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It is not often that a country gets to decide its destiny in one momentous election. I am thinking, of course, of the United States. But I am also thinking of the referendum in Chile, where, this past Sunday, the people of that country decided by a landslide—78.27 percent of those who voted—to give themselves a new Constitution and thereby drastically redefine the way they wished to be governed.
Though a change in its founding document is not on the ballot in the United States, we should, here in America, pay close attention to what just happened in that distant land at the end of the earth. Heartened and inspired by the sight of ordinary people forcing a small ruling elite to accept, against all odds, the need for radical reforms, we would do well to learn some valuable lessons from that Chilean experience.
Sunday’s victory in Chile did not come easily or swiftly.
The Constitution that Chileans have just voted to supplant was installed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet in a fraudulent plebiscite in 1980, seven years after a lethal coup overthrew the democratically elected Socialist president, Salvador Allende. Pinochet’s Ley Fundamental—as it was called by those who drafted it—ostensibly established an itinerary for a transition to a restricted form of democracy, as there was to be another plebiscite in 1988 to ask citizens if they wished the general to remain in office for another eight (endlessly renewable) years. In reality, that Constitution guaranteed that, no matter who was in charge of the country, there would be no possibility of questioning the oppressive system that the dictator and his allies had built, particularly the neoliberal economic model of exploitation that had been imposed on workers with unprecedented violence.
And, in effect, when Pinochet lost that 1988 plebiscite and was forced to retire as president (retaining control of the armed forces, of course), the Magna Carta he left behind acted as a straitjacket that, for the next 30 years, blocked all key efforts to create a more just and equitable society. The center-left coalition that has governed Chile for most of that period was able to negotiate a number of amendments to Pinochet’s fascist Constitution—and, significantly, lift a large section of the country’s destitute population out of poverty—but none of those amendments altered the ability of a minority of right-wing legislators to undermine any attempt to alter the way in which wealth and power were distributed. And it was presumed that a populace traumatized by torture, executions, disappearances, exile, and incessant censorship and persecution would not dare to rebel against such an immoral situation.
And that is how things would still be today if a startling revolt had not exploded in mid-October of last year. Sparked initially by groups of students jumping subway turnstiles to protest a small hike in the fares, it soon grew into a nationwide uprising by millions of Chileans who threatened to bring down President Sebastián Piñera’s conservative and unpopular government. Though the demands were wide-ranging—for better salaries, health care, education, housing, environmental protection, clean water; for Indigenous, LGBTQ and women’s rights; for reforms to the miserable pension plans and the untrammeled ferocity with which the police operated—the one issue that united all those who had taken over the streets was the urgent need to get rid of Pinochet’s Constitution and its stranglehold on Chilean society.
Alarmed at what such an upheaval might unleash, right-wing leaders who had till then adamantly vetoed any changes to the status quo made up their mind to decompress the situation and avert a full-scale revolution by agreeing to hold a referendum in which voters would decide if they wanted a new Constitution, either choosing Apruebo (approval) or Rechazo (rejection).
Many of those hard-core Pinochetistas believed they would be able, as time went by, to derail that referendum. They insisted that the current Congress was perfectly capable, with much less effort and cost, of instituting some of the most salient transformations being called for. They used the pandemic to claim that it was too dangerous to carry out an election in those conditions (though they had no such qualms about opening malls!). And when that delaying tactic failed, they ran a vicious campaign of terror against “socialism,” warning that those in favor of a new Magna Carta were extremists intent on turning Chile into Venezuela.
The people repudiated them. The right-wing proponents of the Rechazo option have garnered a scant 21.73 percent of the vote. It is true that several major figures on the right, sensing where the wind was blowing, came out in favor of a new Constitution, but the verdict is inescapable. The Pinochet era is finally over.
As a native of Chile, I had planned to fly to Santiago with my wife to participate in this historic event, but we were unable to do so due to the perils posed by Covid-19. I would have liked to witness the rebirth of a nation that seemed to have died when the coup destroyed our democracy all those decades ago. I was 28 years old when Salvador Allende became president and such a fervent enthusiast that, three years later, when he was overthrown, I was working at La Moneda, the building where he died, and was only saved from sharing his fate by a chain of incredible circumstances. Along with so many who believed in Allende’s dreams of a liberated Chile, I have spent most of my life since then hoping for a moment when those dreams of his would be echoed by future generations. That has now come to pass. The road to justice has been opened and, by the middle of 2022, Chileans will be governed by a Constitution that embodies the wishes and needs of the vast majority.
If I was unable to travel to Chile to celebrate this triumph of memory and courage over silence and death, I have been struck, as I celebrated this redemptive process from afar, by its significance for the United States, a country where I am also a citizen.
