Chile: Whither the Constitutional Process?

By Miguel Zlosilo and Carlos Cruz Infante*

Chile’s Constitutional Convention | Photo: Twitter/@ChileTodayNews

Chile’s Constitutional Convention appears headed toward a messy run to the goal line and, even if – as appears likely to be the default outcome – it is approved in the “exit” referendum, could produce a charter that fails to unify the country.

  • Born of a compromise to decompress tensions generated by social upheaval in October 2019, the proposal to rewrite the country’s Pinochet-era Constitution was ratified by 78 percent of Chileans in a referendum in 2020. In May 2021 the citizenry elected the Convention members charged with writing the new Carta Magna, favoring left-wing, independent, and reformist candidates. The center-right got only 24 percent of seats. Consequently, the Convention’s first general committee – elected by the representatives – had a clear desde cero (“from scratch”) character.
  • The results of Congressional elections last November, however, influenced convention members and some traditional center-left figures, such as socialist former President Ricardo Lagos Escobar, to address the centrist voter. In those elections, unlike in the May election for the Convention, the Senate went 50/50 for the left and right – demonstrating that the desde cero character of the Convention was no longer politically viable. Convention members then turned to more moderate and diligent persons to lead the general committee in recognition that regaining public support was crucial to keep the Convention going.

When the Convention started the voting sessions on provisions for the new Constitution in January, however, what appeared to be an adequate rudder change to the center ended when members initiated debate on the first proposals of the new Bill of Rights. Some proposed dissolving the current branches of Chile’s government – the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judicial – and replacing them with a Plurinational Assembly, resembling the Bolivian, Ecuadorian, and Venezuelan constitutional processes. The former Vice President of the Convention, Jaime Bassa, and President-elect Gabriel Boric discarded the idea. They both framed it as a non-democratic way to reach social consensus. As a result, the motion was defeated. 

  • Despite that moment of moderation, polarization has deepened. The most controversial recent proposal would establish a parallel legal standard to judges to treat Indigenous Peoples separately from the other civilians. Another would create a new federal-like regional state structure that its proponents say ’would end the Chilean Republic as unitary, dividing the country into smaller or even local-autonomous units.
  • These proposals have further split Convention members.  Some right-wing members now question their continuity in the constitutional process and are considering a campaign for the nay in the exit plebiscite on the document, scheduled for the third quarter of this year. Moderates, including former leftists, who rejected the regional states motion have been criticized by their former allies as too soft and as continuistas of the existing Chilean model. 

The Convention’s dysfunction is taking its toll on its image and, ultimately, its potential effectiveness as critics have proliferated. Last month public support for the body had fallen to 50 percent, and citizens intending to approve the Carta Magna dropped from 56 to 47 percent. Accordingly, influential members of Chilean society – including politicians, intellectuals, and scientists – have gathered to call for moderation and understanding.  Moreover, some emblematic personalities of the left have even campaigned to reject the constitutional proposal in the plebiscite later this year – a position that was unthinkable at the beginning of the process.

  • Approval of any article of the new Constitution requires a two-thirds vote, so moderation and negotiation by both sides are key if the Convention is to complete its process. The conservatives will need to cede their defense of the status quo, meaning the current Constitution, and refrain from taking extreme positions such as threatening to leave the process. Conversely, the leftists should lessen their reforming desde-cero character. Time is running out, as they must not only finish the constitutional draft but convince voters to approve it.
  • The process is likely to take more twists and turns, but ratification of the new Constitution still appears more likely than failure because of a broad-based desire to end the chaos the country has been experiencing. Even so, the support for and legitimacy of the new Bill of Rights will be weak, and politicians could very well propose to discuss it again as a relief valve, diverting attention rather than finding solutions. On the other hand, moderation could prevail, for at least a while, because the right and the center agree on the new Constitution’s proposed provisions on better healthcare, public education, and pension system. The exit plebiscite will take place under compulsory voting, so around half of the population will be unable to dodge the likely difficult decisions ahead.

March,07,2022

*Miguel Zlosilo is a sociologist and former chief of research of the Secretary of Communications in the second Sebastián Piñera government (2018-21). Carlos Cruz Infante is a sociologist and has served in several senior strategic planning positions in the Chilean government.

Chile: Astronomy Investments Help but Face Some Criticism

By Noah Rosen*

La Silla Observatory in Chile’s Atacama Desert/ European Southern Observatory/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Exceptional atmospheric conditions in northern Chile, an image of political stability, favorable tax policies, and diplomatic credentials for researchers have made the country a leader in international astronomy, but some Chileans want to see more benefits from the cooperation. 

