On February 10th, 2021, amid a worldwide health crisis, Chilean authorities deported 138 migrants back to their countries of origin. The images are haunting: Chilean police officers wearing medical masks escorting the now-deportees all dressed in white hazard suits.
The moment on February 10th is a haunting reminder that the response to the most recent wave of immigration to Chile is being marked by exclusionary tactics, highlighting the increasing concern of the promotion of former authoritarian tactics in different parts of Chilean society. If not stopped, the consequences of normalizing former authoritarian tactics can break Chile’s still-consolidating democracy.
Before jumping to the present situation, it is important to note the many waves of immigration to Chile since its independence in 1818. In its early years, the Chilean state has always privileged white Europeans, going so far as to offer Europeans “land in uncultivated areas”. The land in question just so happened to be the land of the Mapuche peoples, a group indigenous to the southern part of the country. The connection here is that immigration to Chile has an explicit racial context: destroy the indigenous to whiten the population. The norm of privileging white Europeans remained in existence throughout the 20th century until Chile’s coup and the proceeding dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, when immigration turned into emigration.
While the Chilean state attempted to craft a Chilean identity around whiteness before 1973, it was during the period of the dictatorship in which a group of military officials, economic elites, and other connected members, coalesced around utilizing exclusionary tactics. As Cathy Schneider notes in her book “Shantytown Protest in Pinochet’s Chile”, the following categories of Chileans were excluded and thus targeted by the state apparatus:
- Popular members of the deposed government, in particular those involved in social programs or popularly elected.
- Labor organizers, grassroots leaders, such as those belonging to the neighborhood councils, mothers’ centers, or JAP’S.
- Mapuche Indians who had been involved in the land reform programs.
- Students, usually university students.
- Members of left-wing political parties whose political affiliations were deduced from their participation in conflictual activities such as strikes, land occupations, or protest actions. These prisoners often were identified by landowners, industry owners, or neighbors.
- Government sympathizers without any known political affiliation. Most of these were poor and had participated in actions designated as “conflictive.”
- Victims of political vendettas.
- Victims of personal vendettas.
- Those seized for a range of offenses from delinquency, alcoholism, or drug abuse to violations of curfew.”
These excluded communities then became victims of state-sponsored violence, which included, but was not limited to kidnappings, torture, and forced disappearances. One of the most important takeaways of the codified violence is the markers of the excluded communities were grounded in deep-rooted experiences related to work, family, and even race. These identity markers were visible and held deep roots in everyday Chilean life before the dictatorship.
From 1973 to 1989, violence against these excluded communities was omnipresent and normalized. It is in this space that established exclusionary tactics became the norm in Chilean political, social, and economic forums. Even as Chile exited its dictatorship in 1989, these tactics were carried over through the maintenance of the 1980 constitution which, among other things, made the former dictator, Augusto Pinochet, the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces until 1998 and then a Senator-for-Life.
As Chile emerges and re-democratizes again, immigration to the country takes on a new form. Instead of white Europeans, Chile began to receive a new set of immigrants, making immigration, as noted by Cristián Doña Reveco of the Migrant Policy Institute, more visible in the public and political space.
The reason for this increased immigrant visibility is the fact that this new wave is composed of people who are phenotypically very different from the “typical” Chilean. In the specific case of Haitian immigrants, their visible difference is compounded by differences in language; Spanish-dominated Chile versus the Haitian Creole of the Haitian émigré. The Chilean state, today, is targeting the ethnic and linguistic diversity within the newest wave of immigrants by reinvigorating former exclusionary tactics, which has profound impacts on the continued consolidation of democracy seen in Chile today.
Political, social, and economic actors are once again utilizing exclusionary tactics; this time to antagonize recent immigrants to Chile. The decision of the Piñera government to deport 138 migrants during a worldwide pandemic is only one of the many ways exclusionary tactics manifest. Just like during the dictatorship, these actors are working to define who is deemed worthy of state protection and who needs to be excluded, and, in turn, persecuted.
As Chileans look to a series of elections later this year, including electing civilian representatives to rewrite the constitution, these networks of actors pose a real danger to the democratic process in Chile. One of the most alarming actors situated in these networks is Jose Antonio Kast and his Republican Party. Kast has some extreme opinions on recent immigration to Chile, going so far as to state his plans to build a wall on the Peruvian and Bolivian borders. The Republican Party also uses the hashtag “#RecuperemosChile” or “Let’s Take Back Chile”, which ominously parallels Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan in the United States. With the backing of his party, Kast won 8% of the vote in the 2017 Presidential election. Why does this matter? The candidate for the centrist Christian Democratic Party, once part of the illustrious Concertación coalition that toppled the dictatorship, only won 7% of the vote. Today, Kast openly touts his support of Augusto Pinochet and holds far-right views on a plethora of policy topics.
The rise of Kast and his Republican Party highlights how exclusionary tactics are operating once again in Chile. Luis Thayer, a social scientist at Silva Henríquez Catholic University in Santiago, presents an ominous warning about the impact Kast and other like-minded folks can have on the Chilean democratic system. He states:
As long as governments continue to promote nationalism in their responses to the recent crises we are seeing globally and in Chile, they are risking an extinction of our societies and the frameworks that support them.
Chile needs to fight against the reintroduction of exclusionary tactics by enshrining migrant rights in the new constitution. Furthermore, Chileans will also need to advocate for other necessary political, social, and economic reforms as a way to consolidate our democracy and effectively move away from the legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship.