By Co-Editor Varsha Vijayakumar.
This coming Sunday, September 4, every Chilean citizen above the age of eighteen will vote to “approve” or “reject” a brand-new national constitution.
Chile’s existing constitution was established during the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, which lasted from 1973 to 1990. On September 11, 1973, the military general led a U.S.-backed coup d’etat that ousted Salvador Allende, the first Marxist in the world to have been democratically-elected to power. Today, the histories and lives of the murdered and disappeared are intentionally documented by organizations such as the Museum of Memory & Human Rights in Chile’s capital city.*
A national plebiscite is nothing new in Chile. In fact, the formal end of Pinochet’s dictatorship was brought about by a 1988 referendum in which 56% of Chileans voted “no” on the question of extending his regime.
Critics have long argued that the current constitution prioritizes the neoliberal economic model that was established under Pinochet’s rule and generally enshrines the stark inequalities of that period. In 2019, as mass protests rocked the country in response to a rise in metro fares, the Chilean government under right-wing President Sebastián Piñera acceded to a process of rewriting the Chilean constitution.
In the past year, an elected constitutional assembly– consisting of an equal number of men and women– has met regularly to develop a new constitution for the country. The assembly is comprised of individuals of various professions– including teachers, scientists, lawyers, bus drivers– and includes quotas for elderly, indigenous, LGBTQ+, and disabled communities. The demographic makeup of the assembly is rooted in a simple yet oft-elusive ideal: those that draft the future of the country must be representative of Chileans themselves.
Most crucially, the proposed constitution is visionary in its protection of core social rights and its express emphasis on democratic political participation. Chilean professor and historian Rodrigo Mayorga describes how the proposal reconceptualizes the rights-giving responsibility of the state. That is, the new constitution recognizes that while we may be considered equal in name before the law, true equity is hard to come by. The proposal therefore emphasizes the state’s active role in confronting a variety of social issues. Notably, it establishes protections for sexual and reproductive rights including abortion, assigns state responsibility for combating climate change, and affirms the self-determination and collective/individual rights of indigineous groups. The new constitution seeks to address Chile’s inequitable landscape by promoting rights-based provisions instead of prioritizing the market.
On Sunday, Chileans will have the opportunity to redefine the relationship they have with the state. And as misinformation about the process proliferates, it has become all the more crucial for groups on the ground to reaffirm the sanctity of the democratic process.
The world is watching– and we’re all taking notes.
*The author worked as a research intern at the Museum of Memory & Human Rights from August to December 2018.