Democracia y PolíticaGente y Sociedad

As Protests Rock Chile, the People Consider Rewriting Pinochet’s Constitution

he day before General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende, on September 11, 1973, Jaime Guzmán, a twenty-seven-year-old law professor at the Catholic University of Chile, gave a speech that was broadcast on Radio Agricultura, a right-wing station. A thin man who wore thick-rimmed glasses, Guzmán, an admirer of Spain’s General Francisco Franco, was a devout Catholic and a conservative activist who often spoke out against Allende. As he later wrote to his mother, that day he was asking “those who could change the government of Allende” to “do it immediately,” before the hunger and violence “that Marxism wants to produce” spread across the country. The following morning, he woke to the news that the military was ready to take La Moneda, the Presidential palace. The air force bombed the building around noon, and Allende apparently shot himself. “The national anthem was celebrating the liberation of Chile from Marxism,” Guzmán wrote. “I will never forget that moment.”

Just days after the coup, a member of Pinochet’s junta asked Guzmán to join a small group of lawyers who were drafting a new constitution, to replace the one that had been in force since 1925. The military knew that Pinochet could not stay in power indefinitely, and a new constitution would safeguard his legacy. (Guzmán told the Times that he hoped the general would be in office for at least three years; he stayed for seventeen.) In an article on the challenges involved, Guzmán wrote, “If our adversaries govern, they should be constrained to act in a way that is not very different from what we wish,” and drew an analogy to the way a soccer field constrains the players.

The new constitution was completed in 1980 and approved in a plebiscite that was widely viewed as fraudulent. Left-wing political parties were banned, and the armed forces were made the “guarantors” of the state. The fourteenth chapter provided the key: any amendments to the constitution would pass only if approved by three-fifths of the Congress. If the President vetoed an amendment, it would require the votes of three-fourths of Congress to override it. If the President were to veto just parts of a reform, Congress would need a two-thirds majority to override that. If a reform were to pass all these obstacles, it would still face review from a constitutional tribunal, which had the power to reject it. “Jaime Guzmán was the brain behind the constitution,” Fernando Atria, a law professor at the University of Chile, told me. “It was done by them, and for them.”

A particularly important aspect of the new process was that it insured that large majorities would be needed to challenge the neoliberal economic policies that the junta was implementing. With the help of free-market economists who had studied under Milton Friedman, at the University of Chicago, Pinochet cut public spending, deregulated the banks, freed interest rates, and privatized the health, education, and pension systems. “The results were spectacular,” Friedman later said. Inflation decreased, the middle class expanded, poverty levels fell dramatically, and the economy grew rapidly. But inequality persisted: today, one per cent of the population holds almost a quarter of the country’s wealth.

Between 1973 and 1989, more than three thousand people were killed or “disappeared” by Pinochet’s junta. Thousands were imprisoned or exiled. The general was finally forced to step down, in another plebiscite—only the second he had called—in 1988. In 1991, Congress was debating one of the first amendments to the constitution since the restoration of democracy. President Patricio Aylwin, of the Christian Democratic Party, who had succeeded Pinochet, proposed a reform allowing him to pardon political prisoners, many of whom had been detained for opposing the dictatorship. Jaime Guzmán had won a seat in the Senate in the 1989 elections, campaigning to protect the “subsidiary” state that he had envisioned in the constitution. In a speech to Congress, he refused to call those detained “political prisoners” (they were “terrorists”) and insisted that Aylwin’s measure would strengthen violent groups who, he thought, were allied with criminal gangs. The state had to maintain a “firm attitude,” he said. “I vote no.”

The amendment passed, and, nine days later, after teaching a class on constitutional law at the Catholic University, Guzmán was driving to the offices of the far-right Independent Democratic Union, a party he founded after drafting the constitution, when two men reportedly belonging to a left-wing guerrilla group approached his car and shot him in the chest. He died hours later, at the age of forty-four. The constitution has been amended more than fifty times in the succeeding years. In 2013, an initiative calling for a new constitution, supported by Fernando Atria, called Marca tu Voto, asked citizens voting in that year’s Presidential elections to write “AC,” for Constitutional Assembly, on their ballots. Fewer than ten per cent did, but the effort started a debate, which was periodically returned to during the following years, about the need to completely rewrite the constitution. Meanwhile, progressive and left-wing parties still continued to struggle to pass social reforms. Just three years ago, when the socialist President Michelle Bachelet, who had also called for a new constitution, tried to implement a bill that would push employers to negotiate contracts with unions, the tribunal dismissed it.

