They Took To The Streets
CHILE — On Oct. 18, 2019, people took to the streets. They abandoned their workplaces and schools to join the demonstrations, chanting EVADE! The tensions had been building since Oct. 7 and finally boiled over. Who knew this turmoil would lead to the Chilean Constitution?
It started because the Chilean subway system had recently implemented a 30-peso increase (equivalent to U.S. 5 cents.) On Oct. 6, the fare increase went into effect. Not expecting the change, high school students who could not afford the increase decided to jump the turnstile to catch their school lift. The police were called and came to arrest students.
Soon after, Chile exploded as grass-root, fare-dodging campaigns sprung up. Authorities closed train stations to control the dodgers, leading to larger clashes, demonstrations, and fires caused by fights between students and the police.
Chilean Constitution: The Cost of Life
This was the latest episode in the ever-increasing cost of living saga. Most Chileans were living far beyond their means and barely getting by. Privatization of industries, specifically in education, gas, health care, and pensions, had put the cost of living far outside the average Chilean’s income.
Large loans placed by citizens against living expenses became commonplace and necessary; 10 to 30-year credit lines were borrowed at high-interest rates. The lower and middle classes were feeling the pressure of making ends meet, with little reprieve in sight. This one extra cost took them over the edge.
As demonstrations intensified, President Piñera declared, “We are at war with a powerful, implacable enemy,” referring to his own citizens.
More than one million Chileans demonstrated against Piñera five days later, demanding his resignation on Oct. 25.
Riots led to armed police fighting students and citizens with tear gas and water cannons.
Demonstrators were met with rubber bullets, causing 2,500 eye and face injuries, some permanently blinded. Nineteen people died that day, 29 by the end of the year.
Police arrested 2,840 people, and some are still in jail, awaiting their hearing one year later.
Boom to Crash
Until recently, the economy was booming for most Chileans. Before 2014, the promise of upward mobility was in sight.
Neo-Liberal policies reduced Chilean poverty from 40 percent to five percent. The working class was willing to “put in their dues” to keep this momentum going. Yet, for the last five years, the financial noose around Chileans’ necks had tightened, and they were now demanding to breathe.
Chilean Constitution and History
To understand Chile’s present, you must understand its past. Here’s a brief rundown:
On Sept. 11, 1973, a “Golpe de Estado” overthrew President Salvador Allende, a democratically elected socialist leader. Who won on the platform of educating and helping the poor, lower class.
President Salvador Allende
The United States injected $10 million to prevent and unseat Allende from holding and maintaining power, backed militarily and financially by Nixon and facilitated by Kissinger.
Using a four-man junta posse consisting of the military heads;
The Army, Augusto Pinochet, The Navy, Jose Merino, The Air Force, Gustavo Leigh, and The Carabineros/Police, Cesar Mendoza.
They strong-armed and consolidated power among themselves. Pinochet then took over the government, declaring himself the Republic’s sole de facto Dictator in 1974.
Chilean Constitution and a New Ruler
Pinochet then began denationalizing industries. During this time, his forces committed massive human rights violations, “disappearing” and placing citizens in concentration camps. He prohibited any political opposition, controlled and limited the press, and ended the elected Congress. He also dismantled unions and forced anyone who resisted into exile or death.
In 1988 under the assumption he would win, another plebiscite was formed. The “SI or NO” vote would determine whether Pinochet should remain President or open up voting to elect a new leader. He lost the election, ending a 17-year violent dictatorship. The vote in 1990 marked the first steps into a long-awaited democracy and a free market.
The Game is Fixed
In 1990 the world’s markets opened to them for the first time in almost 20 years, and Chileans bought their freedom.
Chile’s economy exploded, and copper was their ticket out of poverty and onto the world economic stage.
With dreams of upward mobility, interest rates on personal loans to fund their middle-classed fantasy sat at 21.5 percent and fluctuated heavily. The costs of living never kept pace with low Latin American salaries and work protections were scarce. People borrowed a lot, and banks and credit cards were happy to make up the financial difference.
Privatization, price-fixing, and collusion became commonplace and included everything from supermarkets, gas, highway tolls, and pharmaceuticals to toilet paper. Driving up the cost of living further, Chileans held onto their middle-classed dream through gritted teeth.
