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Pinochet’s Long Shadow

Chile’s voters reject a forward-looking constitution

What to make of the rejection of Chile’s new constitution, which would have been the world’s most progressive? The proposed magna carta granted increased autonomy for indigenous nations in Chile, promised gender parity in governmental bodies, and mandated universal health care, access to legal abortion, and ecological rights; its rebuff was a dispiriting result for the Chilean left and allies across the hemisphere. Two years ago, on the heels of an explosive protest movement against inequality and the depredations of a neoliberal state, nearly 80 percent of voters authorized a constitutional convention to draft a new Chilean charter. Yet on September 4, more than 60 percent voted rechazo, rejecting the fruit of that convention. Something went horribly awry.

The passage of the constitution had been championed by Chile’s president Gabriel Boric, elected in December of 2021 over the far-right candidate José Antonio Kast, an open admirer of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Boric emerged as a leader of student protests a decade earlier against a privatized education system, a legacy of the Pinochet era. At thirty-six, he became the country’s youngest-ever president. His Social Convergence party forms a piece of the Approve Dignity (Apruebo Dignidad) coalition of left-wing parties and organizations that came together to support the new constitution. But he assumed office during a turbulent time, with Chile experiencing inflation, rising crime rates, and an influx of migration from Venezuela that had inflamed anti-immigrant sentiment. When his popularity dropped, Boric’s visible support of the constitution allowed Chileans unhappy with his administration to express their disapproval by voting to reject. The night of the defeat, he struck a conciliatory tone, granting that the country had made a “strong and clear” choice, but vowing to begin the process anew and to include populations who had felt themselves left out. The mandate from the 2020 plebiscite to create a new charter lived on, even if the means to fulfill it were now hazier.

Lucas Cifuentes, a national director of the Libertarian Left party (Izquierda Libertaria), believes that even the constitution’s opponents recognize that Chilean society remains a “boiling pot,” its crises unresolved, and thus recognize the need for reforms to reduce the pressure. “No matter what,” predicts Cifuentes, “there are going to be changes to health care, to education, to the pension system. But the question is the depth, the real impact, and that’s what we’ll be looking at attentively to see what happens.” Yet if indeed a new convention comes to pass, it will look different from the first. In the October 2020 plebiscite authorizing the new convention, Chileans also voted on the form the convention would take. They opted to sideline federal officials and directly elect the constituents who would write the document. Now, instead, Congress will almost certainly become central participants in the process. “All of the uprising, the process of the constitutional convention was in good measure an anti-elite protest,” says Cifuentes, “and now the elite is going to create the new constitution.”

The Chilean elite had already reinserted themselves into the constitutional process via a national press dominated by right-wing outlets. Many were the worries about the impacts of “fake news” on this plebiscite, which indeed shaped occasionally outlandish fears—that, for instance, the new constitution would change the flag and national anthem, and would enact seizures of private property, from residences to pensions. But an antagonistic press likewise eroded support for the document over the life of the convention and the months of decision afterwards. “A structural problem of our politics is that the agenda, the capacity to impose an agenda and themes that define what’s discussed publicly—the rich have that one hundred percent,” says Cifuentes. “In Chile there was more diversity, more media pluralism during the dictatorship than in democracy. It makes for a managed politics.”

Even the new constitution’s opponents recognize that Chilean society remains a “boiling pot,” its crises unresolved, and thus recognize the need for reforms to reduce the pressure.

Still, the job of the constitution’s backers was to win even in the face of all that. Instead, rechazo won in every single Chilean region, with poorer populations voting most heavily to reject. The difficulties of the apruebo (approve) campaign are evident in the gnarly case of Petorca, an area in central Chile where the appropriation of the rivers by large avocado growers has dried up the basin and left poor households without water, dependent on water delivered by truck. “The centralization, the privatization of water, have meant that Petorca is a symbol of pain,” ex-constituyente Carolina Vilches Fuenzalida told me. “And it hurts! It hurts because we’re grieving people who have committed suicide, we’re grieving migration, we’ve lost the local economy, gastrointestinal illnesses, allergies. . . . They’ve brought water in plastic tanks to say to the politicians in Santiago, to say ‘look, this is the water that I have to use to bathe, that I have to wash my hands, that I have to cook and to clean my baby’s bottom.’” Yet such water users have found little redress, as say-so over water planning in any basin is tied to the water property rights one owns. Petorca has thus launched a powerful social movement, Modatima, to fight for the right to water. Vilches Fuenzalida and allied constituyentes collaborated to translate that demand into the text of the new constitution, which would have guaranteed water as a human right and a communal good, and prioritized human consumption over all other uses. And then, on September 4, Petorca voted to reject the constitution.