  • Experts estimate that, by the end of this decade, over 70 percent of the world’s astronomical viewing capacity will be concentrated in Chile. The United States – including the National Science Foundation (NSF), universities, and private foundations – and Europe and other global players have invested billions of dollars in observatories, creating significant opportunities for Chilean astronomy as well as its high-tech engineering and computing sectors. 
  • Chilean researchers are guaranteed 10 percent of the observation time on all international telescopes established in Chile, a policy Chilean scientists won in the 1990s. According to Wolfgang Gieren, astronomy professor at Chile’s Universidad de Concepción, “the 10 percent has been the most important factor to boost development of astronomy in Chile.” International observatory projects often include significant funding and scholarship activities, including a multi-million-dollar contribution from the NSF to CONICYT, the Chilean science agency, and an annual scientific scholarship managed by the Agencia Nacional de Investigación y Desarrollo de Chile (ANID). 

The diverse range of support has helped Chile rapidly expand its astronomy capabilities. 

  • Four universities have opened new astronomy departments, bringing the total to eight, and PhD students have increased from five in the early 1990s to 40 by 2005. Joint work and technical exchanges have increased also. The Millimeter Wave Laboratory of the Universidad de Chile works with CalTech to develop advanced millimeter-wave receivers and other high-tech equipment. The Astro-Engineering Center at the Pontificia Universidad Católica works with the multinational Gemini Observatory to develop adaptive optics and vibration mitigation instruments, in partnership with Harvard and other U.S. universities. 
  • Chile’s domestic high-tech engineering and computing sectors are benefiting as well. The government estimates that 15 Chilean companies have provided advanced engineering and technology services to the observatories. A local firm, AXYS Technologies, installed fiber optics at an Atacama-area observatory that, experts say, was groundbreaking in understanding how fiber optics operate at high altitude (5,000 meters). A Dutch-Chilean engineering company conducted geological studies and construction consulting for the Rubin Observatory and for another observatory in Cerro Tolar. 
  • The huge data processing and storage capacities required by the observatories is positioning Chile as a big data player. Microsoft, Google, and Amazon are developing astro-data projects in Chile. The U.S. NSF is funding a data science summer school at Universidad de La Serena to build connections with the future generation of Chilean data scientists. 

Despite these advantages, Chilean scientists and civil society actors continue to question the relative balance of benefits they get for the globally unique natural attributes in their northern deserts, which make cutting-edge astronomy research possible. 

  • Chilean scientists are demanding more guaranteed observation time, in line with what hosts in Hawaii (15 percent) and Spain (20 percent) receive. They argue that current arrangements still make them too dependent on technologies and expertise from the Global North, which largely controls the research agenda. The Chilean government estimates that only 10-20 percent of the international dollars invested in the observatories enter the Chilean economy, the vast majority of which are channeled to goods and services – construction of roads, buildings, electricity, water and gas supply, hospitality, etc. – rather than building Chile’s scientific capabilities. Chilean scientists and engineers argue for new policies that more systematically involve Chileans in telescope construction and maintenance. 
  • Broader questions of justice also persist: in some places, the observatories consume significant amounts of water and electricity while nearby villages go without regular access. Labor strikes at the Atacama observatory some years back raised questions of fair working conditions, especially given that the favorable diplomatic status accorded to observatories limits oversight. 

Noah Rosen is a PhD candidate in the School of International Service, specializing in grassroots peace movements in Colombia. This article is adapted from CLALS research on U.S. engagement in Chile and Uruguay, supported by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting with funding from the U.S. Department of State. 

U.S.-Southern Cone: Looking at Relations Through a Different Optic

By Noah Rosen*

Top: Display of bottles of Chilean wine/ David Almeida/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License
Bottom: Notebooks from the Plan Ceibal/ Jorge Gobbi/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

While headlines track the highs and the lows in the United States’ relations with Latin America, a closer look at the broad range of interaction shows that, at least in some sectors in some countries, long-term economic relationships and knowledge exchanges have encouraged mutual benefits that rarely get mentioned in public discourse.

Chile’s wine industry, for example, is a powerhouse that has benefited from U.S. investment, open markets, and research and development work. Chilean wine underwent a sea change beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as liberalization and democratization in the country opened opportunities for massive upgrades in quality and opportunities for export to new markets. Global recognition of the quality of Chilean wine grew throughout the 2000s and 2010s, and today bottled wine is Chile’s third most valuable export after copper and salmon. Exports to the United States in 2019 totaled $238 million, reflecting the vital importance of wine to Chile’s economy.

  • Though Chilean exporters were eventually able to diversify their export markets to include Europe and Asia, the exploding U.S. market in the 1990s and 2000s was key to the industry’s upgrading and expansion. Wines of Chile, a public-private partnership that markets Chilean wines, maintains a permanent U.S. office, runs events throughout the country, and organizes visits by U.S. sommeliers to provide feedback to Chilean producers. Knowledge exchange and technology transfer between experts in California, including the University of California at Davis, and Chilean counterparts has helped Chile’s wine industry stay on the cutting edge of production technologies, spurring advances in genetic identification and sequencing of key Chilean varietals.
  • U.S. foreign direct investment and joint ventures have also promoted innovation, technological advances, and access to international markets. For example, an early partnership allowed Concha y Toro to gain a foothold in the U.S. market and opened the door for other Chilean exporters. California winemakers Robert Mondavi, Kendall Jackson, and Canandaigua have established operations in Chile, bringing with them advanced trellis systems, drip irrigation, and other technology that have led to a marked increase in quality across the sector.

