New Constitution Could Make Chile a Plurinational State

Plenary session of the Chilean Constitutional Convention on the night of March 3rd.  Photo: Orlando Milesi / IPS

By Orlando Milesi (IPS)

HAVANA TIMES – Chile could change its history and transform itself into a diverse and multicolor Plurinational and Multicultural State that recognizes and promotes the development of indigenous peoples that lived there before the Spanish Conquest.

With 112 votes in its favor and 32 against the Constitutional Convention approved a draft preamble with this essence. The initiative is already part of the draft version of the Constitution that will be subjected to a popular vote in August or September, so they can reject or pass it in a referendum.

The Constitutional Convention is debating and writing up a new Chilean Constitution that is the work of 155 constituents elected in a popular vote in October 2020. They began their work on July 4th 2021. The Convention is formed of an equal number of male and female constituents and has 17 members from indigenous communities. They will continue to work on this until July 4th.

In the last national census, in 2017, 2.18 million Chileans said they belonged to an indigenous group.

This meant that 12.8% of the 17.07 million inhabitants in Chile at the time (today, there are 19.4 millions) identified as belonging to one of these indigenous peoples that are scattered across the South American country: the Mapuche (the largest), followed by the Aymara, Rapa Nui, Diaguita, Atacama, Quechua, Qulla, Kawésqar and Yahgan peoples.

Domingo Namuncura, Mapuche, a social worker and professor at Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, told IPS that “we are before an extremely important historic event. The declaration of a Plurinational State has always been the dream of Chile’s indigenous peoples.”

The Convention was the Government’s response to a popular uprising during 2019, the repression of which cast a shadow on right-wing Sebastian Piñera’s second term. Piñera is a businessman that had ruled the country between 2010 and 2014, and will be succeeded by Leftist Gabriel Boric on March 11th. Boric won the presidential election in December, last year.

Up until now, Chile has been governed by the Constitution imposed in 1980 by Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973-1990), who steamed ahead with a legal framework to establish a neoliberal regime, vertically economically-speaking and authoritarian politically-speaking, which democratic governments haven’t been able to dismantle in its entirety since 1990.

The result is a country with an economy geared towards exporting mining and agricultural goods, but with one of the most unequal societies in the world, which was the underlying cause of the 2019 uprising, as well as the Government’s failure to keep its promise and make changes, such as a new Constitution, reform of the education system or improving social rights.

In La Pintana, south of Santiago de Chile, is a ceremonial center and place of reunion for Mapuches living in the metropolitan region. Statistics from 2021 indicate that the Mapuches are the largest of the original peoples of Chile with 1.8 million, followed by the Aymaras with 156,000 and the Diaguitas with 88,000.  Photo: Orlando Milesi / IPS

Constituents’ reasons

No other Chilean Constitution in the past has referred to the indigenous people of Chile or their rights, like other Latin American constitutions have as part of different political processes since 1980. The only precedent of the declaration of a Plurinational State comes from its neighbor Bolivia, which established this with its 2009 Constitution.

“The Chilean Constitution today, as well as others in the past, make no reference to the word “indian”, “native”, “infidel”, “indigenous peoples”. Not a single word. They are erased from the Constitution because they were made invisible socially, culturally, economically, politically and militarily,” Namuncura said.

Adolfo Millabur, Chile’s first Mapuche mayor, elected in 1996 in the southern Tirua commune, withdrew from his position so he could be a constituent taking a seat for his people. He says that “if Chile changes and defines itself as a Plurinational State, the vocation for democracy changes.”

“In recognizing populations that existed before the formation of the Chilean State, we are giving value to a collective actor. Different relationships need to be established, especially when it comes to political definition and participation,” he told IPS.

Lawyer Tiare Aguilera, a constituent for the Rapa Nui people, believes “the most important thing is informing citizens about plurinationalism and its implications by the time of the plebiscite.”

She believes that it’s necessary “to understand that with plurinationalism, our country will finally be able to move ahead and make amends with the Chilean people.”

“Citizens are really unaware. As we properly inform and educate citizens about their meanings and implications, we believe that [changes in the definition of State] will be well-assessed,” she told IPS.

The outside of the former National Congress where since July 2021 the members of the Constitutional Convention are debating the new form of State that will take force in Chile later this year if approved in a referendum. (Photo: Orlando Milesi / IPS

According to constituent Jaime Bassa, who was vice-president of the Convention up until January, “legislative proposals about plurinationalism, approved in committee meetings and the plenary session, talk about reality, about accepting our diversity and social harmony, about recognizing our historical origins, about valuing our cultural identity.”

“Plurinationalism and plurilinguism have impregnated interesting cultural changes to our shared experiences, which have led to innovative and sustainable development models,” he told IPS.

