Chile’s Establishment Is Still Blocking a Real Break With the Past

Carolina Parraguez Piña

This October's historic referendum in Chile saw a massive 78 percent vote to abandon the Pinochet-era constitution. Today, social movements are pushing for a new document that offers broad welfare and environmental guarantees — but first, they must confront an oligarchy hell-bent on thwarting any fundamental change.

A demonstrator waves a Chilean flag on top of a monument during the seventh day of protests against President Sebastián Piñera on October 24, 2019 in Santiago, Chile. (Marcelo Hernandez / Getty Images)

Interview by
Octavio García Soto

Augusto Pinochet’s constitution is finally on its way out, after the October 25 referendum brought a 78 percent vote to replace his regime’s neoliberal charter. But in that vote, Chileans were also asked a second question: “What type of organ should write the new constitution?”  Seventy-nine percent preferred it to be written by a constitutional convention, rather than a “mixed” body including sitting MPs.

We already know some things about what will happen next. April 11, 2021 will see an election to appoint 155 members of the constitutional convention; they will draft a document, which Chileans can then approve or reject in an “exit referendum” slated for mid-2022.

Today, the Chilean senate and congress are still defining the rules for these contests. Indeed, this is not a constituent assembly, created from scratch; and it is already clear that the convention will have limitations such as high quorum requirements, a preference for party-political delegates, and even restrictions imposed by the current constitution.

To shed light on what comes next, Jacobin‘s Octavio García Soto spoke with constitutional lawyer Carolina Parraguez Piña. They discussed the coming election, the themes that the constitution will likely address, and the immense difficulty of forcing change upon Chile’s economic and military elite. October 25 was a massive victory — but there’s still an uphill battle to achieve real democracy.

Octavio García Soto

The explosion of protests last fall put the spotlight on Chile’s social movements, including the feminist and LGBT movements. How will this translate into the constitutional process?

Carolina Parraguez Piña

First, I’ll say, the social explosion didn’t come out of the blue on October 18, 2019. It’s not that people suddenly woke up that week. There was a longer process of social and cultural — and not just political — transformation.

Since at least 2015, the feminist movement has become a real force influencing many other aspects of Chilean politics. And it’s telling that, after approving the drafting of a new constitution, we are also celebrating a paritary constitutional convention — 50 percent made up of women, regardless of their political vision.

The different left-wing forces, as well as feminism, will clearly have an influence. But that also relates to a criticism some of us have: in Chile today we have a united right but many and divided forces on the Left. You have twenty strains of feminism, various strains of LGBT politics, Marxists and Marxist-Leninists, Socialists, the “renewed Socialists,” the radicals; and the new forces that came from the 2006–2011 Penguin Revolution student protests. They are millennials born after the return of democracy: and that age factor also shapes Chilean political realities.

Octavio García Soto

You mentioned the “renewed Socialists,” basically the Concertación (the center-left that governed Chile after the return to democracy). How will they influence popular demands? While social movements look horizontal and leaderless, political parties are clearly still a power within this constitutional process.

Carolina Parraguez Piña

“Renewed Socialists” isn’t a way of saying they have updated their views to the twenty-first century — this label for them is more of a criticism society has leveled against the pro-business Socialist Party which ruled Chile in the early 2000s.

In the constitutional referendum, Chileans voted against the Mixed Convention option, whereby half of the convention would be represented by Congress. This highlights the problem these parties have.

Twenty-first-century Chile is very different from the country that endured the barbaric dictatorship and the return to democracy. Today’s society is critical, and that critical society rejects the parties as well as the representatives of powerful interests in Chile, precisely because they are an oligarchy.

Octavio García Soto

What happens now? What are the nuts and bolts of the processes preparing for the April 11 constitutional convention election?

Carolina Parraguez Piña

Now that we have won this first stage, in which 7.5 million voters approved the principle of drafting a new constitution, comes the second, political stage in which it will be drafted. On April 11, 2021 we will go back to the polls to choose the 155 members of the constitutional convention.

Many of the rules for that body are being discussed in Congress. One issue is the number of seats for Chile’s nine indigenous ethnic groups, who still haven’t received the recognition they deserve.

This also connects to their rights with regard to environmental problems. Many territories belonging to these communities are mixed up in natural resource issues. Water resources in Chile are in serious trouble, precisely because of the mining and forestry industries, whose activities endanger many lives due to drought.

Octavio García Soto

Will these extra seats be approved?

Carolina Parraguez Piña

The Right will fight it — and many say this matter doesn’t need to be regulated at a constitutional level. But I think the convention should also embrace the worldview of Chile’s indigenous communities. Today, we only talk about the right to live in a pollution-free environment, but not about healthy environments or balanced ecosystems. Obviously, this will generate problems for those who own water resources — and in Chile the water is all privatized!

Already-established constitutional rights will not be simply repealed by the new constitution. In their campaign of fear against drafting a new constitution, various populists claimed that such a step would be a blank page for making Chile into “a new Venezuela.” I say that with all due respect for Venezuela, whose image these people so tarnish.

