Since the beginning of the revolutionary uprising the flared up on the 18th of October, various social and political organizations, and among them the International Workers’ Movement (MIT), have denounced the state’s use of political prison sentences to subdue protests and punish protesters. Meanwhile, Sebastián Piñera’s government has completely denied that his government is engaging in political detentions. Who is right and who is wrong? We shall see…

By Jose Villaroel, translated to English by Carlos Jara

On the one hand…
February 2021 saw the release of Mauricio Cheuque, a construction worker who had been in detention since his arrest at a protest in November 2019, 14 months ago. He was accused of possession of a molotov cocktail bomb; his family asserted that Cheuque was framed by the federal police. The charges were eventually dropped in court after the federal police failed to present evidence of the alleged crime. Just imagine, being jailed for almost a year and a half on the basis of a groundless accusation. Cases like Cheuque’s number in the hundreds in Chile.

On the other hand…
Consider the recent announcement that John Cobin, a far-right vigilante who opened fire against protesters at the October 18th demonstrations, would have his jail sentence reduced from 11 years to 6. Or the case of Ponce Lerou, Pinochet’s son-in-law, whose financial corruption sentence of 70 million dollars was reduced to only 3 million. This change allowed Lerou to maintain his position as the second richest man in Chile. Or alternatively, consider the case of the policeman who murdered a juggler a few weeks ago, who was merely sentenced to house arrest instead of prison time.

Jail for poor workers, impunity for the rich

As we can see from the above cases, laws and justice in Chile are not impartial: they are enforced completely differently depending on whether the defendant is a protestor or a fascist, a worker or a business owner. Since the beginning of the October 18 uprising, 25,567 people have been detained at protests (as of the end of March 2020), around 500 people have been blinded by police, and more than 40 have been killed outright by state forces.
The government, parliament and business owners have relied on various means to suppress the protests: one of these methods has been the “preventative prison sentence”. It has been calculated that there have been at least 2,500 protestors arrested and held in prison on preventative charges, out of which many are still being detained, and most of those who have been released continue to face other punitive measures such as house arrest or travel bans. The Chilean state has turned preventative prison sentences into a legal tool to detain protesters for political purposes; since 2007, the percentage of the Chilean prison population serving preventative sentences has risen from 22% to 36%.
These people are political prisoners because the Chilean state has imprisoned them as a consequence of their political positions. They were detained and later jailed purely because they participated in anti-government protests, for their rejection of the government’s policies. What’s more, the actions that they are accused of committing were legitimate acts of self-defense in the context of the brutal anti-protest violence unleashed by the police and military, repression similar to that which occurred in the US, Peru, or France during 2020 as well.

Why is this happening?

Why does attending a protest carry the risk of losing an eye, getting detained or receiving a jail sentence? Why is the federal police allowed to use violence to put down justified protests? Why is it that when the people resort to violence to defend themselves against this state repression, it becomes a crime? Why can business owners commit crimes without fear of prison time?
These questions and others like them come to the fore when we analyze the situation in Chile. There is an answer to these questions, and it comes down to who the country really belongs to. In Chile (as in the rest of the world), we live in a capitalist society, an economic and political system where the means of production are privately held. Effectively, a small group of businesspeople (in Chile, people such as Luksic, Ponce Lerou, Matte or even Piñera himself) own the country’s industry, its natural resources, banks, etc. They are the owners of the country, its riches and resources, and they control its government, laws and courts, its military and police, its healthcare and education.
This is the root of the problem, and it is the reason why white collar crime, the slashing of social services, and corruption in government are all considered “acceptable” by the state, whereas going out to protest becomes a crime. It is because by protesting we take a stand against the businesspeople who own the state’s wealth.
It is very important that we attain clarity on this subject, as it shows us why political imprisonment runs amok in this country: anyone who stands up to the brutalities of the capitalist system risks jail time. Because of this, we in the MIT call for the end to private property and big businesses, such as the banks, mines and pension fund companies. What we call for is the expropriation of the riches that are held by the ten wealthiest families of this country, and for this wealth and the government to be at the disposal of the democratically organized working class, not the millionaire bourgeoisie.