It is said that Chile “woke up” from the years of austerity—and the constitutional impasse—on October 18th. The government had announced that metro fares in Santiago, the capital city, would increase by thirty pesos (about four cents) during peak hours. High-school students jumped the turnstiles in protest and were joined by other commuters, especially after the minister of the economy suggested that, if people didn’t want to pay the peak morning fare, they should just “leave their homes earlier.” Then the protests became more widespread and more violent: dozens of subway stations and buildings (including a corporate tower downtown) were set on fire, and supermarkets were looted. President Sebastián Piñera declared a state of emergency in Santiago, a city of seven million, and deployed the military. For many Chileans who had lived through Pinochet’s dictatorship, the return of soldiers to the streets was cause for alarm. On October 25th, more than a million people took part in what was reportedly Chile’s largest demonstration since the dictatorship. The government eventually froze the fare hikes, committed to raising the minimum wage and pensions for the poorest citizens and, on October 28th, lifted the state of emergency, but the protests did not stop.

The discontent was obviously no longer just about metro fares: people wanted economic reform but, with it, a more symbolic examination of Chile’s history—ancient and recent. In the northern city of Arica, protesters took down a statue of Christopher Columbus, and in the southern city of Temuco they removed the head of a statue of the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia—and placed it in the hands of a statue of an indigenous Mapuche warrior. On a wall in a memorial to Guzmán, which stands across from the U.S. Embassy, in the upscale Santiago neighborhood of Las Condes, someone had written, “The constitution of the dictator will fall.” The memorial was closed soon after.

The main site of the protests is three miles west of the memorial, in the Plaza Baquedano, which the protesters have renamed Dignity Plaza. Several major avenues intersect there, and it connects the city’s poorer neighborhoods with the more affluent ones in the east. An equine statue of General Manuel Baquedano, who fought in the revolutions of the nineteenth century, stands on an elaborate plinth in the center of the oval-shaped plaza. When I was in the plaza last month, the statue had been painted pink, and its base was covered in graffiti, from “Go Vegan” to “We demand to decide how we want to govern ourselves.”

Nearby, a twenty-four-year-old man named Ernesto, who had been in the plaza every day since the demonstrations began, sat eating a sandwich. In the confrontations, the police have fired hardened rubber bullets and metal pellets, known as perdigones, injuring the eyes of more than two hundred people and leaving many of them partially blind. But Ernesto, a cabro—or “goat,” as youths are called in Chile—belongs to the generations born after the dictatorship, who, unlike many older Chileans, do not fear the state authorities. “I am not afraid of them,” Ernesto told me. “I just have a lot of anger.” He had thrown rocks at the police and showed me injuries to his forearm and finger. He works a nine-hour night shift in a V.I.P. lounge at the airport and earns about four hundred and thirty dollars a month, slightly more than minimum wage. “My parents are retired, but I help them, because they can’t afford anything with the small pension they receive,” he said. Their pensions are less than the minimum wage. He added, his voice filled with emotion, that he was fighting for better access to health care and education, and, perhaps, for a new constitution. “We should do it, but only if the people can write it.”

Ernesto dried his T-shirt in the sun, while he ate, because he had been sprayed by a police water-cannon truck, known as a guanaco (an animal similar to a llama). Tanks that shoot pepper gas are called zorrillos, or skunks. Every day, a camera stationed on an upper floor of a building on the plaza records how protesters fill the space during the morning and then, in the afternoon, riots emerge and are broken up by the police. An almost choreographed performance can be watched between the cabroszorrillos, and guanacos. But what looks like a dance from above feels like a battle in the street.

After speaking with Ernesto, I moved to a quiet part of the plaza but ended up running with a crowd of people when the police began firing tear-gas cannisters from trucks. During another attack the next night, a twenty-nine-year-old man named Abel Acuña suffered a heart attack, and the police continued to shoot tear gas and water as paramedics tried to reach him. He died shortly after reaching a hospital. Chile’s Human Rights Institute filed a complaint against the police, stating that an ambulance had been attacked and a rescue worker had been injured as they attempted to help Acuña.

The institute says that security forces have killed at least six people, injured more than three thousand, and sexually abused at least a hundred. Piñera’s government disputes the claims, and says that any violations will be investigated by the Attorney General’s office. At least nine officers are under investigation, but, so far, none has been removed from duty. In a leaked audio recording, the country’s chief of police, General Mario Rosas, can be heard telling a group of officers that he would refuse to fire any of them if they were accused of wrongdoing. “Even if they force me, I just won’t do it,” he said. (The police press office later released a statement saying that Rosas had meant only that all officers deserve due process.) According to the police, more than eighteen hundred officers have been injured by protesters.

