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Building a Better Chile

September 11, 1973. Santiago, Chile. Latin America’s most stable democracy goes up in flames as jackbooted goons brutally murder thousands of civilians in the streets and arrest even more to be tortured and killed in prisons. General Augusto Pinochet, the head of Chile’s military, is mounting a coup d’état to seize power from democratically elected President Salvador Allende. As bombs fall on the La Moneda Presidential Palace, Allende delivers his final speech to his people over the radio with haunting but somehow hopeful words: “Workers of my country, I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Other men will overcome this dark and bitter moment when treason seeks to prevail.” As smoke rises from what had been the seat of his historically ambitious government, Allende takes his own life rather than submit to the forces of Pinochet.

It is not known exactly how many died during and in the aftermath of the coup and the military junta that followed. But this incident marked the end of Chile’s streak of peaceful self-governance and the beginning of a brutal fascist dictatorship, which framed the constitution that is still in effect to this day.

Allende’s words felt more salient than ever throughout 2020. The Chilean people were tired of the status quo. Despite incremental reforms since the days of dictatorship, the constitution was still highly effective at cementing the supremacy of the private market, the subservient role of a limited government, and limitations to any kind of democratic decision-making which could challenge elite interests.

By 2020, the top 10% of Chile held 60% of the national income while trust in the government sat at 10%. Waves of protesters hit the streets, demanding a new constitution to replace the relic of Pinochet’s rule. The uprisings pressured conservative President Sebastián Piñera and his government into holding a referendum on whether Chile would begin the process of drafting a new constitution. The vote passed with 78% in favor. Chilean voters also approved a convention process that would sideline federal officials and legislators and instead directly elect delegates to a more autonomous convention.

As if this all wasn’t enough of a mandate, the subsequent election of that constituent assembly (the first democratic convention in the country’s history) saw 60% of the electorate vote for left-wing parties, while the center-left and right-wing coalitions which had governed Chile since Pinochet’s dictatorship received only 16% and 24% of seats, respectively. Finally, young leftist activist Gabriel Boric was elected President with 56% of the vote, defeating far-right demagogue Jose Antonio Kast. The stage was set for the country to at long last overcome its “dark and bitter moment.” But they hadn’t escaped Pinochet’s shadow yet.

On September 4, 2022, almost exactly 49 years after Pinochet took Chile by force, Chile resoundingly rejected the assembly’s proposed draft. 62% of the population voted against the document in a mandatory referendum. What happened?

The draft constitution was described as the would-be most progressive constitution in the world. It was written by an incredibly representative delegation that even allotted 10% of seats to the native Mapuche people, matching their population. Aiming to create a more participatory and democratic model of government, the text would have ended the undemocratic and elitist senate and replaced it with a weaker Chamber of Regions, placing most legislative authority in the hands of the coalition which wins the Presidency and the more representative Congress of Deputies.

With an eye towards increased democracy and the recognition of Chile as a plurinational state, the draft would have decentralized governing power by giving more autonomy to regions, communes, and indigenous territory. The document is also clear that Chile is a “social state.” As such, it would be obligated to provide healthcare through a national health service and guarantee rights to decent housing, public social security, and free public education. In addition, it would be responsible for protecting the environment by preserving land, water, and air quality.

The conception of Chile as a social state is in stark contrast with the existing constitution’s conception of Chile as a subsidiary state, which allows the private market to facilitate most social relations and economic activity. This system has resulted in extremely unequal provisioning of public goods (where they exist) with some of the highest fees in the world. The most egregious examples are the country’s notorious private pension, healthcare, and education systems. Such institutions provide tiered services where the wealthy have access to higher-quality versions of each. Pensions in Chile are extremely profitable and incredibly dysfunctional, leaving 80% of retirees with inadequate savings. Chile’s public health expenditure as a percent of GDP is a third less than the OECD average. But even by putting aside funding, richer citizens can send their payroll taxes to a higher quality health care system. The general public, meanwhile, must use the depleted public healthcare fund. Public education spending in the country is also inadequate.

