Just one year after mass protests erupted over a small public transportation fare hike, Chileans voted overwhelmingly Sunday to re-write their country’s 1980 constitution. In so doing, voters took an important first step toward burying, once and for all, the most significant political relic of the country’s brutal 1973-1990 military dictatorship—a document that many activists see as the greatest impediment to progressive social change in the South American country.
With final tally sheets nearly complete, official numbers indicate that nearly 80 percent of Chilean voters approved the proposal for a constitutional rewrite during the October 25 plebiscite. By nearly equal margins, voters expressed their desire that a 155-person citizen-elected, citizen-led convention direct the drafting of a new constitution. This option won out over a “mixed” assembly that would have reserved half of the convention seats for sitting members of Chile’s national congress. That new assembly will be elected during a separate national vote in April 2021.
However, terms agreed to before last Sunday’s vote had already determined that an equal number of men and women will serve on that body. The historic decision will mark the first time anywhere in the world that the drafting of a country’s constitution will be firmly rooted in principles of gender parity. Discussions about how to ensure adequate Indigenous representation on the panel are still being considered.
The soon-to-be elected assembly is expected to deliberate for approximately one year before revealing its proposal to the country during 2022. At that point, voters will cast ballots a third time, expressing their approval or rejection of the newly written charter.
The contents of Chile’s new constitution will be a hotly contested matter in the months to come. But for the roughly 5.9 million Chileans who supported calls for a new constitution, the results of Sunday’s plebiscite signaled a strong rejection of the “guardian” or “protected” democracy that General Augusto Pinochet left the country when he gave up power three decades ago. Although minor modifications have been made to the 1980 constitution over the years, many Chileans view the document as a key obstacle for undoing entrenched inequities. In particular, critics point to the constitution’s role in preventing substantive changes to the country’s neoliberal economic model since the return of formal democracy in 1990.
And in many ways, that’s exactly what Pinochet intended. As Chilean constitutional scholar Fernando Atria has noted, the 1980 constitution, the brainchild of the late, far-right lawyer and Pinochet ideologue Jaime Guzmán, was “drafted with the intention of preventing meaningful systemic change.” By giving power a “democratic form,” but no “democratic content,” Pinochet and his advisers set in place an architecture that would perpetuate their free-market policies long after the dictator himself stepped down.
When Chile Woke Up
As has been discussed on these pages and elsewhere over the last year, the proximate spark that ignited a national movement was the government’s roll-out of a 30-peso (approximately four cents) fare increase on Santiago’s overcrowded metro system. In the wake of that October 2019 decision, young people across the capital took to the street, jumping turnstiles, occupying subway stations, and chanting “evadir, no pagar, otra forma de luchar” (evade, don’t pay, another way to fight). Unrest escalated when Chile’s conservative president, Sebastián Piñera, declared a “state of siege” in the capital, provocatively adding that Chile was “at war.” The order marked the first time since the country’s 17-year military dictatorship that the Chilean armed forces had been called into the streets. Piñera’s words, meanwhile, reminded many of Pinochet himself.
Almost overnight, the government’s actions seemed to transform a primarily youth-led protest movement into a national urban awakening. In the days and weeks that followed, newspaper headlines and protest placards declared that “Chile despertó”—the country had finally “woken up.”
In a flashback to memorable scenes from the 1970s and 1980s, thousands of Chileans took to their balconies and street corners each evening, banging empty pots and pans to express their discontent with the government’s militarized response to the protests. Demonstrations reached a climax on October 25, 2020, when more than a million people flooded the streets of Santiago. Thousands more turned out in cities across Chile in what was perhaps the largest single-day mobilization in the country’s national history.
Santiago’s Plaza Italia, the unofficial boundary between the capital city’s more hardscrabble downtown districts and the well-heeled barrio alto neighborhoods from which Piñera and Chile’s traditional elites hail, became the unofficial epicenter of the so-called estallido social, or social explosion. (Unsurprisingly, the three barrio alto comunas of Vitacura, Las Condes, and Lo Barnechea were the only parts of Greater Santiago to vote against a constitutional rewrite Sunday).