The days leading up to the plebiscite in Chile were tense, at times surreal. A far-right member of the chamber of deputies—akin to the house of representatives—hit another in the halls of Congress. A standoff between pro-apruebo bicyclists and pro-rechazo cowboys on horseback in the streets of Santiago ended with the horsemen trampling the cyclists. In Valparaíso, Chile’s second largest metro area, a week before the plebiscite, a performance artist at an apruebo rally ignited a national scandal by pulling a Chilean flag from their ass while speaking of “aborting the old Chile.”

Other events touched deeper nerves still. In late August, Chilean authorities in the south arrested Hector Llaitul, leader of an armed movement of Chile’s largest indigenous group, the Mapuche. Fierce Mapuche resistance to the Chilean state, often focused on federal and private forest plantations in the region, has expanded since the 1990s and quickened especially in the last five years. In May of this year, Boric’s government extended a “state of emergency” in the south, as Mapuche groups have burned forest-company trucks and taken lumber. The state has met the movement with extreme repression, with the declaration of a state of emergency allowing for military occupation. Llaitul’s arrest became a flashpoint in the plebiscite: graffiti in Santiago called people “to the streets for Llaitul” and demanded his release as a political prisoner. Conservative senator Rojo Edwards suggested that the new constitution’s recognition of indigenous systems of justice with their own courts (as is the case with indigenous nations in the United States) would have likely let Llaitul walk free “in minutes.”

Chile is currently among the few Latin American countries not to recognize, or even mention, its indigenous peoples in its constitution. The new constitution, like those of Bolivia and Ecuador, would have declared Chile plurinational, in a recognition multiple nations existing within one state. The stipulation became a major flashpoint in the plebiscite. An effort to recognize the dignity and autonomy of Chile’s indigenous peoples—which besides the Mapuche include the Aymara, Rapanui, Lickanantay, Quechua, Colla, Diaguita, Chango, Kawésqar, Yagán, and Selk’nam, among others—instead was recast as a vehicle for inflaming tensions with those groups, a recipe for division. Yet there are, of course, more proximate causes of worsening relations. “Today, not only in Chile but across the world, where there are raw materials there are indigenous peoples,” says Rodrigo Paillalef, a Chilean diplomat. “Where the commodities are is where the indigenous peoples are. So this fight, this violence, will only grow if conditions aren’t created at a global and local level to confront this reality.”

Paillalef is a member of the Permanent Forum for Indigenous Questions at the United Nations, and himself Mapuche. He narrates the current Mapuche struggle as continuing a tradition of ferocious resistance to incursions to empire since the empire in question was Incan, with the Spanish yet to broach the Andes. He worries that, absent “institutional tools so that Indigenous peoples can participate in decision-making,” there is little hope of exit from the current situation. The solutions that the new constitution aimed at—plurinationality, autonomy, mandatory prior consent for projects that would affect indigenous peoples, and promotion of indigenous justice systems and languages—were cast by rechazistas as likely to worsen the very problems they aimed to solve.

The new constitution, like those of Bolivia and Ecuador, would have declared Chile plurinational, in a recognition multiple nations existing within one state. 

It’s an example of what political economist Albert O. Hirschman, in The Rhetoric of Reaction, characterizes as the “perversity thesis”: that attempting to improve some feature of the political and social order will instead make it worse. Hirschman’s other two categories of reactionary rhetoric were likewise in evidence throughout the campaign. According to the “futility thesis,” attempts at reform are unlikely to amount to much of anything. And per the “jeopardy thesis,” proposed changes endanger past accomplishments, offering too great a risk to pursue.

The fear of gains lost may explain the surprising victory of rechazo not only among the poorest in Chile but also within indigenous communities. Chile, by some gross economic measures, is among the wealthiest countries in Latin America; the neoliberal reforms imposed at the barrel of the dictatorship’s gun did usher in an era of great, if uneven, economic growth. Some opponents of the new constitution felt this growth at risk. Several cab drivers I spoke with—Chilean and Venezuelan both—fretted that the new constitution risked turning Chile into Venezuela. In fact, the 2019 social uprising was “planned since the year 1990. From the fall of the Berlin Wall,” Fernando Peralta, the head of the Confederación de Canalistas en Chile (the association of water rights’ holders) told me before the vote. Peralta believes Marxists and socialists have been working for thirty years to push radical solutions in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Columbia. “And I hope not in Chile,” he said. “But we’ll see.”

Apruebo, in the majority of its social aspects—education, health, pension—they’ve promised a lot, but it can’t be done” Peralta said. “Because there’s not the money, and there’s not the infrastructure. . . . We’re moving in an absolutely premeditated way to impoverishment of the country. That’s it.”