“The middle class is in debt at unacceptable levels,” says Marco Enriquez- Ominami, former Congressman, former Presidential candidate, Filmmaker and leader of the Progressive Party in Chile. “Thirty years later, you have the lower class and the middle class together against the system, says Enriquez Ominami”
He says that the people agreed to pay their dues, and after a few decades of never moving forward, they’ve had enough. They feel as if, “I went through dictatorship and I’ve gone through democracy, now let’s stop,” says Enriquez Ominami
At What Cost?
The unsustainable price of living has caused many Chileans to wonder how to manage inequity. Although they have worked their way out of poverty, becoming one of Latin America’s economic powerhouses, there is still a gap between those who can afford to live and most who can’t.
Neo-Liberal policies lifted the GDP, but the levels of inequality and inability to cross the chasm between “HAVE versus HAVE-NOT,” has not changed for most, leading many to wonder why?
Using private and public schooling to illustrate, Enriquez- Ominami says public schools and universities receive limited government funding. Yet public schools are legally obliged to take all students with low-income, learning, or physical disabilities.
Yet privatized schools don’t, and as a result, they dominate most fields. Touting “superior service and quality,” handpicking those they want to serve with money, high grades, or gifted students while still also receiving public money. After decades of this, the advantages build up.
Chilean median monthly wages sit at about USD $500. An average family with three children preparing for University must come up with enough income to ensure they can all attend school. Education is the only way to ensure escaping the clutches of poverty in Chile.
The “good” Universities are privatized and cost USD $700 monthly per student. Parents bring in $1000 collectively and spend $2100 on schooling alone. This, according to Enriquez-Ominami, has led to a crisis of debt.
“You and your husband go to the bank and ask for credit for 10 years. But then, you have to pay this credit, and you pay the double … the triple,” (in interest) says Enriquez-Ominami.
Unable to escape debt or gain wage-to-inflation parity, many Chileans feel powerless to elevate beyond their class, says Enriquez-Ominami, unable to break the cycles of inequity.
Poverty versus Inequity
Despite Chile boasting one of the strongest economies in the region and having some of the wealthiest families in Latin America, this country continues to have high inequity levels, sitting at the 8th highest inequity rating in Latin America (the Gini coefficient of 46.6.)
Chile’s president Sebastián Piñera is also worth $2.8 billion and gained attention amid allegations of banking fraud with Banco de Talca in the 1980s before running for the presidency in 2005.
According to Patricio Navia, clinical professor of Liberal Studies and affiliated faculty member with the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at NYU, and professor of political science at Universidad Diego Portales Chile, reducing inequity has been impossible in Latin American countries because elites do not want to give up their powers.
So rather than creating structures that systematically reduce inequality gradually over time, elites in Latin America have told people they are reducing poverty. Claiming that they will all be better off when it trickles down, but it’s not enough.
“People tolerate inequality provided that everyone gets a fair chance. People will say, okay, inequality is not bad if it results in meritocracy. But it’s always the same people on top,” says Navia.
“If the American dream doesn’t become a reality, people will say, ‘look, I’m playing by the rules, but I can never make it,” says Navia. Resulting in a societal bottleneck where the middle class cannot move up within Latin America.
As the wealthy retain their position as elites, isolated from the rest of the population, Navia describes this phenomenon as “discontent at the gates of the promised land.” Chile has successfully pulled itself out of poverty, decreased infant mortality, and increased children’s access to education. The country has hit significant success markers.
Yet as the middle-class comes to the “promised land,” waiting to sit on the other side of the gates with the elites, the elites have said “NO,” states Navia, and told them to wait a little longer. This discontent, he believes, is what triggered the riots in Chile in 2019.
Chilean Constitution- Is It Real?
This discontent led to the current Chilean Constitutional plebiscite. Many feel these inequities are stitched into the current Neo-Liberal Constitutional fabric, and its questionable “introduction to Chilean law” delegitimizes it.
This friction and the collective pressure felt by a global economic downturn spurred by CoVid-19 compounds the inequity rampant in modern-day Chile, highlighting the dire need for change.
