Natalia Aravena rushed down a small side street to escape, she recalls. Chile’s police force, the carabineros, were dispersing a protest near Santiago’s presidential palace on Oct. 28 2019, one of hundreds that broke out over inequality and the cost of living in the South American country late last year. As Aravena, a 25 year-old nurse, turned to check she wasn’t being followed, a tear gas canister hit her in the face. Hours later, she lost her right eye.
Chile’s protests have now brought the country to a historic crossroads: an Oct. 25 referendum on rewriting the country’s constitution. “I was thinking the other day that in Spanish, when something is really expensive, we say ‘it costs an eye from your face’,” Aravena tells TIME. “It literally cost me that for us to get here.”
The referendum was the main concession politicians made last November as they tried to pacify protesters with an “agreement for peace.” The left argue that the 1980 constitution, written under rightwing dictator Augusto Pinochet, is implicitly designed to protect Chile’s model: minimizing the role of the state, limiting voters’ political choices and making it harder for Chilean governments to expand social welfare or interfere with businesses. It became a major target of protests, which began with teenagers jumping subway turnstiles to protest a small subway fare hike but quickly morphed into a so-called “social explosion”—an all-out rejection of the neoliberal economic model that has made Chile one of the region’s richest countries, but also created spiralling inequality. Aravena was one of more than 400 people who suffered eye injuries as the carabineros violently repressed the protests.
Protestors returned to the streets on Sunday, the anniversary of the protests that began on Oct. 18 last year, with many hoisting signs and banners supporting the “Approve” campaign in favour of rewriting the constitution. Largely peaceful demonstrations were marred by violence as the day wore on, with some people looting and even setting fire to two churches and firebombing a police station.
Rewriting the constitution won’t solve all of the country’s problems, Aravena says, but it’s the best chance of turning the “social explosion” into meaningful change after a year of unrest. Roughly 80% of Chileans plan to vote “Approve”, according to polls. Even a few prominent figures from the right, such as likely presidential candidate Joaquín Lavín—a former Pinochet ally—have backed the rewrite. But political analysts say that’s where the consensus ends. Some see the referendum as a symbolic opportunity to move on from the dictatorship or tinker with the existing model. Others want a total transformation.
“Chilean neoliberalism isn’t just an economic policy. It’s become a way of conceiving life itself: social relations, cities, democracy, society, and the economy,” says young politician Jorge Sharp. He won a shock victory in 2016 to become mayor of Valparaiso, a coastal city two hours from Santiago, on a leftist platform. The 35-year-old is now one of the most prominent progressive voices in Chile. “Rewriting the constitution is our chance to lay the foundations of a new society, a new state and a new country.”
After Pinochet took over Chile in 1973, ousting socialist president Salvador Allende in a military coup, the dictator began to overhaul Chile’s economy. Following a set of principles devised by a group of U.S.-educated economists —contained in a policy book known as “The Brick”—Pinochet’s administration sharply reduced the role of the state, slashing budgets for public housing, education and social security, and selling off state-owned companies. The dictatorship ended in 1990, after 56% of Chileans voted to transition to democracy in a referendum.
But the constitution the regime left behind limited the ability of future governments to deviate from the course set by Pinochet. Jaime Guzmán, the architect of the constitution, made that goal explicit in a 1979 interview in which he summarized the government’s political strategy: “It’s preferable to create a reality that restrains whoever is governing to its demands. That’s to say if our adversaries get into power, they’ll be forced to take actions that are not so different to the ones we’d want.”
Claudia Heiss, head of political science at the University of Chile’s Institute of Public Affairs says that though “the constitution did not lay out an economic program, or explicitly say that the idea that the state should [take a small role],” it was written with that worldview in mind and was designed to protect it. “The constitution created a political system that was incapable of producing change.”
The constitution established 18 areas of legislation—including those that cover the electoral system, the carabineros, the central bank, some parts of the education system and mining concessions—which can only be changed with a 57% majority vote of senators and lower house representatives. These “organic laws” are subject to checks from the constitutional court, which can block legislative changes if they rule them incompatible with the constitution itself. The electoral organic law created an unusual system in which each district elected two representatives, regardless of the district’s size. That meant there was almost always a tie between the two political blocs in congress, and smaller parties could rarely break through at elections. This “binomial” system was finally scrapped in 2015, after years of political pressure, and replaced with a system of proportional representation. The first elections under the new system took place in 2017, and parties outside of the main electoral coalitions won far more seats in congress than in the past.
But Chile’s rigid political system, Heiss says, had already led to the deterioration of the party system, with the main center-left and center-right parties becoming “very distanced from the citizens.” It also contributed to a massive drop in political participation in Chile. ”People vote because they want to change the health system or the pensions system. If you can’t change those things because of the political system, why would you vote?” A 2017 U.N. Development Program report found that Chile’s voter turnout in parliamentary elections had fallen more than any other country’s over the last three decades. Turnout fell from 87% in 1989 to 51% in 2013, and a record low of 46% in 2017.
Over that period, the market-driven model implemented under Pinochet boomed. Chile’s per capita GDP in 2019 was the second highest in South America, almost 50% higher than neighboring Argentina’s and more than twice as the size of Colombia’s. Chile’s economic growth, powered by a glut of foreign investment in its business-friendly model and strong prices for its exports, has also allowed it to cut poverty rates. The proportion of Chileans living on $5.50 a day fell from 30% in 2000 to 6.4% in 2017.
But as Chile’s wealth has grown, so has the cost of living, and the gap between who can and cannot afford it. Chile is one of the most unequal in the OECD group of developed countries. According to the National Statistics Institute, half of Chileans earn less than $500 a month and for 60% of households, wages aren’t enough to cover monthly costs, according to BBC Mundo. The pension, health and education systems are all partially or fully privatized. In education, for example, 6 in 10 students pay extra for their secondary schooling. Chile performs better in international testing metrics than the rest of the region, but a 2016 OECD report on educational inequality found that socioeconomic status had a greater impact on students’ attainment in science in Chile than in any other of the developed countries studied.
Not everyone agrees that the constitution is to blame for Chile’s ills, though. Kenneth Bunker, a political analyst and editor of polling site tresquintos.cl, says that while there may be good reasons to change the constitution, including its roots in the dictatorship, ”it’s not the mother of all evils that some on the left say it is.” He argues that the constitution’s political system forced Chile to reform slowly, with consensus, creating a stability that few Latin American countries enjoy. “That stability was until just recently considered something positive, as you can read in all these economic indicators.”
Around half of Chile’s rightwing politicians have backed “Approve” in the referendum, Bunker says. But he notes that this is likely a political calculation “to avoid being on the wrong side of history.” According to the electoral service, 89% of total campaign donations have gone to “Reject,” suggesting there are strong forces pushing to retain the 1980 constitution.
Economists in the Western world have watched Chile’s recent challenges to its model—and its constitution—with alarm. In July, congress voted to allow citizens to withdraw funds from their private pension system to help families deal with the economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The pension system, one of Pinochet’s major reforms and the first in the world to be privatized, is seen as a major driver of Chile’s economic growth over the last four decades, and, despite anger over its failures to protect low-income and informal workers, has been shielded from reforms by Chile’s rigid political system. The Financial Times reported that congress’s move could “send a disturbing signal to investors who worry that populism may be taking root” ahead of the referendum.
Some politicians on the “Reject” side in the referendum argue a rewrite will lead the country down the path of its neighbors in Argentina, where populist economic policy has played a major role in a string of economic crises. Opponents of the rewrite also raise the specter of Venezuela, where a socialist government has overseen an unprecedented economic collapse–though analysts say corruption, an overreliance on oil revenues and economic mismanagement are to blame for the crisis there.
“This is essentially the problem Chile is discussing,” Bunker says. “Do you move forward gradually, as Chile has been moving for the last 30 years—and has found relative success I would argue? Or do you jump into something that’s unknown, which could also be good, but the risk is much higher?”
This month Javiera Lopez has spent hours in the streets of Lo Espejo, the suburb of Santiago where her family has lived for 60 years, helping to coordinate the “Approve” side of the referendum campaign. “This is the ‘other Chile’, as they call it” she says, speaking over the phone on a break from campaigning. One in five of Lo Espejo’s residents live in poverty and the area suffers high rates of child malnutrition and housing overcrowding.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread through the country in March, forcing strict lockdowns, those inequalities became even more apparent. Santiago’s poorer districts suffered disproportionately high rates of COVID-19, and stronger economic shocks. In some neighborhoods, protests broke out over hunger. But the lessons of the “social explosion” that grew out of last year’s protests led to unprecedented cooperation between neighbors, Lopez says. She and a group of 25 mostly young people found each other through social media to form Lo Espejo Solidario. They solicited donations of food and money and used them to supply families and soup kitchens, often communicating through networks they’d first set up during the protests. “I’ve never felt like I was part of a community before,” Lopez say. “But now we’re remaking a social fabric that was destroyed both by the dictatorship and 30 years of neoliberalism.”
