Chile Plebiscite 2020: The Rebirth of Democracy
For the first time in the history of Chile, 78.25% of Chileans voted on October 25th, 2020 for a new Constitution to replace the one inherited from the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, according to the results of the plebiscite, published by the Electoral Service (Servel) of Chile.
The referendum of October 25, 2020 promised to turn the country around in favor of constitutional change. The plebiscite arose in the midst of the 2019 protests as a constitutional solution to the brewing crisis as over a million protesters took to the streets to demand change. One of the loudest demands by protesters was a call for a new constitution, a new set of rules born from broad citizen support and created in a time of peace.
The result of the plebiscite confirmed that the expectations for change in Chile are high. Chileans want to see themselves represented in the constitutional convention as made clear by the massive protests of 2019. Many Chileans hope that the new constitution will widen representation and channel the demands of the people. What real changes will the new document bring? This is a question that remains to be answered.
The constitutional convention will meet in May 2021 with the task of defining the new rules that will govern in Chile. The new constitution will be written from scratch and will address demands for social equity, health, education, reforms to the current pension system, women’s rights, indigenous and environmental rights, among other agenda items.
The members of the constitutional convention will be elected by popular vote on April 11, 2021. This is the first time that the Chilean constitution will be drafted by a group of people elected by popular vote and inclusive of women who will participate in its writing.
History of the Chilean Protests
On October 6, 2019, the Chilean government implemented an increase on subway fares of 30 pesos (equivalent to almost $0.04 USD). Students and low income populations were the most affected by this action since they commonly use the metro system for their daily commutes. Groups of students demonstrated their opposition to the fare increase through boycotting and protesting the metro system.
Little did they know that these protests would spark a nationwide mass uprising that not only targeted the increased subway fares but also significant changes in society long overdue. The following Friday, approximately one million Chileans joined in the demonstrations to demand change.
This was one of the largest demonstrations that has occurred in Chile since the return of democracy. The government declared a state of emergency and responded to these protests by shipping thousands of armed military and police to manage the protests on the streets. The escalation of these events resulted with more than 20 individuals dead.
How could one single act produce such a significant response from a whole country?
The increase of subway fares was merely the breaking point of Chile’s accumulating social problems. Chile had been struggling with inequality since Augusto Pinochet took office through military force in 1973. During his dictatorship, Pinochet’s government formed a new Constitution.
Pinochet’s government introduced a neoliberal socio-economic model that helped Chile’s economy thrive during the 1990s but also created a huge social gap due to the unbalanced distribution of wealth and power.
The 17-year long dictatorship lasted until 1990, when the majority of Chileans voted for a change to democracy, however, the military regime legacy lived on through the Constitution that is still present to this day.
The Chilean Constitution has been modified various times throughout history, yet it still embodies the same authoritative foundation that it was founded upon. Its main characteristics have been integrated into all aspects of Chile’s society affecting its economy, social relations, and the democratic practices of the country.
In the protests, Chileans recognized these inequalities and demanded significant changes. Many believe that the Constitution has been at the root of Chile’s inequalities and to make Chile a more egalitarian nation, it must be removed.
It is also believed that the drafting of a new Constitution will leave behind the dictatorship era and all the struggles that came with it, for good.
After the mass nationwide protests, the government had no other choice but to listen and respond to the people. Thus, the government introduced the 2020 plebiscite to have voters decide if a new Constitution should be created.
Thousands of Chileans celebrated the triumph of the approval for a new constitution. The measure won by more than 78 percent of the votes against 21% of the rejection for change. This became the largest electoral process with the largest number of voters in the history of Chile.
Latina Republic interviewed Juan Manuel Henriquez Carreño, President of the Board of Latina Republic, a 501(C)3 California-based nonprofit organization focused on reporting, research, advocacy and advancement of human rights in the Americas. Henriquez Carreño lives and works in Santiago de Chile. He is a math and religion professor and holds a Masters in Education with a speciality in Educational Management. Henriquez Carreño participated in the plebiscite on October 25, 2020. In the following interview, he provides insight into the historical event and the road to it.
Latina Republic: On October 25th, 2020, Chileans voted for a new Constitution. How did Chile get here? Will a new Constitution address and solve the problems that drove protesters to the streets?
Henriquez Carreño: Chileans voted for a new Constitution to make a change with the current constitution that was written under the government of Augusto Pinochet and imposed mandates created during a very harsh military regime, and in a climate of great political and social controversies.
The success of the new Constitution will depend on the key points designed by the Constitutional Convention. However, it is uncertain whether a new Constitution in itself will provide the solutions to the current problems in Chilean society. It is very difficult to think that the new document will solve these problems just because it is in writing.
Latina Republic: What did Chileans see as the most serious problems with the current constitution?
Henriquez Carreño: In the beginning, the Constitution had certain parts of its structure, privilege guidelines for the military, whose body at that time, had members appointed in the Senate of the Republic. The same army could name its next chief generals and have a large sum of money assigned for the Armed Forces, which corresponded to approximately 10% of the income Chile receives from copper (where it is the world’s leading exporter). Finally, amnesties were established for the top leaders of this period as a way to protect themselves, once the military coup was concluded.
