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Is Chile’s New Constitution really the Solution?

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Bombs, violence, riots. These were the words that described social unrest in Chile from October 2019 until recently. Now, the ambiance has cooled down. A new referendum to draft a new constitution was passed. But, what comes next?  

Friday, October 18th. The year is 2020. Smoke and tear gas fill up the air. The sound of explosions and screams echo in the ambiance. Chile is in agony. Newspaper headlines read: “Chile Anniversary Rallies Turn Violent as Churched Burned, Police Fire Tear Gas”, “Chile protests turn violent on anniversary”. But somehow, the world seems to be deaf. What is really going on in Chile?  

South America. A continent that has been hit by political instability throughout its history. Some argue that it is because of the Forms of Government chosen by the countries. Other argue it is because of the lack of proper education, equal opportunities and qualified politicians. Regardless of the explanation as to why this continent seems to be so propense to military coups, one thing is certain: almost all of the countries in South America have been victims of military dictatorships in the past century. And this is no stranger to Chile, who suffered a 17-year-old.

In 1970, presidential elections in Chile had as a result the victory of Salvador Allende, the first ever Marxist to be elected president in a liberal democracy in Latin America. During his 3 years in power, Allende left Chile with the worst economy in its history; inflation sky-rocketed, medicine and food were scarce, and a social-economic crisis disturbed the citizens. On September 11th, 1973, Chile’s military moved to oust Allende in a coup d’état. Led by the General Augusto Pinochet, this military coup ended with the suicide of Allende, but Pinochet refused to return authority.  

Chile ended up being ruled by a military junta from 1973 until 1990, where the Congress was dissolved, the Constitution was suspended and at least 3,095 civilians were killed. Pinochet self-declared as President of the Republic in 1974, becoming de facto dictator of Chile. During his almost 20 years as Head of State, Pinochet managed to overturn Chile’s deeply depressed economy with a 606% inflation through an economic policy of free-market reforms, where Chile’s economy soon became one of the strongest ones in Latin America.  

In fact, Robert Packenham and William Ratliff, two professors of political science at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution stated that “The first country in the world to make that momentous break with the past—away from socialism and extreme state capitalism toward more market-oriented structures and policies—was not Deng Xiaoping’s China or Margaret Thatcher’s Britain in the late 1970s, Ronald Reagan’s United States in 1981, or any other country in Latin America or elsewhere. It was Pinochet’s Chile in 1975.” 

However, Pinochet’s dictatorship was also characterized for being a regime that violated human rights, shut down political parties, and most importantly drafted a constitution in 1980 that had ruled Chile until October 25, 2020. Terror roamed the streets, opposition was massacred, and freedom became a luxury. After Pinochet’s step down in 1990, he continued his career as a “senator-for-life” in accordance to his constitution. By the time of his death in 2006, 300 criminal charges were still pending against him for numerous human rights violations.  

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After his death, Chile implemented an unwritten rule: to never talk about Pinochet again. In the 1990s, the constitution created under Pinochet’s dictatorship was reformed, and Pinochet’s’ signature was replaced by Ricardo Lagos’, a social-democratic politician who served as president from 2000 to 2006. Regardless of Lagos being from the opposition party, and his signature being on the constitution, Chile’s citizens still considered the current constitution as Pinochet’s Constitution.  

On October 18th, 2019, the “estallido social”, also known as Chile’s social outbreak, occurred. It began in Santiago, the capital, and it quickly spread through the country. The immediate cause of these protests was an increase in the ticket fare for public transportation. Secondary school students began taking over Santiago’s main train stations, and soon other social groups joined the protests. But soon, the protestors’ demands evolved. They realized that the main issue was the economic inequalities that haunted them due to the poor governance. These violent riots became political, and as open battles swept Santiago de Chile, the president Sebastian Piñera decided to attend his granddaughter’s birthday party and completely disregarded the protests. This infuriated the demonstrators, which led to even more violence and crimes in order to be heard. 17 train stations were completely burned down, over a million Chileans took the streets of the capital to protest, and the total cost of damages surpassed 1 billion dollars.  

As a consequence, Piñera implemented a state of emergency and abolished the fare increase. But, although many warned him that sincere, immediate dialogue was necessary, the president refused to act accordingly. This led to what is now considered the second biggest protest in the history of Chile, where over a million people demanded for his resignation. The actions taken by the president were enough to silence the Chilean population and calm the social unrests for a while, but none of the demands were actually heard. At the end of January 2020, the “estallido social” resumed, but police forces began using extreme measures to control these. The National Institute of Human Rights reported that at the end of January 2020, 427 citizens had received eye injuries at the hands of the police.  