In a countrywide Chilean Constitutional referendum held on Oct. 25, 2020, an overwhelming 80% majority, of 52% of the Chilean population, voted to build a new “Democratic” Constitution. On April 11, 2021, Chileans will go to the polls and elect the 155-member Chilean Constitutional assembly to draft this new Constitution.
A marked turn from the previous Neo-Liberalisms, many citizens hope this Chilean Constitution will level the playing field and bring about new perspectives on running the country. The Chilean Constitutional assembly will consist of a 50% female voting gender parity and an Indigenous presence, never seen in previous Chilean leadership before.
The plebiscite came as a direct consequence of last year’s mass protests, says Ximena Velasco Guachalla, Ph.D., Assistant Professor at the University of Essex Department of Government.
Not since 1833 has the Chilean Constitution been rewritten by a citizen assembly elected by popular vote. It will have a more inclusive and legitimately elected creation, says Velasco Guachalla.
“Elections play a pivotal role in shaping people’s attitudes toward democracy as a political system,” says Velasco Guachalla. This is not only true in Latin America, but across democratic countries, she stated.
Velasco Guachalla says that “democratic erosion” comes when popularly elected governments consolidate their power by limiting opposition parties from organizing. It happens when they also limit civil liberties and change institutions to allow for more consecutive terms and, in some cases, do away with term limits altogether. All of this undermines democracy at its core.
She explains that open and fair elections support the legitimacy of the “state” and the democratic process. This is relevant to support representative political systems within Latin America, considering the hyper-cycle of elections the region has gone through in the last few years.
What is Going to Change?
Although many Chileans believe that rewriting the Chilean Constitution will solve inequities, critics wonder what will effectively change. Navia has his doubts,
“People think of constitutions as a miracle pill that will solve all the problems. If it were so easy, then Latin America would be the most developed region in the world. We have had more constitutions than any other region,” says Navia.
Navia likened writing a constitution to Chileans tearing down an old house to build anew, questioning whether they couldn’t have salvaged the old one instead. He recommended instead “renovating the house” to keep what is working and fix what is broken and outdated.
Doing so may help from throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater in the middle of a pandemic and an economic crisis. Considering the timing, starting from scratch may not be the wisest move, according to Navia.
He also states that the house may not be the “core problem” in people’s minds.
“Pinochet’s Constitution is like the house built by an abusive father. Now that you (Chileans) are a grown-up, the house is OK, you can remodel it, but there is an issue with the house because it was built by that abusive father,” says Navia and healing the collective Chilean psyche won’t be easily fixed by a piece of legislation.
Keeping things like regulations that helped Chile’s rapid economic expansion and introducing reforms to reduce inequality may work, but great constitutions are meaningless if there is no economic growth to enforce them.
Chilean Constitution- A Catch 22
Chile’s problems echo a regional “Catch 22” that every Latin American economy has faced historically.
“Chile has three problems; high levels of inequality, it depends too much on one commodity, copper, and it has an increasingly corrupt political and business elite,” says Navia.
Venezuela faced the same issues in 1988; Cuba faced it in 1958, Argentina in the 1920s, and Haiti in 1805.
Latin America continually stumbles on its success when becoming industrialized countries because they have not found ways to reduce the inequalities that stifle economic growth.
Enriquez-Ominami thinks additional elements are missing in the solution.
“Chile has to come back to America Latina. We escaped during the 80s to go out of the continent with the United States, Europe, and Asia. We need more integration with Argentina, Peru, and Bolivia … to sell to Brazil, and we need to go to the Atlantic. If we don’t reform that strategy in Chile, we will be poor,” says Enriquez Ominami. “We need more integration within Latin America for geopolitical reasons. We need to be together … but the elite, the rich, the powerful people don’t agree with me.”
The municipal and gubernatorial elections are scheduled on April 11, 2021, to elect the new constitutional group if CoVid-19 regulations allow in Chile. Positions will be open to current and previous political party members and independents. The third election to accept or deny the newly drafted constitution will be held on Aug. 2022.
Click on the links below for more information on:
Ximena Velasco Guachalla, Ph.D.
Marco Enrique- Ominami :
Patricio Navia Ph.D.: