With almost all votes counted, the people of Chile have overwhelmingly chosen to discard their old constitution, written and implemented under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Seventy-eight percent of Chileans voted “Sí” on October 25 for a new constitution, paving the way for a new era in the country’s history and a possible break from the structures enshrined by the fascist dictator.
Thousands of jubilant citizens packed into Santiago’s city centre, especially Plaza Baquedano (now commonly known as Plaza Dignidad, Dignity Square) in honour of those protesters killed there last year. The word “rebirth” was projected onto tall buildings around the city centre.
The 1980 constitution was largely written by Pinochet advisor Jaime Guzmán and enshrined into law the neoliberal ideas of US economist Milton Friedman and his team of “Chicago Boy” economists who dictated the country’s economic policy for decades, leading to a volatile society and rapidly increasing wealth inequality.
The Chilean people also selected the more radical option for their new constitution, with 79% opting for a constitutional convention where citizens themselves will be elected to write the document rather than leaving it to a panel of expert lawmakers.
Like in Bolivia, the strength of public opinion was so immense that the government, led by Chile’s richest man Sebastian Piñera, immediately conceded.
“Until now, the constitution has divided us,” he said, adding that the vote marked “the beginning of a path that we must all walk together".
“From today we must all work together so that the new constitution is the great framework of unity, stability and the future.”
A year of struggle
While Piñera might sound magnanimous today, he was forced into accepting a new constitutional referendum by more than a year of continuous and widespread popular struggle.
Millions of Chileans protested his rule, with his crackdown leading to 36 deaths, more than 11,000 people wounded, and more than 28,000 arrested — enormous figures considering Chile’s relatively small population.
The spark for the nationwide revolt was a 30-peso increase to the Santiago subway fare, but it quickly escalated into a general protest about the direction Piñera was taking the country, continuing with the discredited neoliberal model that has been in place since the days of Pinochet.
As the popular slogan went, “It’s not about 30 pesos, it’s about 30 years.”
Long shadow of fascism
While popular protests pushed Pinochet to officially step down as president in 1990, he did so from a position of power, continuing as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces for another eight years. His handpicked officials in the military, police, courts, civil service, and other influential positions were not removed, nor were the laws or the constitution he implemented.
As a result, Chilean society is still marred by the dictatorship, with those at the top of society inordinately Pinochet loyalists.
Piñera, a conservative billionaire business tycoon, has often, consciously or unconsciously, imitated Pinochet.
When the protests first broke out, he sent tanks into the streets to crush them, declaring “We are at war with a powerful, relentless enemy that respects nothing nor anyone,” echoing Pinochet’s infamous catchphrase.
A new hope?
The progressive victories in Bolivia and Chile have raised the possibility of the dawn of a better era in Latin America. By 2011, the vast majority of South Americans were living under avowedly leftist administrations, all of whom were overtly hostile to aggression and imperialism.
Yet, throughout the 2010s, many lost power, sometimes in part due to the continent-wide economic decline, other times (such as in Brazil in 2016 or Bolivia last year) thanks to US-supported coups.
Sunday’s referendum is the beginning of a process that will draft a new constitution scheduled to be presented to the people for a popular vote in mid-2022.
In the meantime, Chile remains one of the world’s most unequal countries, and public dissatisfaction with life remains high. However, in a year with such bad news, the weekend’s events in Chile undeniably represent a positive step forward for all those who value democracy and the will of the people.
[Abridged from MintPress News.]