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Chile’s Constitution Vote Reflects Dictatorship Dynamics

Chile finds itself still beholden to a constitution that the majority voted to abolish.

Words: Ramona Wadi
Pictures: Vinícius Henrique

“The people must not let themselves be destroyed or riddled with bullets, but they cannot be humiliated either. Workers of my country, I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Other men will overcome this dark and bitter moment when treason seeks to prevail. Go forward knowing that, sooner rather than later, the great avenues will open again where free men will walk to build a better society.” 

Former Chilean President Salvador Allende said in his final broadcast in 1973, hours before the military bombed the presidential palace La Moneda. This year, his vision stood a chance at being vindicated.

In October 2019, when the right-wing government of President Sebastian Pinera announced an increase in metro fares, Chileans erupted into massive protests dubbed the Estadillo Social. The protesters called for the resignation of the current administration, and an end to the dictatorship-era constitution. The government’s response to the protests was to unleash military violence and curfews, echoing the tactics of Chile’s notorious dictator, Augusto Pinochet who ruled with violence and impunity from 1973 until 1990.

The democratically elected right-wing government’s forceful repression sought to prevent the people from toppling the neoliberal model that created and sustained social inequalities and the exploitation of natural resources. Within the first four months of the protests, thousands of Chileans, including minors, had been injured and detained. Chile’s National Human Rights Institute (INDH) deemed the crackdown the worst repression the country had seen since the dictatorship era.

In December 2019, Pinera signed a decree, agreeing to hold a referendum in 2020 on the possibility of drafting a new Chilean constitution. In the October 2020 plebiscite, 78% of Chileans voted in favor of a new constitution.

The drafting process lasted through the 2022 presidential elections, which were historic in that they brought Chile’s left-wing back to power with the candidacy of Gabriel Boric — a former student leader and activist who vowed that: “If Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave.” Boric won the election over right-wing politician Jose Antonio Kast, whose family has ties to the Pinochet dictatorship.

Yet, despite Boric’s victory, which many saw as a new leaf in the long road of healing and detangling the dictatorial legacy, Chileans overwhelmingly voted against the new draft constitution in September 2022, with the Rechazo (Reject) vote garnering 62% against Apruebo (Approve) which stood at 38%.

So what happened? How did public opinion oscillate so drastically?

Misinformation And Media Manipulation From Dictatorship To Democracy

In the aftermath of the referendum, CiperChile, a non-profit foundation specializing in investigative journalism, conducted a survey that exposed how misinformation spread by the right-wing media campaign contributed to the rejection of the new constitution. The Rechazo campaign built upon people’s fears of purported loss, traditional values, and the unknown. Despite the fact that there were no clauses in the constitution writing off such rights, Chileans surveyed expressed fears of losing their property rights, Christian values, and uninheritable assets; they rejected plurinationalism, equated the constitution with communism rather than social change, and asserted a lack of information.

The discrepancy in votes between the earlier referendum favoring a new constitution to replace the dictatorship-era text, and the current rejection of the proposed draft prompts much introspection into Chilean politics and the dictatorship legacy.

In May 2021, Chileans voted to elect the body tasked with writing the draft constitution. In a blow to Pinera’s government and Chile’s right wing elite, the electorate veered towards left-wing and independent elected candidates Out of 155 candidates, the Chilean government’s coalition only secured 37 elected representatives, which amounted to less than one-third of delegates. With each bill requiring a two-thirds majority vote to pass, the right wing lost much influence on the constitution. Also, for the first time in the country’s history, Chile’s indigenous population, the Mapuche, were politically represented in the writing of the draft constitution by 17 elected candidates. So far, the voting pattern reflected the Chilean people’s displeasure with Pinera’s presidency and remained staunch on the need for societal and political change.

At 499 articles, the proposed Chilean constitution was the longest in the world, raising issues including the decentralization of power, environmental, health care, housing, and education rights, gender parity, safeguarding indigenous rights, and defining Chile as a plurinational state, which would also give recognition to the Mapuche in the new constitution. Chile is the only country in Latin America that does not recognize its indigenous populations.

Faced with the prospect of radical change in Chile, the country’s right wing used its best weapon — the media — to spread misinformation about the new constitution. In yet another move reminiscent of the dictatorship era, in this case, the legacy of media control, Chile’s Rechazo campaign found its niche in El Mercurio — a newspaper that played a major role during Pinochet’s dictatorship.

Faced with the prospect of radical change in Chile, the country’s right wing used its best weapon — the media — to spread misinformation about the new constitution.

In September 1971, upon instructions from the CIA, the 40 Committee gave El Mercurio $700,000 as part of the US covert action to destabilize Allende’s presidency. A further payment of $965,000 was made in April 1972. According to declassified documents, “A CIA project renewal memorandum concluded that El Mercurio and other media outlets supported by the Agency had played an important role in setting the stage for the September 11, 1973 military coup which overthrew Allende.” El Mercurio had also positioned itself as a force of “organized agitation against the government” and aligned itself with paramilitary groups and conservative factions such as the Patria y Libertad and Partido Nacional respectively, both of which pushed for military intervention against socialism in Chile and collaborated with the country’s armed forces. Augustin Edwards, El Mercurio’s owner, had lobbied Washington in person to intervene against Allende in March 1970, before the elections took place on September 4 that same year.

