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DRAFTING A NEW CHILEAN CONSTITUTION: Discontent At The Gates Of The Promised Land

They Took To The Streets

CHILE — On Oct. 18, 2019, people took to the streets in droves. They abandoned their workplace 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.

Marcha Mas Grande De Chile 2019 Plaza Baquedano Drone.jpg Credit: Hugo Morales 

It started because the Chilean subway system recently implemented a 30-peso increase (equivalent to U.S. 5 cents.) On Oct. 6, a fare increase went into effect. Not expecting the change, high school students could not afford the increase and 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 protesstss 2019
Concepcion, Chile protests 2019.jpg. Photo Cred: Alvaro Navarro/Wikimedia

Chilean Constitution: The Cost of Life

This was the latest episode in the ever-increasing cost of living expenses saga. Most Chileans were living far beyond their means and barely getting by. Privatization of industries, specifically in education, roads, gas, pharmaceuticals, health care, and pensions, had put the cost of living far outside the average Chilean 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. 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 citizens.

More than one million Chileans demonstrated against Piñera five days later, demanding his resignation on Oct. 25. Riots led to armed police fighting off students and citizens with tear gas and water cannons. Demonstrators were met with rubber bullets, causing 2500 eye and face injuries, some people 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 had 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 to the point of breathlessness, and they were now demanding to breathe.

Street Art – A mash-up of Pinera & Pinochet


Chilean Constitution and History

To understand Chile’s present, you have to understand the country’s past. Here’s a brief rundown:

On Sept. 11, 1973, a “Golpe de Estado” overthrew President Salvador Allende, a democratically elected, socialist leader.

President Salvador Allende

Backed militarily and financially by Nixon and facilitated by Kissinger, the United States injected $10 million to prevent and unseat Allende from holding and maintaining power.

Four hundred U.S. CIA experts assisted Allende’s army commander in chief, Augusto Pinochet, in creating a coup d’état. (See Project Fubelt and Operation Condor for more details.) 

Signatures of the four heads of power.

Using a four-man junta posse consisting of the military heads;

Army (Pinochet),

Navy (Jose Merino),

Air Force (Gustavo Leigh), and

Carabineros/Police- (Cesar Mendoza.)

They strong-armed power consolidation 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

Augusto Pinochet went on to establish and implement a Neo-Liberal economic model assisted by the ChicagoBoys economists. Pinochet then began denationalizing industries. During this time, he committed massive human rights violations, “disappearing” and placing citizens in concentration camps. He prohibited any political opposition, controlled and limited the press, ended the elected Congress. He also dismantled unions and forced any person who resisted his will into exile or death. 

Family Protesting the Disappeared.

In 1980 Pinochet created a plebiscite to write a Neo-Liberal Chilean Constitution, and in 1981 he pushed through into “effect” the new Constitution under questionable means, making Pinochet the “President” of Chile.

In 1988 under another plebiscite, the “SI or NO” vote helped Chile decide whether Pinochet should remain President (which he and his party assumed he’d win) 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.

“Don’t kill us for wanting a life with dignity.”
Sign Reads: “They stole everything, except our fear.”
Photo Cred: Chilean Protests 2019 in Puerto Montt (North Patagonia) Natalia Reyes Escobar/ Wikimedia

The Game is Fixed

Nineteen-ninety was the first year the world’s markets opened to them, and Chileans bought their freedom. Chile’s economy exploded, and copper was their ticket out of poverty and onto the world economic stage.

The interest on personal loans to fund their middle-classed dreams sat at 21.5 percent and fluctuated heavily. The cost 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 difference.

Privatization, price-fixing, and collusion became commonplace and included everything from supermarkets, gas, highway tolls, pharmaceuticals to toilet paper. Driving up the cost of living further, as 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. Still, after a few decades of never moving forward individually, 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

Sign Reads: They stole everything, except our fear. Photo Cred: Chilean Protests 2019 in Puerto Montt (North Patagonia) Natalia Reyes Escobar/Wikimedia

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 those 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?

Sign Reads: All children have the right to a decent country. Chilean Protests 2019 in Puerto Montt (North Patagonia) Natalia Reyes Escobar/Wikimedia

Using schooling in public versus private sectors Enriquez- Ominami illustrates how inequity grows. Public schools and universities receive limited government funding. They are legally obliged to take all students (low-income, learning, or physical disabilities.)

Privatization dominates most fields. Touting “superior service and quality,” handpicking those they want to serve (with money, high grades, gifted students) while also receiving public money. After decades the advantages build up.

Chilean median monthly wages sit at about USD 500. An average family with three children, ready to go into University, must come up with enough income to ensure they can all attend school. Education is the only way to ensure a decent salary and to escape the clutches of poverty.

Universities, the good ones, are privatized and cost USD 700 monthly per student. Yet the parents bring in $1000 collectively but spend $2100 on schooling alone. This has led to a crisis of debt, Enriquez-Ominami believes.

“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,” says Enriquez-Ominami.

Unable to escape debt or gain wage-to-inflation parity, many feel powerless to elevate beyond their class, unable to break the cycles of inequity.

Piñera puppet. Chilean Protests 2019 in Puerto Montt (North Patagonia) Natalia Reyes Escobar/Wikimedia

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 (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 states, reducing inequity has been impossible in Latin American countries because elites do not want to give up the powers that they already have.

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, but it is not enough.

“People tolerate inequality provided that everyone gets a fair chance. People will say, okay, inequality is not bad if it is the result of meritocracy. But if 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. He believes there is a societal bottleneck where the middle class cannot move up within Latin America.

The wealthy retain their position as elites, isolated from the rest of the population. Navia defines this phenomenon as “discontent at the gates of the promised land.” Chile has successfully pulled itself out of poverty, decreased infant mortality, 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 Protests 2019 in Puerto Montt (North Patagonia) Natalia Reyes Escobar/Wikimedia

Chilean Constitution- Is It Real?

This discontent created the argument, in political circles, for the current Chilean Constitutional plebiscite. Many feel these inequities are stitched into the current 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 lack and 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.

Chilean Protests holding Mapuche Indigenous flag. 2019 Puerto Montt 03.jpg Natalia Reyes Escobar /Wikimedia

A marked turn from previous Neo-Liberalism shows 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. 

Democracy Now

The plebiscite is essential because it 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.

“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 states that “democratic erosion” comes when popularly elected governments are consolidating their power by limiting opposition parties from organizing. They are also limiting civil liberties and changing institutions to allow for more consecutive terms, and in some cases doing 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.

Sign Reads: (Fighting)…Until life is worth living. Wake Up Chile.

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 likens writing a constitution to Chileans tearing down an old house to build anew and questioned whether they couldn’t salvage the old one instead. He recommended renovating to keep what is working and fix what is broken and outdated.

Doing so prevents 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 thing to do currently.

Navia 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 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 the abusive father.”

Healing the collective Chilean psyche won’t be fixed by a piece of legislation.

Instead, keeping the things that work, like the regulations that helped Chile’s rapid economic expansion, and changing the things that don’t, by introducing reforms to reduce inequality, is best. 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” every Latin American economic power 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 in becoming industrialized countries because they have not found ways to reduce inequalities. Economic growth is constricted by maintaining inequity.

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.”

Municipal and gubernatorial elections are scheduled on April 11, 2021 (if CoVid-19 regulations allow) in Chile to elect the new constitutional group. Positions will be open to current and previous political party members and independents (if voted in). The third election to accept or deny the newly drafted constitution will be held on Aug. 2022.

Ximena Velasco Guachalla, Ph.D.

Marco Enrique- Ominami :

Patricio Navia Ph.D.:

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