Carrying out what some have described as an “itinerant occupation” of the plaza, activists rechristened the square “Plaza de la Dignidad” as masked youth, calling themselves the primera línea (front line), acted as irregular defenders of the space. Brandishing makeshift shields, these groups, which grew to include devoted fans of some of Chile’s most popular fútbol clubs, confronted a near-daily onslaught by Chile’s heavily militarized national police force. Skirmishes between the two groups would continue well into the usually quiet austral summer months when the Chilean capital can sometimes feel deserted.
Indeed, the regularity of state repression has been a defining feature of the last 12 months in Chile. Hundreds of protestors have been blinded by what many analysts see as the police’s indiscriminate—and often intentional—targeting of peaceful protestors with tear gas canisters and rubber bullets.
Just a few weeks before Sunday’s vote, such violence was put on full public display when a uniformed member of Chile’s national police force, the Carabineros de Chile, hurled a 16-year-old demonstrator off a bridge just outside the Plaza de la Dignidad during a small protest march. While the boy miraculously survived, the incident was just the latest example of the national police’s excessive use of force against demonstrators, as documented and denounced by numerous human rights groups. For many, the lack of accountability when it comes to the actions of state security forces is a stark reminder of the dictatorship’s long shadow.
Rising up to meet the repression of the last year have been ordinary citizens engaged in an unprecedented wave of participatory democracy. In small neighborhood squares in Santiago and around Chile, community residents started gathering shortly after the estallido began to both reflect on the past and plan for the future. Through these assemblies and open town hall meetings, known as cabildos abiertos, Chileans created novel forums for political deliberation and dialogue. According to historian Romina Green-Rioja, an active participant in her own neighborhood’s assembly, such meetings demonstrated to neighbors that they “were not alone” in their “desire to build a new Chile.”
The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020 put a pause on many of these actions. It also delayed the national plebiscite on the 1980 constitution, which had been originally scheduled for April. But in many ways, the pandemic has only further showcased the severe limitations of the 1980 constitution. “The government wants people to stay at home, but how do they expect us to survive?,” a resident of the Santiago neighborhood of El Bosque recently told The Guardian.
For local organizers who have a driven the debate about a new constitution, the goal now will be to ensure that the representatives they elect in April consider common grievances, including growing concerns over Chile’s non-existent safety net and under-resourced public health system.
The Long Road to Change
In the months since the estallido social began, many have tried to make sense of the seemingly “spontaneous” nature of Chile’s unprecedented protest movement. Indeed, in a country where social and political movements have long prided themselves on their organizational discipline, locating a formal leadership structure among the various actors who have taken part in the estallido has been a perplexing task. As former Chilean student leader Noam Titelman wrote shortly after the initial wave of protest began, Chile was witnessing a “leaderless movement,” something that “is hard to find in the recent history of social movements” in Chile.
But the astonishingly rapid coalescence around a single demand—it took just a few weeks for activists to put forward the writing of a new constitution as the diverse movement’s singular demand—speaks to the effect that years of organizing by a wide range of Chilean social movements has had in transforming the political consciousness of the country.
Chile’s students, most of whom have no direct memory of Pinochet’s Chile, have long been at the forefront. Following the mobilization of high-school students in the early 2000s, Chilean university students initiated more than two years of street demonstrations beginning in 2011. The movement popularized the idea that education be codified as a basic social right of citizenship, rather than a marketized consumer good. Chile’s student movement quickly became a poster child of anti-neoliberal movements around the world, and former movement leaders like Camilo Vallejo, Giorgio Jackson, and Gabriel Boric all assumed political office as elected members of Chile’s national congress in 2014. Their efforts propelled a series of major educational reforms under the second government of Michelle Bachelet (2014-2018), including an historic ban on “for-profit” institutions in primary and higher education.
