Workers Vanguard No. 970

3 December 2010


The Chilean Miners and Pinochet’s Murderous Legacy

The dramatic rescue in October of 33 Chilean miners, who had been trapped deep in the San José copper and gold mine for more than two months, riveted the attention of people around the world. As a billion television viewers worldwide looked on, right-wing billionaire Chilean president Sebastián Piñera personally greeted each miner pulled to the surface. Adding to the “national unity” hoopla, the Socialist Party’s Michelle Bachelet, Piñera’s predecessor, declared that the rescue “showed the bravery, the courage, the discipline and teamwork” of both the capitalist government and the brutally exploited miners.

Tearing through the patriotic hype, one of the rescued miners declared: “We were the victims of the businessmen who make millions and don’t think of the suffering of poor people.” Only hours before the cave-in, miners reported loud cracking noises announcing the impending disaster, but their request to evacuate the mine was refused. After the collapse, the miners sought to escape by climbing an emergency ladder in a ventilation shaft but discovered to their horror that the mine operators had not bothered to extend the ladder to the surface. Two days later, another cave-in blocked the shaft, sealing in the miners.

The mine, near Copiapó in northern Chile, had for years been notorious for its hazardous conditions—16 workers have died in the mine in recent years. In 2007, the government shut down the mine but then allowed it to reopen even though the required safety improvements—including the escape ladder—had not been implemented. Speaking shortly after the cave-in, the wife of one of the trapped miners recounted the concern her husband had raised just weeks before: “He said the mine was already caving in…. All the miners knew, but when they spoke to the mine owners, asking them to do something, the bosses said, ‘If you don’t want to work in the mine, then get up and go’” (The Mirror [London], 26 August).

Following the rescue, Piñera intoned, “Never again in our country will we permit people to work in conditions so unsafe and inhuman.” But after the cameras stopped rolling, it was back to the capitalists’ business as usual. Just a few weeks after the rescue, when two workers were killed at another mine near Copiapó, the sole reaction of the minister of mines was to issue a curt message on Twitter. Currently, miners have been on strike for almost four weeks at Collahuasi, the world’s fourth-largest copper mine, which is owned by the international mining giants Xstrata and Anglo-American. Despite near-record world copper prices, the bosses have drawn a hard line against the miners’ wage demands and insisted on a plan to extend work hours.

Miners in Chile, the world’s top copper producer, represent a considerable concentration of proletarian class power. At the vast Escondida open-pit mine, 4,000 workers produce nearly 10 percent of the world’s copper output. The dangers inherent in underground mining operations were put on gruesome display in November when explosions cost the lives of 29 New Zealand miners. But the conditions faced by Chile’s miners, nearly 50 of whom died in mine accidents last year, are especially dangerous. Home to just 1 percent of the world’s mine workers, Chile accounts for 8 percent of fatal accidents. It is especially dangerous in the small-to-medium-sized mines, which often lack modern technology and scrimp on basic safety measures. Workers at the medium-sized San José mine are paid such meager wages that most of their families live in improvised shacks lacking basic services.

Piñera and Pinochet

The lavish news coverage of the mine rescue was part of an effort by the regime to overcome any association with the murderous reign of General Augusto Pinochet, who led the coup that overthrew Socialist president Salvador Allende’s popular-front government in September 1973. With the prodding and aid of U.S. imperialism, Pinochet rode to power over mountains of corpses, killing at least 30,000 leftists, workers and peasants. The dictatorship sent untold thousands to hellish concentration camps and forced up to 100,000 into exile. To break the back of the working class, the Pinochet regime also took direct aim at the country’s powerful unions, not least the miners, the best organized and most combative sector of the Chilean proletariat.

