Chileans vote to rewrite Constitution, a resounding “no” to legacy of dictatorship

Courtesy of Helen Johnson.

This time last year, I was living in Valparaíso, Chile and witnessing the country’s historic explosion of protests that began on Oct. 18, 2019. The protests were sparked by a hike in the Santiago metro fare, but quickly evolved into a nation-wide reckoning with massive wealth inequality and the neoliberal economic system that produced it. Almost exactly a year later, the country took an extraordinary step in changing that system.

According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America, about a quarter of all income in Chile goes to the richest one percent. Additionally, most Chileans are greatly in debt due to the high cost of living: The Central Bank found that an average of almost three-fourths of Chileans’ household income was used to pay debt last year. The median wage in Chile is just $540 USD per month—about $3.38 per hour in a 40 hour work week—and the meager pensions (Chile’s version of social security) can be as low as $140 USD per month. Among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (O.E.C.D.)—which consists of 36 democracies throughout the developed world—Chile has the highest level of post-tax income inequality. Although Chile has long been considered one of the most prosperous countries in Latin America, the economic growth that resulted from the country’s transition to a neoliberal economic model in the 1980s has largely benefited a tiny sliver of the population. 

This economic model was first implemented by General Augusto Pinochet, who served as dictator in Chile from 1973 to 1990. He came to power through a military coup that ousted democratically-elected socialist President Salvador Allende. The next 17 years saw thousands of Chileans killed and tens of thousands more detained, tortured and disappeared. The dictatorship inflicted enormous pain and resulted in massive ongoing trauma for the country, especially since Chile has never fully reckoned with this history. Although the government produced two separate truth commissions after the return to democracy, Pinochet continued to serve as Commander In Chief of the army until 1998, which allowed him to maintain influence over the democratically elected governments that replaced him. He blocked virtually all attempts to prosecute either himself or his people for the egregious human rights abuses that occurred under his rule. Although he faced legal charges at the end of his life and was arrested by the British police in 1998, he was sent back to Chile in 2000 after being deemed unfit to stand trial because of his deteriorating health. He died in 2006 without being convicted of any human rights crimes. 

Consequently, there was a lack of retribution for Pinochet and many of the people who helped run his regime of terror and brutality. But there is something else left over from the dictatorship: the constitution. A glaring reminder of this chapter in the country’s history, the current Chilean constitution was put into place by Pinochet (approved in a fraudulent plebiscite in 1980). Retaining the constitution was one of the conditions of Pinochet peacefully stepping down as dictator in 1990. The document enshrines many aspects of the neoliberal, capitalist economic model that Pinochet implemented, and makes it extremely difficult to put into place many of the policies that might help remedy the huge inequality in Chilean society. For example, any laws that touch education policy, political parties, the military or the electoral system require a supermajority to be passed. It is also virtually impossible to alter the free market model put into effect by Pinochet. 

That’s why the constitution became a primary target of last year’s protests. Chileans demanded a new one, which would accomplish two goals. First, it would allow for greater flexibility (without the constraints embedded in the old constitution) to implement the policies demanded by the protesters; second, it would finally rid the country of a document that is a glaring reminder of 17 years of oppression and violence. In a crucial concession to the massive protests happening across the country, President Sebastian Piñera agreed in November 2019 to hold a nationwide referendum on whether or not to rewrite the Chilean Constitution.

The referendum was originally to take place in April of this year, but then Chile went into lockdown due to the ongoing pandemic. It was postponed to Sunday, Oct. 25. Election officials said almost 7.5 million Chileans turned out to vote (the country’s population is 18.73 million). In a landslide victory, 78 percent voted in favor of a new constitution. 

The ballot also asked who Chileans wanted to be involved in the drafting of the new document. The options were either a body that would include 50 percent current members of Congress, or a body that would be 100 percent elected by the popular vote. Seventy-nine percent voted in favor of the latter. Chileans will now return to the ballot boxes on April 11, 2021, in order to choose the body of 155 people who will take part in a convention to draft the country’s new Constitution. The convention will have nine months to author the new draft before it will be released to the Chilean people for another referendum in 2022. 

Although it is still early in the process, and the country will not see a new document for over another year, the referendum is a powerful lesson in democracy and the first step in what could be a drastic alteration of Chilean society. It is also hugely symbolic: A national referendum was also the means by which, in 1988, Chileans voted “no” to Pinochet extending his military rule for eight more years, setting the country on the path to a return to democratic elections two years later. Now, they have voted “no” to Pinochet’s constitution, hopefully setting the country on the path to becoming a more fair and equal society. 

After witnessing first-hand the estallido social that began last October, I waited with hopeful anticipation for last Sunday’s referendum, and I celebrate the chance for Chile to make long-lasting change to a system that further enriches the wealthy, impoverishes the poor and blocks the working class from being able to implement policies that would better serve the interests of the majority of the country. But watching (what I hope will turn out to be) Chile’s success story, I am acutely reminded of how badly we need a similar overhaul in the United States. Although I hope we are able to vote out overt fascism, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia—you name it—in favor of a government that might pass an economic relief bill for its citizens during a global pandemic at the very least, I know the election will do very little to change the systemic racism that still plagues our Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities or the packed courts that will hold a disproportionate influence over generations to come. Even with a Biden win, our unadulterated capitalism will remain: a system that produces obscene bills for healthcare and medication in order to line the pockets of insurance and pharmaceutical companies, perpetuates endless war in order to enrich the oil and defense corporations and, slowly but surely, makes our planet uninhabitable in the name of profits.

Chile is rewriting its constitution. The country demanded change, and although it is still too early to tell what that change will look like, it is coming nonetheless. Meanwhile, we in the United States still cannot rid ourselves of an electoral college that disproportionately favors the votes of a few and disenfranchises huge portions of the electorate. The Chilean neoliberal economic system, framed in large part by the constitution, was modeled directly on that of the United States. The massive wealth inequality that Chileans took to the streets by millions to protest? It exists here, in even more extreme proportions—the wealthiest one percent hold about 40 percent of all U.S. wealth, while the bottom 90 percent hold less than a quarter. The United States’ income inequality consistently ranks in the top seven among the O.E.C.D.

If Chileans have had enough, why haven’t we?

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