The country’s supposed method around this is to have private schools accept public vouchers in exchange for education. But even on top of these, the schools charge prohibitively expensive fees. The result is enormous inequality in educational opportunities and ballooning student debt. In addition to addressing these issues, the draft constitution would, among other things, mandate gender parity within public institutions, establish rights to organized labor, codify sexual and reproductive rights, and lower the voting age to 16 (making it mandatory above the age of 18). The proposal was a highly progressive document that would have established a solid foundation on which Chile could transition from a neoliberal regime to a participatory social democratic state. So why did voters reject it?

Many in the western media and on the right wing of Chile’s political spectrum believe the answer is obvious. They would say—and have said—that the constitution was simply too leftist. That it was drafted by a body that couldn’t possibly have been representative of the Chilean people’s politics. That the leftists who ran the show clearly bungled an opportunity to write a reasonable constitution. That this is just another example of the left letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. I do not accept this explanation.

First, it is not even an explanation, but an excuse—one that is all too familiar to those of us who follow politics in the United States. It implicitly accepts that ambitious change is just not possible. Chileans, like the rest of the world, are facing the challenge of how to actually achieve the big change that is necessary for our moment in history. If the response is that we can’t achieve that change and we should just tinker at the edges in deliberately inoffensive ways, then we’ve already lost. Chile is important for the international left because, much like Allende’s doomed presidency, their 2019-2022 constitutional saga can teach us a lot about how we can make possible that which seems impossible. Before 2019, a pessimist would have said that a Chilean constitutional convention would never happen in our lifetimes. The fact of the matter is that everything in politics is impossible—until it isn’t.

Pragmatism is an important tool where we can be strategic and figure out the most realistic way to accomplish our goals. But fundamentally compromising our goals before the fight even starts is not pragmatism. It’s giving up. It’s preemptively surrendering, and thus squandering the generations that came before us who fought with their lives to see progress. To argue that the draft constitution was too left for Chile ignores that it was Chile’s people that elected a historically leftist constituent assembly, where the right-of-center political parties were collectively unable to get even the third of the seats needed for veto power. The right (and even the center) didn’t have a serious voice in the drafting process because the Chilean people didn’t give them one. Then, the right had a second bite at the apple with the Presidential election. Almost 60% of Chile voted for the leftist candidate.

All of these results occurred with the new constitution at the center of mainstream political debate. This is clearly a country that could have voted for a progressive social democratic constitution. The country is not just ready for a new kind of government, it is demanding it.

To explain why such a resounding majority of Chilean voters vetoed the draft, we can’t simplify the entire thing into a median voter theorem word problem. The length of the document, right-wing misinformation, institutional constraints on how explicitly the government could campaign on behalf of the draft, general political circumstances, the delegates that wrote it, and pro-enactment campaign tactical errors all played a role in its defeat.

Before diving into each of these factors, we should contextualize the entire debate. It is far easier to get a country to agree on the abstract necessity for a new constitution, even a leftist one, than it is to get them to agree on a specific constitution. The reality is that for a comprehensive document that defines a new era of government, there will be something for everyone to hate. But the length and the vague nature of some provisions did not help the situation. The document had 388 amendments and contained 54,000 words on 178 pages. The vast majority of the provisions in the constitution were popular demands that the country wanted in a new constitution. But even if that is the case, it is a big ask to get millions of voters to comprehend such a large and consequential proposal.

Andrea Peroni, historian and public-policy researcher at the University of Chile in Santiago, put it eloquently: “Any of the 388 articles you didn’t like were 388 opportunities to reject” the new constitution. Such a long proposal also makes it hard for voters to know what is and isn’t in it. This leaves the door wide open for misinformation coming from the right wing. Lies were spread that gave people the impression that the housing rights provisions would also confiscate private property, residences, and pensions as well as ban homeownership. The right even pushed the fabricated notions that the constitution would change the flag and national anthem and that women would be allowed to get abortions on the day of birth. 