Freedom for the political prisoners

For the above reasons, we in the MIT say that Chile does indeed have political prisoners, and that these prisoners need to be freed immediately. We believe that to protest for better living conditions is not a crime, nor is it a crime to demand better education, healthcare and pensions. As we have seen since October 18th, when we rise up to question the privileges of the rich the leaders of the armed forces and federal police close ranks with the politicians, with the government, and with business owners as well in order to crush the protests, actions which lead to the murder of dozens, the blinding of hundreds, and the imprisonment of thousands of people. Facing such violence, we believe that the methods of struggle that have been used (such as barricades and lines of defense) are totally legitimate, as these are the methods of the masses of the people against the repression and violence meted to by a minority. For these reasons we fight for the liberty of all people jailed for resisting violent attacks against protests, because their actions were self defense against the state’s brutal violence.

Are “pardons” the way out?

Today, various members of parliament, among them members of the Broad Front (Spanish: Frente Amplio) and the Communist Party, are calling for a law that would pardon prisoners. Nevertheless, this project is completely insufficient, as pardons can only be given to those who have been found guilty by the courts, and would not apply to prisoners being held pending trial such as Mauricio Cheuque. The majority of political prisoners today are jailed without having been convicted of any crime, and thus pardons could free only a small minority of those imprisoned. Moreover, the pardon would free people from their prison sentences, but does not strike the conviction from their record, which could lead to future problems for the former prisoners. Finally, the parties that are calling for pardons maintain a political outlook where they hope to work with and make concessions to their opponents in government; as paltry as their demands already are, we can expect that whatever law they eventually manage to pass will be even less satisfactory.
It is no accident that the Communist Party has adopted a strategy that will only liberate a minority of political prisoners, nor is it an accident that their strategy involves going through a Parliament whose very legitimacy has been called into question by the revolutionary uprising. Just a few days ago, their presidential candidate, Daniel Jadue, when asked about actions taken by protesters against the federal police, stated that he “condemn[s] this and any other act of violence”. Does Jadue not realize that it is the state itself that wields extreme violence against the protests? Does he not realize that the police are repressing the Chilean people who have risen up to fight the government? Isn’t it more violent to use the means of force to keep Piñera in power, and to continue our current inadequate pension, healthcare and education systems?
Jadue and the leadership of the Communist Party know all of this, but nonetheless they lack a plan for how to confront violent state repression. This is not because they haven’t had time to think of one, but rather because it would conflict with their political priorities. Some time ago, Jadue himself stated that he is not in favor of getting rid of private property, which is to say that under his hypothetical government, the rich would stay rich, because Jadue’s political ambitions are to just put a few more regulations on them. Following this logic, for as long as the country remains under the control of a small group of business owners, there will continue to be political prisoners because they will continue to jail whoever goes out to protest against the poverty and immiseration imposed by the government, the parliament, and the big businesses. For these reasons, we say that to follow the Communist Party’s leadership is to follow a road to disaster. The Communist Party will continue to slide to right bit by bit in the hopes that a CP government will eventually be accepted by the most reactionary factions of the bourgeoisie.

So, how do we free the prisoners?

At the upcoming Constitutional Convention, we believe that on the very first day we need to propose a vote for general amnesty, for the immediate release of all political prisoners from this uprising and prior uprisings, as well as Mapuche political prisoners. Such an amnesty should include all detainees, whether or not they have been convicted yet, and should include provisions to strike any such political convictions from the liberated prisoners’ records.
Nonetheless, we know that the best tool for freeing the political prisoners is the mass of the people rising up in protest. Victories such as the convocation of the Constitutional Convention were won thanks to the pressure imposed by the mobilized masses. We need to strengthen the movement for the freedom of political prisoners, and to raise these demands in our workplaces across the country. We need to demand that the unions discuss this topic in their meetings, at strikes and in contract negotiations. We need to ask each constitutional candidate to state their position on these questions: Are you in favor of strengthening the movement to free political prisoners? Are you in favor of voting for general amnesty for prisoners on the first day of the Constitutional Convention? We, the MIT, and our candidate for District 8, comrade María Rivera, are more committed than ever to the victory of this struggle.

The original article is available in Spanish here.