In any case, rechazo won resoundingly. It was a rare election in which participation in the plebiscite was obligatory, and the inclusion of so many new voters shaped the electorate in new ways. Chilean constitutional scholar Camila Vergara charges that the constitutional process went sideways thanks to its unmooring from the people who had brought it to life. The social movement from which the convention crystallized, known in Chile as the estallido social, was organic, horizontal, and fierce. A fare hike of thirty pesos in October of 2019 was met by students jumping turnstiles on Santiago’s metro, catalyzing massive protests that quickly swelled to more than a million marchers in Santiago alone. “It’s not about thirty pesos, it’s about thirty years,” the protesters argued, as they took aim at the many indignities of the neoliberal era wrought by dictatorship and stewarded by its democratic heirs: an unequal education system whose private schools and universities were funded by students taking on debt; a likewise unequal health care system with starved public services and expensive private ones; a privatized and poorly performing pension system. The protests were wild and sometimes destructive. The police met them with savage repression, beating, killing, and sexually assaulting scores. In a gruesome but common practice, they shot more than four hundred protesters in the eye over a five-month period, blinding many.

The new constitution aimed at transforming these features of Chilean life, and went further in reframing the Chilean state and society as ecological, feminist, and, of course, plurinational. It granted rights to nature, to animals, and to future generations; government bodies were guaranteed gender parity. Other pieces of the constitution offered eerie retorts to the Pinochet era: statutes barred the state from torturing detainees and from exiling citizens. Nor could such crimes be forgiven. The text was clearly a product of its historical moment, aiming to thread together demands of the various factions who had taken to the streets and to counterpose itself to the prior constitution, drafted under Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1980 and representing, for many Chileans, his junta’s lasting grip on Chilean life.

During Pinochet’s coup, on September 11, 1973, tanks rolled through Santiago and bombarded the presidential palace, La Moneda, where socialist president Salvador Allende awaited. With the United States-supported insurrectionists closing in, Allende gave a final speech. “I am not going to resign! Placed in a historic transition, I will pay for loyalty to the people with my life,” he broadcasted over the radio. “And I say to them that I am certain that the seeds which we have planted in the good conscience of thousands and thousands of Chileans will not be shriveled forever. They have force and will be able to dominate us, but social processes can be arrested by neither crime nor force. History is ours and the people make history.” The estallido social offered a momentary fulfillment of this vision, and it seemed possible for a time that the constitution would translate the inchoate demands of the movement into a new historical chapter.

Despite the charter’s rejection, the energy of the movement superseded its institutional bounds. With the rechazo victory resounding and fresh, protesters again took to the streets. On September 6, as Gabriel Boric rearranged his cabinet to pull in politicians from the center-left, high school students marched from the Plaza Dignidad, epicenter of the original protests, toward the presidential palace to demonstrate they had not given up on the new constitution’s promise. “Apruebo, apruebo, apruebo,” they continued to intone, and lit a fire in an intersection, beating a ragged rhythm on walls and chanting. Police erected barricades to corral the crowd, which more forceful protesters eventually kicked down. After an hour or so of surveying the scene, the police blared sirens on their anti-riot trucks and began to push the students back block by block with water cannons and tear gas. This the students met with more aggressive chants, calling for “pacos muertos”: dead cops. The grammar of protests past was in evidence: some students pounded larger rocks into a stone wall to break off smaller rocks to throw at the police. Others pulled down street signs to erect barriers that would allow them to keep the road. Someone set fire to a bus stop. Those in the front lines of the protest returned to safer zones further back with eyes streaming, choking on tear gas they couldn’t get off their clothes, and surrounded one another to change without revealing their identities.

One of the students, Victoria, discussed sparks for the protest both grand and personal. “We’re a people without memory,” she said, “and history is going to repeat itself. We can’t let them abuse us anymore.” Moreover, she charged, “education in Chile is really bad. There are schools that have unhealthy conditions: animals, rats, there’s not food, there aren’t enough teachers—for all those reasons we’re out here today.” As she spoke, the police surged forward in their reinforced vehicles, and a crowd of students tore down the street past us. “Look out,” I warned her, and turned to follow the streaking crowd. “No, it’s okay,” she stopped me without flinching, knowing exactly where the danger was, and kept right on speaking about the acute plight that poorer students face.

Cifuentes, of the Libertarian Left party, described an overstated but commonly cited disconnect between the “Octubrista” faction of the left—those who place their faith in street movements—and the “Noviembrista” faction—those who act institutionally to achieve their aims, their label referring to the initial agreement to hold a constitutional plebiscite. The two groups will need one another in the days to come. A new constitutional convention likely approaches. Even as the left works through the sting of this initial failure, Boric remains the president, a powerfully situated champion for constitutional change. A triumphant elite will claim the results demonstrate the country does not want to transform the disparities in Chilean social life that brought about the new constitution, and will aim to bury the estallido beneath its rejection. Those in the street, however, remember exactly why they are there.