The remarkable success of Uruguay’s technology sector has also been aided by U.S. markets and tech exchanges. Visionary domestic programs such as “Plan Ceibal” in 2007, which promoted nationwide digital literacy and provided a laptop to every public-school student in the country, and investments in some of the fastest internet in the Americas, have helped Uruguay become the largest software exporter per capita in the region and third largest per-capita exporter in the world. However, the importance of the U.S. model and the depth of relationships between the U.S. and Uruguayan sectors have earned it the nickname “Silicon Valley of South America.”

  • The United States accounts for 65 percent of Uruguay’s tech revenue (as of 2019) – the result in part of the marketing and relationship-building by Uruguay XXI, the country’s investment, export, and country brand promotion agency. The agency annually sets up a country pavilion at TechCrunch Disrupt, one of Silicon Valley’s most important tech conferences. U.S. ventures in Uruguay have also played an important role in building the local tech market and providing capital and opportunities for local software developers. Major U.S. software and IT companies, including IBM, Microsoft, Cognizant, New Context, NetSuite, and VeriFone, have established bases in Uruguay and hire Uruguayan developers. In 2017, the Agencia Nacional de Innovación e Investigación (ANII) arranged for the highly recognized U.S. tech incubator 500 Startups to run a six-week accelerator program to build skills for 20 Uruguayan startups focusing on growth, product design, fundraising, and building connections.
  • The opening in 2019 of a Uruguayan Consulate in San Francisco reflects the importance of the relationship with Silicon Valley. The incoming Consul emphasized his mission as “opening doors for Uruguayan businesspeople” and pledged to facilitate connections and provide “softlanding support.” The office will also facilitate two-way knowledge and skills exchanges between Californian and Uruguayan universities and institutions. Last month, Amazon announced that Uruguayan vendors would be eligible to sell products on their platform, thanks to the efforts of the Uruguayan Embassy in the U.S.

These positive relationships — facilitated by governments but driven by private-sector partners — don’t erase all adverse twists and turns in U.S. relations with the region. But relatively quiet successes like U.S. cooperation with Chile’s wine industry and Uruguay’s technology sector provide important ballast. They are lucrative for both sides and provide valued jobs: wine in Chile employs over 100,000 people in direct work and represents 0.5 percent of GDP; the tech sector in Uruguay employs 17,000 people, representing 2 percent of the country’s GDP.

June 25, 2021

* Noah Rosen is a PhD candidate in the School of International Service, specializing in grassroots peace movements in Colombia. This article is adapted from CLALS research on the impacts of U.S. engagement in Chile and Uruguay, supported by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting with funding from the U.S. Department of State

Chile: Will the Constitutional Assembly Move Democracy Forward?

By Patricio Navia*

Polling place in Chile/ Atina Chile Elecciones 2005/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Chileans go to the polls this weekend to elect members of a constitutional assembly – empowered to write a new Constitution by a plebiscite last October – but unrealistic popular expectations in a highly political year appear likely to complicate its work and could result in a flawed document.

  • Almost 80 percent of the Chileans who voted last October (i.e., 80 percent of half of the country’s eligible voters) supported a rewrite of the Pinochet-era Constitution, promulgated in 1980. Voters also chose to elect a new 155-member assembly for the task, rather than form one from among prominent political and social leaders. The assembly will have nine months to draft the document (with an option for one three-month extension), which will be voted on in mid-2022.
  • Chile’s busy election calendar is likely to complicate the assembly’s work. Saturday and Sunday’s voting will also choose governors, mayors, and city councilors, and there are elections in November for Congress and a new President – threatening to create tensions and a perfect political storm that undermine the quality of the new magna carta. Some parties have already held internal primaries for their presidential candidates, and coalition primaries are scheduled for July 18. If no candidate receives at least 50 percent plus one of the votes in the first round of voting on November 21, the two leading candidates will compete in a runoff on December 19.

The flaws of the constitutional process itself are clear. One is that the guaranteed gender-parity condition (50 percent representation for men and 50 percent for women) risks a situation in which higher vote-getters are not seated. The assembly’s mandate also includes guaranteed representation for the indigenous – a noble goal that nonetheless could lead to distracting recriminations in a convention that, per the plebiscite, will require approval by two-thirds of delegates for every element of the new Constitution. The objective is to achieve what Chilean authorities have called “a high degree of consensus” but could actually put agreement out of reach.

