Democracy in Chile and the ghosts of Pinochet

On September 4, 2022, most Chileans who voted in the Constitutional Referendum chose not to approve the new proposed document. The vote was historic because of a two-year process of convening, designing, and considering proposals and completing a new Constitution.

A new essay in The Forge by Carolina Bank Muñoz and Rodrigo Starz explains the context leading up to the vote." October 2019 marked a clear shift in the decades of transition to democracy in Chile. The system of neoliberalism aggressively imposed by Augusto Pinochet…came crashing down as millions of people took to the streets to protest disinvestment, privatization, severe wealth inequality, and eroding standards of living…Social movements that had been working on far-ranging issues — from free tuition to abortion to climate justice to pension reform — pulled hundreds of thousands of people into the streets. The labor movement called for a general strike. Increasingly, the public pushed for President Sebastian Piñera's resignation and a new constitution."

The repression against these movements was widespread and brutal, the ghosts of Pinochet's past haunting the Chilean present. Yet, the organized protests forced a peace agreement and a vote on two issues: 1) whether or not to create a new Constitution; and 2) who would participate in the convention.

Then, Covid hit. Chile was on lockdown, and the repression against the movements continued. That did not stop the convention from drafting an ambitious blueprint for the future. The New York Times reported, "In addition to housing, health care and education, the new constitution would enshrine the right to freedom of expression, religion, and worldview. There would be the right to free time, physical activity, sex education, cybersecurity, the protection of personal data and "free and full legal advice" for anyone "who cannot obtain it." And while 62% of voters rejected the new document, the participation of Chilean society is a vital living example of direct democracy at work.

This issue of The Forge has numerous articles and first-person accounts of the political moments that led to the Constitutional Convention and the process of drafting a new document. Topics include perspectives from student and labor organizations; testimonies from delegates to the convention; the impact of Constitutional reforms on the Mapuche indigenous land struggle; the art and music of revolt; and a discussion of the state violence when "a dozen protestors and some innocent bystanders lost their lives, and a shocking 400 people suffered from ocular trauma, mostly resulting from rubber bullets. This last number is particularly striking because it represents 70% of all ocular traumas in the world over the last 21 years."

Not agreeing on a new Constitution means Chile continues to live under Pinochet's laws. For more on Chile, Pinochet's US-supported dictatorship, and political movements, check out the following: Chile: The Other September 11, edited by Ariel Dorfman and Pilar Aguilera, and A Nation of Enemies: Chile Under Pinochet, by Pamela Constable and Arturo Valenzuela. For resources on the multi-nation dirty wars against political movements in South America supported by the CIA and the US State Department known as "Operation Condor," see Peter Kornbluh's The Pinochet File or this Guardian article.