Will Chile Finally Shed Its Pinochet-era Constitution or Has the Government and COVID Killed Off Too Much Momentum?

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In a month, Chile will hold a national plebiscite to determine whether a new constitution will be written to replace the one written during the Pinochet dictatorship. The referendum comes a year after student-led protests about subway fare-hikes turned demonstrations over inequality in the South American country.

The plebiscite was initially scheduled to be held in April but was postponed as the country aimed to control a coronavirus outbreak. Chile has the fifth-highest number of COVID-19 cases in South America, with 442,827 reported cases and more than 12,100 recorded deaths.

John Bartlett, a British journalist who has lived and reported from Chile for a couple of years, told The North Star that the earlier momentum seen during the first months of protests has definitely stalled during the pandemic. Plaza Italia, a Santiago square that took front stage during the height of the protests, has a decidedly more somber feel, Bartlett told TNS.

Police—or cabarineros—are found throughout Plaza Italia, while fewer protesters can be seen. Bartlett said that law enforcement is responding fiercely and even violently to protesters who do dare head to Plaza Italia. A lack of momentum for the protests has also translated to a lack of momentum for the desire for a new constitution, he added.

Still, Bartlett said that he believes Chileans are gearing up once again to make their voices heard. They’ll be able to do just that on October 25.

The push for a new constitution comes as Chile continues to evolve into a more multicultural nation. The notion of “Chilenas y Chilenos” is being questioned and the concept of plurinationality is growing. Bartlett noted that more Chileans are supporting the official recognition of the Mapuche people, one of Chile’s indigenous groups.

Bartlett acknowledged, however, that there is a range of changes people are demanding—from separation of church and state, to water rights and women’s rights.

Older Chileans Remain Divided About the Protests and a New Constitution

TNS spoke to a group of Chileans, all in their 60s, about their thoughts on the plebiscite, a new constitution and the protests that got Chile where it is today. While the protests were primarily led by Chile’s youth, support for change is wide-ranging.

“I think that yes, a new constitution would be good to try to achieve a better atmosphere among citizens since some Chileans believe that the 1980 constitution, which currently governs us, is based on the Pinochet government,” Jaime Enrique Astudillo Alzamora, 62, told TNS. “What the new constitution needs…is to achieve unity among Chileans. There are some ‘few’ points that should be changed to seek better organization and transparency in all government cabinets.”

Corina Hernández, 62, and Bethzabet Osorio Vargas, 65, are two Chileans who believe the constitution is a remnant of the Pinochet dictatorship. Hernández told TNS that she believes the country is in dire need of a new constitution with new benefits for all Chileans.

Osorio Vargas went further, calling President Sebastian Piñera the “prolongation of the dictator Pinochet.” She accused Piñera of safeguarding the interests of the right and of wealthy business people who exploit the people for their own benefit.

Despite supporting a new constitution and the current administration, Astudillo Alzamora said he did not support the protests that led up to the referendum.

“The protests in general, and especially those in October 2019, were disastrous for Chile, given the material and economic destruction leading to multiple confrontations between citizens and the authorities (carabineros),” he said. Astudillo Alzamora added the protests revealed “extreme polarization within politics and politicians.

Jorge Salamanca Rivera, 66, vehemently disagreed with that take. He told TNS that the protests forced “elite” politicians to consider changes to the constitution, which he said needs to include social rights.

“The social protests…funneled discontent with the inequality, repeated abuse of the corporate sector that holds the economic power of the country and suggest an immobility with regard to institutional issues,” Salamanca Rivera said. “The protests are not a phenomenon of disruptive will, but are consequences of a malaise accumulated for decades.”

Meanwhile, 61-year-old Eliana Cartagena agreed that the protests led to too much destruction and violence. But unlike her fellow Chileans who spoke to TNS, Cartagena said she doesn’t think Chile needs a new constitution.

“The constitution needs fixes, but to start from zero, I don’t think that’s necessary,” she said. Cartagena said that she does not plan to participate in next month’s plebiscite and added that it should not be a priority. Instead, she thinks that money being spent by the government to conduct the plebiscite should go towards healthcare or those who need it during the pandemic.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a senior writer for The North Star. She has published in various publications, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas.