Chile: hopes high as Constitutional Convention starts work
The process to write Chile’s new constitution, which got under way in July, is a direct consequence of the 2019-2020 protests that demanded economic and political reform. Thanks to civil society’s efforts, the Constitutional Convention is an unusually youthful, female and diverse body. The police violence that helps maintain an unequal status quo is one of the pressing issues it will have to get to grips with. But hopes are high that a progressive, rights-oriented constitution to help drive lasting change will result – and help inspire similar efforts in other Latin American countries.
The power of protest keeps being proved in Chile, where on 4 July the inaugural session of the Constitutional Convention, charged with writing Chile’s new constitution, took place. At its head is Elisa Loncón, a female Mapuche Indigenous leader. She accepted the role as the Convention’s president while wearing traditional Mapuche clothing, a symbolically important moment in a country where Indigenous people have received little recognition.
Half of the body’s 155 members are women and 17 seats were reserved for representatives elected by Chile’s Indigenous groups. Many of the Convention’s members are young and have no prior background in formal politics, having stood as part of new independent lists rather than party slates.
The Convention’s members were chosen in a May vote that marked an overwhelming rejection of Chile’s ruling centre-right coalition, Chile Vamos, and of conventional politics in general. The list led by Chile Vamos recorded the lowest-ever national vote for a mainstream right-wing party list, leaving it with only 37 seats. Crucially, this stops short of the one-third representation that would have given it veto power, since Convention decisions need to be approved by at least two-thirds of its representatives.
When protests made an impact
The Convention, and the direct voting system used to decide its composition, resulted from mass protests, sparked in 2019 by a rise in transport fares. This proved the tipping point for a great wave of protest demanding a real reckoning with Chile’s profound economic inequality and radical reform of the political structures that entrenched it.
Outsiders were shocked: Chile had a reputation, amongst international financial institutions and the regional and global commentariat, of being an economically stable well-established democracy. But protesters insisted there were two Chiles: one of assured wealth, privilege and security, and the other in which most people live, where the costs of education and healthcare are punitive, and people face day-to-day struggles to make ends meet. For Chile’s many struggling people, the transport price rise exemplified 30 years of structural exclusion.
Protesters insisted there were two Chiles: one of assured wealth, privilege and security, and the other in which most people live.
Even in the face of brutal repression, the youthful protest movement, encompassing students, trade unions, women’s groups and Indigenous groups, refused to back down. This was not Chile’s first mass mobilisation in recent years, and the way had been paved by previous waves of protest, including feminist protests against gender-based violence, student protests for universal, high-quality public education and protests against the privatised pension system.
With many of these systemic problems remaining unsolved, pressure built to replace Chile’s 1980 constitution, authored under the military dictatorship of General Pinochet and, while tweaked since, never fundamentally changed. The protest movement pointed to the lack of provisions in the constitution for public participation in the making of important decisions and the absence of safeguards for social and economic rights.
The pressure told when the government and all major parties were forced to concede a key demand and agree to a referendum, held last October, in which voters overwhelmingly endorsed a proposal to develop a new constitution through a directly elected body. Campaigners then pushed successfully for gender parity, Indigenous representation and the inclusion of non-party lists, all of which established new precedents in Chilean elections. It is thanks to their efforts that such a diverse body has taken shape.
Police violence on the agenda
The Convention now has a year to complete its work, with the draft constitution to be put to voters in a further referendum. There are many difficult issues to be faced, and Chile’s social division was indicated by protests on the Convention’s first day by both right-wing and left-wing groups and police violence against protesters; the Convention’s opening ceremony was suspended when some of its members went outside to remonstrate with the police and insist that there be no violence.
The Convention subsequently passed a resolution calling for the pardon and release of those still in detention for their role in the 2019-2020 protests, when some 2,500 people were imprisoned, as well as the release of Mapuche political prisoners. A campaign to pass a pardons bill appears to be gathering pace, although the government continues to deny that Chile has any political prisoners and the president insists that those in jail in relation to the protests have been properly convicted of ‘serious crimes’.
Police brutality of the kind that greeted the opening day protests is a familiar problem in Chile. February saw protests in multiple locales following the police killing of a popular street performer, Francisco Martínez Romero, in the city of Panguipulli; after videos circulated showing the police shooting the unarmed man several times, people demanded police reform, and when some protesters turned violent, the police responded with their usual array of teargas, pepper spray, water cannon and attacks on journalists.
Mass protests on International Women’s Day, 8 March, saw thousands of women march to demand gender equality and an end to gender-based violence, but there too there was police violence and 84 people were detained, including trans student leader Emilia Schneider. The violence that women face was further indicated by online attacks on some women candidates standing in the Convention elections.
Meanwhile Mapuche people continued to risk lethal violence for mobilising. In February, environmental rights defender and trans woman Emilia Milen Herrera of the Lof Llazcawe Mapuche community was shot dead during a clash between their community and private security guards. The community is involved in a long struggle against real estate development. In June Mapuche land rights defender Alberto Curamil was seriously injured, with 18 shotgun pellets left in his body, as the police opened fire on his vehicle following a protest against an arson attack on a Mapuche home.
High hopes and high stakes
Police reform will therefore be one issue on which many hope to see progress. The Convention’s debates will likely be complex and messy. It will be important that differences are aired, in a respectful manner, and consensus built across points of division. The stakes are high, with the question of whether the evident demand for change expressed in July will be carried into the November presidential election.
People in neighbouring countries will be watching with interest. With protest movements in other Latin American countries also calling for constitutional change and inclusive decision-making, the potential is for Chile to set an example that resonates across the region. Civil society will work to support the progressive voices arguing for lasting change to result from this opportunity won through protest.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The precedents established in the Convention election, of gender parity, Indigenous representation and non-party lists, should be built upon in future elections.
The government of Chile should release all those detained for taking part in protests.
The government should investigate police violence towards protesters and hold those responsible to account.
Cover photo by Claudio Santana/Getty Images