This Constitution was amended for the first time in 1989 and later in 2005, during the government of Ricardo Lagos.
Some of the changes that were made included:
– To allow the possibility of political pluralism and avoid certain persecutions of people or organizations, which were not sympathizers of the military regime, but rather of political left tendencies.
– To repeal the appointed senators who were assigned by the military government within Congress and elected by the Armed Forces. In 2005, this measure was removed.
Latina Republic: What do Chileans want to see in the new Constitution?
Henriquez Carreño: The Constitution had several changes in the course of its history. The 1980 Constitution was created by Jaime Guzman, who was a civil lawyer, and a sympathizer of the military regime.
One of the main reasons the people sought a change to the current Constitution is that it was designed at the time of the dictatorship.
For Chileans, this is also a symbolic matter. We want to eliminate a Constitution that was written during a military government in a dictatorship. Why? Because that moment in our history, caused a lot of pain to most of the people in Chile.
With this vote for a new constitution, the people will be able to choose the people who will designate the new Constitution. During the October vote, Chileans were given two options: a Constitutional Convention or a Mixed Convention.
Latina Republic: What are some of the social benefits’ concerns that Chileans want to see addressed in the new Constitution?
Henriquez Carreño: In general, Chile has a dynamic of social subsidies and the rest of the service policies are provided by the large private businesses. So, most of the people ask for a greater participation of the State in the protection of social benefits, like health and education. They want some of the private companies that handle certain basic services, such as water services, to be overseen by the State.
Latina Republic: What are the objectives of this new Constitution?
Henriquez Carreño: The objectives of this new Constitution will depend on what the organizations that directly represent the country propose, but will have key elements such as:
– Create greater state protections for health benefits; better quality of public education, (currently, private institutions exceed public education in its results).
– Develop a solidarity pension system that ensures adequate pensions for people who have retired. In Chile, women can retire at 60 years of age, and men at 65. However, the pension structure that starts at the beginning of their jobs, on average, is not enough to allow them to live decently.
– Generate access to public seats to members of indigenous communities, among others, so that they may have a voice over their land, culture and language, so that their culture does not disappear.
Center-left organizations, in general, wanted a new Constitution, while the right-wing parties only wanted to modify the current one, in certain parts where the citizens consider it harmful, because, this group, fears starting a Constitution from scratch.
These are in general, the stances of the two trends in opposing policies: The left wants to generate changes to provide greater guarantees to the indigenous population, increase quality of education, and improve retiree pensions, while the center-right does not want to make changes to the Constitution from scratch because they believe it has already had enough changes and they fear that a new Constitution will incorporate many popular demands that will generate expectations that cannot be economically sustainable.
Latina Republic: Who will write the new constitution? How long will this take?
Henriquez Carreño: The vote had two parts: the first part asked whether or not you wanted a new Constitution. The second part asked to decide which actors should design the new Constitution.
The option of voting for a new Constitution won with a 78% margin. It will be drawn up by a Constitutional Convention.
From start to finish, the process of a new Constitution will last approximately 2 years.
This process generated the most massive voter participation, nationwide, in decades and it took place during a global pandemic. This is because the people did not want to miss the opportunity to cast their vote for the option that best represented them.
Latina Republic: Does a new constitution pose a threat to the current president?
Henriquez Carreño: The new Constitution does not represent a threat to the current president, since he, although he has tendencies center-right, was elected in a democracy with a majority of the votes.
Furthermore, he promoted and provided the conditions for this process to be carried out in peace and not to divide the country.
Latina Republic: Now that Chileans have voted for a new Constitution, what are the next steps?
Henriquez Carreño: In April 2021, the 155 constituents, who are a group of people with an equitable balance of men and women, will be elected by national vote and they will form the Convention.
One month after voting, the Constitutional Convention will start working for a time period close to 9 months to generate the base structure of this new Constitution.
Once completed, all agreements will be put to a vote and if this new Constitution reaches 2/3 of the total votes, or more, this new Constitution will lead to mandatory national voting. Until now the national votes have been voluntary.
To validate the new Constitution, the plebiscite will take place approximately in September 2022. Once approved, the President in office at that time will be the one who will sign the new Constitution and present it to the people of our country.
Latina Republic: How did the massive protests that occurred last year influence the government to respond with the proposal for a plebiscite?
Henriquez Carreño: Last year’s protests were triggered by different increases of basic rates that affected the population, and the metro fare increase, was the breaking point that generated important marches and claims.
Some protests were peaceful and their members wanted to see important changes in Chilean rights and benefits for the society. Others protests were more violent, led by more radical groups, which caused extensive damage to public and service structures.
After these protests, the government provided various benefits to the people, such as bonds and humanitarian aid, but that was not enough. The general population wanted something more radical and this led to the possibility of accelerating a new Constitution, which is now going to be a reality. Therefore, the protests were fundamental to demand change.
When the pandemic started, people needed support to be able to cope with job losses and they needed benefits to be able to survive, especially with the quarantine situation, where you could not leave your home.
