Chile: Drafting a Constitution & the Struggle for Democracy

Photo by Ruber Osoria

By Patricio Fernandez  (El Mostrador)

HAVANA TIMES – The Convention isn’t exactly suffering a crisis. The Convention dramatizes a crisis. It might be helpful to remember some of the meanings the Royal Academy of Spanish Language gives this word: “Sudden change in a disease’s course, for better or worse for the patient”; “Important mutation in the development of other processes, whether they are physical, historical or spiritual in nature”; “Situation of an issue or process when continuity, modification or the end are in doubt”; “Problematic or complicated situation”.

The idea of a new Constitution to replace the 1980 Constitution, born during the Pinochet dictatorship and designed to carry out its political project, has been floating around since the very same day democracy was restored in 1990. Before that even, but the Concertacion coalition prefered not to expose itself to the pressure this implied. Pinochet was still Commander-in-Chief of the Army, the country was split – 44% of Chileans supported continuity of the military regime – and Patricio Aylwin’s motto was “rebuild the unity of Chilean families.” He chose an “agreed upon transition” and, instead of tearing down dictatorial institutions all at once, he preferred to gradually change them, and there were things that disappeared, mutated and stayed in this patch-up op.

Meanwhile, the world was experiencing profound changes: the Soviet empire collapsed, and the Cold War ended, the Internet and social media appeared, identity politics emerged, environmental damage caused by global warming became obvious and the feminist struggle took on unprecedented vigor. That is to say, while local politics were trying to patch up wounds of the past, a cultural transformation burst out with consequences still unknown.

On the other hand, Chile’s social reality also suffered profound changes. Widespread poverty of the general population gave way to a fragile middle class, with access to consumer goods that had never existed before and also to mediocre higher education, that rose expectations nonetheless, and were frustrated as the years passed by. A middle class that was segregated into regions and never considered with the dignity it deserved.

The political and economic elite that had led the break and restoration of democracy, continued to rule in the meantime, turning a deaf ear to these transformations. Michelle Bachelet took heed of these demands from social movements before her second term in office – students, against HidroAysen, sexual diversity, anti-AFP, women’s groups… – and tried to correct this course by calling for a participatory constitutional process, but the established power turned their back on her. Not only the Right, but parties of the ruling coalition too. Camilo Escalona said that she was smoking opium. They were too comfortable and self-satisfied, convinced a week before the social uprising – as Sebastian Piñera would say – that we were “an oasis in Latin America.”

The 2019 social revolt that always had mass support from the general population throughout and despite its violence (with 80% at its peak and 70% at its lowest), cast a light on these realities that had been ignored. The phrase “it isn’t thirty pesos, it’s thirty years,” read carefully, hits the nail on its head. It isn’t a matter of them being the three worst decades in our history. Saying this would be absurd – they were the best in many regards – and even cruel, because it would mean to say that all of our problems began with democracy. For anyone who has lived under tyranny, just insinuating this is unacceptable.

However, it is true that the challenges we face today sprung from this period. The social uprising was the expression of different cultures, desires, complaints and experiences created and developed during this time, ignored in circles of power. For that reason, as the First Lady said, those who took to the streets seemed like “aliens”. “We really let go of the leash,” I heard different members of the frond say at the time.

When representatives from political parties gave citizens the responsibility of agreeing on a new Constitution on November 15, 2019, after a week of fire and violent clashes, they admitted that no agreement between them would be enough to restore social peace. Out-of-date as they were, only 2% have said they would trust any of them, 3% said they believed in Congress and around 6% said they supported the President of the Republic. This is the backdrop against which the Convention was elected.

Ever since then, violence found an institutional channel. From fires and looting, we went to tense constitutional discussions in the former National Congress building, where democratic discussions were interrupted on September 11th 1973.

The Convention isn’t in crisis. The Convention dramatizes a crisis. It isn’t the dream space to write up an admirable document, nor for a meeting of kind souls, or a meeting of wise members and lawyers. It isn’t what either of them would wish it were, but is instead a crossroad of complex realities, where anger coexists with longing for this sit-down, where resentment coexists with reparations and the will to win coexists with the will to wake up. Many people have no faith left in traditional politics, because they feel that they have done very little or nothing for them up until now. There is not only anger at the Right, but also with certain Leftist movements. The social-democratic dream no longer seems possible.

We have to carry out the search for new answers to the same-old questions, with many more actors, languages and perspectives this time around. Distrust is spreading. It isn’t the Chile that some people wished it were, but the Chile it really is. If we look up, we’ll see that this crisis of democracy – government condemned to permanent dissatisfaction – is everywhere. In a world that has expanded its communication technology exponentially, there are way more people who are demanding to form part of the decision-making process.

What do we do? Not give up. Those that are already talking about looking for alternatives that give the challenge of finding a solution to the old system of power, risk coming to bat heads with reality that has already turned its back on them. A new generation has come into power. Voices that were unknown up until yesterday, are now demanding to be heard, and none of them are willing to be worth less than the other.

With all of this going on and it being an extremely complicated challenge, as obstacles arise, so do paths for finding a solution. Not always faultlessly, nor do they always respond to stately logic either. After a week of tug-of-war and the Convention seemingly lost amidst this confusion, lights finally appeared last weekend.

At 21:42, Jaime Bassa tweeted the following: “We are advancing with almost all groups, including the Right. We will be here until midnight, tomorrow and Monday all day, to keep to the schedule. Diminished presidential executive and asymmetrical bicameral Congress.”

Another member from the Convention writes to me on WhatsApp: “Now, we just need to tweak the agreement.” There are people applying pressure so political organizations and independent lists can run for Parliament just like parties can, which will make governance very difficult. The figures of Vice-president and Minister of Government continue to be under debate, but more and more people believe that both will fall. On the other hand, the name of the chambers need to be agreed. “First it was the verb.” What good are words!

It isn’t time for us to throw in the towel just yet.


Read more from Chile here on Havana Times.