In fact, the government led by Piñera’s National Renovation party has direct links to Pinochet’s reign of terror. The president’s brother, José Piñera, drafted the union-busting Labor Code adopted in 1979. Despite cosmetic reforms introduced by the “Concertación” coalition led by Socialists and Christian Democrats that succeeded Pinochet and ruled Chile for two decades starting in 1990, the Labor Code still applies today. It dictates that union negotiations can only take place at the plant level—not nationally or industry-wide—and severely restricts the types of issues that unions can negotiate. Extensive use of temporary workers and outsourcing is permitted, to the point that today the majority of Chilean workers in the mining industry are casual workers with few benefits or protections. Likewise, mine health and safety regulations were dismantled and inspections slashed to the point that today there are only three inspectors for the almost 900 mines in the Atacama region where the San José mine is located.

Indeed, the dark legacy of the 1973 coup haunted the families of the trapped miners like a recurring nightmare. Many recalled the 16 workers from the Copiapó region who were slaughtered in the predawn hours of 17 October 1973 by soldiers of the “Caravan of Death.” That infamous death squad, operating under orders from Pinochet, flew from city to city on military helicopters to carry out assassinations of leftists and worker militants. One of those killed in that region was Agustín Villarroel, a saltpeter miner affiliated with the Communist Party (CP). His body, along with others, was dumped in a mine where the remains were recovered in 1990 after Pinochet stepped down as president. The miner’s son compared that situation to the San José rescue operation, telling the New York Times (14 October) that “the only difference is that we didn’t use a capsule to lift their remains. We used a bucket for the few bones we could find.”

Popular-Front Betrayal

Pinochet’s coup brought to a bloody end the Unidad Popular (UP) government headed by Allende that was elected in 1970. The UP was a popular front—a coalition of the Socialist Party (SP) and the CP with the small bourgeois Radical Party along with some Christian Democrats. The UP government was not, as reformists throughout the world alleged, a “people’s government” on the “peaceful road to socialism.” It was a bourgeois government pledged to maintaining capitalist private property.

While some leftists criticized Allende for hanging back from taking bold measures against the bourgeoisie, the alliance of the SP and CP with parties of the bourgeoisie served as a guarantee that the reformist workers parties would not—even under pressure from their base—take any steps that might threaten the capitalist profit system. Allende signed an agreement before he took office stating that he would not permit the formation of “private” armed forces—in other words, he would not countenance the formation of workers militias. He also agreed to appoint only those officers who had been trained in the traditional military academies. Thus promising not to tamper with the bourgeois armed forces, Allende lulled the working class by preaching faith in the supposed “neutrality” of the “democratic” military.

The Spartacist tendency was unique among leftists internationally in opposing any political support to the Unidad Popular:

“It is the most elementary duty for revolutionary Marxists to irreconcilably oppose the Popular Front in the election and to place absolutely no confidence in it in power. Any ‘critical support’ to the Allende coalition is class treason, paving the way for a bloody defeat for the Chilean working people when domestic reaction, abetted by international imperialism, is ready.”

Spartacist No. 19, November-December 1970

What was needed in Chile in 1970-73, as today, was a revolutionary party to lead the workers in socialist revolution. Tragically, in the absence of a revolutionary leadership that could break the Chilean proletariat from its class-collaborationist leaders, our prediction proved all too accurate. Those leftists in Chile and elsewhere who supported the popular front helped deceive the workers into believing it was possible to significantly improve their situation without breaking with the capitalist parties and ultimately overthrowing the bourgeois order. Chile provided a dearly paid confirmation of Karl Marx’s teaching that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes” (The Civil War in France, 1871). In the end, the bourgeoisie used its state power to crush the proletariat.

Allende Paved Way for Pinochet

The UP came to power amid intense class struggle that had been sweeping the country for several years. In March 1966, troops led by then-colonel Pinochet gunned down eight workers in the copper mining town of El Salvador. By the following year, a wave of strikes was sweeping the mines, steel mills and other industries, while agricultural workers and landless peasants occupied the landed estates.

The UP government from the beginning rested on a tacit agreement with the dominant bourgeois party, the Christian Democrats, without whose votes Allende could not get a single one of his reforms passed by Congress. And those proposed reforms were quite modest. In opposition to the revolutionary call to expropriate the capitalist class, the UP was pledged to protect private property. Its program simply called for a few nationalizations, notably of copper mines, whose net result would be an improvement of the position of the Chilean bourgeoisie vis-à-vis the imperialists. Under the land reform of the Allende government, peasants were to pay for all land they received and most of the large capitalist farms were exempted. Both the policy of nationalizations and the tepid land reform plan were carried over from the Christian Democratic regime that preceded the UP.