In September 2019, just a month before the Estadillo Social protests started, El Mercurio published an insert signed by several right-wing affiliated people, praising the 1973 military coup. The newspaper’s actions prompted public assertions on Twitter against the insert from two of its own journalists — one a relative of a victim of the Pinochet dictatorship and the other a relative of one of the signatories.

Global Media 

Some mainstream global media reported on the tactics used by the Rechazo campaign, while other international outlets participated in the right-wing attacks on the process of writing the new constitution.

The Guardian reported on the outlandish claims the Rechazo campaign used to appeal to the people’s sentiments. Among the lies spread by the right wing, the Rechazo claimed the new constitution would take away people’s homes, abortion would be allowed up to nine months of pregnancy, that Chile’s national anthem, flag, and country name would be altered, and that the deprivatization of water would abolish the sale of bottled water and ice.

Although The Financial Times mentions Chile’s societal inequalities, it also described the constitution document as endangering “the economic model of one of the world’s most successful emerging markets.” Chile was neoliberalism’s first experiment — an economic model spearheaded by the Chicago Boys — a group of Chilean students educated in Chicago by Milton Friedman and who were financed by Edwards. While Edwards was lobbying Washington for intervention against Allende, the Chicago boys were preparing an economic plan titled “The Brick” which would serve as the dictatorship’s base for its economic policies.

On the other end of the spectrum, The Economist ran an editorial calling for voters to reject the new constitution, which it deemed “fiscally irresponsible and excessively progressive.” While the constitution’s length was criticized by many, The Economist made clear comparisons to the dictatorship-era constitution which it called “a paragon of clarity” despite amendments made through the years. This stance fits the magazine’s editorial history — The Economist was instrumental in promoting the Pinochet dictatorship while omitting the CIA’s involvement in a 1973 editorial, blaming the coup on “efforts of left-wing extremists to promote subversion within the armed forces.” The editorial clearly lied: “General Pinochet and his fellow officers are no one’s pawns. Their coup was home-grown, and attempts to make out that the Americans were involved are absurd to those who know how wary they have been in their recent dealings with Chile.”

Plurinationalism And Indigenous Issues

While clearly the dictatorship influence is still rampant in Chile’s right wing, the democratic transition has also embraced Pinochet’s legacy. One major issue which every government since the end of the dictatorship has been reluctant to change is the criminalization of Mapuche resistance through the dictatorship era’s anti-terror laws. The Anti-Terrorist law was enacted by Pinochet in 1984 to prevent internal subversion against the dictatorship. The Pinochet dictatorship eliminated the Mapuche’s recognition as indigenous people and their claims to indigenous territory to pave the way for forestry and mining companies in the region.

With the transition to democracy, the law was amended several times under left-wing and right-wing Chilean governments, and used to repress and target the Mapuche population in the Araucania region. Suffering violence and massacres since the Spanish colonization of Chile, the Mapuche were further brutalized by the Chilean state and expelled from their lands during the invasion which in the state’s narrative is erroneously called the Pacification of Araucania, when over 100,000 Mapuche people were killed between 1860 and 1885.

For governments to engage on just terms with the Mapuche, Chile’s neoliberal system needs to be abolished. In turn, such a decision would lift the application of the anti-terrorist laws to target the Mapuche and roll back the exploitative process which threatens Mapuche territory. The constitution’s recognition of Chile’s indigenous would have been a step forward in this regard.

In his first presidential address to the Chilean nation, Boric promised a change in politics with regard to the Mapuche. Acknowledging the political misrepresentation of the so-called pacification, Boric described the historical and current situation as “the conflict between the Chilean State and a people who have the right to exist. And there, the solution is not and never will be violence.” However, despite his promises, Boric deployed the military to the Araucania on the pretext of security, according to Chilean Interior Minister Izkia Siches, who claimed that the arson attacks which are a regular feature of Mapuche organized resistance are causing destabilization.

One striking feature of the 2019 protests was the Mapuche people’s participation alongside Chileans protesting for Pinera’s removal and a new constitution. The Mapuche flag became a prominent symbol and a means of recognizing Chile’s plurinational identity.

While Chileans may have several justified misgivings, the Mapuche issue is representative of Chile’s political violations across dictatorship and democracy. The Rechazo vote looms as a serious threat to the Mapuche population. Can Boric deliver on his promises, or will he follow his predecessors’ empty rhetoric and safeguard the interests of multinational companies, thus putting Chile’s identity, its social progress, and any other proposed draft constitution in jeopardy?

Ramona Wadi

Ramona Wadi is a freelance journalist and book reviewer writing about Palestine and Latin America, with a focus on Chile and Cuba.

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