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Chileans Reject Proposed Constitution

On Sunday, Chileans overwhelmingly rejected a new proposed constitution. The result reflects both a rightward shift in Chile and disillusionment with President Gabriel Boric.

Otto Fors

September 6, 2022
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Chilean president Gabriel Boric

Yesterday, Chileans voted on whether to adopt a new constitution to replace the dictatorship-era document. With nearly all ballots counted, 62 percent voted in favor of rejection, a resounding defeat. Majorities in most of Chile’s municipalities voted against the proposal, as well as in several districts in the capital of Santiago, which had helped President Gabriel Boric beat far-right politician José Antonio Kast in last year’s presidential elections.

How was this possible, less than three years after mass mobilizations declared that Chile would be the grave of neoliberalism?

From October 2019 to July 2021

The origins of the process for a new constitution lie in the mass mobilizations of October 2019, which shook the Chilean political system. A subway fare hike in Santiago set off protests, which were brutally repressed by the right-wing regime of Sebastián Piñera, and exploded across the country. The protests began with thousands of students defying rising subway costs by flooding subway stations, but soon more sectors entered the struggle. The uprising grew into a broad, multisector repudiation of gross inequality and the legacy of the 1973–90 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The protesters also demanded the ouster of the president and that the dictatorship-era constitution be rewritten. Seeking to take the movement out of the streets and divert it toward the institutions — and keep Piñera in power until the end of his term — the ruling classes and main political parties crafted a political agreement behind closed doors to create a new constitution.

In October 2020, a year after the rebellion, Chileans voted overwhelmingly to draft a new constitution, and a 154-member Constitutional Convention was elected in April 2021. In December, Gabriel Boric was elected president with the support of a broad coalition, ranging from the center Right to the Communist Party. He also had the support of the Chilean masses, who were hoping for a decisive break with the legacy of the dictatorship, which came to power in 1973 as part of a U.S.-backed coup that ushered in decades of terror and turned the country into a laboratory of neoliberalism under the tutelage of U.S. economists like Milton Friedman. The resulting constitution enshrined a free market economic model as the law of the land and that, despite revisions over the years, excludes rights to healthcare, pensions, and education.

Boric was presented with the draft of the new, 170-page, 388-article document in May. The new draft constitution included Indigenous, LGBTQ+, and labor rights; guarantees to universal healthcare; and requirements for gender parity in government. It would also have legalized abortion. The document also included many other rights and commitments like fighting climate change, protecting the environment, and defining Chile as a plurinational state.

Yet many demands that were raised in October 2019 were not reflected in the new constitution, such as freedom for political prisoners and those imprisoned during the uprisings, the end of private healthcare and private education, and the abolition of the private pension fund system.

Moreover, although the new constitution did recognize important rights as a result of taking the struggle to the streets, it ultimately did not address the structural problems of neoliberal Chile, which are a barrier to these rights and which force working-class Chileans to pay for the economic and social crises. For example, a constitutionally enshrined right to housing is of little use while the housing shortage continues unabated. Likewise, a constitution that recognizes Indigenous and environmental rights is of little use while the Boric government continues to repress Indigenous people and while big agribusiness companies continue to destroy the environment, plunder natural resources, and steal land with impunity.

In sum, the new constitution would have left in place many of the important pillars inherited from the dictatorship and failed to provide ways to finance and ensure the fundamental rights it proposed. In fact, the Constitutional Convention itself was far from truly democratic: it could make decisions only with a two-thirds majority, effectively giving right-wing parties veto power and ultimately preserving many of the structures and institutions from the old constitution. While the convention worked on a text and made effectively cosmetic constitutional changes, the old government, police, and bureaucracy stayed in power.

Reformism, Moderation, and Dashed Hopes

While the margin of defeat in Sunday’s vote was surprising, the result did not fall from the sky — it was an expression of the rightward shift of the political situation in Chile opened up by Boric’s reformism and illusions in the new government colliding with reality.

In the lead-up to the constitutional referendum, the Chilean Right waged a vicious misinformation campaign, falsely claiming, for example, that the new constitution would abolish all private and personal property, including the right to home ownership, and allow abortions up until nine months of pregnancy. Chile’s main business associations joined these calls for rejection, some disingenuously advocating for “rejecting [the constitution] in order to reform it” under the slogan “Rechazo con amor” (I reject with love).

