NewsChile: Rocky road to a new constitution

Chile: Rocky road to a new constitution


Santiago, Chile: Chile officially starts writing a new constitution Sunday to replace the one it inherited from the era of dictator Augusto Pinochet and is widely blamed for deep social inequalities that gave rise to deadly protests in 2019.

The country’s biggest protests in 30 years of democracy won Chileans a referendum last October in which a majority voted for a new constitution to be drawn up by a body of elected members.

This 155-member body, elected in May and called a “constitutional convention,” will on Sunday officially start its work of crafting a new Magna Carta for a new Chile.

It is a representative collection of Chileans — lawyers, teachers, a housewife, scientists, social workers, vets, writers, journalists, actors, and doctors — many of whom had themselves partaken in the protests.

The youngest is 21.

Half are women, by design, and 17 seats were reserved for representatives of indigenous groups.

The assembly holds the power to draft a new path for the country after decades of political and economic power concentrated in the hands of an elite, many from the right and defenders of the old constitution’s free-market guarantees.

“They come from the same schools, they go to the same three universities and most of them have lived in Santiago, in the most affluent neighborhoods,” Marcela Rios, assistant representative of the United Nations Development Program in Chile, told AFP of the old guard.

Diversity presents challenges

The new constitution-drafters, in contrast, come from a diverse array of backgrounds, mainly with leftist leanings, and many gained their support base from years of social work in their communities.

“Diversity is a good thing but it also presents challenges that will require concessions” for any agreement to be reached, said constitutional law expert Javier Couso from the University Diego Portales.

Independent candidates swept the May elections, taking 46 percent of the seats as voters turned their backs on traditional political parties.

Center-left parties, who broadly canvassed on greater state control of natural resources and more social spending, received a third of the votes cast.

The right garnered just over 20 percent, meaning it will have no veto on the body that requires a two-thirds majority to approve the draft constitution.

The document, in the end, will be put to a national referendum next year, in which voting will be mandatory.

Heavily indebted

Chile’s existing constitution dates from 1980, enacted at the height of dictator Augusto Pinochet’s 1973-1990 rule.

It promotes private enterprise in all sectors of the economy — including education, health, and pensions — in a country ranked as one of the most unequal among advanced economies.

Chile has the highest per capita income and the third-most multimillionaires in Latin America.

But the working and even upper-middle classes are heavily indebted, often to pay for schooling and private pensions.

There is low satisfaction with the quality of life.

Constitutional convention member Rodrigo Rojas Vade told AFP he would seek to address the concerns of the Chilean “who is tired of receiving orders, who does not make it to the end of the month, who dies in the hospital without care, the child who goes to bed with the pain of hunger every night.”

His group, the People’s List, supports water as a basic right, public health, free education, decent pensions, and fortified human rights guarantees.

“To this day we live in a society that is restricted in the exercise of rights and freedoms because we still have a constitution inherited from this fratricidal period we lived through,” said Manuel Woldarsky, another People’s List representative.

Chile: a timeline of the last tumultuous twenty months

Santiago, Chile: Deadly protests over inequality that gripped Chile in 2019 triggered the worst crisis there since democracy was re-established in 1990 and sounded the death knell for its dictatorship-era constitution.

As the constitutional assembly starts work on Sunday to write a new funding law for the country, here is a timeline of the tumultuous last 20 months.

Violent clashes

Protests in Chile’s capital, Santiago on October 18, 2019, against a rise in metro fares escalate into clashes between police and demonstrators angry at high levels of social inequality.

Right-wing President Sebastian Pinera declares a state of emergency.

Soldiers are deployed in the city the next day for the first time since the end of the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. A curfew is imposed as thousands bang pots and pans in the street.

Pinera — a billionaire businessman — suspends the ticket price hike.

‘Chile awakens’

As clashes, looting, and vandalism continue, the state of emergency is extended to other regions.

Pinera apologizes and announces more social spending but a two-day general strike begins shortly afterward and strikers call for the military to return to the barracks.

Some 1.2 million people take to the streets in Santiago on October 25.

The nighttime curfew and state of emergency are lifted and Pinera reshuffles a third of his cabinet.

But the street movement continues.

In November, Chile gives up on hosting the APEC Asia Pacific economic summit and later the COP25 climate conference, because of the unrest.

The central bank is forced to twice inject billions of dollars to stop the fall of the peso.

Constitutional referendum

In a breakthrough on November 15, lawmakers agree to a key opposition demand for a referendum on replacing the constitution.

Days later police suspend the use of rubber bullets which left hundreds of people with serious eye injuries.

The government follows this up in early December with a $5.5 billion social plan, and a month later the president announces a reform of the health system.

The United Nations, meanwhile, denounces multiple rights violations by the police.

New clashes

After a period of calm punctuated by demonstrations every Friday in Santiago, new clashes in late January 2020 turned deadly, with four people killed.

Violence erupts again in late February at Vina del Mar near Valparaiso, and then in early March in several other towns.

The president announces a reform of the police.

Virus delays referendum

Chile declares a “national disaster” in mid-March due to the pandemic, with protests paused and the referendum, originally scheduled for April, postponed to October.

The president carries out a fifth cabinet reshuffle.

Protests resume

Demonstrations resume as Santiago starts loosening its lockdown in mid-August.

Tens of thousands of Chileans demonstrate on the first anniversary of the protests in October, on a day that is marked by clashes and the torching of two churches.

‘Yes’ to new constitution

A week later Chileans vote 79 percent in the referendum for a new constitution to be drawn up.

Interior Minister Victor Perez resigns in November after being suspended by Congress due to police violence.

Left swing

In late March 2021, Chile locks down four-fifths of its population as the virus surges again. The election of the constituent assembly is put off to mid-May.

Voters lean left, choosing mostly left-leaning independents for the body that is now tasked with rewriting the country’s free market-friendly constitution.

AFP is a leading global news agency for comprehensive, verified coverage of events shaping the world.


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