Chile’s path to a new Constitution

In our latest blog post, PhD student Daniel Valdenegro Ibarra gives us a passionate account of the significance of last year’s protests in Chile, explaining how it led to this year’s Referendum on the Constitution and why this is a key turning point in Chile’s history.

Hi! I’m Daniel Valdenegro Ibarra, PhD Student of Computational Social Science at POLIS, University of Leeds. But I’m not writing this blog as such. This time, I’m just a regular citizen of Chile, coming from a working class family that happens to be an ocean apart from his country.

On the 18th of October of 2019 Chile woke up! That day marked the start of a widespread social unrest unseen in decades. The quiet people of this small nation had had enough of inequalities and abuses from the elites, and they turned their anger to the streets by the millions. I was here, in Leeds, watching from afar. But my family was there -my wife and cat included!-, in the epicenter itself of all the protests and rioting… and even participating in some of them!

What I’m going to tell you in this blog is, to me, the end of a story that started fifty years ago. When this little country defied all common sense and decided to have the first democratically elected Sociallist-Marxist president of the liberal democratic world, in the middle of the Cold War, and on the same continent as a very paranoid President Richard Nixon.

The distant past…

For the many of you who are probably not Chilean, let me bring you up-to-date. In 1970, under a rather unconventional, but by all means valid and democratic election, Salvador Allende Gossens, a Socialits-Marxist, assumed the presidency of Chile. He was elected by people like my father and grandfather, who, at the time were living in what you may consider the most abject poverty, working 12 hours a day in agricultural labor in the huge “estancias” owned by the very wealthy aristocracy of the country, or under the whip of USA mining corporation extracting copper in the Andes. For them, Allende represented the hope of finally having a fair chance of decent living and equal opportunities. And for a short time, they had it, and things were better for the poor people of Chile.

But, as all good things, that came to an end. And a rather abrupt one. You see, being an openly Marxist democratic country in the backyard of an power-expanding USA was not a very good idea at the time. The fact that it was actually possible to reach communism by democratic means was a huge hole in the argument the USA was making about marxism being the enemy of all freedom and goodness Allende and Chile: ‘Bring Him Down’. In short, the allied countries  turned their backs,  private companies withdrew their money, the country was accused of widespread corruption, the economy collapsed and Allende was overthrown in a CIA backed military coup. We ended up with a psychotic dictator, Pinochet, who was heavily indoctrinated by USA economists, and  who had a very “neo-liberal” economic and social agenda of new policies, promoting “individual freedom” and “meritocracy”. These policies were neatly consecrated in the infamous 1980 Constitution,  adapted of course to fit the wishes and needs of the wealthy elite, the military, and the CIA. The hopes of the people of Chile of having a more just society were buried again.

Sixteen years later in 1988 we held a referendum to end the dictatorship. The option to end the dictatorship won. And, to the surprise of everyone,  the dictator conceded (not without a fair share of pressure from the elites, companies, and international community). It was a happy day, full of new hope of justice and social equality. Under the slogan “Chile, la alegría ya viene” (Chile, joy is coming), the progressive and educated members of the elite leading the opposition campaign, promised the people social reforms aimed to reduce the inequalities that 16 years of dictatorship had deepened. And, in macroeconomic terms, they did a pretty good job improving Chile’s position in almost every ranking of social and economic wellbeing out there. The people of Chile were “free” to choose their education, their healthcare or even their pension system, in what appeared to be a never ending privatisation of companies over the state duties and basic services. The poor people of Chile put their hopes now on the educated elites that helped us out of the dictatorship, listening to their advice, supporting their policies. For thirty years we worked hard to make their country’s project a reality, waiting patiently for the rewards of “meritocracy”. But the joy never came… and we were getting very tired.

Last year…

The 1st of October of last year, the Transport Minister Gloria Hutt announced a raise of $30 pesos (£0.03 ) in  metro fares for the whole network of the capital, Santiago. This seemingly low increase was received with dismay among the poorest population, who regularly use the metro system to move around the great extension of the city of Santiago. In response, on the 7th of October of 2019, secondary school students initiated a campaign of fare dodging under the warcry “¡Evade!”.

On Friday 18th October 2019 there were multiple calls of fare-dodging by secondary school students. They were starting to gain traction among the rest of the population and among university students. In response, the government called for more repression and more riot police. Since the police saw themselves overwhelmed by a band of cheeky students, they turned more violent and started shooting pellets. A student was injured, and the Metro was shut down. Thousands of working class citizens were forced to walk home, with the discourse in the news that a 16 years old girl who was bleeding on the floor of a metro station with a pellet in her leg, was more “dangerous” than the police officer who shot her.

