After Apruebo’s Defeat

Read the editor's introduction to the Winter 2022 issue of the NACLA Report, "Apruebo por Chile: Charting a Future in the Aftermath of Defeat."

November 21, 2022

This piece appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of NACLA's quarterly print magazine, the NACLA Report. Subscribe in print today!

From the October 2019 social uprising known as the estallido social to the December 2021 presidential election of former student leader Gabriel Boric, Chile has been a source of great political hope for those committed to building a world beyond neoliberalism. In the late 1970s and 1980s, Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet imposed upon his country the world’s first experiment with neoliberalism—a system defined by the privatization of national industries, the liberalization of trade, and the wholesale dismantling of the social welfare state. In 2022, Chilean social movements seemed poised to bury that neoliberal order. To do so, they took aim at the 1980 Constitution, which the dictatorship used to codify its economic system, and opened the door to a new charter, drafted by a democratically elected, constituent assembly.

But in a surprise to many, Chileans rejected the proposed new constitution that the 155-person constitutional assembly wrote between mid-2021 and mid-2022. What’s more, they did so by margins that few predicted. How did a moment of hope end in such disappointment? What lessons can be learned from the 2022 victory of “Rechazo” (reject) over “Apruebo” (approve)? And what comes next for the social and political movements that have led the constitutional process over the last three years? 

In this issue of NACLA Report on the Americas, we set out to examine the social, political, and economic landscape in Chile as it navigates the waves of more than three years of social and political conflict. When we began planning this issue several months ago, most activists and political observers in Chile were optimistic that the country’s post-neoliberal world was just over the horizon.  In the wake of the Rechazo vote, however, our goal as guest editors has been to create a space for scholars and activists to think through both the recent past and future as various sectors of the Chilean Left begin to chart a new course forward.

Essays authored by leading scholar-activists engage the questions of “what went wrong” and “what comes next” head on. In her essay, legal scholar Camila Vergara, a longtime analyst of participatory democracy in Chile, questions just how democratic and participatory the constitutional process has been. She underscores the ways that Chile’s old-guard political elites tried to manage, channel, and in some cases coopt the demands of the 2019 estallido. She also warns that many in the current Boric government seem to be aligning themselves with members of the old political class after the September plebiscite’s defeat.

In his post-plebiscite analysis, sociologist René Rojas strikes a more optimistic tone, though he too notes that the road to reform will be difficult. The September defeat, he says, represented “an incalculable setback for Chile’s new left.” Nevertheless, the Boric government still “may face a more favorable outlook than its Pink Tide and progressive neoliberal predecessors.” According to Rojas, Chile’s ruling class remains in crisis, and the country’s mass movements “have engendered levels of popular organization and coordination not seen since the Allende years.” The question now is how the government will rebuild “a programmatic and strategic relationship to the country’s activated masses.”

Similarly, Chilean writer and activist Pablo Abufom cautions against those who see all as lost. He rejects the argument that the defeat of the draft constitution meant Chileans are opposed to the key values that the document represented—values like social rights, participatory democracy, a recognition of Indigenous peoples and their territorial claims, solidarity, gender equality, social justice, and ecological awareness. Rather, Abufom notes that several of the “concerns that people explicitly cited as the reasons they voted against the draft were based not on the actual contents of the text, but on the talking points of those who opposed the proposed constitution.” Abufom maintains that we should not lose sight of the fact that Chile’s social movements have “built a platform for change in the form of the draft constitution, and they have gained unprecedented political experience” that will be carried into future struggles.

Indeed, irrespective of the results of the September plebiscite, one thing that nearly all our contributors emphasize is that the process that produced the draft constitution was an unprecedented one for Chile. Every other constitution since the country’s independence was ratified in a non-democratic political environment. For an insider view of the successes and challenges of that historic process, issue co-editor Romina Green Rioja talked with two of the key players in the constituent assembly, Mapuche linguist Elisa Loncon and feminist activist Alondra Carrillo. As both note, one of their goals was to channel the demands of social movements into the constitutional process. Loncon, who presided over the constitutional body for the first half of its work, notes that the draft constitution’s articulation of plurinationality, social rights, and the rights of nature were among its most historic contributions. With respect to Chile’s feminist movement, Carrillo adds that the “enormous effort to translate social movement demands into constitutional norms constituted…the opening of a new field of feminist political intervention.” Even after the draft’s defeat, these efforts to integrate social movement demands into the formal political system will continue to guide what a new, more inclusive Chile will look like going forward.

Other contributors to this issue break down many of the historic guarantees that were articulated in the draft constitution’s 388 articles because of the hard work of Loncon, Carrillo, and their colleagues in the constitutional assembly. Feminist historian Hillary Hiner underscores how the draft offered advances in human rights. Latin American studies scholar Carl Fischer highlights how the draft protected all people’s right to a gender and sexual identity in “all its dimensions and manifestations.” Similarly, labor historian Ángela Vergara notes the draft constitution’s unprecedented provisions on social and economic rights; its section on “Fundamental Rights and Guarantees” consisted of an astounding 109 articles, “including guarantees to the right to housing, education, food security, and social security,” Vergara writes. Moreover, she explains that by “establishing comprehensive collective bargaining, the right to strike, and other union rights, the text responded to the longstanding demands of the union movement.”

