includes the Communist Party and the Broad Front, they also won a lot of space.

So that creates a sociopolitical pole in the convention that is clearly defined as anti-neoliberal, and that really opens the possibilities for transformations.

It didn’t exactly reach the two-thirds needed, because there are independent candidates who are funded by the right wing, or by powerful economic interests, or by foundations, foundations that have powerful economic interests behind them, and if they ally with the right wing, with the establishment parties from the old “Concertación” alliance, they do make up one-third, which could block changes.

But all of that depends on social pressure, which is the most important thing. It is more and more clear that mobilization, social pressure, which is done in the streets, on social media, through public opinion, that can sometimes create much more progress than you are able to make from more institutional levels.

So that is an overview. And it is a big surprise, and not because the right wing was rendered irrelevant, but because they had all of the electoral rules in their favor, which would cause them to be overrepresented, to win one-third of the seats, so that nothing they don’t like could be approved, but that traditional centrist alliance is at rock bottom, and we will see where it will go.

The Socialist Party just announced possibly forming alliances with the anti-neoliberal pole, instead of its traditional alliance of the past 30 years, which, after the dictatorship, it formed with the center and the right, to maintain the neoliberal model. So we will see where it goes.

And the center is dissolving. The center is polarizing a lot. And the politics of the traditional parties is polarizing. That is how the social world strongly breaks apart the political forces.

BEN NORTON: And Pablo, what is the importance of this victory of these progressive forces, the anti-neoliberal forces, what is the importance of their victory in terms of geopolitics, geopolitically speaking?

Because this June there is an election in Peru, and the leftist candidate, Pedro Castillo, is in first place, according to polls. Also there is an election here in Nicaragua in November, and another in Chile that month. We see that the coup d’etat failed in Bolivia, and the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party has power again.

Also what is the role of copper? Because I know that Chile has a lot of copper, and copper is a very important resource in the global economy, especially for technology.

So, if we are truly seeing a shift to the left in Chile, what does that mean, geopolitically speaking?

PABLO SEPÚLVEDA ALLENDE: Well the geostrategic importance of this moment involves not just Chile, but above all the Andean countries.

In Peru there is now the possibility of a leftist president coming to power (Pedro Castillo), who comes from the countryside, well he is a teacher, but from a rural area, and he has a strong anti-neoliberal, anti-capitalist discourse.

And let’s not forget that, between Peru and Chile, there is more than 60% of the world’s copper reserves. Those are the two main copper-exporting countries, which is exported, moreoever, as a sub raw material, that is, just as earth, like rock or stones, which can also include other minerals that aren’t paid for.

And between Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile, there is more than 80% of the world’s lithium.

So in my case, in my candidacy, although I wasn’t elected, this is an issue that we have been prioritizing, and it has been gaining momentum, which is the issue of re-nationalizing the copper and the lithium, which is currently in private hands, the extraction and exportation.

So if we can create an alliance, in the medium-term, in this decade, I hope, by halfway through the decade, between Bolivia, Argentina, Perú, and Chile, with a policy collaborating in the management and industrialization of these resources, of these natural goods, South America could become a pole with important global gepolitical and economic weight.

Because copper and lithium, the two go hand in hand. Lithium stores energy, and copper transmits energy, it is one of the main conductors of energy, among other uses.

And with the decarbonization of the global economy, even if it’s just the Paris climate accords that are fulfilled, that would increase the global demand for copper by around 40%.

And we all know that electric cars are becoming popular, which use lithium for renewable energies, or for non-combustible energies. And that will double or triple the use of copper and lithium.

So this is a very strategic issue. And that was one of the reasons why, when Bolivia wanted to industrialize and create lithium batteries, they launched a coup d’etat against Evo Morales.

So I think it is very important to keep in mind that larger aspect, for Chile, in terms of the regional and global politics in the background.

We have to create an alliance between the countries of South America to have national sovereignty, a policy of integration, and of adequately managing our common natural goods and resources.

Obviously with all of the guidelines on environmental damage, to mitigate damage to the environment as much as possible, while keeping in mind the lands and communities that live where these minerals are being extracted.