He believes “the growth and development model the country is heading towards within the current framework of the constitutional process, needs to promote ethics and interregional solidarity, eco-friendly and sustainable practices, as the key to political equality, to ensure collaborative, resilient contexts that respect citizens’ rights and allows us to expand our democracy.”

Bassa said that at the Convention “they are working on a proposal by a plurinational, decentralized legislative body with parity of representation, that facilitates spaces for regional representation,  that coincide with the process of creating a Law that really represents the people and nations that coexist within the State.”

The text approved on February 17th stipulates that “Chile is a Regional, Plurinational and Multicultural State formed by autonomous regional bodies, within a framework of equality and solidarity between them, preserving the unity and integrity of the State.”

According to Namuncura, who was the first Mapuche person to act as an ambassador for the country, in Guatemala, “Chile has always been plurinational because it is built upon the foundations of different indigenous populations who were already here, and these indigenous people or states joined in efforts, by force or not, to build the national State.”

“Before the Spanish arrived, America was already a plurinational continent inhabited by over 1200 indigenous nationalities, that were founded many centuries ago, including the Aztec, Maya, Inca and Mapuche,” he remembered.

The Convention is also discussing other statutes for indigenous peoples such as their own legal courts coordinated by the national justice system, a parliament with indigenous representation and a system for natural resources located on their land.

Representatives of the Mapuche, Lonko and Machi during a gathering for the beginning of the Mapuch New Year on June 24th. Foto: Mirna Concha / IPS

Business leaders against the new draft Constitution

This process has sparked great concern among business owners at the Confederation of Production and Trade (CPC), whose board, headed by Juan Sutil, has met with Convention’s president up until January, Mapuche Elisa Loncon, and then with her successor, Maria Elisa Quinteros, on more than one occasion.

The CPC pushed many grassroots initiatives forward to include their stance in the discussion. It invited everybody to back these inititatives “that defend the values of freedom of thought, free enterprise,” etc., so as to build “a robust democracy” with public-private cooperative efforts.

The CPC collected 507,952 signatures and managed to get 16 initiatives with its point of view into the constitutional process. Three of them have already been rejected: “Emprende Libre”, economic model, freedom to set up and support MSMEs,” and “Agua para Todos”. Another one is still being processed: For sustainable mining in Chile.”

Business leaders have raised their voices against the Convention, who they accuse of being removed from the real Chile and working for a constitution for everyone.

“I’m concerned that they are writing a Constitution that isn’t creating the right balance and it’s not a Constitution that captures all of the feelings Chileans have,” Sutil said.

These feelings, he said, are of “a minority group, which might be the center-right, the right and even people in the center within the own Convention that aren’t being kept in mind,” he told a local radio station.

“Chile is a lot more than the Constitutional Convention. The correlation of forces is very different in the Chile of real life than what is happening in the Convention,” he added.

According to Sutil, the Convention’s criticism is generalized and “this is bad because it not only puts the process in danger, but it puts the country’s future in danger, from an institutional standpoint, in terms of developing and growth.”

Forestry companies possess approximately 1.9 million hectares in a macroregion in the south, across three of the country’s regions.  A significant percentage of these hectares is ancestral land.

The Mapuche couple Catalina Marileo y Luis Aillapán, in front of their home in Puerto Saavedra in the central region of La Araucarnia. They were persecuted under the Pinochet dictatorship’s anti-terrorist law for opposing a road being built through their land. Photo: Marianela Jarroud / IPS

The history of a truth commission

La Comision de Verdad Historica y Nuevo Trato con los Pueblos Indigenas”, (The Historical Truth and New Deal Commission created by the president at the time, Ricardo Lagos, in 2001 and made up of 24 members representing a cross-section of society, recalled that 500,000 hectares were assigned to indigenous people between 1884 and 1929. This has been verified after checking 413 deeds delivered during those years:

The purpose of this Commission was “to rectify the historic invisibility of these (indigenous) peoples, recognize their identity, make reparations for damage caused and to contribute towards preserving their culture.”

In its last report, published in 2003, the Commission put forward a hundred measures. In terms of land, it asked for indigenous peoples’ belongings to be protected, to delimit and give owner status to those who can prove ancestral property and establish a channel for them to demand their land back.

In terms of natural resources, it proposed to recognize the indigenous people’s right to property, use, administration and benefit, their preferential right when it comes to State concessions and the right to use, manage and conserve them.

Namuncura believes that a future task will be to “reach a political agreement with large forestry companies so that a part of these lands that now belong to them, are returned to indigenous populations via a long-term political and financial commitment, with the chance to consider the value of this return.”

The first draft has already been approved and will now be analyzed by the Harmonization Committee that will look out for “the consistency and coherence of constitutional statutes approved by the Plenary.”

The version that emerges afterwards will then be voted by the plenary which, with two thirds of the vote, will define the document that all Chileans will vote on in a plebiscite.

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