The most important function of the constitution rewrite process, Lopez says, will be to make ordinary Chileans feel they can change something by participating in politics. Lo Espejo has one of the lowest rates of electoral participation in Chile, with only around two in 10 residents voting. “Before [the explosion], people here thought they had to delegate changes in our country to the experts, to the technocracy,” Lopez says. “And those are the people who raised the price of the metro tickets last year, because they don’t know how we live, how much a pack of rice costs or a packet of noodles.”
Over the past year, hundreds of town hall sessions known as “cabildos” sprang up across Chile. Organized by social movements, universities, local communities and others, they tackled everything from the cost of living to Indigenous rights to Chile’s democratic systems, and offered a chance for citizens to discuss solutions.
For Sharp, the Valparaiso mayor, this year has been a vindication of the political movement he belongs to. The “new left” grew out of a series of student protests during the mid-2000s and early 2010s challenging inequality in education access, and expanded to tackle the breadth of Chile’s model. Sharp says he ran for office in 2016 to change Chile’s “ossified politics” and during his term he’s championed “bottom-up” decision-making. “When the protests started, it was like a volcano under many politicians’ feet. It’s a calling out of that politics, which for years only represented itself. It’s a demand for participation and for the people to be at the center.”
The first question on the ballot asks voters if Chile should rewrite the constitution. The second question asks them to choose what kind of body should do it: a “pure” constitutional assembly, made up of 155 specifically-elected citizen representatives, to be selected by another national vote in April, or a “mixed” assembly with a 50/50 split between newly elected candidates and existing members of congress. According to Bunker, the political analyst, the “pure” assembly would likely try to create a constitution more radically different to the 1980 constitution, while a “mixed” one might uphold more of its principles. “Pure” is leading on 65%.
Sharp says the structure of the process may prevent any new constitution from having a transformative effect on Chile. In order to adopt articles, according to the rules, the assembly will need a quorum of two thirds. Depending on who is elected in April, he says, Chile’s new constitution may not do much to challenge its model. “The elite, which is really scared of change, is going to participate in the constitutional assembly to defend what already exists,” he says. “For social peace to exist, the elite has to give up its privileges. That’s always a very, very, very difficult process. The constitutional process is an opportunity for that. So that democratically, all together, we can build a different country. But it’s not easy.”
The difficulties of the constitutional process are already playing out in the conversation around Indigenous inclusion. Relations between the state and Chile’s Indigenous peoples—the largest of which are the Mapuche, with some 2 million people—are tense. In recent months and years, hunger strikes and violent conflicts, including arson attacks on truck drivers, have taken place as some Mapuche groups opposed businesses they accuse of exploiting their ancestral land. Salvador Millaleo, a Mapuche lawyer and adviser to Chile’s human rights institute, says the constitution is a major opportunity to improve the situation. “There’s not a single line in the constitution that recognizes Indigenous people’s existence and that’s a big obstacle to getting political rights,” he says. “Conflicts arise because there’s no possibility for Indigenous communities to oppose activities like mining on their land through a strong framework of rights.”
But, while Indigenous groups have for months been calling for the reservation of seats in the constitutional assembly for Indigenous representatives, reflecting their demographic weight, no decision has been made, a week from the referendum. “If there are no mechanisms to ensure indigenous representation, we’ll be losing a very unique opportunity to make sure they are included in the future of this country,” Millaleo says.
For Aravena, the nurse, the optimism of the constitutional process is marred by the government’s failure to address the police violence that occurred during the protests. The carabineros have received over 8,500 allegations of human rights violations over the last year. In early October 2020, video showed carabineros throwing a 16 year-old protester from a bridge into a river as they dispersed a protest in Santiago. And in July, Chile’s public prosecutors office said 466 officers were under investigation of abuses committed since the protests began. But when the carabineros announced sanctions for officers involved in the violence in July 2020, only 16 officers were removed from their jobs, according to Amnesty International. President Sebastian Piñera has repeatedly asserted his support for the carabineros.
As with other issues, a new constitution, and its law governing the security forces, offers a chance for change. “But we have to be vigilant,” Aravena says. “That’s why you still see people in the streets in Chile, even after the referendum was announced, even after the pandemic began and we had a lot of deaths. Many people understand that nothing has been won yet.”