Indeed, along with my fellow countrymen and women, I am voting under a Constitution that severely curtails the will of the people. It is a travesty that we must choose our next president through a seriously flawed and antiquated system, with an Electoral College that does not reflect the preference of the majority. And it is just as much a scandal that we have a profoundly undemocratic Senate, where small states like Rhode Island or Wyoming carry as much weight as gigantic California or Texas. This is the legislative body that is responsible for approving Supreme Court justices, who have disenfranchised large sections of the population and allowed corporations to influence electoral outcome with an endless flow of unaccountable dollars. It is a Constitution, as Alex Keyssar has demonstrated in his remarkable book, Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?, that is tainted by the compromise reached by the Founders with Southern slave-owners and has remained a staunch bulwark of minority, white supremacist interests. It is a Constitution that has been unable to stop a psychopathic, serially mendacious demagogue like Trump from storming the executive office and trashing democracy, its norms, its institutions, its supposedly irreversible restraints of checks and balances. It has established a shameful system where profits matter more than people, where discrimination and racism are rampant, where the very rich can accumulate more wealth than the rest of the country combined.
There are, of course, many splendid features enshrined in that Constitution. Its defenders, including many who notice its limitations, point to the ways in which it has often served to expand freedom, maintain stability, and ensure prosperity, and therefore deem it possible to overcome the glaring inadequacies of that 18th-century document with more amendments and stopgap remedies, such as abolishing the Electoral College, introducing radical changes to the justice system, passing legislation that guarantees voting rights, giving statehood to Puerto Rico and senatorial representation to Washington DC.
For my part, I wonder if the current crisis of authority, the sense that the United States has fallen into disarray and madness, could not open the door to a more drastic solution. Would it not make more sense to engage in a process like the one that Chile has just gone through, where the people have taken upon themselves the right and obligation to determine the fundamental tenets and principles of the system and rules that govern their existence? Should we not at least start to envisage the possibility of calling for a constitutional convention as a way of addressing the failure of our country to live up to its promise of a more perfect union? Do the problems that beset us, so similar to those that plague our Chilean brothers and sisters—the systemic racism, the police brutality, the ecological disasters, the offensive disparity of income, the increased polarization of our public—not cry out for a radical reimagining of who we are? Has not the pestilence of Covid-19 revealed that we are woefully unprepared for the challenges ahead?
It could be argued that the economic, political, and historical conditions in Chile and the United States are so different that any comparison between the two is pointless. The US Constitution, for all its shortcomings, did not originate in a fraud like the one perpetrated by General Pinochet. And it is unlikely that enough citizens in the 50 states are so dissatisfied with their lot that they would be willing to undergo the sort of intense re-examination of their identity that Chileans are about to embark upon. I do not doubt, in fact, that most Americans, fearful of disruption, terrified that their country might crumble under yet more divisiveness, would prefer that alterations to their fundamental laws and institutions be carried out, if at all, by their elected representatives.
That was precisely how Chileans were told change would happen.
What they finally decided, after 30 years of waiting and increasing despair, was to use their extraordinary power as a mobilized people to demand action. What they understood is that the Constitution affected every aspect of their daily existence, even if they had no say in shaping it. The only way that it could cease to be an abstract, faraway document, unrepresentative and unresponsive to their concerns— the only way it could fully belong to them—was to fight for it, risk having their bodies bruised and their eyes blinded by police pellets, risk their jobs and their tranquility to create an order that they could recognize as their own and not imposed from above. What has been most amazing about the year since insubordinate Chileans forced a referendum to take place—and what will be yet more amazing in the year and a half ahead—is the vast educational value of discussing and gauging, measuring and weighing, the pros and cons of all manner of questions that are so often left to a select group of remote experts. The process itself of a joyful, collective reckoning with the past anticipates the sort of country that is envisioned, transforms and makes better those who are part of that communal exploration.
It is a process that, once begun, can be thrilling and emancipatory.
However long it takes for the American people to move in that direction—and the protests of the last months and the tradition of struggle for peace and justice that has always been beating in the epic heart of Martin Luther King Jr.’s country gives me hope that it will be sooner rather than later—there is one message from Chile that should always be borne in mind.
My family in Santiago sent me a photo of some words a young man had scribbled on a placard that he was parading around the city on his bike:
“Lo impensable se volvió posible porque salimos a exigirlo y el país no se vino abajo.”
The unthinkable became possible because we went out to demand it and the country did not crumble.
Or, as Salvador Allende—so alive today!—said, just minutes before dying in defense of democracy and dignity: The future is ours and it is made by the people.
La historia es nuestra y la hacen los pueblos.
This column first appeared in The Nation.