  • In addition, the assembly will begin deliberations in late June, when the Presidential and Legislative campaigns will be underway. The new government will take office in March 2022, but the new Constitution will not be ready until the second half of 2022 – and ratified by an exit plebiscite even later. The new government will have to wait for over six months after its inauguration for the new Constitution to be finalized before it can begin to govern, and, even worse, the offices of those elected might not exist.
  • Another major challenge is disunity and, in some cases, a lack of vision in the traditional political parties. Parties of the right, which finally got out from under the shadows of the Pinochet dictatorship and problematic market reforms, now appear ill-prepared to lead as Chile enters a transition period. Despite two terms in office (2010‑14 and 2018‑22), President Piñera has not constructed a new model for the right in Chile and now, having lost much momentum, is unable to lead rightist parties sorely lacking leadership.
  • Polls indicate, however, that Chileans do not embrace the more state-oriented options espoused by the left. Citizens want robust social rights and a reliable social safety net – which the assembly will find easy to give them without having to identify funding sources – but studies show they strongly prefer a society based on competitive markets with the protections they get as consumers, preventing abuses and guaranteeing individual rights. The right has been unable to capitalize on these views and, ironically, has never been in such a position of weakness as it is now. When Chileans realize that the many promises of the Constitution cannot be materialized, they will feel cheated.

The plebiscite creating the constitutional assembly increasingly appears to have been an effort to exorcise the Pinochet government that wrote the 1980 Constitution – rather than a mandate for a new left-leaning model of governance. Neither will the new magna carta be a magic pill that will solve all of Chile’s problems, including inequality and deficient public health and private pension systems, as many voters undoubtedly wish. These unfulfillable expectations will weigh heavily on the assembly throughout this political year.

  • Failure of the assembly is not a foregone conclusion, of course. Even after we analyze the results of this weekend’s votes, we cannot rule out that the political parties and civil society might rise to the occasion of making the debate and drafting into a healing process. If President Piñera commits all his energy to leading his government and party until he steps down 10 months from now – a historic but difficult task for a lame duck with a checkered legacy – one challenge will be the balancing act between promoting his base’s agenda and reassuring others that their interests will be respected and included. For now, however, it’s hard not to conclude that Chileans underestimated the complexities that writing a new Constitution would entail, especially producing one that meets the high expectations of a people hungry for solutions.

May 14, 2021

* Patricio Navia is a sociologist and political scientist at New York University and professor of political science at Universidad Diego Portales in Santiago.

Chile: Finding a Path to a New Social Pact

By Pablo Rubio Apiolaza*

Chileans demand constitutional reform/ Jose Pereira/ Public Domain/ Creative Commons License

Chile’s constitutional plebiscite on October 25 has calmed the aftershocks of the political earthquake that began with social protests one year earlier, and optimism is currently high that the two-year process of drafting and approving a new Constitution will help the country establish a much-needed new social pact.

  • The October 2019 demonstrations and the government’s response – including violence perpetrated by both sides – were a shock to Chilean society. The Carabineros were found to have committed serious human rights violations. A political negotiation between the government and opposition signed the following month included an agreement to hold a national referendum on the country’s Constitution, which has remained in force since 1980, when Gen. Augusto Pinochet ruled the country.
  • That accord and the COVID‑19 pandemic that hit Chile several months later diminished the social protests. The plebiscite originally was to take place in April, but was delayed, initially without contention, due to coronavirus. Nevertheless, in the campaign in the runup to the vote, social conflict flared up between the supporters of changing the Constitution (Apruebo) and those who wish to preserve it (Rechazo). Clashes between protesters and Carabineros ensued. The violence has little support among Chileans, however. According to a mid-October survey by Plaza Pública Cadem, a Chilean polling firm, around 73 percent “reject the violence in the protest,” and only 25 percent think “violence is legitimate for achieving social change.”

The October referendum provides an institutional framework and legitimizes mechanisms for resolving the social conflict or at least reduce it. The overwhelming margins of the vote eliminated challenges. According to official results, Apruebo won 78.2 percent, with landslides in all 16 regions of the country, even in conservative and right-wing areas like La Araucanía in the south. Overall, Apruebo won in 341 of the 346 comunas of the country.

  • The vote also showed Chilean people support an elected “Constitutional Convention” (79 percent in favor) to draw up a new Constitution, rather than a “mixed” convention with current members of Congress comprising half its delegates. The convention will have 155 members, with equal amounts of men and women, elected by popular ballot next April.
  • While only 50 percent of eligible voters turned out for the referendum, there is no doubt that the results reflect the preferences of the population. The most votes in Chilean political history were cast, with 7.5 million electors. According to an exit poll by Plaza Pública Cadem, 85 percent of young voters supported Apruebo. In the same poll, supporters said their primary reason was to “guarantee fundamental social rights like health, education and pensions.”
  • Congress is discussing some changes to the Convention scheme approved by the plebiscite, such as assigning a number of “reserved seats” to indigenous, who the last census determined to be 12.8 percent of the Chilean population. There apparently is a consensus to move this reform forward.