The Right doesn’t want to even consider the indigenous people, and even some in the center-left may agree with them. But Chile is making progress, in this regard.

Octavio García Soto

How can I, as a Chilean, run as a candidate for the constitutional convention?

Carolina Parraguez Piña

It’s clear that political parties and powerful groups are working to make it harder for those without party-political affiliation or financial resources to run. Many administrative procedures have been suspended due to the pandemic and this has had repercussions for citizens not affiliated with existing political forces — thus preventing a real citizen and democratic participation in this process.

To register and be part of any political process in Chile, you need signatures. In Chile everything is done on paper, so if anyone wants to be a candidate, they’ll have to go to the notary’s office with their supporters to register. The minimum number of signatures is not yet defined — currently, it stands at around 0.4 percent of a district’s population. But in the district I live in, there’s three million people!

It’s possible that it may be changed to 0.2 percent. But then, you have to pay for those signatures at the notary’s office. Who’s gonna pay for it? Do you have the capacity as an independent candidate? On top of that, our mobility is limited, due to the pandemic.

We hope that Congress will legislate to make this process as quick and friendly as possible. What other options do you have when you lack financing? You can join a party or remain an independent with party ties, using it as a tool to increase your chances of election. But many people who have historically belonged to a political party and had top positions, today still want to run for the convention.

Octavio García Soto

One school bus driver became famous last year for going to the protests dressed as Pikachu. She has expressed interest in running for the convention, and recently accused the police of violently attacking her. Does she have as much chance of running as anyone else?

Carolina Parraguez Piña

This process is not egalitarian. First of all, we should note this is not a constituent assembly, but a convention. Even though Chile was actually formed by an assembly — the Cabildo Abierto of 1810, which declared freedom from Spain — most conservatives don’t want to talk about creating such a body.

Today, we have the Pikachu Lady, Compadre Moncho (a TV actor), and Anita Tijoux (a rapper), three figures clearly representative of the Chilean popular spirit, who are interested in being delegates, but don’t have the same economic backing, reputation, or networks as a person with a history in politics does.

We’ll have to see how the financing will be determined. Hopefully, Congress decides in favor of the same budget and campaign time for everyone, and political parties understand that they must take a step back.

On referendum night we saw well-known party figures having their photos taken, as if they had achieved this victory — but citizens did! This started with the jumping of the turnstiles, the demonstrations against the privatized pension system, the feminist Ni Una Menos movement. This doesn’t belong to the parties. That’s why the mixed convention proposal did so badly; the parties had lost credibility.

Octavio García Soto

Do you see an ecological potential in this constitution?

Carolina Parraguez Piña

We speak of ecology in order to inspire people to work toward such a constitution. But, as a country that lives on the exploitation of its natural resources, we are in the worst scenario possible. The current definition of the environment in the 1980 constitution has destroyed the glaciers and allowed the exploitation of the Antarctic. We used to have a Mediterranean climate in the Central Zone. Now, we are literally semi-deserted. There is a constant loss of biodiversity.

Chilean society is much more cultured now than in the 1980s and children have a more sensitive view of nature. But we’re still behind. Countries like Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela, and Bolivia have already declared nature to be worthy of rights, thus placing greater limits on its ownership.

We environmentalists hope that we can at least lay the foundations for a future, fully ecological constitutional process. That takes a process of building a society with an environmental vision; maybe in twenty years’ time we can define ourselves as an eco-resilient society. Then, we can at least aspire to a future where we won’t have to fight for two drops of water to survive.

Octavio García Soto

Regarding law enforcement and the army, do you think they’ll be subject to change — or even allow it?

Carolina Parraguez Piña

We can summarize what I told you about political parties and the powers that be in one concept: oligarchy. Rather than the Left and Right, we have to talk about normal citizens with no power vs. oligarchic power groups. The armed forces and police are obviously oligarchic. They are not going to give up power.

Look at the military police, the Carabineros de Chile. After the exposure of all their corruption cases, they are the Chilean institution with least credibility. And anyone who goes to demonstrate in Plaza Italia in Santiago is under constant terror of being hit by a bullet, of being arrested, or even tortured in a police station.

There are Amnesty International reports and UN complaints about these brutal attacks on human rights, but the president and the institutions deny them outright. The armed forces don’t want to concede a millimeter of the space they occupy, either.

Riot police officers (Carabineros) stand guard in Santiago, Chile. (Marcelo Hernandez / Getty Images)

Many talk about reforming the institutions, or eliminating the current ones. But there’s no visible prospect of the police changing into a new institution with new principles and values.

They are still using human rights protocols from under the dictatorship. Women have been sexually abused in police stations after being arrested. People have been thrown from bridges, like what that policeman did to the young protester a month ago. If he was destroying public property, OK, then the courts should have done what they had to do according to due process. But state forces can’t be enacting corporal punishment — outright torture.

So no, I don’t have any confidence that these institutions will change.

