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The Constituent Convention of 2021: A window of opportunity for profound change in Chile’s political system

Luis Valenzuela, Ph.D.  |  Issue: August 2021
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Chile has been living a period of political effervescence during the past several months. This is in part due to the efforts of the majority of Chilean society to generate significant structural changes in the political, economic and social system that governs this South American nation.

To understand this process, it is important to point out some of the historical precedents:

Since the overthrow of the Salvador Allende government in 1973 by Augusto Pinochet and other officials of the Armed Forces, Chilean society has been immersed in a systematic process of loss of their civil rights and the violation of human rights. Pinochet’s military dictatorship not only left thousands of dead and missing, but it also established a political and economic system that, according to the Chilean right wing, should be the model to follow for other nations on the continent. One of the first measures taken by the dictatorship was to eliminate the laws that protected the fundamental rights of its citizens, such as the right of all citizens to belong to a political party of their choice and the right of workers to join a union. What is more, the dictatorship eliminated all of the social programs that were developed under Allende. At the same time, the military and the intelligence services conducted a violent campaign of political repression, thereby creating the necessary conditions for the establishment of the free market model, that is, the implementation of the neo-liberal model.

Hundreds of workers mobilized across Chile
Hundreds of workers mobilized across Chile to reject Piñera’s labor reforms on August 21. (Photo: CUT/Facebook)

To make sure this model succeeded, Pinochet imposed a new constitution in 1980, which emphasized the defense of this initiative in private property. This was done through economic incentives, primarily from the Chilean state, which sacrificed funding for health, education, pensions and other programs. The rest is history. For 17 years Chile had one of the worst dictatorships of Latin America, characterized by an excessive increase in poverty and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few national oligarchs and in the financial sector of the United States.

In October 1988, after many years of resistance and struggle, the Chilean people said no to the dictatorship through a plebiscite that removed Pinochet from power in 1990. Since then, a strong social movement has grown in Chile. It is composed of people fighting for democracy and demanding profound political changes to undo the damage caused by the dictatorship and the free market model.

The leap from a dictatorship to a democratic system did not however signify a deep change in the Chilean political system. Very much the contrary, poverty and social inequality grew like never before, but they were hidden in the numbers from the Stock Exchange of Santiago which, according to the Right, showed great economic growth and would become a point of reference for the emerging economies of the region.

The social struggles continued. In 2006 a large movement of high school students emerged called the Revolution of the Penguins, so named because of their white and dark blue school uniforms. The students demanded the right to a quality and free education for all and they protested against the privatization that the military dictatorship imposed in the early 1980s. In 2019 the Social OutbreakorEstallido Social emerged during which 32 people died and 3,400 others were hospitalized.The citizens of Santiago hit the streets to protest increases in the cost of public transportation. The protests expanded to include the high cost of living, paltry pensions, expensive medicine and poor health care. Perhaps the most important aspect was the broad rejection of the Chilean political class. Finally, under great social pressure, the right-wing government of Sebastian Piñera proposed a New Social Agenda that included holding a plebiscite for the creation of a convention to draft a new Chilean constitution.

On October 25, 2020, eighty percent of the plebiscite voters favored the constitutional convention. Election of the 155 convention members took place on May 15-16, 2021. The right wing suffered a great defeat while the independent, progressive and left-wing representatives won more than two-thirds of the seats. Seventeen those chosen exclusively represented the nation’s indigenous peoples. And if that wasn’t enough, the Constitutional Convention elected Elisa Loncón, a Mapuche woman, as president of this body that will have one year to draft a Magna Carta.

The Constitutional Convention is just beginning to work on their internal regulations with some difficulty, due to the sabotage done since its first meeting by sectors of the Right who do not agree with the results of the election and the political profile of the convention participants.

The Chilean bourgeoisie knows the new Constitution most likely will strip it of the judicial tools that have allowed them to plunder the country. It will not be easy for the Convention and the people to resist the attacks that will surely be perpetuated against this democratic organization.

During the electoral campaign of the constituents, the vast majority put forward the following issues they considered should be included in this fundamental document:

  1. That the new constitution recognizes the native peopleswho for generations have been fighting for their rights and their territories, as has been the case of the Mapuche people. It is worth highlighting that in Chile there is currently an “anti-terrorist” law to put down violently the Mapuche community’s self-defense. At the same time, it has been proposed that the Republic of Chile be considered a Plurinational State, that is, as Pedro Cayuqueo expressed it: “the recognition of the varied nations that make up the state.”
  2. To include the right to quality and free education for all, ending decades of privatized education in Chile.
  3. The right to have access to a free and high-quality public health system,as a fundamental requirement for a functioning society.
  4. The right to have access to a public transportation systemthat has affordable fares, as a fundamental condition to facilitate the mobility of the people to conduct their everyday activities.
  5. That the constitution guarantees the respect of diversity in all its expressionsbe they racial, sexual and gender, as well as others. That Chile stands out as being inclusive in every sense of the word.
  6. The right to a job,as a basic pillar for the economic maintenance and integral human development of all.
  7. The Magna Carta assures the creation of a pension systemthat offers decent pensions for all Chilean workers of retirement age.
  8. The protection of the environment, through the development of sustainable energy sources and the nationalization of natural resources, such as water, native forests, biodiversity that should be the property of all Chileans. Chile is one of the few countries that actually privatized such an essential resource as water.

These are only some of the points of discussion that various representatives have included in the agenda for the Constitutional Convention. The questions that arise in this political scenario are the following: Will the Chilean oligarchy allow these rights to be included in the Constitution? What type of repressive measures will the Chilean bourgeoisie adopt to detain this process towards change? What will be the response of the general public to the need to incorporate these changes?

The only thing that is certain at this time, is that to carry out this political transformation in Chilean society, it will be necessary to support, through massive mobilizations of the people, the arduous and difficult work that lies ahead for the Constitutional Convention.

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