How is it possible that in October 2020, almost 80 percent of Chileans expressed their support for a new Constitution, drafted by citizens specifically elected to write it—but after a year of concerted effort to arrive at a modern charter, 62 percent of voters rejected it in a referendum held earlier this month?
I was one of the 155 members of the Constitutional Convention elected to draft Chile’s new Constitution. I came to this task full of hope. We delegates spent a long year debating and drafting a new charter to replace the one imposed on us by the Pinochet dictatorship and to offer Chileans for the first time the opportunity of adopting a Constitution in a true democratic and participatory manner.
But the convention, whose mission was to publicly reflect the desire for recognition, security, and stability of a fragmented community, ended up losing the trust of the citizenry. Once confidence in the drafters was lost, the proposal lost credibility.
Consider the data that makes this result so disconcerting: In 2020, nearly all the precincts of Chile voted in favor of the change in the Constitution. The sole exceptions were the three highest-income areas, where a good part of Chile’s wealth is concentrated. Yet, in the September 4 referendum on ratification, the poor voted to reject in even higher numbers than the rich. The rechazo (rejection) campaign garnered a majority of votes among the young, among Indigenous communities, and those living in the provinces and the big cities—regardless of their gender or socioeconomic level.
If that weren’t bad enough, even prisoners whose right to vote was to be guaranteed in the new Constitution—and whose rights would get special treatment under it—voted “NO” in 13 of the 14 penitentiaries of the country. The same thing happened in Petorca where the privatization of water led to a crisis that was managed based on free-market criteria—water had to be brought in by trucks. During the whole debate on the new Constitution, Petorca was the most emblematic example of the need to make water a public utility and to make access to water a part of the list of basic human rights—but there, too, 56.73 percent of the people voted to reject.
Elements of our unique constitutional process which garnered applause at the outset became weaknesses as the weeks wore on. For the first time in Chile, the social and cultural diversity of the country was truly represented: 104 of us were independents, half were women, 40 percent were under 40 years of age, and 17 were from First Peoples. The overwhelming majority had never before participated in any public endeavor, and many represented new causes or issues not well covered by the traditional political parties—feminism, ecology, Indigenous rights, and many other dissent-based movements. The champions of all these causes came from a tradition of protest, accustomed to confronting power more than exercising it. We were used to fighting, but not to building.
From the very outset, the media and social networks concentrated almost exclusively on scenes and statements designed to discredit the framers: people voting barefoot, speeches delivered to guitar accompaniment, a woman with breast cancer taking the floor to show her post-operative breasts, a Trotskyite proposing to do away with the separation of powers, ecologists who wanted the Constitution to recognize the importance of mushrooms. The enemies of the process started calling it a “circus.”
All this might have been overcome if there had been a greater will to come together within the Convention so that all of these episodes could have been considered just isolated incidents. But we were coming from a breakdown in society which showed just how deep the cracks were; cracks which became open wounds within the Convention itself.
On July 4, 2021, when we met for the first time, the popular uprising that showed just how much a new social compact was needed was still in effect. The conservative billionaire Sebastián Pinera was still president and there were many accusations against his government of human rights violations. Some of the Convention members arrived as representatives of the struggles in the street; from the very outset, they made it clear that they would not work with the right. They were never the majority, but they took the lead, as historically excluded groups tend to do, and those of us who came from parties on the left or who had more political training—myself included—lacked the personality or the courage to differentiate between endorsing their motivation and succumbing to their resentments.
Given that all the texts had to be approved by two-thirds of the Assembly, none of these extreme positions were included in them. But the impression that they were—created and spread by the media—was widespread. Though the final text was vastly better than its contradictions made it appear, fake news and catastrophic interpretations of the possible consequences gained currency. Opponents played on the fear that “plurinationality”—the idea that Chile was composed of many nations—would divide the country and would make the indigenous peoples (the poorest sector in Chile) into a privileged class, that the political system would drift into authoritarianism, that property rights were not protected—“You would Lose Your Homes,” claimed one anti-Constitution campaign slogan that resonated with the public—that abortions could be performed up to nine months, and other exaggerations.
Of course, our draft was far from perfect—the political parties supporting it already had agreed to reforms, improvements, and more specific language in the most controversial sections. But it could have been a good starting point for the new political cycle the Constitution was intended to inaugurate. Our draft Constitution set forth five principles that can hardly be ignored moving forward: a parity-based democracy, new ecological standards, greater decentralization of power, recognition of cultural diversity, and a societal rule of law, with social rights guaranteed.
But, as we know, the proposal was decisively rejected—one of the worst defeats in the history of the Chilean Left. The government of Gabriel Boric, which was totally committed to the process, is another of the big losers. As always happens with plebiscites, above and beyond their immediate purpose, they also act as a judgment on the government.
Is this the end of the process of writing a new Constitution? Are we left instead with the consolidation of the Pinochet Constitution of 1980? No. Although the most reactionary sectors of the right have reappeared—after hiding behind the centrists and moderates during the campaign—to advocate for the status quo, the majority of Chileans still want to move ahead to write a new constitution. How this will unfold is still unclear, but President Boric has now handed Congress the job of finding the way.
Chilean democracy is still searching for its path to modernization. The major issues we confront are basically those being debated throughout the West at large: inequality, racial and ethnic prejudice, protection of natural resources, protection of individual and civil rights, etc. There is no telling whether the latest effort will end well either, but I am certain that Chile will learn from this setback—instead of denying it and insisting on starting over again from scratch.
“This is the learning experience that, as a small country, we wish to share with the nations of the world,” Chilean President Gabriel Boric stated in his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly last week. “To deepen democracy is a permanent exercise where we must persevere, and where each of us must learn from the experience of the other.”
Translated from Spanish by Stephanie van Reigersberg.