Chile’s choice to reinvent itself

A vote on whether to rewrite the constitution would signal not only a new social compact for Chile but also hope for Latin American democracy.

On Oct. 18, protesters commemorated the one-year anniversary of the start of mass demonstrations triggered by a rise in subway fare.

Over the past 120 years, 163 governments in Latin America have been overthrown. More often than not, one coup d’état led to another. In 1955, Argentina had three. Between 1920 and 1982, Bolivia had one on average every three years. The recovery from such anti-democratic actions can take decades.

Now Chile is poised to embark on what may establish a model for countries grappling with the long-term effects of such political earthquakes. On Sunday voters will decide in a referendum whether to draft a new constitution. The question follows nearly a decade of mass protests over various inequities from tuition fees to health care. It is expected to pass with overwhelming support. That will start a two-year national process leading to a new political framework and social compact.

It is potentially a remarkable experiment in peaceful evolution for a country whose people tend to avoid talking openly about a recent violent past. In 1973 military and police forces overthrew the socialist government that had been elected barely three years earlier. What followed was “a wrenching tragedy,” in the words of a truth and reconciliation commission established after Chile’s return to democracy in 1990. In the first three months following the coup by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, more than 250,000 Chileans were arrested or detained. During the next 16 years, the total number of people killed, tortured, or imprisoned rose to 40,018.

Designing a new constitution would once again put General Pinochet’s legacy under scrutiny – not just his human rights abuses, but even more his economic policies. Chile’s transition back to democracy was managed under a constitution drafted by the military regime and designed to entrench market-oriented priorities that helped Chile achieve success on a continent not known for economic and political stability. Since 1980 Chile has gone from being the poorest country in Latin America to having the highest total economic output. It is a haven for foreign investment and notably free of corruption.

Chile has been one of the region’s most effective countries in addressing economic inequality. But perhaps because of such rising expectations, Chile has seen waves of mass protests that reflect a society convinced of the opposite. Demonstrations over the past year finally forced the government to call the referendum.

Public perceptions of inequality are not unfounded. Cities across the country, and particularly in the south, have seen a rapid expansion of tightly packed low-income neighborhoods. One Pinochet-era oddity in particular captures why ordinary Chileans feel aggrieved: All water resources are open to private ownership. As a result large national and international companies own exclusive rights to volumes of water flowing through the country’s many rivers, posing environmental threats and resulting in water emergencies in areas where 67% of the population is concentrated.

The Sunday referendum, delayed six months by the pandemic, has raised expectations that a new balance can be found between individual and collective prosperity. “There is a lot of hope surrounding the referendum,” writes Chilean activist María Jaraquemada. “Chile’s current constitution lacks legitimacy. The process to create a new constitution could enable a renewal of Chilean democracy and establish a new pact with the government in which citizens finally participate actively.”

If Chile can reinvent itself with a new constitution, it might help put an end to violent overthrows in a region still struggling to operate through consensus and equality.

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