In more recent years, other groups have picked up where Chile’s students left off, demanding that a new focus on social, cultural, and economic rights be enacted to counter the legacies of Chile’s free-market dictatorship. While Indigenous groups today comprise around 13 percent of the Chile’s total population, the 1980 constitution does not recognize them. They link this fact to the assaults on their ancestral lands and water by extractive industries. Many also point to the current constitution’s failure to protect cultural rights, and the reformed constitutions of neighboring Bolivia and Brazil, some argue, could provide a model for Chile to follow.
Similarly, Chile’s retirees, organized and supported by the No Más AFP coalition, have criticized the country’s privatized pension system, another artifact of the Pinochet era. Analysts maintain that Chile’s seniors are today more economically insecure than their counterparts in any other country in the OECD, the so-called “club of rich nations.” According to one 2015 study, 80 percent of Chilean retirees received less than the country’s minimum wage in retirement benefits. The disconnect between the country’s profit-driven pension system and the needs of the citizenry was evidenced just a few months ago when, amidst the pandemic-induced economic crisis, the government initially balked at pensioners request that they be allowed to take out up to 10 percent of the money invested in personal retirement accounts to meet household budget shortfalls.
Arguably no single movement has been more instrumental in advancing demands for a new constitution in recent years than Chile’s feminist movement. Emerging out of both national and regional movements against gender-based discrimination, sexual violence on university campuses, and ongoing struggles for reproductive rights, Chile’s feminist movement gained international headlines in early 2018 after it led a series of university occupations and marches to raise awareness about women’s rights issues. The movements of that year became known as Chile’s “Feminist May.”
After securing equitable representation on the future constitutional assembly, Chile’s feminists now see the drafting of a new constitution as an avenue through which to put ideas about gender equality and women’s rights into law. According to Chilean feminist activist Gloria Maira, a new constitution that guarantees sexual rights and reproductive rights as basic rights of health, for example, is central to the “deepening of democracy.”
A Movement of Society
It is tempting to see Sunday’s vote and the multiple years of protest that preceded it as a fulfillment of Salvador Allende’s famous last words, that “sooner rather later,” Chile’s “great boulevards” would once again be open for Chileans to “construct a better society.” If for no other reason, the timing of the vote calls to mind the connections between Chile’s radical past and present: it was 50 years ago next week that Chile’s Popular Unity (UP) coalition, under the leadership of Allende, assumed office to begin forging its historic, albeit interrupted, democratic path toward socialism.
But as the Chilean historian Mario Garcés has described, the diversity of movements involved in the last year of protest is perhaps illustrative of an even more profound and democratic process than that which occurred in the early 1970s. In Garcés's words, contemporary Chile is being pushed toward reform by a “movement of society.” This notion, which the historian contrasts with the more traditional notion of a “social movement,” is meant to underscore the popular character of the last year of struggle—and in particular the way in which traditional political organizations and parties have been sidelined in favor of neighborhood groups, social organizations, and students representing a variety of political tendencies.
In other words, while Allende and the UP committed themselves to working within the country’s existing political structures of their era to pursue radical change, Chileans today are determined to reinvent how and where democracy is practiced. The focus on refounding Chile with a new, citizen-drafted is the centerpiece of that process.
In the days to come, Chileans will continue to celebrate the end of an era. But upon burying the most visible legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship, the array of citizen-led movements that have taken the country to this point will no doubt continue what they have been doing for the last year: envisioning what a post-Pinochet democracy could look like. Today the political horizon for change in Chile looks more open than it has in at least five decades.
Joshua Frens-String is an assistant professor of Latin American history at the University of Texas at Austin. A former editor at NACLA, he is the author of Hungry for Revolution: The Politics of Food and the Making of Modern Chile, forthcoming from University of California Press in 2021.