These efforts by the Chilean Right were bolstered by capitalists internationally, including financial agencies and several bourgeois media outlets which likewise lobbied for rejection. The Economist referred to the document as “a fiscally irresponsible left-wing wish list,” and called Sunday’s rejection a “triumph” of “common sense.” The Washington Post similarly called for the constitution to be sent “back for a rewrite” — tellingly, “lithium” was the first word in the article. One financial publication let the mask slip even further: “Chile’s copper, lithium industries seen winning from constitutional rejection.”

But Sunday’s loss cannot be laid squarely at the feet of the Chilean Right, capitalists internationally, or bourgeois publications. Rather, the vote expressed a broad rejection of the economic and social crises represented by the new government, as well as working-class disillusionment with Boric’s class conciliation and concessions to the Right. In the three years since millions mobilized and brought the government to its knees, little has changed for working-class Chileans despite Boric’s election, and Chile has been plagued by compounding crises fueled by rising inflation.

Indeed, Boric’s election represents the attempt to channel the rebellion and social unrest into the institutions of the bourgeois state. Far from representing a break with the previous regimes, the reformist Boric government has often tread the same path and explicitly promised “moderation” from the start. His cabinet contains several business-friendly centrists and technocrats such as Mario Marcel, former head of the Central Bank of Chile, much to the relief of Chilean and global markets. He has also vowed to tackle Chile’s fiscal deficit and repeatedly ceded to the demands of big corporations, including implementing austerity measures and minuscule minimum-wage raises, which have been eaten by inflation. And since the start of his term, his government has continually repressed Indigenous mobilizations in southern Chile and defended the police.

Against this backdrop, combined with a low level of class struggle and rising economic crisis, the Right’s heavy campaign against the new constitution resonated among broad sectors of the population. It is worth noting that the Chilean Right was nearly completely knocked out after large parts of the population repudiated it, and President Piñera was on the verge of being ousted. But the Boric government breathed new life into these right-wing sectors by ceding to them on nearly every part of the political agenda and by diverting the class struggle into the institutional terrain. Millions of workers, young people, and women became disillusioned, took up the Right’s talking points, and ultimately voted to reject the new constitution.

Chile Needs a Decisive Break with Capitalist Institutions

After Sunday’s defeat, Boric summoned party leaders to a new meeting and emphasized the need to “work with more determination, more dialogue, [and] more respect” to continue the process to draft a new constitution that “unites us as a country.” The Chilean working class must fight both against the right-wing offensive, which has been emboldened and seeks to bury the demands of the 2019 uprising, and against the government’s new, anti-democratic constituent process, which will include further backroom deals, concessions to the Right, and institutional maneuvers to thwart popular will.

Here, it is worth recalling the lessons of Podemos in the Spanish State and Syriza in Greece. Like Boric and the his Apruebo Dignidad (Approve Dignity) coalition, Podemos and Syriza came to power on the promise of ending neoliberalism, but they ultimately bent to the demands of the institutions of the ruling class and ended up implementing many of the same austerity policies.

The 2019 rebellion in Chile was likewise diverted by illusions in the Constitutional Convention, in reformism, and in the notion that the country’s structural problems, inherited from the dictatorship, could be solved through a controlled constitutional process without touching the pillars of Chilean capitalism. Many on the reformist international Left, too, fostered these illusions, uncritically cheerleading the new constitution and wrongly framing Boric’s presidency as one of socialism triumphing over barbarism.

Unions and social movements in Chile must end their truce with the government, in whom they have placed false hopes. Fulfilling the demands of the October 2019 rebellion — including freedom for political prisoners, full rights for Indigenous peoples, the end of privatized pensions, and free, quality healthcare and education — will require a decisive break with capitalist institutions in Chile.

This will require a truly democratic constituent assembly rather than the backroom deals brokered by the regime. But above all, workers’ organizations and social movements need to return to the streets. The working class and oppressed must unite in their struggles and mobilize outside the bourgeois institutions, building an independent party that truly challenges the interests of big business and international imperialism. Only this path forward can bring about a real break with the legacy of the dictatorship and the old constitution, and win the demands of the 2019 uprising. In this task, the Chilean working class and oppressed need the full support of the international Left.

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Otto Fors

Otto is a college professor in the New York area.

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