The UP government adopted a policy of appeasing the rightists and ratcheting up repression against the workers while pushing austerity and speedup (which it promoted as the “Battle for Production”). In the fall of 1972, truck owner-drivers, supported by shopkeepers and other petty-bourgeois sectors, staged a countrywide work stoppage. Allende responded by inviting military leaders into the government—and naming Pinochet acting commander-in-chief of the army. Allende also promulgated a law that permitted unannounced raids by the military in search of arms. Though ostensibly directed against both right- and left-wing “extremists,” this law was used exclusively against the unions, workers occupying factories and the workers parties. Meanwhile, fascist groups such as Patria y Libertad built up sizable arms stockpiles.

In the spring of 1973, the government took aim at the 13,000 copper miners at nationalized El Teniente, then the largest underground mine in the world, as a test case for a broad assault on the strategically powerful copper miners. The UP provoked a strike at El Teniente by attempting to do away with the sliding scale of wages (cost-of-living escalator), a vital gain given the rampant inflation at the time. Allende sent riot cops against the miners and moved to “restore order” in two mining provinces by placing them under military control.

While Allende sought to vilify the strikers as “privileged,” the Stalinist CP went even further, labeling them “fascists.” The Castroite MIR (Revolutionary Left Movement), which was formally outside the UP coalition but gave the Allende government “critical support,” denounced the El Teniente strike as “more disastrous than any avalanche or landslide” because of the lost revenue that it was costing the country (Punto Final, 5 June 1973).

Bourgeois forces such as the Christian Democrats sought to use the issue of the strike against the UP government. The Christian Democrats had earlier won control of the copper unions in elections after miners at Chuquicamata had gone on strike and Cuban Stalinist leader Fidel Castro, who supported the Allende regime, unsuccessfully appealed to them to “sacrifice more” for the good of the fatherland. As we wrote at the time of the El Teniente strike:

“A revolutionary leadership of the unions would rapidly extend the strike and demand the formation of a government of the workers parties alone, which would expropriate the key sectors of the economy…. The ability of the Christian Democrats to win control of the miners’ unions is due solely to the complete failure of the left parties to put forward such a program in the labor movement.”

—“Defend Chilean Miners’ Strike” (WV No. 23, 22 June 1973)

In the final months of the Allende government, sections of the proletariat were beginning to reject its anti-working-class policies by forming the “cordones industriales” (district coordinating bodies of factory committees) in the industrial belts around Santiago. An acute prerevolutionary situation had ripened with the emergence of these embryonic dual-power formations, and the leftist coalition in power was increasingly unable to contain the militant working class. Thus, the central goal of the reactionary putschists led by Pinochet was not merely the ouster of a shaky regime but the annihilation of the organized workers movement.

In order to excuse their own betrayals in Chile and alibi the SP-CP policy of class collaboration, the Stalinists and other reformists claimed that the coup was the work of fascists and extreme reactionaries in league with the CIA. There is no doubt that the ultra-right provided leadership of the coup and that the CIA was actively involved in helping foment it. But to hold the “ultras” and the CIA solely responsible was to ignore the fact that every important section of the Chilean ruling class—including the “moderate” Christian Democrats and the “constitutionalist” officers included in the UP regime—was involved in the coup in one way or another.

For leftists, the central lesson of Chile under Allende is summed up in the following remark made decades earlier by the revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky: “In reality, the Popular Front is the main question of proletarian class strategy for this epoch” (“The POUM and the Popular Front,” 16 July 1936). In Chile, as in Spain 1936-39, France 1936 and Indonesia 1965, the popular front has always served to undermine the workers’ class consciousness and set them up for often bloody defeat. Drawing that lesson is a crucial task in the forging of a Trotskyist party in Chile—independent of and in opposition to all wings of the Chilean bourgeoisie—as a section of a reforged Fourth International, world party of socialist revolution.