With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

The Long Shadow of Pinochet Over Chile's Constitutional Referendum

WHAT TO MAKE OF the rejection of Chile’s new constitution, which would have been the world’s most progressive? The proposed magna carta granted increased autonomy for indigenous nations in Chile, promised gender parity in governmental bodies, and mandated universal health care, access to legal abortion, and ecological rights; its rebuff was a dispiriting result for the Chilean left and allies across the hemisphere. Two years ago, on the heels of an explosive protest movement against inequality and the depredations of a neoliberal state, nearly 80 percent of voters authorized a constitutional convention to draft a new Chilean charter. Yet on September 4, more than 60 percent voted rechazo, rejecting the fruit of that convention. Something went horribly awry.

The passage of the constitution had been championed by Chile’s president Gabriel Boric, elected in December of 2021 over the far-right candidate José Antonio Kast, an open admirer of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Boric emerged as a leader of student protests a decade earlier against a privatized education system, a legacy of the Pinochet era. At thirty-six, he became the country’s youngest-ever president. His Social Convergence party forms a piece of the Approve Dignity (Apruebo Dignidad) coalition of left-wing parties and organizations that came together to support the new constitution. But he assumed office during a turbulent time, with Chile experiencing inflation, rising crime rates, and an influx of migration from Venezuela that had inflamed anti-immigrant sentiment. When his popularity dropped, Boric’s visible support of the constitution allowed Chileans unhappy with his administration to express their disapproval by voting to reject. The night of the defeat, he struck a conciliatory tone, granting that the country had made a “strong and clear” choice, but vowing to begin the process anew and to include populations who had felt themselves left out. The mandate from the 2020 plebiscite to create a new charter lived on, even if the means to fulfill it were now hazier.

Lucas Cifuentes, a national director of the Libertarian Left party (Izquierda Libertaria), believes that even the constitution’s opponents recognize that Chilean society remains a “boiling pot,” its crises unresolved, and thus recognize the need for reforms to reduce the pressure. “No matter what,” predicts Cifuentes, “there are going to be changes to health care, to education, to the pension system. But the question is the depth, the real impact, and that’s what we’ll be looking at attentively to see what happens.” Yet if indeed a new convention comes to pass, it will look different from the first. In the October 2020 plebiscite authorizing the new convention, Chileans also voted on the form the convention would take. They opted to sideline federal officials and directly elect the constituents who would write the document. Now, instead, Congress will almost certainly become central participants in the process. “All of the uprising, the process of the constitutional convention was in good measure an anti-elite protest,” says Cifuentes, “and now the elite is going to create the new constitution.”

The Chilean elite had already reinserted themselves into the constitutional process via a national press dominated by right-wing outlets. Many were the worries about the impacts of “fake news” on this plebiscite, which indeed shaped occasionally outlandish fears—that, for instance, the new constitution would change the flag and national anthem, and would enact seizures of private property, from residences to pensions. But an antagonistic press likewise eroded support for the document over the life of the convention and the months of decision afterwards. “A structural problem of our politics is that the agenda, the capacity to impose an agenda and themes that define what’s discussed publicly—the rich have that one hundred percent,” says Cifuentes. “In Chile there was more diversity, more media pluralism during the dictatorship than in democracy. It makes for a managed politics.”

Read entire article at The Baffler