That evening thousands turned to the streets, to protest against the excessive repression against the students, and many took their anger against the metro itself. Over 100 stations suffered near simultaneous attacks of diverse magnitude. Dozens were reduced to ashes. And while this was happening, Piñera was enjoying pizza in a posh restaurant for one of his grandchildren’s birthdays.

The next morning the Government and the elites were in panic. For their americanized Cold-War mentalities, the ongoing riots were obviously the act of some sort of militarized guerrilla, aided by international powers who wanted to destabilize this prosperous right-wing administration. Piñera declared a state of emergency and a curfew for the cities of Santiago, Valparaiso and Concepcion. That didn’t work of course, and the protests only grew in magnitude and scope, sadly costing the lives of some protesters. In a broadcasted speech addressing the nation, Piñera criminalized the protestors, gave control of the security of the city to the army and proclaimed: “we are at war, against a powerful enemy”.

During the course of the week from the 20th to 25th the demonstrations grew in numbers day after day. As a response, the repression also increased, leaving many citizens injured and blinded by the pellets shot by the riot police. Some gave their lives in the protests. Other social movements also jumped into the demonstrations. Now this was not just about the metro fares. It was about the bad pension system. It was about the segregated healthcare system. It was about the segregated educational system. It was about the indigenous people abused in the south. It was about dignity!

Exactly a year later, the people of Chile voted in a national referendum to void the current dictatorship-era constitution. After weeks of protests during October and November of 2019, a referendum to change the dictator’s constitution was the first real gesture of goodwill from the elites and the government. We took the chance without forgetting that this was only a small step to real change. At the end, the option to change the constitution won by a landslide, getting 78% of the votes. It was a day full of hope and joy again. My wife and I went that evening to celebrate at Plaza de la Dignidad. It was an historic moment and we were part of it.

During this whole year of demonstrations, from the 18th of October of 2019, until the days before the referendum, and even until today, one social movement has stood out as the most attuned to the demands of the people, and has led many of the most successful interventions in demonstrations and inside the Congress. This is the Feminist Movement[1]. They have been pivotal to crystalize the anger of the people into non-violent demonstrations and proposals to change laws and the new constitution. You may remember this song from the art collective Las Tesis who was born as a way to protest for the abuse of the Chilean police against female protesters. When the idea to change the constitution was proposed by members of the congress, one of the first responses of the people in the streets was that the constitution had to be gender paritarian. This was evident by the 8th of March of 2020 when a huge demonstration of around 1.1M women marched in the city to demand a Paritarian Constitution, under the battle cry “Nunca más sin nosotras”.

The demands of the Chilean women were reflected in the ballots of the referendum. The first ballot was about the option to change the constitution, with the options Approve (the rewriting) or Reject (the rewriting). The second ballot was about the entity in charge of writing it, if the Approve won. The options were 1) Mix Convention: In which normal people and members of the current congress gather together to write the constitution. Only the “normal people” in this option was subject to popular election, and hence gender parity was not assured here. 2) Contitutional Convention: Every member has to be subjected to a popular election, and if current deputies or senators were to participate, they needed to resign to their current positions. In this option gender parity was guaranteed. Of course the option 2 won by even a greater margin than the option to change the constitution, with 79% of the total votes.

The new constitution is going to be written by a democratically elected, plurinational and gender paritarian Convention. It is believed to be the first constitution that is going to weigh the will of men and women equally in the whole history of humanity. Every citizen can be a constituent if they wish. A system of veto is in place to prevent relative majorities from imposing their ideas in the Convention. Finally, the new constitution has to be approved again in a new national referendum in 2022. Until then, the current constitution rules. We planned this so there was no doubt of our good faith with everyone.

But the people of Chile know that changing the constitution is not a magic solution. We are aware that we have a lot to do before having a truly just and fair society. Will all of this be beneficial in any way? We don’t know. But still we are very happy, because this represents the first real victory we have had in decades. For the first time we are not being managed by a foreign imperialist power, coerced by a dictator nor persuaded by an elite to follow a particular reform or programme. This change is finally just ours.

We are a new generation, we do not have fear.

We are the grandchildren of the peon you whipped.

We are the sons and daughters of the rebels you couldn’t kill.

We see clearly now… and we want justice.

Source: Adaptation of protest songs and slogans in graffiti and demonstrations.

[1] If you wish to known more about the Feminist Movement in Chile I highly encourage you to contact any one following, very talented, woman researchers: Carolina Rocha Santa María, PhD Student in the University of St. Andrews; Belen Alvarez Werth, PhD Student in the University of Queensland; Gloria Jiménez Moya, Associate Professor, Pontifical Catholic University of Chile.

Source of image:  Crisalys✨ on Twitter: “dignity | We were always told “thats how life works” “you are not working hard enough” but maybe we can change something this time, we can see better now #chiledesperto ⠀⠀⠀⠀…”

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