This all was propagated in a context of a highly antagonistic press and organized elite that worked to erode support for the proposal. This is to say nothing of the fact that Boric’s administration, which was elected with a mandate to get a new constitution passed, was limited in how they could advocate for the draft’s passage. The right opposition, on the other hand, had no such limitations. Boric also came into office amid tough political winds. Inflation was high, crime rates were rising, and a Venezuelan migrant surge fueled xenophobic sentiment. Amid such conditions, the vote gave the electorate an opportunity to express their frustration with President Boric and the circumstances of the time around the vote. All of these obstacles are roadblocks that will always be there whenever we try to achieve an ambitious agenda (or any agenda). The key is to learn the correct countermoves and organizing tactics that best rally support.

The left made serious mistakes in this process which should be called out and learned from. A small group of the convention delegates engaged in controversial behavior like going shirtless in the convention, voting barefoot, giving a speech to musical accompaniment, insisting that the constitution recognized the importance of mushrooms, fringe proposals with no chance of passage, lying about a disease to get elected, and other controversial performative antics. This is not tactically smart and it should be called out as such.

The result of the behavior of certain delegates led to the entire process being mired in controversy which reactionaries could latch onto. It wasn’t just bizarre stunts, either. The left let themselves be led astray by the right’s anti-enactment talking points. The right was successfully able to steer the discussion toward the most controversial aspects of the draft, which certainly existed. Issues of indigenous autonomy, gender parity rules, vague language which made the minutia confusing, and many others were genuinely controversial and seen as extreme social justice measures. The conversation was centered around them rather than the material benefits included in the draft that the people had been demanding for years. There is no way around the fact that the length of the constitution made this harder to deal with.

To address this obstacle, the pro-enactment movement needs to more effectively steer the national conversation towards the popular provisions. This involves better message discipline, fewer performative stunts, and clear communication with the public about how the drafting process works. For example, the convention required a ⅔ majority to include any amendment or article. The most extreme and bizarre members were not running the show. But the public had the perception that they were. 

These are by no means easy obstacles to overcome. It is not a simple matter to write a focused and concise document in a body of 155 delegates, all of whom have different priorities reflecting those of their diverse constituents. That is exactly how a democratic process for writing a constitution should be, but it also carries difficulties. It is easy for me to offer these observations from afar. But we must not be under the illusion that overcoming these obstacles is easy, nor should we delude ourselves into thinking the left in Chile isn’t aware of and attempting to overcome these shortcomings. They are fighting an uphill, broad, reformist battle that requires them to work within a system slanted steeply against them. In order to win, the left needs to build and sustain an alternative power structure in the face of a hostile media and unified opposition. The movement that delivered the drafting of a new constitution in the first place needs to be consistently activated and involved in countering such a well-organized opponent. It isn’t a fair fight. But it is a necessary one.

This process in Chile will inform similar mass struggles around the world. Lessons will be learned, and the fight will continue. Shrugging and concluding it isn’t worth trying or fighting for it is not the answer. With messaging discipline, organization, militancy, and focus, the Chilean and international masses will one day be able to right the wrongs of the past and pave a new path forward for themselves.

The referendum is absolutely a missed opportunity. But the fight is not over. Chile is hungry to move on from Pinochet. There is enough demand for change that a new constitution will happen. It is likely this will take the form of a new constitutional convention, and the people need to be ready to push forward. The country won’t get back the chance it had, but it will have a new one. Even after 50 years, Allende’s last words to his country before his death remain prescient and vital: “Go forward knowing that, sooner rather than later, the great avenues will open again where free men will walk to build a better society. ¡Viva Chile! ¡Viva el pueblo! ¡Vivan los trabajadores!”

Sooner rather than later, Chileans will once again have the opportunity to reshape their country. This time, they will be even more determined, and even better prepared.

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