The referendum has dealt a peaceful but grievous blow to the legacy of Pinochet 30 years after he left office, and opens the way for Chile to achieve a new social pact. The plebiscite has helped reduce protests and violence in the short term, and it represents the beginning of a long process ushering in a new era for Chile. Between now and the 2022 scheduled date for another referendum on the text of the new Constitution, the country will have to elect delegates, in April, whose work will include between nine and 12 months of debate and negotiation.

  • Meanwhile, President Sebastián Piñera, who steps down in March 2022, has to grapple with the immediate needs and social demands resulting from the pandemic and Chile’s other challenges. He remained neutral in the referendum, but his administration has been seriously weakened by the protests and their aftermath; his support in the polls is about 18 percent. He is trying to reform the Carabineros, pressing it to improve its human rights record and accept greater civilian and democratic control, and he recently replaced the senior commander and the Minister of Home Affairs, but reform implies a radical change in the force’s institutional culture.

November 11, 2020

* Pablo Rubio Apiolaza is a Chilean historian and researcher at the Library of Chilean Congress. Until recently, he was Visiting Researcher at Georgetown University.

Chile: Need to Broaden Support for Public Policies

By Claudio Grossman*

President Piñera speaking from a podium

President Piñera calls for agreements on coronavirus crisis and on social protection plan, jobs and economic reactivation/ Prensa Presidencia, Gobierno de Chile/ Public Domain

Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, after several months of relative calm stemming from political agreements and social policies forged last November, now faces a more complex and potentially dangerous set of challenges. Until last week, it seemed that the political scenario, while complicated, could turn better for him. A broad agreement to hold a referendum on reform of what remained of Pinochet’s Constitution – perceived as the obstacle to fair pensions, access to quality health and education – was signed in November by all the political actors in the country (except the Communists, some of their allies, and other groups on the left).

  • The agreement is credited with having an important impact in reducing public demonstrations demanding social change despite continued dissatisfaction with the government and the political system in general. By creating a path for transformation, it also contributed to significantly reducing public tolerance for violent actions such as looting, burning Metro stations, and attacks on churches.
  • Chile’s low public debt and significant reserves also allowed the government to adopt urgent economic measures to address at least some of the most extreme examples of unfairness (e.g., meager pensions).
  • In response to national and international human rights observers, including the UN and Organization of American States (OAS), identifying serious violations of human rights during the social protests, the government announced plans to undertake reforms – notably of the Carabineros. They are the police body blamed for weak intelligence-gathering and training and for its inability to maintain public order in accordance with human rights norms.

While Piñera’s popularity remained in the single digits until March – his own political base had become disillusioned with his strategy of constitutional reform – the social conflict appeared mostly channeled in the legal, institutional framework of Chilean society. The Chilean summer, during which the country typically moves in slow motion, also helped reduce social tensions. When the first wave of COVID‑19 hit Chile in March, the reaction of the government – a selective quarantine strategy focusing on areas with the most cases – seemed to be containing the spread of the virus without shutting down the whole economy. The health system was not overwhelmed; Congress, the Judiciary, and other institutions continued to work; and civil society operated freely. Piñera’s approval in the country rose from a squalid 9 percent to 28 percent. Congress, where the government does not have a majority, agreed to move the referendum from April to October – showing an important degree of consensus in the political system. The President’s fortunes might shift, however, as the virus moved from affluent neighborhoods to the more populous barrios in Santiago.

  • The infection has increased exponentially, forcing the hand of the government to announce on May 13 a total quarantine of the sprawling Metropolitan Region (MR), affecting almost 8 million people. Piñera announced that the government would start distributing food packages to 2.5 million low-income households, but protests – driven by complaints that it was too little and too late – followed almost immediately. Santiago again experienced barricades in some neighborhoods and renewed clashes with the police. Some protesters claimed that distributions have privileged some areas based on political grounds. For others, some, if not all, of the protests might have been politically motivated.

As the numbers of infections continue to increase, it seems that the quarantine will not cease soon, with the danger of an increase in protests and calls for social reform fueled this time by the lack of work and means of subsistence of millions in the MR. In the dramatic context created by COVID‑19, a crucial question is whether the current political path – increased social assistance and the Referendum in October – will be feasible. The forthcoming flu season in Chile (June-August) can only compound an already grave situation and bring into sharper relief underlying social tensions.

  • Postponement of the referendum as well as other elections due to take place this year can happen only by legal changes that require the opposition’s agreement. In light of the serious challenges facing Chile, broadening the base of governability of the country might be a daunting task. The President and his center-right coalition and a divided opposition might encounter great difficulty finding creative formulas to identify and implement common goals. Politics, and in particular democratic politics, need to respond properly to the gravity of the tremendous economic and social impact of COVID‑19, including seeking to achieve substantive agreements encompassing basic principles to be included in a possible new Constitution. While it is too soon to tell what will happen, time is running short.

May 26, 2020

* Claudio Grossman is Dean Emeritus and a professor at the Washington College of Law.

Why Are Chile’s Protests Continuing?