Because the transnational corporate policy thus far has been pillage, pure hyper-extractivism, which is deadly for the environment and doesn’t leave any resources in the country, or very few compared to what it takes out of the country.

So if we can achieve sovereign control and re-nationalize them, and have a policy ensuring more and more value added, and regional investment in local communities, and moreover, if there is a policy with neighboring countries about this, I think there is great potential for transformation.

Because this is the oil of the future, as Goldman Sachs called it, that copper and lithium are the oil of the future, and it is going to be an issue of national security, having access to these resources.

Goldman Sachs said it, one of the specialists there recently said that this is an issue of national security, and that in 2025, the price of copper is going to reach a point never seen before.

Right now the price is already at an all-time high, and it is going to keep going up due to the global demand, because of climate change, and the slow but gradual decarbonization of the global economy, and electric cars, the boom in electric cars.

BEN NORTON: Yes, and sorry, excuse me Pablo, but copper played an important role in the CIA’s coup d’etat against Salvador Allende in 1973, right? Because the United States, and the Anaconda corporation wanted to control all of Chile’s copper, right?

PABLO SEPÚLVEDA ALLENDE: Yes, exactly. The copper was privatized. Allende nationalized it during his government, totally nationalized it.

In fact, Allende characterized it as “the second independence,” the most important act after national independence (from Spanish colonialism), his signing the reform that nationalized the copper.

And the (Pinochet) dictatorship changed the constitution, and the rules, and after, the neoliberal governments began to privatize it bit by bit, and now 70% of Chile’s copper is privatized, and only 30% is owned by the state copper company, Codelco.

Just as an example, that in fact was the great agreement made, to privatize the copper, in order to return to democracy, and to not touch that. That was a tacit agreement made, to keep privatizing everything, and the copper more and more as well, and to keep governing with the neoliberal model.

And the economic policies always were neoliberal, including those of the Socialist Party, with President Bachelet, or President Ricardo Lagos, who also came from the Socialist Party, although he passed over to the Party for Democracy.

They always approved the Congress, and when they were in the presidency, also with President Eduardo Frei, of the Christian Democracy party, and President Patricio Aylwin, they were all policies of privatization of public services and cutting public spending, and the economic policies of the Washington Consensus, all of that.

And now in Chile, the lithium is in the hands of the son-in-law of Pinochet, through a state firm that was privatized, that had been public, and that was given to him, basically for free, to his son-in-law, who was married to one of Pinochet’s daughters. And that is the main company that administers Chile’s lithium, today.

And the copper and lithium is exported without any processing. In fact previously, the copper had been more processed before exporting.

BEN NORTON: Can you talk about the differences between the parties on the so-called left? Because you mentioned that there is a history of alliances between the so-called Socialist Party and centrist and right-wing parties.

So it is a bit confusing, because Salvador Allende, your grandfather, came from the Socialist Party, I mean, the Socialist Party of the 1970s, which was very different.

But the Socialist Party also has another president in the history of Chile: Michelle Bachelet. And we know that today she works with the United Nations, where she is meddling in the internal politics of Venezuela, against the Chavista government, publishing very biased reports. And there of videos of Michelle Bachelet getting awards from Hillary Clinton in the United States.

So the Socialist Party of Chile, there are a lot of people who hear that name and think it’s a socialist party. Can you talk about the differences between Chile’s left-wing parties?

PABLO SEPÚLVEDA ALLENDE: Yes, after the end of the (Pinochet) dictatorship, an agreement was secretly made (called the Concertación), and it is now known.

When the dictatorship ended, there was a kind of alliance made between the parties that historically had represented certain parts of the old left, like the Socialist Party of Allende.

Another that was newly formed in that moment, which had not existed before the coup, called the Party for Democracy, which had (ex-President) Ricardo Lagos, and had a lot of power in that moment.

There is also the Christian Democracy party, which has always been centrist. The center has sometimes historically gone to the left, or center-left, and sometimes to the right. It has been like a pendulum.

But after the end of the dictatorship, there was an agreement made by the right-wing parties, to maintain the model and constitution of Pinochet, with a series of requirements to not touch certain areas, like the privatized state companies.

