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Analysis

Chile referendum: People’s uprising smashes dictatorship-era constitution

By a massive margin, Chileans voted on Sunday to scrap the country’s constitution and elect a convention to write a new framework for the country’s government. Hundreds of thousands of Chileans last night packed Plaza Dignidad — the iconic center of the protest movement that swept the country a year ago — to celebrate the results.

78 percent of people who went to the polls voted to “Approve” the drafting of a new constitution, with “Reject” carrying a majority in only a tiny handful of the richest municipalities in the country.

“This is a win for the people through struggle and resistance in the streets,” argued Karla Martin, a Chilean activist who was an organizer in the country’s historic 2011 student strike. In October 2019, high school youth organized militant actions resisting an increase in public transportation fares. This quickly spiralled into a full-scale uprising of the working class, fed-up with decades of crushing inequality and exploitation.

The right-wing government of President Sebastián Piñera called out the army and tried to enforce martial law to crush the rebellion. “Many, many people were injured, were tortured, hundreds have lost their eyesight, and many have died as well as a result of this uprising,” noted Martin. But this repression did not succeed — during the largest days of protest roughly 10 percent of the country’s entire population came out to demonstrate.

Some of those attending the celebrations the night of the referendum burned copies of the hated 1980 constitution that the country had just voted to scrap. This document was written during the fascist dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet took power in a CIA-orchestrated coup in 1973 against the democratically-elected Marxist president Salvador Allende. Pinochet murdered and tortured tens of thousands of his opponents in a brutal reign that lasted until 1990.

The 1980 constitution provided the state framework through which a particularly brutal, unrestrained model of capitalism popularly known as neo-liberalism was imposed on the country. The national pension system, the education system, healthcare, transportation, and even water were fully or partially privatized. Labor rights were rolled back and Chile became the most unequal country in the OECD club of advanced economies.

Key issues unresolved

While the overwhelming victory of “Approve” is a historic milestone, the struggle is far from over. The constitutional convention is simply a means to achieve the goals of the uprising, not the end goal itself. Martin listed a series of measures the new constitution would need to include to satisfy the demands of the movement: “All the natural resources must be nationalized, education must be free, healthcare must be free, the private pension fund must be replaced by a social pension fund. All the public utilities including water must be nationalized. There has to be self-determination for the [Indigenous] Mapuche people. Their persecution has to be put to an end and all the political prisoners have to be released.”

A date will now have to be set for the election of the constitutional convention. There are many unanswered questions about how the elections will be conducted, especially how people can qualify to run. And the right wing government may use the emergency powers it assumed amid the COVID-19 pandemic to crack down on campaigning by popular candidates.

Martin is concerned about a possible parallel between the situation today and the 1988 referendum that played a central role in the end of the Pinochet regime. The Chilean people heroically defied the dictatorship and voted in large numbers to oust Pinochet, “but what ended up happening was a treason to the people who believed in that referendum. In fact the neo-liberal system perpetuated for 30 years.”

The constitutional convention “is a concession that the ruling class had to give to the people because they had no other choice, but it was also something that was negotiated” among political elites, she noted, concluding that, “We cannot retreat, we have to stay in the streets and keep organizing in our territories, keep fighting until we bring down the whole system.”

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