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The long, traumatic road on Chile’s journey to freedom

A street vendor holds a copy of the draft of Chile’s new constitution in downtown Santiago, on July 26, 2022. Chile votes on September 4 in a referendum to approve or reject the draft of the new constitution. Picture Javier Torres/AFP

A street vendor holds a copy of the draft of Chile’s new constitution in downtown Santiago, on July 26, 2022. Chile votes on September 4 in a referendum to approve or reject the draft of the new constitution. Picture Javier Torres/AFP

Published Jul 31, 2022

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By Sizo Nkala

Chile, the distinctively long and narrow country of 19 million people that lies along the south-western coast of South America, is a society trying to come to terms with its past and identity.

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The country’s 300 years of colonial rule stretching from the early 16th to the early 19th century saw the concentration of the country’s wealth and power in a small (mostly Spanish elite), the exclusion of the indigenous populations from the economic and political systems and the slavery of Africans.

These were the foundations of an unequal society that manifest today. Since attaining its independence from the Spanish empire in 1810, Chile has not seen a wholesale transformation of the economic and social system that underpinned the colonial regime.

Despite boasting a largely democratic political system for much of its post-colonial history, the Chilean society is characterised by a grossly unequal distribution of economic, political and social power.

The richest 20% of the population earns about nine times more than the poorest 20%. The disadvantaged indigenous population is the most affected by unequal income distribution with a poverty rate of 30.8% compared to just under 20% for the non-indigenous population.

Access to health, housing, education, and sanitation is largely determined by one’s income. This leaves a sizeable part of the population unable to access basic necessities. The indigenous populations have also been victims of environmental degradation by state-backed corporations through massive logging.

Gender inequality is also rife in Chile, with men earning 18% more income than women on average for the same work. About 40% of women there have been victims of gender-based violence.

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The persistent inequality and an underperforming economy that left millions of Chileans in poverty inspired mass protests in 2019, with demands of constitutional change. In a subsequent national referendum in October 2020, 78% of the Chileans voted in favour of drafting a new constitution to replace the 1981 one that was adopted by the brutal Augusto Pinochet regime.

The Pinochet-era (1973-1990) constitution embraced a largely laissez-faire approach which saw a radical roll-back of the state from the economy leaving the poor and the disadvantaged without a safety net. It also granted the state enormous powers of repression.

The election of the leftist Gabriel Boric as president in December replacing Sebastian Pinera’s conservative government was a confirmation of the widespread yearning for social political, and economic reforms.

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The constitutiondrafting process began in July last year, overseen by an elected and independent constitutional assembly. Despite a contentious and fractious process, the assembly finalised and handed over the draft of the new constitution to President Gabriel Boric on July 4.

The draft constitution has been described as a progressive document that would put Chile on track for far-reaching social and economic reforms. With a massive 499 articles, it would be one of the longest constitutions in the world.

Some of the most notable reforms included in the draft constitution include free higher education, gender equality across state institutions, mandating the state to tackle climate change and affirming the rights of indigenous people.

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The draft also included a national health service, a new national education system and environmental and natural rights. However, articles calling for the reform of the critical mining sector, which would have seen the government nationalise some of the most important sub-sectors, was rejected.

In terms of governance, the Senate will be replaced by a Chamber of Regions, introducing a new look to the country’s bicameral legislature. Election to the presidency is limited to two terms, whether consecutive or non-consecutive.

The draft constitution marks a milestone in Chile’s journey of transformation. A referendum is scheduled to be held on September 4, when Chileans will vote to adopt or reject the draft constitution in a simple yes or no ballot that will be won by a simple majority.

If the no-vote wins, it means that the country will be stuck with the much-maligned Pinochet-era constitution. The outcome is far from certain. As things stand, a vociferous campaign against the constitution by the conservative groups is under way and has made significant inroads if the latest poll data is anything to go by.

A survey conducted by pollster Cadem in April showed that 46% of Chileans say they would vote to reject the constitution and 40% indicated that they will vote in support.

The conservatives were concerned by the overly ambitious nature of the constitution while the business sector was worried about increased taxes and their impact on economic growth. The fate of the draft constitution will have a significant bearing on the political future of the new president who has thrown his weight behind a new constitution.

The impact of the outcome of September’s referendum will probably spill over to neighbouring countries in the Latin American region. A win will give confidence and reinforce leftist forces in Peru, Honduras, Colombia, Bolivia, and Brazil which will be holding its elections in October.

A loss might lead to conservatives regaining ground in most of these countries where leftist forces have electoral dominance.

* Nkala is a Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies.

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