In fact the governments led by the alliance known as the Concertación, including the Socialist Party, Christian Democracy, and Party for Democracy, which describes itself as “center-left,” continued governing with the neoliberal model, with its structural bases in Pinochet’s constitution, of 1980.

And in fact they continued privatizing public services, public state enterprises, and the copper, which is Chile’s main source of wealth. So the Socialist Party, it had policies that were not even social democratic, they were clearly neoliberal.

The only difference between the right and the “center-left,” the badly named center-left, because it is not actually left-wing economically, but rather just on cultural issues like divorce and abortion, like legalization of marijuana and marriage equality – things that, yes, should be defended, but they are more civil liberties, they are not economic, they are cultural issues, and obviously they are important, but that is the only way they are different.

So the right wing, until recently, was against divorce. I think Chile was the only Western country that did not legalize divorce until [2004]. And abortion under certain conditions was legalized during the second government of Bachelet. Marriage equality as well.

So those are more cultural issues, that don’t involve questions of economic policy. On economics, there is no difference. Or very little. Now they are supporting taxes on the super-rich, but that is in response to the social mobilization.

And with the Socialist Party, or at least the leadership, because members of the base of the party are truly still believers, with the goal of profound change, but the leadership that has run the party in recent years has been aligned with the right wing on economic issues, with national and transational corporate interests.

It is a bit similar to what Spain’s Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) has been. And in fact the transition to democracy in Chile is very similar to the transition in Spain (from the Franco dictatorship), So the Chilean Socialist Party and the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party have been like copies of each other.

And the Communist Party of Chile, well, it has always continued working within the institutions, including after the restoration of democracy, but always with a critical look, always denouncing all of this, always defining itself as anti-neoliberal, always taking a much more dignified position, and much more against the establishment.

And now, after the social uprising (of 2019), it is the only party that has continued to keep growing. All of the other parties have been shrinking, except the Communist Party, well and the Broad Front, recently revived in alliance with them, regaining the force that they had at first, which they later lost during the social uprising in 2019.

But now they are gaining force again, now more clearly aligned with the left, because before they had been hesitating and leaning toward an alliance with the center-left, or with traditional politics.

And so now, in the Socialist Party, these days, there is actually a fierce internal debate going on, about whether they are going to break that historic alliance that they made during the past 30 years with the right-leaning political and economic elites, or if they are going to move toward the left-wing, anti-neoliberal pole, which includes the Broad Front and Communist Party.

In fact historically, the Socialist Party and Communist Party were allies, and it was thanks to that alliance that Salvador Allende won the presidency in the 1970s.

But when democracy was restored, the Socialist Party broke that alliance and allied with the Christian democratic forces, making up what we call the party of the neoliberal order, which is like one party, with a monolithic face, which is the concertación alliance and the right wing.

But that began to be destroyed in October 2019, and (the vote) this weekend (May 15 and 16) was practically the death, It was the death of Pinochet’s constitution, with this electoral victory, against all the odds. against all the predictions to the contrary. And with all of the conditions against them.

In fact the richest candidates that were funded by powerful economic interests, by multimillionaires who put a lot of money into right-wing and centrist candidates, to try to have seats there, they weren’t elected. Something that happens in the United States a lot, right? The candidate with the most money wins.

And that is how things were here too. But not in this election. And that is a great lesson. Very rich millionaire candidates were not elected.

And very poor candidates, but with a very important communicational strategy, which is what the List of the People did mainly, they were able to get themselves into the convention having 100 times fewer resources than the well-funded candidates of the establishment.

BEN NORTON: Well thank you. We are speaking with Pablo Sepúlveda Allende. He is a Chilean activist, who was a candidate in the election, and he is also a grandson of ex-President Salvador Allende.

For the audience, if you want to see more of Pablo, here at The Grayzone we published an interview with him in Venezuela, in which he talks about his experience in Venezuela, as a doctor, and as an activist there, and the importance of solidarity with the Bolivarian Revolution and anti-imperialism.

Pablo, thanks so much for speaking with us, and we will be in touch especially for the election that is coming up in Chile in November.

PABLO SEPÚLVEDA ALLENDE: Thanks. And greetings to Roger Waters, out there. He’s a friend of Chile!