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The 1980 Chilean Constitution, conceived during the government of the dictator Augusto Pinochet, has been in question since its conception. Reforming it, however, seemed an impossible task until mid-October 2019 when the Chilean people took to the streets in a social protest that shook their government, echoing in almost every corner of the country.
Thousands of Chileans took to the streets for a month to demand improvements in health care, education, and greater social and economic equity. Finally, on November 15, 2019, the government agreed to call a referendum on April 26, 2020, that would decide whether the southern country would initiate a constitutional process to draft a new constitution that would move it away from the neoliberal and authoritarian model inherited from the dictatorship under Pinochet, which prioritizes market growth over social welfare.
The calendar, however, was extended when the pandemic arrived due to the unrestrained increase in new cases of Covid-19 in April. The Chilean government, attending to the Ministry of Health, postponed the referendum for October when it was presumed that the contagion figures would decrease.
According to opposition leader Alvaro Elizalde, the government bought time with this decision by sending the message “that the health of our citizens comes first” and that everyone would understand. The only thing that generated controversy was that the street art and sculptures made during the protests in the Plaza Italia, Santiago’s central square, were erased and eliminated during the postponement of the referendum when the strict quarantine was issued.
The process of defining the new parameters that the Constitution should follow began in the shadow of the harsh repression during the protests, which showed extreme violence, unheard of in the southern country. However, it was open to civil debate, civil society participation and generated hope for a substantial improvement in the country’s social, economic, and political conditions.
The window for a New Chile
On Sunday, October 25, the Chilean people will finally vote on whether or not to begin the process of drafting a new Constitution.
According to recent surveys, 60% of Chilean favor a constitutional change, which advances a ‘yes’ victory in the referendum.
Meanwhile, the official police agency, the carabineros, faces more than 8,500 accusations of police brutality and human rights violations between October 2019 and October 2020.
In addition to the 31 dead, 12,000 detained, and 468 people with eye damage during the protests, there is the aberrant case of the 16-year-old boy who was thrown off a bridge by a carabinero amid the new demonstrations that marked the anniversary of the social outburst a year ago.
In this new wave of demonstrations, protesters defend and proclaim “the right to live in peace.” For the past two weeks, the protesters have repeatedly confronted the carabineros, who have launched tear gas and fired bullets at hundreds of protesters. In the surroundings of Plaza Italia, the epicenter of the protests, two important churches were burned to the cry of “Chile woke up,” which shows the social tension that the country is experiencing days before the historic vote.
It all started with a Metro ticket
In 2019, the trigger for the protests was the symbolic increase in the metro ticket price. Young protesters coordinated on social media and, when interviewed, said they were protesting for their parents, who were already spending a lot of money on transportation. The call was to avoid paying for tickets by jumping the barriers at Santiago’s urban railroad stations.
Today, October 20, 2020, many Chileans are back on the streets, demonstrating that the so-called “social explosion” is here to stay.
The referendum could change the course of the country, which seems to have exhausted all of its patience with the tremendous injustice and inequality that neoliberalism has perpetuated in Chilean society, since it would change the way lawmakers have conceived the country for four decades when, in 1980, the Pinochet’s military regime tutored and approved the Constitution in force today.
Social pressure has also fractured the position of conservative political parties. Some prominent members of the new generation and some young entrepreneurs have joined the call for a change in the Constitution. In contrast, others say that what’s necessary is to apply reforms to the existing one.
If the referendum approves the implementation of a new Constitution, what follows is to draft one that would be submitted to a second plebiscite for ratification.
On Sunday the 25th, Chile faces a decision that will undoubtedly open a new path towards a Constitution that should represent all citizens and close the tremendous gap that the neoliberal recipe has been breaching in the country on the basis of inequality and poverty on the one hand, and welfare only for those who have been able to pay for it.
The social outburst we have seen during the last year has been a warning. Tolerance for injustice in Chile is over, and perhaps, only a new democratic and inclusive Constitution can heal this bleeding wound.