Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
On October 25th, huge crowds gathered in Chile’s capital, Santiago, to celebrate. They carried signs reading “Goodbye, General” and “Erasing your legacy will be our legacy.” The ‘general’ they refer to is Augusto Pinochet, the dictator who ruled Chile for 15 years. He died in 2006. What the people of Chile were celebrating was the result of a referendum. With an overwhelming 78.27%, Chileans had chosen to replace their constitution.
The Chilean constitution is closely connected to Pinochet and is considered his final legacy. It came into effect in 1980, 7 years after he seized power in a coup, when it was ratified by a rigged plebiscite. It would outlast him, as he was removed from power in a referendum only eight years later. The constitution kept much of his repressive system of government in place, however. Perhaps more significantly, it cemented the neoliberal basis of the state, something that some argue has held Chile back.
Roughly a year ago, protests erupted in Santiago. They were set off by a rise in the metro fare, but their root cause was deeper. Chile’s public health system was disastrous, its education system expensive and pensions meagre. Most retirees ended up with a pension worth a third of their wages. Many blamed the constitution for preventing reform. As a remnant of the divisive Pinochet regime, it was an easy target.
As the protests spiralled out of control, they were met with brutal police action. Usage of rubber bullets that blinded many protesters caused international outcry. A few weeks later, President Piñera announced a plebiscite regarding a new constitution. After an extensive delay due to the coronavirus, it was held last Sunday.
Critics of the referendum and the call to replace the constitution consider it responsible for Chile’s ostensible economic prosperity, which stands out as a Latin American success story. After democratisation in the 1990s, its neoliberal economic base attracted huge international investment, lifting thousands out of poverty. Its GDP per capita is one of the highest and its homicide rate one of the lowest in the region.
At the same time, this wealth has generated massive inequality. Chile is the most unequal country in the OECD with an income gap 65% wider than the OECD average. University costs are 41% of the average income. Nearly a quarter of the country’s total income goes to the top 1%. Widespread privatisation has left Chileans open to exploitation and without a security net.
This, then, is what Chileans were protesting. And it explains why they voted in such large numbers to scrap the old constitution, catching many conservative politicians by surprise. The question is, will this actually address the country’s problems?
Critics say it will not. They argue that the constitution has changed drastically since 1980. It has been amended 42 times and no longer carries Pinochet’s signature. As it has served as the backbone of the country’s recent growth, why get rid of it?
One answer is that the constitution enshrines the dictator’s neoliberal economic strategy into law. Private options are protected in Chile’s education, healthcare and pension systems. It also concentrates huge power in the office of the Presidency and makes reforms difficult to implement. Currently, a supermajority is needed for laws on education, political parties, the military, policing and electoral reform amongst others. Scrapping it will make reforms easier.
More importantly perhaps, the decision to replace the constitution bears symbolic weight. Regardless of how much it had changed, at its core, the constitution was a Pinochet-era creation. Replacing it will rid the country of his most tangible legacy.
This referendum and the process it triggers is by no means a magic fix. The issues Chileans faced before October 25th have not gone away. To make Chile a fairer and more prosperous society, there is much hard work to be done. But with a new constitution, Chileans have the means to do so. By an overwhelming majority, they have voted for a new start.