SANTIAGO, Chile – The protests began with a small rise in subway prices and then exploded into a large-scale calculation over inequality that has shaken Chile for weeks. Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets calling for major changes in their society, with higher salaries and pensions, better health care and education.
The movement soon took over the vehicle for their demands: the Chilean constitution.
The existing charter, drafted without public input during General Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship and approved in a fake plebiscite in 1980, has been widely accused of blocking change – and seen as a long-standing link to a dark chapter in Chile’s history.
On Sunday, just over a year after mass demonstrations flooded the nation, Chileans voted to repeal a dictatorship document and write a new one – a process that could transform the country’s policy, long considered one of the most stable and prosperous in Latin America.
The referendum was moving towards a decisive victory; with 62 percent of the votes counted, 78 percent were in favor of the new Constitution, and it was leading in almost all parts of the country.
“This plebiscite is not the end; it is the beginning of a journey that we should all take together, ”said President Sebastián Piñera in an address from the Presidential Palace.
“So far, the Constitution has divided us,” he added. “From today, we should all work together to make the new Constitution one home for all of us.”
Until last year’s protest, the idea of a new Constitution “was not on anyone’s agenda,” said Lucía Dammert, a political scientist and board member of the Espacio Público research center. “The fact we are now discussing the new Constitution is the victory of the social movement.”
The vote, originally scheduled for April, was postponed while Chile was locked during the pandemic. Now that much of the capital Santiago and other areas were slowly opening up, voter turnout was high.
Thousands of people flocked to Italia Beach in Santiago to celebrate Sunday night, chanting, dancing, waving flags and setting off fireworks. Protesters unfurled banners addressed to Pinochet, with messages such as “Goodbye, General” and “Erasing your legacy will be our legacy.”
“Today, citizenship and democracy have prevailed, and peace has overcome violence,” Mr Piñera said. “This is a victory for all Chileans.”
On Sunday morning, Chileans responded in large numbers to participate. Across the country, masked voters rang block after block in quiet, orderly rows.
After the transition to democracy in 1990, a market-friendly business environment, partly framed by the Constitution, attracted foreign investment. The country grew continuously and poverty decreased. But it came at the cost of an acute concentration of wealth and growing inequality. Last year, the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America estimated that nearly a quarter of total income goes to 1 percent of Chile’s population.
To cover the high cost of living, Chileans are in great debt. The central bank found last year that, on average, nearly three-quarters of household income is used to pay off debt. Public health and education systems are failing and scarce pensions force most people in retirement age to keep working.
Amalia Gómez, 66, barely supports herself with a $ 125 monthly pension and chooses a job as a seamstress to make up for it. She and many others like her see the new Constitution as a path to better lives and a more just country for future generations.
“Why not, if we are a country rich in minerals, fish, agriculture?” she said. “Why can’t we use those resources to our advantage, for our education and health?”
With Sunday’s vote, voters are wondering if they want a new constitution and who should draft it: a body of only newly elected representatives or a convention in which half of the delegates would be members of Congress.
Voters overwhelmingly opted for the newly elected constitutional convention, without the automatic involvement of members of Congress. Elections to select delegates will be held in April, among which there must be gender parity. Political factions are still negotiating whether to reserve seats for indigenous delegates.
Chileans should now vote in 2022 to approve or reject the Constitution that drafts the convention.
As the nation was ready to vote, tensions were high.
After last year’s immense protests – known as the “estallido” or explosion – shook the country, the pandemic sent protesters home for much of 2020. The timid protests returned last month, leading to clashes between protesters and police.
In one protest on October 2, a police officer pushed a teenager off a bridge into the Mapocho River bed in Santiago. The teenager survived the fractures, and the police officer was charged with attempted murder and expelled from power.
Last week, tens of thousands of people gathered at the epicenter of the protest, Plaza Italia, to mark the anniversary of the uprising. The demonstrations were mostly peaceful, but late in the afternoon small groups set fire to two churches, including one used by police for religious services.
Last year’s demonstrations often escalated into violence and met with police brutality. The Public Prosecutor’s Office received 8,827 reports of human rights violations, including hundreds of complaints of permanent eye damage with rubber bullets; two people completely lost their sight.
In early November last year, five people were killed and nearly 1,800 wounded in clashes. Mr Piñera faced competing calls to deploy the armed forces to restore order – or to resign. Instead, he announced that he was ready to open proceedings for a new Constitution – an idea that sharply divided his own party.
The 1980 constitution has undergone several changes since a commission appointed by Pinochet drafted it behind closed doors. The most significant shift, in 2005, eliminated major authoritarian provisions.
However, many Chileans considered Sunday’s vote extremely symbolic.
That “means ending the dictatorship chapter,” said Hernán Becker, 58, a salesman who took part in the demonstrations last week. “Its origins are completely illegitimate: under military rule, without freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.”
Rewriting the charter will also allow Chile more flexibility to make the economic and political changes demanded by the protesters.
Under the current charter, new laws can be subject to scrutiny by the constitutional court, which has the final say on whether they adopt their decisions. And laws that touch on education policy, political parties, the military, the electoral system, mining, and constitutional reform, among other topics, need supremacy for approval.
Several provisions make changing the free market model enacted under military rule almost impossible, experts said.
“Chile’s constitution is neoliberal in nature, and its primary role is to guarantee conditions for the free market, even in traditional social areas such as education, health and social security,” said Fernando Atria, a law professor specializing in constitutional issues. “What we need is a Constitution that guarantees social rights more than market conditions.”
Although the proposal to write a new constitution enjoys widespread support, opponents say it would be a mistake to repeal the charter, which was key to Chile’s economic success.
“It guarantees freedom, protects individuals from state excesses, ensures the protection of property and social rights,” said Gerardo Jofré, a businessman and one of the directors of the Independent for Rejection campaign. “Those who rebel in Chile don’t want to change the constitution, they want to change the model, and that’s a monumental mistake.”