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Divided politics in Latin America: looking at Chile’s (almost) new constitution

Updated: Dec 13, 2022

In this Briefing, Grimshaw President Jessica Pretorious explores the regional implications of Chile´s recent push for a more progressive constitution. This article was edited by Malou van Draanen Glismann (Managing Editor).


Earlier this month, almost 62% of Chilean voters voted against a new constitution. The mandatory plebiscite took place on the 4th of September and rejected the imposition of a progressive constitutional draft that covered issues such as indigenous rights and the right to abortion.

The draft was intended to replace the constitution written during General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, which almost 80% of Chileans voted to replace in October 2020. After a coup d’etat that overthrew Salvador Allende, Pinochet led Chile’s military government for sixteen years (1974-1990), and his regime is still known for its torture and prosecution of any opposition. He also imposed extensive free-market policies, many of which were solidified in his 1980 constitution which also helped to legitimise Pinochet’s power after the coup.

Pinochet’s state model and constitution occurred alongside a shift in the global north towards neoliberalism, particularly in the UK and the US where free-market policies were championed by Raegan and Thatcher. Pinochet was also influenced and assisted by a group of free-market-orientated Chilean economists who studied at the University of Chicago, famously known as The “Chicago Boys’. These policies included the privatisation of healthcare, education, pensions and even Chile’s water supply, which many cite as reasons for the fact that Chile today is in the top 20 most unequal countries in the world.

Although Chile is the wealthiest country in Latin America and is considered by many right-wing economists as a ‘neoliberal success story’, widespread inequality and corruption have turned many against the neoliberal state model, exemplified by the social unrest seen in Chile in the last few years. The old constitution became a political focus during a series of protests and riots that started in 2019 and carried on until this year, known in Chile as the estadillo social (social outburst). Initially, the protests were a response to a rise in metro fares, but very soon the situation escalated to include riots, vandalism and frequent encounters with the city’s police force, leading the then-president, Sebastian Pinera, to announce a nation-wide state of emergency. Protesters chanted “it’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years” and demonstrated their dissatisfaction, often through violence, with the stark inequality and cycle of poverty in their country.

This led to massive political changes in Chile. Most notable is the current president, Gabriel Boric, who rose to prominence as a protest leader in the 2011 student protests and became Chile´s youngest ever president. He was backed by Chile’s left-wing coalition, and when celebrating this victory he declaredif Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave".

In 2020, Chile voted to rewrite the Pinochet-era constitution, and a drafting assembly was also voted in. The constitution draft was unlike anything Chile had seen before; it was both ambitious and progressive, including multiple different interest groups in the constitution-writing body and including 388 articles. The most controversial points included making Chile a plurinational state, which would recognise the rights of Chile’s indigenous groups (about 13% of the nation), and important demands from women’s groups, including the right to abortion and imposing a law that women should hold at least 50% of official positions. The constitution also aimed to strengthen land rights for indigenous groups, impose free state education, create better health care access and enforce more regulation of police conduct.

International stakes

Internationally, this new constitution and other political changes in Chile were seen by many as the ‘death of neoliberalism’, following trends in the country and in Latin America more generally. Central to re-writing Chile’s constitution was a rejection of the political system that was established during Pinochet’s military rule, and that moulded the country’s growth but also its growing inequality since the 1980s.

Even a group of professors and alumni at the University of Chicago published a statement supporting the new constitution and condemning the involvement of their university in the old one: "we (...) celebrate the new Constitution of Chile that would replace the previous Constitution of dictator Augusto Pinochet and repair the shameful legacy of the Chicago Boys who participated in his military government".

Neoliberalism and the free-market policies of the 1980s were central to the Washington Consensus, and thus also central to the economic policies that the IMF and World Bank imposed on developing countries throughout the decade. Therefore, one could even view Chile’s rejection of its old constitution as a rejection of past US hegemony in Latin America more generally, which has also been demonstrated by recent changes such as the expanding relations between countries in Latin America and China and India .

In many ways, the issues that the constitution draft tried to address are reflective of domestic tensions in other Latin American countries. Indigenous rights, for example, are a frequently contested subject, and Bolivia is one of the only Latin American countries where all of the 36 indigenous peoples and languages in Bolivia are given official status. Bolivia was made a plurinational state in 2009 after constitutional reforms by then-president Evo Morales.

Furthermore, the situation in Chile and Boric’s election mirrors wider left-leaning political trends in Latin America, known by some as the “second pink tide”. The region has frequently experienced oscillations between the right and left, and in the past five years, leftist leaders have won the majority of national elections. Boric, for example, won against José Antonio Kast, an open supporter of Pinochet who was comparable to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro in his right-wing populist approach.

Left-wing leaders now govern all of the region's major countries with the exception of Brazil. In Honduras, Xiomara Castro was elected as the country’s first female president, overthrowing a long-standing right-wing government, and in August of this year, Gustavo Petro was elected as Colombia’s first left-wing president. These leaders are from a younger generation and are helping to bring different issues into political focus, such as environmental commitments and LGBTQ+ rights.

There has also, however, been an increase in populism, extremism and polarized politics in the region. This month, Argentina’s vice-president narrowly missed an assasination attempt and Brazil has seen increased violence during heated presidential elections. Some have explained this recent turn towards extremism and non-traditional political leaders as a response to the inability of many governments to address citizen demands”.

What’s next?

Now, Bioric has said he and his government will start working on a new constitutional process that will “fill [Chile] with confidence and unite us all”.

It will be interesting to see where the country goes from here: as with the last electorate body, many have stressed the importance of voting on who writes the second draft, and recently it was agreed that the second draft should still be written by a commission with 50% elected members. Some have also highlighted the importance of creating a new constitutional process altogether, rather than reforming the current text.

Many congressmen and citizens in Chile have blamed the progressive nature of the constitution draft for its failure, suggesting perhaps the second draft will be more moderate in nature. Diana Aurenque, a department director at the University of Santiago, explained that “probably, before wanting progressive advances of this nature, people prefer adjustments and reforms to what they already know."

However, although the recent constitution draft was not approved, Chile can perhaps provide an example to countries worldwide of how to create actionable change from widespread unrest. Latin America is no stranger to massive political turmoil, and Chile is a rare demonstration of a government taking protesters’ demands seriously and trying to publicly address national issues. Re-writing the constitution may not be suitable in all cases, but at least Chile provides an example of how protesters can engage in worthwhile discussions with policymakers. The former head of the constitutional assembly, Elisa London, pointed out that regardless of the constitution draft rejection, what Chile has to do is “recognize that women have rights, that people have rights, and that is a moral advance.”

On the 11th of September, while commemorating Chile’s coup d’etat 49 years ago, Boric also spoke about the plebiscite, warning that a rejection of the new constitution does not equate to “a rejection of changes and transformations in Chile”. He is determined to create a “constitution written in democracy”.

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