Octavio García Soto

The neoliberal model will most likely be reconsidered…

Carolina Parraguez Piña

It could happen, if the convention’s members lean toward welfare statism — we don’t know yet, it depends on how democracy plays out.

But I don’t believe Chile will change its neoliberal system. It’s very difficult to change, because of Chile’s condition before the international community regarding trade issues. Our economy is based on the exploitation of natural rights and Chile is also hyper-connected to globalization.

But we also have to understand that this country isn’t that stable. There was a reason for the revolts in October 2019. Chileans are not divided between the Left and Right so much as between an oligarchy and the people; before, it was the colonial criollos, now it’s businessmen.

Chile boasted that it did not have Colombia’s drug-related problems, or Argentina’s problems with corruption. But we suddenly realized that there is drug trade and corruption in Chile as well. It’s a very strong blow to the identity that we Chileans have, but it’s also led us to understand that we can no longer maintain a system that was created by a dictatorship based on human rights violations and exclusively neoliberal and Catholic values.

I do believe that there will be greater social security rights. The people aspire to a more advanced definition of social rights, of education, health, and housing. These are fundamental issues for the development of any nation. So, I wouldn’t go so far as to predict that the neoliberal order will fall, but the new constitution is going to include a catalogue of social, cultural, and environmental rights for the twenty-first century.

The fear many people have of their property being expropriated will not materialize, not least given the lack of resources to compensate them. This has nothing in common with the conflicts of the 1960s and ’70s, and there won’t be an agricultural reform to expropriate traditional landowners either.

Octavio García Soto

Many members of the constitutional convention may not be familiar with the necessary legal language. So, who should guide the process?

Carolina Parraguez Piña

This is a constitutional convention, not an assembly. So, its work will be protected by Congress. But we should understand that while some of the convention’s 155 members will be political figures we’re familiar with, and some will be very literate, some will represent very well the interests of their local area but not have a university education. So, there will also be a technical commission, parallel to the 155 convention members.

So, we need to do away with the myth that “all of Chile is going to write the new constitution.” It’s not like that. And with all due respect to people like Pikachu Lady, they will have to be faithful to democracy and be a clear communicator for the group of people they represent. These groups, in turn, will also have to be alert and monitor whether they’re actually being represented.

Octavio García Soto

Many things in this constitutional process have been criticized as trapdoors set by the Right, such as the two-thirds quorum and the aspects related to parties. Is such a high quorum democratic?

Carolina Parraguez Piña

It certainly is a very high and complex quorum. But, on the other hand, if we want to see it more politically, perhaps this quorum will help us understand that the agreements were reached by a large majority. This can give greater legitimacy to the decisions finally translated into the constitutional text to be approved in 2022.

[Since this interview, far-right politician Pablo Longueira has admitted that the two-thirds quorum would allow conservatives to block radical changes in the Constitution. Communist congresswoman Camila Vallejo has introduced a bill for the convention to change the two-thirds quorum to 50 percent + 1]

Octavio García Soto

Recently, former president Ricardo Lagos commented on the political order he would like to see under the new constitution. He said he likes the idea of a president as a head of state, alongside a prime minister.

Carolina Parraguez Piña

That’s another big issue. I believe that there is a good possibility of changing the Chilean presidential system. Let’s not forget that the current focus on a strong presidential figure is influenced by the three-hundred-year-old legacy of the Spanish colony in Chile. The transformation began in 1810, with Independence.

Unfortunately, president Diego Portales’s constitution, from 1833, started the trend of an authoritarian presidential figure with extremely concentrated executive power. Some historians say that the president in Chile is that of a king — you just take off the crown and don the presidential sash.

Octavio García Soto

I feel that this new constitution will not necessarily transform the country into the one dreamt of by the social movements. Perhaps we could see this new charter as a “transitional” one, which reorders the Chilean state’s priorities and paves the way to a future, fairer constitution — if the people’s discontent so wills it.

Carolina Parraguez Piña

Perhaps transition isn’t the right term. But we do need to stop idealizing this process. I think that the current social and cultural levels in our country point to a wonderful transformation, because today we have a far more inclusive society, despite the ever-present racism and xenophobia. But the next constitution will not change everything.

What it will least allow us to do is to tighten the screws and recalibrate Chile for the current century. This new constitution may not be the most avant-garde, nor the most progressive, nor the most inclusive, nor the most beautiful in the world. But at least it will not be out of step with reality.

For the most important thing is where the new document comes from — it will be the result of the proposals of a constitutional convention that represents  a democratic body based on citizens’ own participation. And that itself is something new.

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Carolina Parraguez Piña teaches Chilean Constitutional History, Environmental Law, Natural Resources Law, and Indigenous Law at Pedro de Valdivia University. She is president of the Aurora Cívica Ambiental Foundation, which educates citizens on civic participation with an environmental focus.

Octavio García Soto is a freelance journalist and has written for La Tercera (Chile), La Estrella (Panamá), and Taz (Germany).

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