By Pablo Rubio Apiolaza*

protests in chile

Protests began in Chile October 2019/ Diego Correa/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Chile’s political agreement in November to hold a referendum on the country’s Constitution in April reduced protests for a while, but the underlying causes of discontent – deep-seated frustration among many Chilean citizens – continue to fester and drive an array of peaceful and violent protests. Since November, President Sebastián Piñera has promoted an aggressive social agenda, including raising the minimum wage and improving the pension system. A survey by the Center for Public Studies (CEP) in Santiago in early January, however, found that Piñera’s approval rating was around 6 percent – the lowest of any president since Chile’s return to democracy. By almost all accounts, distrust in the government and anger at the corruption of politicians and corporations remains deep. People want solutions “here and now” to many of their demands. Both peaceful and violent protests have continued through the traditionally quiet summer break.

The mobilizations are not as spontaneous as they were in October and November, according to many observers, but there’s little evidence of a conspiracy to disrupt the referendum agreement.

  • Trade unions and traditional social movements organized under the banner of the Mesa de Unidad Social have become important actors, but new activists have also emerged. The loosely organized “Primera Línea” (front line) has engaged in violent clashes with the Carabineros, mainly in Santiago. Anthropologist Magdalena Claude observed and interviewed some members of Primera Línea in January and called them the “ACAB clan,” borrowing an acronym popularized by British punk rockers proclaiming that All Cops Are Bastards. According to Claude’s research, the group is composed of young workers of the service sector, not members of political parties. They do not have a recognized leadership and organize in horizontal networks.
  • Some conservative Chileans are denouncing the protests as the result of “foreign intervention” and a “coup d’état” provoked by the “extreme left.” They cite as evidence a New York Times report on January 19 that the U.S. State Department estimated that nearly 10 percent of all tweets supporting the October protests originated with Twitter accounts that appeared to have links to Russia. Allegations of foreign intervention by Venezuela and other countries have been endorsed by Chilean Foreign Minister Teodoro Ribera and President Piñera. Neither the U.S. nor Chilean government has provided evidence to support any of these claims.

Damage to the government’s credibility and reputation since October seems likely to continue to embolden opponents in the runup to the referendum. Carabinero abuses have been verified and condemned by a host of observers, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and various Chilean organizations. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, led by former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, has detailed “multiple allegations of torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence by the police against people held in detention.” More than 30 people have died in protests and, although the great majority of the tens of thousands of protestors detained have been released, anger over their arrest is fresh. The government has convened 15 experts to develop recommendations to reform the Carabineros – to enable them to move “forward with urgency the recovery of the public security with absolute respect for human rights” – but challenge of building public trust will be monumental.

  • A prestigious Chilean polling firm, Cadem, reported two weeks ago that 63 percent of the Chilean population approved of the protests and – importantly – 80 percent believe that Chile will be a better country after this critical situation. In any case, the plebiscite in April will take a place in an unstable context, with an uncertain outcome. For the Piñera administration, the challenges seem unlikely to abate, and pressures may surge when the school holidays end in March.

February 19, 2020

* Pablo Rubio Apiolaza is a historian, visiting researcher in the Department of History at Georgetown University, and researcher at the Library of Chilean Congress.

Chile: Can the Constitutional Plebiscite Lead to a New Social Contract?

By Peter M. Siavelis*

An agreement between the Chilean government and opposition to hold a referendum in April on whether to scrap the current Constitution — legacy of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship — has helped reduce tensions throughout the country and signaled that stakeholders are willing to compromise in order to reestablish Chile as a model of stability in a tumultuous region.

  • The most significant, violent, and deadly protests since the end of the Pinochet era exploded in Chile on October 20, after several years of simmering protests and social discontent. The protests, accompanied by looting, attacks on property and infrastructure, and 23 deaths, represented a turning point. Widely billed in the press as sparked by opposition to increased transport fees, this social mobilization represents a much wider demand for a fundamental rewriting of Chile’s prevailing social contract. It shocked the international community and Chileans alike, challenging the idea that Chile was a model of peace and economic development in a regional sea of economic crisis and social conflict.
  • The initial response of center-right President Sebastián Piñera’s government only created more conflict. Calling protestors delinquents and terrorists, and contending the country was at war with itself, he conjured uncomfortable parallels with the dictatorship. Widespread evidence of human rights abuses by police and security forces reinforced these parallels.

Piñera eventually bowed to public and elite pressure and announced a set of immediate reforms, including boosting the minimum wage and pension payments, cutting the price of medicines, lowering public transportation costs, slashing electricity prices, implementing higher taxes for the rich, and reducing the salary of members of congress, who are the highest paid in the region. For the longer term, Piñera acquiesced — one month after the initial explosion of protests — to a process to potentially scrap Chile’s 1980 Constitution, which was also the target of protesters’ ire. The agreement, dubbed acuerdo por la paz y una nueva constitución, grew from intense negotiations between the government and political parties. It was approved in Congress by a wide margin (127 in favor, 18 against, and 5 abstentions).

  • The legislation establishes that on April 26 a nationwide plebiscite will ask Chileans whether they want a new constitution and how it is to be drafted, with two simple questions: if the voter wants a new constitution, and, if so, if the voter prefers a “Constitutional Convention” or a “Mixed Constitutional Convention.” The former will entail a constituent assembly of citizens elected by the population, and the latter a body of one-half members of Parliament and one-half private citizens.
  • Most polling shows over 80 percent of Chileans in favor of a new constitution, and a large majority of those preferring a constitutional convention — an indication of the low regard in which Chilean politicians are held by the public. Whatever mechanism is eventually used, a second plebiscite will be held at a date to be determined for ratification of the new constitution.

The agreement left elements of both sides dissatisfied. The right grudgingly accepted the arrangement, but its more extreme elements remained concerned that a Constitutional Convention will establish social guarantees similar to those of Venezuelan Chavismo and undermine social peace and Chile’s development. More progressive signatories of the agreement added their support, thrilled at the prospects of doing away with the authoritarian constitution, but were concerned it did not go far enough to offer guarantees of gender parity or reserve representation for Indigenous groups and independents.  The Communist Party and a smattering of small parties refused to sign because they wanted deeper reforms.

For now, the immediate reforms and the acuerdo have calmed the pace and tenor of protests, and most accounts point to a peaceful plebiscite in April. This constitutional moment is a big one for Chile. Given the government’s recognition of the severity of the crisis, there is no reason to doubt its sincerity to make the plebiscite go smoothly and provide a framework for moving peaceably forward. If the plebiscite is successful, Chileans will achieve what was nowhere on the horizon only months ago: a definitive end to the Pinochet constitution, one of the dictatorship’s most objectionable legacies. This change will be followed by a reconfiguration of Chile’s fundamental social pact and reforms to its extreme form of neoliberalism, which has created staggering economic and social inequality at the root of these protests. However, for Chile to reestablish its status as model of economic development and social peace, it will have to walk a careful line between reform between competing interests and reestablish some sense of order and predictability after what undoubtedly has been Chile’s most significant social convulsion since the end of the dictatorship. The strength of Chile’s democratic institutions and its political class — which is fundamentally different than others in the region in terms of political skill, respect for the rule of law, and relative probity enhances the possibilities that the country will be able to walk this line.  

January 9, 2020

* Peter M. Siavelis is Chair and Professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs, and Associate Director of the Latin American and Latino Studies Program at Wake Forest University. His most recent edited book on Chile, with Kirsten Sehnbruch, is Democratic Chile: The Politics and Policies of a Historic Coalition.

The OAS and the Crises in Bolivia and Chile: Power Politics and Inconsistencies

By Stefano Palestini Céspedes*

Protests in Chile, October 2019

Protests in Chile, October 2019/ Carlos Figueroa/ Wikimedia Commons/ https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archivo:Protestas_en_Chile_20191022_07.jpg

As political crises emerge one after the other in Latin America, the Organization of American States (OAS) is showing inconsistent behavior based on ideological rifts and power politics. This inconsistency – evidenced by the OAS’s role in the ongoing crises in Bolivia and Chile – undermines its mandate to protect human rights and democracy throughout the hemisphere.

In Bolivia, violence spread in the streets of various states after the opposition accused incumbent President Morales of manipulating the results of the October 20 elections. The OAS Electoral Mission reported possible irregularities, and both the Permanent Council and the Secretary General pressed the government to authorize an audit of the electoral procedures and a vote recount. Morales consented to both requests.

  • The same accusations of electoral irregularities were made two years ago in the Honduran presidential election, but a coalition of states headed by the United States swiftly recognized President Hernández – delegitimizing the OAS electoral mission and the Secretary General’s call for new elections. Those same countries have now pressed Morales, first for a recount of votes and later for new elections. When the OAS Electoral Mission confirmed the existence of electoral irregularities on November 10, the Bolivian military withdrew support for the government, prompting Morales’s resignation – an outcome radically different from that in Honduras.
  • Despite political violence and recurrent accusations by Morales of unconstitutional alterations to the constitutional order voiced by the Bolivian foreign minister at the OAS headquarters, neither the Secretary General nor OAS member states invoked the Inter-American Democratic Charter. President Morales did not explicitly invoke the Charter, thinking that the crisis would follow the same course as in Honduras, or that the military remained supportive. Either way, he was wrong.

In Chile, in contrast, the police have engaged in systematic violations of human rights since an unprecedented social uprising that started on October 18. Twenty-three people have been killed, 1,950 have been injured, and 180 have suffered eye injuries from rubber bullets fired upon protesters by police – many losing their sight. The Inter- American Commission on Human Rights issued a declaration regarding the violations of human rights during the State of Emergency imposed by President Sebastián Piñera in the aftermath of the uprising. But the OAS political bodies have remained silent.