Due to the pandemic, the protests had to come to a halt. This permitted the government to completely undermine the previous requests and protests, and they tried to hide and erase all the inequalities and socio-economic problems present due to years of misgovernance. However, this only made the protests more aggressive. On September 11, 2020, the 47thanniversary of the Pinochet coup, protestors decided to demonstrate at the central plaza, where they clashed with police officers and over 100 arrests were made. Three symbolic churches were burned to the ground by rioters, and demonstrations began getting out of hand once again. Therefore, in order to hush and tranquilize the whole situation, Piñera announced that he would create a plebiscite in order to vote on whether to change the 1980s constitution. But how is this actually going to solve all the problems Chileans face every day due to misgovernance? 

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On October 25th, 2020, in a historic voting process, 78% of Chileans voted in favor of drafting a new constitution. This elections had the greatest voter turnout in Chile’s history, with more than 7.5 million citizens expressing their preferences, even though Chile declared in 2012 that it was not mandatory to cast one’s vote during elections. This process will be carried out by a constitutional convention, which for the first time in Chile’s history will include women. This result was a huge victory for many, and it is often categorized as “Chile’s advancement from Pinochet’s era”. Even though “Pinochet’s constitution” had been reformed more than 50 times, Chile still voted in favor of burying it in the past. To fully understand why this decision was taken by the people, one has to take a look at three main issues. One of the main issues that led to Pinochet’s dictatorship is the presidential system that is exerted in Chile, where the executive power relies almost entirely on the president, ending up with an almost unlimited power.  

Back in 1973, after realizing Allende’s failed presidency had led to economic decline and inflation, the only peaceful and legal way to remove him from power was through impeachment. This procedure is rarely practiced in presidential systems due to its complexity. Because of this inflexibility of presidential systems, along with the high concentration of power in the hands of one politician (the president), the only way the opposition viewed out was through a military coup. Now, in 2020 with Piñera’s presidency demonstrating poor results, the fear of a military coup resurfaced, leading the president to conclude that the optimal solution for him to remain in power was to blame all the problems his government was unable to fix on the constitution. Latin American countries have been affected by ‘hyper-presidentialism’, where the Head of State enhances their power by creating institutions that give them greater freedom to act. In other words, these countries have a supposed separation of power, but without the checks and balances. But, will this new constitution create a meaningful change in the distribution of power in the government?  

Another aspect that is important to analyze when it comes to understanding what this new constitution will bring to the table is it the application. A great example that has been used by many of the voters against the new constitution is the following: Bolivia’s constitution has an article that states that its citizens and the country itself have the right to an ocean. But does this mean that Bolivia has an ocean? The new constitution will only make a representative change if it is followed through by the following governments. Citizens are demanding better education, a fairer and more equal economy and a more competent government. But the constitution of 1980 already has articles in it that express those demands, the problem is that it is not being exercised correctly. Consequently, the question that needs to be addressed is: how is this new constitution going to ensure the compliance to these demands?  

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Lastly, this new constitution will certainly introduce a significant period of political uncertainty in Chile. Even though the referendum was approved by an outstanding majority, it is just the first step into a long, demanding journey. Is now, in the middle of a global pandemic where uncertainty already roams, the right time to decide to create such change? What consequences might this bring? What comes next will be defined by the decisions, either good or bad, that will be taken. The real question now is who will take these decisions? Will this uncertainty period end up giving even more power to the president, and will he feel entitled to make all the important calls? And, how will this affect the country economically?  

Now, it needs to be defined who will take part as an official member of the constitutional convention, which will be composed of 255 members. In March of 2021, the drafting will begin, and these members will face the challenge of writing the constitution from scratch. 155 members out of the 255 will be popularly elected, and a requisite imposed is that they are not part of the Senate or the Congress. The world is eager to see how this all will develop. After the elections for the members are made, they will have 9 months to draft this new constitution, with a possible prorogation of 3 more months. Will Chile finally be freed of Latin America’s vicious political instability cycle? Is this constitution an outcome of the demands of the citizens, or the easy way out for the current government to get off the hook? Will the constitution be finished in time, and will it pass the last plebiscite needed in order for it to be applied? It is now all in the hands of Chileans, and only time will tell.  

Author profile

My name is Emma Velásquez Mariucci and I was born and raised in Cali, Colombia. I studied in an international American High School in Colombia. After graduating in 2019, I attended East China Normal University's intensive Chinese program in Shanghai for a year. I am currently in my first year at Bocconi's bachelor's in international politics and government. All these experiences have shaped me into who I am: an innovative, conscientious brave woman who is eager to explore the world and its surroundings.

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