Constitutional assembly | Chile

The great awakening

In Chile, a democratically elected assembly is drawing up a new constitution but it remains unclear if it will work out. A snapshot of a country at the crossroads.

A Chilean man holds the Chilean flag. Other people are standing next to him.

As early as 2019, thousands of protestors took to the streets in Chile to demand a new constitution and political reform. Such as in the city of Valparaíso, which led to clashes between police and demonstrators

At the end of 2019, millions of people protested on the streets of Chile. The mood was a mixture of anger at social injustice and euphoria over the new political energy in the country. Demonstrators’ banners bore the inscription “Asamblea Constituyente” (constitutional gathering). People met on plazas at neighbourhood meetings to exchange ideas and decide the future of a country through grassroots democracy. The most urgent issue was to replace the old constitution which originated from the time of the Chilean dictatorship. “Seeing so many people on the streets makes me proud,” said the 38-year-old Jessica Cayupi, who was among the protestors. “Chilean people’s awareness has changed. They no longer want to be passive and subordinated by a system that supports extreme inequality.”

In May 2021, the streets and plazas stood empty. The entire country went into a strict lockdown, but the social equality movement remained active. The pandemic magnified the country’s social and political issues, and the need for fundamental change became more urgent with each passing day. Many people lost their jobs, parks filled up with the tents of the homeless and the Chileans who became infected with Covid-19 were often the poorest – and could not afford to pay their hospital bills.

“At the end of the 1970s, the dictator Pinochet gave these economic scientists ministerial positions. The Chilean constitution, which was adopted in 1980, is based on this same neoliberal model.”

In a referendum in October 2020, almost eighty percent of the population voted to develop a new constitution. In May 2021, 155 members were elected to the Constitutional Convention, which now has a year to draft the new constitution. But the process goes far beyond this body of people. “The revolts are directed towards the neoliberal politics of the past thirty years, and against the legacy of the dictatorship,” said the Chilean philosopher, Alejandra Castillo. “Institutional politics to date have been elitist and have represented the interests of large companies. These revolts disrupt that brand of politics.”

Chile despertó or “Chile is awakening” from its neoliberal nightmare, many say. One of the lessons handed down by Milton Friedman, and then emulated by a group of Chilean economic scientists at the University of Chicago, was to reduce the state to a minimum and subject as many areas of life as possible to the rules of the free market. At the end of the 1970s, the dictator Pinochet gave these economic scientists ministerial positions. The Chilean constitution, which was adopted in 1980, is based on this same neoliberal model. It grants private companies more rights than citizens and impedes structural reforms. Pinochet might have stepped down in 1990, but his legacy continues today. Almost all areas of public services have been privatised and social inequality has grown to the point of intolerability. 

A state pension system, a public education and health system, a public drinking water supply, as well as the protection of human rights, indigenous peoples and the environment are just some of the topics that civil society organisations and neighbourhood meetings are aiming to secure in the constitution. “We want to change the prevailing paradigm in Chile – the neoliberal, capitalist, individualistic and patriarchal paradigm,” says Jessica Cayupi. She is a member of the network Red de Mujeres Mapuche, in which Mapuche women come together and self-organise. She also stood as a candidate for the 9th electoral district in the capital, Santiago de Chile, and advocates for Chile’s reorganisation as a pluralist state to guarantee the self-determination of its indigenous people.

Luis Mesina also stood for election in Santiago, together with a list of civil society groups and neighbourhood meetings. He is a member of the No Más AFP movement, which has campaigned for over five years to set up a state pension system and abolish private pension funds. “The current pension level is abysmal and puts people into such a desperate position that they are forced to keep working into their old age. More than seventy-five percent of current pensions are lower than the minimum wage,” says Mesina. The minimum wage in Chile is around 370 euros a month. What’s more, pension levels differ greatly between men and women. The average pension for men in 2020 was around 400 euros, and for women, only around 280 euros a month. They are paid with aid from the Administradoras de Fondos de Pensiones (AFP) – a private pension fund that was set up in 1981 by José Piñera, the former Labour Minister under Pinochet and the brother of the incumbent president Sebastián Piñera. Since then, every worker has had to pay ten percent of their wages into this private fund. Employers pay nothing – and the AFP invest and speculate with the money. That’s why the No Más AFP movement makes a case for anchoring a solidarity-based distribution model as a pension system to the constitution.

But this is not the greatest obstacle on the path to a new constitution by a long chalk. The Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution, which was reached on 15 November 2019 by a broad majority of the ruling and oppositional Chilean political parties, saved President Piñera from being swept out of office. At first, he responded to the protests with violence. For the first time since the end of the Pinochet era, he mobilised military troops against the population and declared in a television statement that he was “at war with a powerful opponent”. His declaration of war was interpreted by the military and the Carabineros as grounds to beat, torture and, in some cases, murder demonstrators. Human rights organisations have indicted Piñera at the International Criminal Court in The Hague for crimes against humanity. Part of the indictment focuses on the failure of the Chilean judiciary to prosecute the offences: to date, almost no one has been charged. In the meantime, more than one hundred candidates for the Constitutional Convention, including Jessica Cayupi and Luis Mesina, have signed a petition demanding the president’s resignation.

Administrative hurdles also stand in the way of the Constitutional Convention, such as the election system. In 28 electoral districts, the D’Hondt method is used in which the electoral success of individual candidates depends on the number of votes of the respective electoral list as a whole. Right-wing parties, therefore, banded together to form a single list. Independent candidates from the political left-wing and members of civil society groups, on the other hand, stood for election on over seventy different lists.

Despite the difficulties in basic conditions, 88 party-independent candidates have been elected to the Constitutional Convention. Only 50 of the 155 members are affiliated with a political party. Seventeen seats have been reserved for indigenous peoples. And the right-wing parties received fewer than a third of the votes. Considering the two-thirds majority required to make constitutional changes, they are not likely to be in a position to block far-reaching changes. Jessica Cayupi and Luis Messina may not have been elected to the Constitutional Convention, but numerous representatives of civil society groups and neighbourhood meetings were, and they are supported by grassroots democracy. These include No Más AFP, feminist organisations, environmental movements and representatives of indigenous peoples. “Despite all the obstacles, we still want to take part because our voices should be heard throughout the world,” says Jessica Cayupi. She and several other elected representatives of civil society groups are advocating that greater citizen participation should be guaranteed in the Constitutional Convention. “Those who are elected are just a mouthpiece for the people. In the end, the constitution cannot just be written by 155 members of the Convention. The population has to be actively involved.”

Translated by Jess Smee