  • Neither Secretary General Almagro nor the Permanent Council have issued a single declaration of concern or condemnation regarding the situation in Chile. Almagro has refrained from convening the Permanent Council or the General Assembly, but he has loudly claimed the existence of destabilization attempts organized by Cuba and Venezuela (which he called “Bolivarian breezes”). To be sure, issuing such a statement without providing evidence or convening the political bodies of the organization jeopardizes the credibility of the OAS and breeds conspiracy theories. In a recent interview, President Piñera also subscribed to the thesis of foreign intervention in Chile’s protests without providing any evidence. The Chilean Attorney General confirmed that the government has not provided any information about the action of foreign groups.

The inconsistency displayed by the OAS in the handling of the political crises in the region suggests that the OAS applies different standards to similar situations. In fact, the organization is split into two coalitions: a larger and stronger one composed of right-wing governments that embrace or accept the foreign policy of U.S. President Donald Trump based on a revival of the Monroe Doctrine; and a smaller, weaker one composed of states with leftist and centrist governments with an anti-imperialist or a non-interventionist rhetoric.

  • Breaches of democracy and human rights violations exist on both sides of the rift, but the OAS political bodies seem to focus only on the side that happens to be weaker. This is bad news for those that would like to see in the OAS an honest broker and mediator in political crises, no matter the ideological color or the power of the concerned state. If this trend continues, it is also bad news for the protection of human rights and democracy and for multilateralism in the region.

November 11, 2019

* Stefano Palestini Céspedes is an assistant professor at the Institute of Political Science, Catholic University of Chile.

Chile: Can Piñera Contain Popular Rage Against Liberal Capitalism?

By Irina Domurath and Stefano Palestini Céspedes*

Protesters in Chile

Protesters in Chile/ Photo by the Authors

Chilean President Piñera’s declaration of a state of emergency and public statements last weekend suggest he is prepared to suppress demonstrations rather than deal with social and political demands. On Saturday, the center-right president also delegated control of public order to Army Commander General Iturriaga and declared nighttime curfews. What started as citizen disobedience – groups of students entering the subway without paying – quickly developed into a massive, albeit uncoordinated, mobilization. Protesters destroyed several subway stations, forcing closure of the transport system that 2.8 million people rely on daily. Despite the government controls, protests spread to other Chilean cities on Sunday, reaching a scale unseen since the end of the military regime.

While the immediate trigger of the protests was an increase in subway prices, underlying the unrest is a deep social discontent over the results of decades of neoliberal policies. Most of them were implemented during the Pinochet era and largely preserved by successor democratic governments. While they were successful in reducing extreme poverty, they have also led to high levels of socioeconomic inequality.

  • The private pension system has yielded huge market revenues instead of dignified pensions; the health sector is split into an underfunded public system and a privatized system that discriminates against women and the elderly; the public education system fails to deliver social mobility; and the public transport system has not helped to overcome extreme socio-geographic segregation in the capital and beyond. Consumer markets are rigged by anti-competitive practices and collusion. The oligarchic political elite sees social policy not as a matter of citizen rights, but as a matter of charity. Parliamentarians refuse to discuss their salaries, which amount to 33 times the minimum wage. Trust in the police and the military has plummeted due to scandals of corruption and abuse of power.

Although some of the protesters targeted symbols of neoliberalism, the government’s response has reflected a lack of awareness of these underlying issues – or, worse, is trying to lay blame on individual vandals. In a televised address from Army headquarters on Sunday night, Piñera sounded a dark note: “We are at war against a powerful enemy, who is willing to use violence without any limits.” Suggesting he does not distinguish between social protesters and groups of vandals, he said, “We are ready to do everything to not fall into populism.” Piñera had previously shown a tin ear on Friday night, when shortly after eating at a high-class restaurant, he admonished citizens for evading subway fares. His remarks fueled social discontent coming just days after two businessmen were sentenced to take ethics classes as “punishment” for involvement in tax-evasion schemes and irregular payments to political allies of Piñera’s coalition.

The Piñera government is addressing the crisis as it has done it before with the student movement and the Mapuche conflict over indigenous lands in the south: treating what are indeed political issues and social discontent as a security threat. The president is playing deaf to the legitimate social and political demands of Chilean citizens, undermining the government’s credibility as a political interlocutor while also fueling an escalation of violence.

  • Chile now joins Argentina, Ecuador, Peru, and others in facing serious pressure to deal with an array of problems that incumbent governments have failed to address – reminiscent of the social mobilizations in Brazil in 2013 that culminated in impeachment and the rise of a reactionary president, Jair Bolsonaro, whose commitment to democracy is seen by many as questionable at the very least. In this context, the Chilean political elite has a huge responsibility to avoid a breakdown of democracy and the rule of law. The government cannot ignore popular desires for a plan to overhaul the neoliberal Chilean model – and it would be wise not to cast opposing views as a security threat.

* Irina Domurath is a legal researcher at the School of Governance, Catholic University of Chile and external fellow at the University of Amsterdam, and Stefano Palestini Céspedes is an assistant professor at the Institute of Political Science, Catholic University of Chile.