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A new Chilean constitution must remember its origins and people


Contrary to the narrative disseminated by Chile’s right-wing government, the protests which started in October 2019 and attracted nationwide mobilisation were not about the hike in metro prices. Against a backdrop of growing calls to abolish the dictatorship referendum, which provided impunity for governments since the democratic transition in 1981 onwards, President Sebastian Piñera resorted to military tactics reminiscent of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. Mass arrests, sexual abuse, killings, and the military’s maiming of demonstrators by firing rubber bullets at the eyes, causing permanent injuries including loss of vision, provided insight into how a democratically-elected government was able to incorporate dictatorial legacy with scant international condemnation.

People celebrate as waiting for the official results of the referendum for a new constitution on October 25, 2020 in Santiago, Chile. (Marcelo Hernandez/Getty Images)

One year later, Chilean voters proved their resilience to change their society and the inequalities inherent since their country became an experimental playground for neoliberalism and militarisation with US backing. The referendum to abolish the 1980 dictatorship-era constitution was a resounding victory for the Chilean left and the Indigenous population; the latter historically misrepresented, criminalised and marginalised, with only a brief period of political respite when Salvador Allende was elected president. The Apruebo (approval) vote to abolish the constitution garnered 78.27 per cent, while 78.99 per cent voted for a constitutional assembly to draft the new legislation.

The Mapuche presence was a prominent feature during the 2019 protests. A constituent assembly to draft the new constitution inclusive of Mapuche representatives would at last allow for political Indigenous representation.

The Constitutional Assembly will include 155 Chilean representatives who will be tasked with drafting a proposal for the new constitution, which must be presented in a year’s time and put to the vote. Another victory for Apruebo would abolish the dictatorship constitution permanently and the new constitution would be implemented within 10 days of the vote.

Over 50 per cent of the Chilean electorate voted in the October 25 referendum. The largest recorded turnout prior to last Sunday’s was in 2012. The current elections were hampered by COVID-19, as well as restrictions on the workforce, such as miners, and violations of political rights. It is estimated that more than 100,000 miners were unable to exercise their right to vote in the referendum as a result of their work schedule.

The electoral turnout contrasts sharply with Chile’s 2017 presidential elections, in which 48.5 percent of eligible voters participated. With such a low turnout which was attributed to the Chilean left’s disillusion with their political options, Piñera garnered over 54 percent of the votes.


'A new constitution must not only distance itself completely from Pinochet’s politics. It needs to remember that the people brought about this momentous change in Chile.'


Speaking from La Moneda after the referendum result, Piñera declared, ‘This is a triumph for all Chileans who love democracy, unity and peace, without a doubt.’ A sweeping statement which does not take into consideration the fact that the Chilean government’s first reaction was to downplay the protests, and later choose military violence and curfews to beat a nation into submission, before giving in to the people’s demands for change.

Neither does the statement reflect Piñera’s repressive tactics against the Mapuche and the amendments to the dictatorship-era anti-terror laws which have been used since the transition to democracy to criminalise Indigenous resistance. The truth is that Piñera, like previous governments, availed himself of the impunity in Chile’s constitution, and it is up to the assembly tasked with drafting the new legislation to ensure that the legacy of Pinochet is completely eliminated, and that the reforms will address the disparities as regards social inequalities, memory and justice; all of which must also be considered within the context of the Mapuche struggle for political rights and land reclamation.

Chile has a strong democratic tradition, which was marred by the dictatorship. The representatives tasked with writing the new constitution will need to veer away from the prevailing right-wing and centre-left influence, all of which contributed to Chile maintaining its status as one of the most unequal societies in Latin America. Chile’s so-called progress is a veneer for many exploitative endeavours that have not been addressed, including the industrialisation of the Araucania, the Mapuche’s ancestral territory, as well as the flaws in the justice system that contributed to seeing dictatorship-era crimes against humanity go unpunished.

Undoubtedly, the referendum result illustrates the strength of social movements and mass mobilisation in Chile, and stands in stark contrast to the prevailing politics of might and oppression, through which Piñera attempted to regain control of a nation that had clearly asserted its opposition to decades of plunder and increasing poverty.

Allende’s last speech, before the presidential palace La Moneda was bombed as the military coup took over the country, emphasised the importance of social movements. The political programme implemented by Allende’s Popular Unity government prioritised the citizens’ involvement in politics. A new constitution must not only distance itself completely from Pinochet’s politics. It needs to remember that the people brought about this momentous change in Chile, and the people’s participation is imperative for the country to embark upon a transformation that is able to thrive and reject any interference, be it from the US or from compromised Chilean politicians, who would attempt to invert this process.



Ramona WadiRamona Wadi is a freelance journalist, book reviewer and blogger. Her writing covers a range of themes in relation to Palestine, Chile and Latin America.

Main image: People celebrate as waiting for the official results of the referendum for a new constitution on October 25, 2020 in Santiago, Chile. (Marcelo Hernandez/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Ramona Wadi, Chile, Sebastian Piñera, Apruebo, referendum, Pinochet dictatorship, Mapuche, Latin America



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