“This level of violence had never happened under democracy,” Sergio Micco, the director of the institute, told me. His office, just a few blocks from the plaza, sends teams of investigators every day to the protests, hospitals, and jails. While I waited to talk to him, a mother arrived with her teen-age son to file a complaint; his right leg had been injured by a rubber bullet. Micco had been an anti-Pinochet student leader and had participated in a national strike in 1983, in which dozens of people were killed by the military. He later became a philosophy professor, and he spoke calmly as he tried to make sense of these new seemingly fearless teen-agers. “If you would have told me a few weeks ago that the military would be out in the streets, and that young people would be out there, too, taking selfies, I would have told you, ‘You’re crazy,’ ” he said. Micco, too, thinks that it is time to rewrite the constitution. “To me,” he said, “it would be like the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

It took more than twenty meetings in the National Congress, the last of which ran into the early morning hours of November 15th, for ten political parties, from the right-wing coalition Chile Vamos to the left-leaning Frente Amplio, to reach an agreement about the constitution. The parties announced that the government will hold a plebiscite in April of next year, in which Chileans will be asked whether they want a new constitution. Those who do will also be able to indicate whether they think it should be written by a constitutional convention made up of members of Congress and private citizens chosen in local elections or one of elected citizens alone. If approved, citizens will then elect the members of the convention in October, which will have nine to twelve months to draft the new text. Once finished, Chileans will vote again, to approve or reject the constitution. Most of the members described the agreement as a historic step, with the exception of Jacqueline van Rysselberghe, who is the head of Guzmán’s U.D.I. party. Hours after the plebiscite was announced, she told a radio station that she had already made up her mind: she will vote no in April. “I am convinced that that legal text, despite its critics, is what allowed the country to grow economically for the past thirty years.”

The protests gained most of the headlines, but a more discreet process of reform has also been taking place in more than a thousand small local assemblies, known as cabildos, that have been organized across Chile in recent weeks. “Even during the days of the state of emergency, more than ten thousand people gathered to talk,” the feminist scholar Claudia Dides told me. She is a member of the Table of Social Unity, a group that includes some three hundred civil-society organizations, from unions to environmental groups. The table suggested questions for the cabildos to address—one was whether the country needs a new constitution. (In recent polls, more than eighty per cent of citizens said yes. Sales of the current constitution, in an edition of a hundred and eighteen pages, are up forty per cent over last year. It has been the second-best-selling non-fiction book in the country, after “Astrology for Difficult Times.”)

Dides and nine other activists have begun collating the cabildos’ responses. They offer a window into not only people’s needs but also their desires: the small southern town of Futaleufú said that it needs another doctor; a group of schoolchildren who formed their own cabildo proposed a new country in which their parents don’t have to work such long hours. The president of the powerhouse soccer team Colo-Colo also organized a cabildo; fifteen hundred fans, wearing team jerseys, assembled in the Estadio Monumental, where Colo-Colo plays, and split up into caucuses to discuss everything from raising pensions to involving more citizens in active sports. “This awakening of Chile is fantastic,” a former Colo-Colo player who attended the event told CNN. The team published a summary of the results a week later. “The most questioned institution,” they found, “is the constitution,” which, “having been established during the dictatorship,” is “illegitimate.”

On a recent Saturday morning, some fifty neighbors gathered in Almagro Park, in a middle-class neighborhood in downtown Santiago. The hosts were a group that demands access to affordable housing in the area, and they had set up speakers that were blasting songs by the eighties rock band Los Prisioneros. The attendees organized in groups of about ten, and sat under the shade trees. I joined a circle of middle-aged professionals. The moderator, a woman who works for an environmental N.G.O. and wants to de-privatize the water system, wondered, “How can we make it into the constitutional assembly?” Marcos, a public administrator who was wearing an explorer’s hat, was concerned about the challenge of organizing effectively in an atomized society that still “lacks an identity” after seventeen years of dictatorship. “We didn’t really organize under democracy, either,” an intellectual-looking man pointed out. “For thirty years, we were thought to always agree with what the government said.” The group also noted that Congress’s agreement does not mention how the protesters, who lack a clear leadership, might participate in the process. Would any of them be allowed to help write a new constitution? There was a long discussion about the need to engage more people from the neighborhood in the discussion, a short talk about not wanting a constitution written “in a language that no one can speak,” and a general agreement about demanding a better education system for the students who had started the protests. “We can’t let the kids down,” a woman said. But, that morning, at least, no decision was reached about which steps to take first before the April election.