Most of them had to do telework, but people who perform manual work, such as construction workers, cannot do that. So, in that field, the government had to speed up many benefits, like cash bonuses for four months, to support those who could not pay for their own housing, and needed the provision of family baskets, etc.
These actions corresponded with the needs generated by the pandemic and at the same time, delayed voting for a new Constitution. The plebiscite was going to take place months before, but at that time there was the health risk of going in person, as we could not vote by mail.
The help provided was seen as something that would not be permanent, and people read it as a patch and as something that would not be enough to attain economic stability. So the vote for a Constitution became essential.
Latina Republic: Can you explain the differences between the Constitutional Convention and the Mixed Convention. What is the difference between the two options and what is at stake?
Henriquez Carreño: The Constitutional Convention implies the election of its members by citizenship through a vote that elects its 155 members. The Mixed Convention, on the other hand, would be made up of 172 people: 86 of the Congress of the Republic and 86 citizen members.
The recent vote was mostly in favor of the Constitutional Convention since the Mixed Convention included members of Congress that are overall not well evaluated. This is mainly because people believe that Congressmen have many privileges, that they are paid high wages and they do not generate policies suitable for all those in the country. So, they thought that citizens, through their representatives, would have a greater potential to pass measures that would best represent them.
Latina Republic: In your opinion, which convention do you think is most beneficial to society?
Henriquez Carreño: In my opinion, it is the one that was chosen because the population wants representatives other than the usual politicians, to truly represent them in the design of this new Fundamental Charter. In this case, members of the national Congress would not interfere in this new design due to their low credibility in opinion polls.
Latina Republic: Chile registered the highest electoral turnout in decades with the overwhelming majority of approval votes. What does this show about Chileans?
Henriquez Carreño: It shows that most of the people, 78%, wanted to have a new document, not derived from the previous one; and to chart a new and different route for the times to come, for protection and benefit of its inhabitants.
Latina Republic: How do you see the current plebiscite in connection with the past plebiscite that ended the Pinochet dictatorship?
Henriquez Carreño: It is a similar sign because in the first plebiscite, the people decided that the military regime would not continue. In those years, Pinochet called a national plebiscite to consult if the public wanted the military regime to continue (option “yes”), or if it would end (option “no”).
It was a surprise for the Pinochet government that the “no” vote won and although he did not feel comfortable with the results, Pinochet validated the majority vote and with that, his military regime was removed and the era of democracy began with the move to elect a new democratic president.
The whole world had a lot of expectations for democracy to come, especially to establish all of the people’s rights that this transition implied. That old Constitution, which over the years was modified to adapt to the changes that society demanded, became the one that currently governs us. And with all its changes, it has always existed with the ghost of its origin, that it was founded in a dictatorship.
So, to fully remove that heritage, the people voted for change, for the one option that will be constructed in the next few months, and that in essence, will be written all over again.
Latina Republic: What parity issues do you think could affect the formation of the Constitution?
Henriquez Carreño: This new Constitutional Convention will be made up of 155 people, and will be designed with a balanced number of men and women, through various mechanisms, precisely to avoid generating inequality in this regard.
The fear this implies for other, more conservative sectors of society, is that this new Constitution will demand many state benefits that could excessively overload the public spending and will not be able to be carried out without borrowing from international banks, as has happened in other neighboring countries.
Latina Republic: How do you see the plebiscite benefiting the future of society?
Henriquez Carreño: Plebiscites always help democracy. The benefits for the future of society will be conditioned by the content and wording of this Constitution, to the extent that it protects and creates opportunities for people to have a better future. It will allow political, economic, and social stability for Chile to become a stronger nation and continue to expand on the positive aspects of progress it has developed until now. That is, if almost 80% were in favor of its new elaboration, we must take this opportunity to create the best possible Constitution and not waste that instance with selfish partisanship that would take us far from the real needs of Chilean citizens. There are many mechanisms in place to prevent such influence and to allow the new Constitution to have a 21st century character, while at the same time, design concrete and viable mechanisms, so that our country can sustain these changes over time.
My name is Margarita Salazar, and I am currently a senior at Mount Saint Mary’s University, where I will obtain my Sociology degree. I am a product of two immigrant individuals who traveled to the United States to escape the turmoil they faced in their home countries in Latin America. As a result of many of my Salvadoran family members currently seeking refuge in the United States, I have found myself connecting more with the immigrant community through voluntary work at a refugee and family service center that also assists my family members. This experience has exposed me to cultural, political, and economic issues that immigrants in the United States face and made me want to pursue a career in community outreach within the immigrant population. While working with these organizations, I also realized how important storytelling is when amplifying these commonly suppressed voices. I believe that storytelling is a powerful tool used to educate audiences about social issues that are often silenced or promote current innovations that are not typically broadcasted on a large scale. Latina Republic is a great platform to not only reinforce these voices but also for individuals to connect and become inspired by them. Through my experience with Latina Republic, I hope to make meaningful connections with individuals and their stories that will influence me to strengthen my advocacy for immigrant rights.