Esteban Félix / AP
After a wave of massive protests, and in the midst of a pandemic, the people of Chile went to the polls Sunday for a landmark referendum on whether the country should scrap its dictatorship-era constitution and draft a new one.
Opinion polls suggest that the electorate will vote “yes”, ending the 40-year-old letter that was imposed during the government of General Augusto Pinochet, and which has long been viewed by many Chileans as the underlying source of many of your grievances.
The vote comes a year after Chile’s capital Santiago erupted in anti-government protests sparked by a small increase in public transportation fares, but turned into a protracted uprising over social and political inequality and spread to other cities.
Tensions rise ahead of the referendum, fueled by violent skirmishes last Sunday at a gathering of tens of thousands of Chileans to mark the first anniversary of the start of the mass protests. Several police stations were also attacked and two churches burned.
A new constitution was one of the common demands made by protesters last year when they flooded the streets for almost three months to vent their anger and call for change. The protesters raised a wide range of issues, from poor quality pensions, health care and education, to private water rights and chronic abuses suffered by Chile’s indigenous minority.
Luis Hidalgo / AP
The protests were by far the largest in Chile since the return to democracy in 1990, and severely shook the country of 19 million, until recently considered one of the most stable and prosperous nations in Latin America.
They left at least 30 Chileans dead and thousands injured. According to the National Institute of Human Rights of Chile, 460 people suffered trauma to the eyes, mostly caused by rubber pellets and tear gas bombs from the police. Although the mass demonstrations were largely peaceful, rioters and vandals set shops and businesses on fire and destroyed subway stations, causing several billion dollars in estimated damages.
“It only helps entrepreneurs”
In November, as pressure mounted on Chile’s billionaire and deeply unpopular President Sebastián Piñera, the country’s political parties in Congress reached an agreement to hold a constitutional referendum in April. It was subsequently postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Since then, the issue has been the subject of heated debate. Earlier this year, NPR visited a busy Santiago fruit market and found mixed opinions. Monica Daza, a 60-year-old homemaker, said she welcomes a new constitution because the current one “only helps entrepreneurs, not the public.” Lemon seller Juan Carlos Godoy, 47, said “we don’t see how it will change our lives.”
The referendum asks Chileans if they want to get rid of the
The discussions are expected to drag on for months as the assembly looks at what kind of country Chile should become now. Once completed, the new constitution will go through a second referendum.
Many Chileans are eager to get rid of the Pinochet-era document because they see it both as a symbol of dictatorship and as the embodiment of an economic system that prioritizes the market economy over social welfare.
The country now has a “historic opportunity” to replace an “illegitimate constitution … determined by a dictator and imposed by force” with a “new social agreement,” said Claudio Nash, professor of international law at the University of Chile.
“In Chile the right to health is not guaranteed as a right,” he said. “What is guaranteed is the freedom of people to choose the health system they want, the public system, the private system, but access to quality medical care is not guaranteed.”
“Not getting what was promised”
However, some Chileans debate whether a new constitution will solve the country’s underlying problems.
“My concern is that we are preparing for a process that will ultimately fail and lead people to a greater level of disappointment with the political system, because they are not getting what they were promised they would get,” said political scientist Patricio Navia. , during a Wilson Center discussion last week.
Navia argued that Chileans are primarily looking for the new charter to provide them with expanded social rights. “What they will get is a completely new constitution, and not necessarily a longer bill of rights that can be enforced,” he said.
Navia noted that those who will write the new constitution will not address the cost of the promises it enshrines, and said Chile’s next government will be under heavy pressure because “it is simply going to be impossible to get enough money.”