Chance for Chile to forge new path in vote to scrap Pinochet-era constitution

Charis McGowan
·6 min read
<span>Photograph: Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images

Carlos Hinrichs clearly remembers the fear and repression of the Pinochet years.

His father was jailed for supporting Salvador Allende, the leftwing president deposed in Chile’s 1973 military coup. His mother and sister were dismissed from their university positions. He saw classmates shot dead at protests.

When the general finally left power in 1990, Hinrichs expected that the legal framework for his rule would soon be replaced.

But, the constitution introduced by Pinochet remained in force for decades, safeguarding a market-driven economy at a cost of subsidized healthcare, education and pensions.

This Sunday, Hinrichs will finally have a chance to help condemn the dictatorship-era constitution to history, when Chile holds a national referendum which could clear the way for a new magna carta.

“It would open the possibility to live a better life,” said Hinrichs, who plans to watch the results with his adult daughters and his 94-year-old father. All three generations are hopeful that the country will vote for change.

Chile’s 1980 constitution has been criticised since its inception as fatally compromised by its links to a dictatorship guilty of political murder, torture and mass incarceration.

And when protests over metro fares escalated into a nationwide uprising last year, many demonstrators singled out the constitution as the root cause of the country’s social crisis.

Related: How Pinochet's economic model led to the current crisis engulfing Chile

Chiefly authored by the Pinochet adviser Jaime Guzmán, the 1980 constitution enshrined the neoliberal philosophies of the Chicago Boys, a group of Chilean conservatives mentored by the US economist Milton Friedman.

It facilitated the privatisation of public sectors such as health, pensions and education, helping Chile became one of Latin America’s richest but most unequal countries. Poverty rates were slashed, but the country’s growing middle class lived hand-to-mouth, saddled by debt and reliant on credit payments.

For people of Hinrichs’ generation, the upcoming referendum evokes memories of another historic plebiscite, when Chile voted to end the dictatorship in 1988. He was jubilant at the time but now reflects on that period with bitterness.

“We thought that they’d give back everything the state had sold. I had too much hope in what was to come,” he said.

On Sunday, voters will be asked to either approve or reject constitutional change, before deciding who they want to author a new constitution – a mixed assembly of politicians and citizens, or a constituent assembly composed entirely of popularly elected representatives.

A recent survey predicted “approve” will win by 69%, with 61% supporting the option without parliamentary involvement.

President Sebastian Piñera agreed to the referendum amid the most violent period in Chile’s democracy. Since protests began, more than 30 people have been killed in clashes with security forces, and episodes of looting and arson have cost up to $1.3bn in damage.

Demonstrators take part in a protest against Chile&#x002019;s government in Valparaiso on 19 October.
Demonstrators take part in a protest against Chile’s government in Valparaiso on 19 October. Photograph: Rodrigo Garrido/Reuters

But the government’s response to the protests only served to expose the lingering influence of dictatorship. Thousands of people were arrested, many were tortured and at least 465 people suffered eye injuries from police weapons.

A recent report by Amnesty International highlighted the use of the security law – “mostly used during the regime of Gen Augusto Pinochet” – to justify the crackdown.

Related: Chilean police throw boy, 16, off bridge during protests

Calls are growing for an overhaul of the national police force over the string of abuses – including a recent episode in which an officer pushing a 16-year-old boy from a bridge.

Steps away from the site of that incident is Plaza Italia, the focal point for many of the biggest protests. On a recent afternoon, Gonzalo Bremmer was in the square, at yet another demonstration. A fleet of riot vehicles was parked nearby, and the air was saturated with the stench of teargas.

Bremmer said he had lost count of the times he had come out to protest, despite being arrested and beaten. “I keep coming back because I’m angry,” he said.

The 29-year-old auxiliary nurse said he hoped that a new constitution would secure a fairer health system and improved social welfare.

In June, Chile had the highest number of coronavirus cases per capita in the world, although cases have since dropped. The health minister, Jaime Mañalich, resigned over his failure to contain the spread and lack of transparency over death tolls.

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and the state continues to spend more money on this imaginary war against protesters than on public hospitals,” said Bremmer.

Groups rejecting the constitutional change argue that entrenched social disparities will not be resolved by a rewrite, calling a new constitution “an illusion that proposes a magic solution”.

Demonstrators use shields to protect themselves from water sprayed by riot police during clashes on the commemoration of the first anniversary of the social uprising in Chile, in Santiago, on 18 October.
Demonstrators use shields to protect themselves from water sprayed by riot police during clashes on the commemoration of the first anniversary of the social uprising in Chile, in Santiago, on 18 October. Photograph: Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images

Jose Cabezas, a political scientist at Santiago’s Mayor University, agreed that there was a “gap” between what people believe the constitution can change and the reality of what will happen.

But he insisted the new constitution is a significant turning point for Chile to finally cement its transition into democracy.

“We are building a new foundation. We don’t know the type of house we’re going to have, but it will be better,” he said. “The public perception of the constitution will change because we were part of it. It is not written by people with blood on their hands.”

The promise of a new constitution has also won strong support from minority groups, who see it as the chance for a reckoning with historical injustices.

Salvador Millaleo, a lawyer and academic – and member of the indigenous Mapuche people – told El País it could “end the political exclusion” of Chile’s 13% indigenous population. Millaleo hopes Chile will follow Ecuador and Bolivia and declaring itself a “plurinational” state, officially recognizing indigenous groups in the constitution.

Related: Operation Condor: the cold war conspiracy that terrorised South America

Women’s rights activists similarly see opportunity: the current constitution specifically protects “the lives yet to be born” over women’s sexual and reproductive rights, and access to abortion remains severely limited.

Feminist lawyer and rights activist Constanza Valdés said that, despite its numerous reforms, the 1980 constitution “maintains the values of Catholic conservatives”. In June, the constitutional court rejected the legal recognition of same-sex parents, claiming it was “unconstitutional”.

In the midday heat of Chile’s October spring, hundreds of people at Plaza Italia gathered round a cardboard coffin, marking the symbolic death of the Pinochet-era constitution.

One of the protesters, Macarena Fernández, 29, said she was not expecting overnight change. But she was hopeful for the long term: “I will vote so my generation’s children and grandchildren will inherit a fairer Chile and can live with dignity.”