But as many of our contributors also point out, in the wake of the constitution’s defeat, analysts have argued that the emphasis on some of these progressive advances may explain how or why the constitution failed to win broad enough national support to be approved. In their analysis of Chile’s lithium sector, political scientists Sebastián Carrasco and Aldo Madariaga suggest that despite a growing focus in Chile and elsewhere on issues of climate change and the rights of nature, neither the constitutional process nor the policies of the current or previous left and center-left governments have successfully reimagined a Chilean economy that is not tied to resource extraction. “Understanding why people voted against this progressive constitution will be a topic of debate in the coming years,” they write. “But, even when the country manages to overcome its current constitutional impasse, it is unlikely to change its century-old extractive practices anytime soon.”

Others have noted that one of the principal reasons Rechazo prevailed relates to the draft’s pathbreaking guarantees with respect to Indigenous rights. The declaration that Chile would, under the new constitution, become a plurinational state is perhaps the most frequently cited example. Political scientist Kelly Bauer describes how conservative forces in Chile waged a concerted information war around Indigenous rights and the idea of plurinationalism from the moment the constitutional process began, distorting the meaning of the term in such a way that it fueled vitriolic anti-Indigenous backlash. However, coauthors Héctor Nahuelpán, Álvaro Hofflinger, Edgars Martínez and Pablo Millalen frame plurinationalism as a concept used to benefit the colonial state. While they acknowledge the racist backlash, they place plurinationalism within the Chilean state’s legacy of land theft and resource extraction. These conflicts with Mapuche communities remain unresolved, and even the Boric administration has continued a longstanding state policy of militarizing Mapuche territory.

Digging deeper, we see the complexity of issues related to race and ethnicity in a country whose narrative of exceptionalism is firmly rooted in asserting its racial, ethnic, and cultural differences vis-à-vis its Latin American neighbors. The variation in racial terms used by the contributors, such as criollo-mestizo and white-mestizo, like the dubious perception that many Chileans felt towards plurinationalism, emphasizes the unsettled understanding of race in Chile. While many activists tried saw the proposed constitution as a way for Indigenous groups to assert their cultural and linguistic identity, the process at times created new erasures. Ethnomusicologist Juan Eduardo Wolf suggests in his piece that members of the constitutional assembly may have emphasized Indigenous rights at the expense of Chile’s growing Afrodescendant population. Wolf notes that decisions in the assembly responded to a “scarcity” logic, tacitly suggesting that there was simply not enough political space in Chile to address both the longstanding exclusion of Indigenous peoples and the rights of other racial and ethnic groups, such as Afro-Chileans.

Similarly, in a piece on migrant rights in northern Chile, anthropologist Pablo Seward Delaporte notes how many in Chile’s growing immigrant population—who have been the target of xenophobic anti-immigrant violence for the last half-decade—did not necessarily see their basic needs for housing and protections reflected in the draft constitution. The fact that many migrants, fleeing instability in places like Haiti and Venezuela, are racialized in Chile as “foreign” or “Black” left sidelined a large, hyper-marginalized segment of the Chilean population who otherwise might have more vocally supported Chile’s new constitution. From the beginning, most migrant populations in Chile were excluded from participating in the constitutional process at all.

As Marian Schlotterbeck’s far-reaching interview with Chilean historian Mario Garcés Durán clearly suggests, the political situation in Chile remains in flux. Despite the proposed constitution’s historic achievements, Gárces Durán, a longtime observer of and participant in Chilean social movements, notes that the process that led to Chile’s 2022 draft constitution could have done more to collaborate with civil society. Going forward, ensuring channels for direct and participatory democracy will be critical to not just imagining but also creating a world beyond the traditional neoliberal order. Dueling battles between right-wing and leftist street artists that have been waged on the walls of Santiago since the estallido social—captured by the photography of Bree Johnson—suggest that the political Left and Right were highly mobilized going into the September plebiscite. In many parts of Chile this remains true after the vote. All of this means that there will be no easy way of resolving the unfinished task of ratifying a new Chilean constitution.

As this NACLA Report goes to print, secondary and university students, whose protests in 2006 and then in 2011 and 2021 set the stage for the estallido social, have begun taking to the streets again. Other social movements have reorganized to oppose the possible ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP11). As a congressman, Gabriel Boric denounced the trade pact, but at the time of writing, he and members of his restructured cabinet seem open to supporting it to kickstart a sluggish economy. But at what cost? When plans are set for how Chile will move forward, how the Boric government and the social movements that brought him to power confront the political Right and navigate relations with those from the traditional parties of the center-left will be key to watch.

Chile’s new world beyond neoliberalism still remains on the horizon. Yet as Eduardo Galeano wrote, even if the utopian horizon keeps moving further away, we must keep walking. So Chile marches on.

See more from this issue and check out the table of contents

Romina Green Rioja is Assistant Professor of Latin American history at Washington and Lee University. She is currently finalizing her book manuscript To Govern is to Educate: Modeling Racial Education in Modern Chile (1879-1920).

Joshua Frens-String is Assistant Professor of Latin American history at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Hungry for Revolution: The Politics of Food and the Making of Modern Chile (University of California Press, 2022).

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