Later that day, in the working-class neighborhood of La Florida, a younger crowd gathered and divided into six groups of ten and twelve. They were more critical of the agreement. “I feel this happened within four walls, without us,” a woman who works as a yoga teacher said. “I will not stop protesting until Piñera resigns,” a man who identified himself as a musician added. The members of one group of twelve all felt that the deal was not to be trusted because the public had not been included—except for a middle-aged woman, a soft-spoken psychologist named Leo. “I thought this is something I would never see in my life, and it just happened,” she said. “We can now have a state we really want to defend, so we can’t waste this opportunity.” But the others were not persuaded. “I need to see Piñera out,” the musician insisted. The yoga teacher asked to speak again. “I also need to get some justice,” she said. “I can’t believe that I am going to see a whole new generation of cabros who will lose an eye.” Everyone agreed: they all wanted a new constitution, but the protests would not stop with just the announcement of the deal.

One of the central players in the November 15th agreement was Gabriel Boric, a thirty-three-year-old member of Congress from the southern city of Punta Arenas, who represents a left-wing party called Convergencia Social. A former law student, he led student protests in 2011 that demanded free quality education from preschool through high school, and a more affordable university system. Boric and other student leaders were also members of Marca Tu Voto, the 2013 initiative that started the national conversation about a new constitution. He was elected to office that same year.

For years, Boric has been determined to rewrite Guzmán’s document. On occasion, he has taken that determination too far. This year, an ethics commission reprimanded him—and cut his salary by five per cent—after a video surfaced in which he can be seen smiling while holding a black T-shirt bearing a picture of Guzmán’s face, his skull pierced by a bullet. Boric was also criticized last year, when he visited the man convicted of Guzmán’s murder, Ricardo Palma Salamanca, in Paris, where he has lived since making a spectacular escape by helicopter from a maximum-security prison, in 1996. (Chile has demanded Palma’s extradition; France has denied the request, questioning whether he received a fair trial in Chile. Another man accused of Guzmán’s murder, Raúl Escobar Poblete, is serving a prison sentence in Mexico after being convicted of a kidnapping there.) Boric apologized to Guzmán’s family and has condemned Guzmán’s murder, but he remains committed to ending “the constitution that the dictatorship imposed.”

In late November, I met him in a smoking area of the National Congress building, which is in the coastal city of Valparaíso, seventy miles west of Santiago. He was the only signatory to the agreement who is not the head of a political party. That’s because, at the last minute, his party decided that the agreement isn’t democratic: it requires a two-thirds majority to approve new articles—which gives power to smaller parties, whose votes would be needed to pass a proposal—rather than a simple majority, and it doesn’t specify how women, students, or indigenous citizens will participate. Ironically, it was Boric who had fought to make the deal more democratic. President Piñera had initially suggested that Congress alone should draft a new text. That wouldn’t have been acceptable to the protesters, among others: a recent poll showed that Chileans view Congress and political parties as the least trusted institutions in the country. Boric and others managed to convince the right to include on the ballot the question about who should write the text. When the head of Boric’s party told him that the other members would not approve the deal, he told her that, “As a member of the Constitutional Committee of the House, I would sign,” because he thought it was important to stand by what the members had accomplished in the twenty meetings, and then “face the costs.” More than seventy people left the party, including the mayor of Valparaíso, who had been Boric’s friend since high school.

Boric has now angered many on the right, for his statements against Guzmán—and on the left, for having negotiated with “the establishment.” But he doesn’t view the agreement as just something concocted “in a kitchen” by a few cooks, as some have said, because those cooks were elected by the citizens. Granted, Congress “is highly delegitimized,” he told me. “But that’s why our role is to give this decision back to the people.” He is now worried that, if the fighting on the left continues, there won’t be enough time to properly campaign before the plebiscite, and the right could gain an advantage to draft a constitution it wants—or to keep Guzmán’s constitution in place. “I am concerned that if we don’t find good strategies for all Chileans to participate” he told me, “this whole process will just have been a pantomime.” (Last week, a new special congressional committee announced the date of the plebiscite—April 26th—and the number of members of a constitutional convention, if one is approved: a hundred and seventy-two, if congressional members are included; and a hundred and fifty-five, if it is to be made up of elected citizens alone. But the committee wasn’t able to reach an agreement on quotas for women and indigenous members, to insure that they will be properly represented.) When I asked Boric what specific provisions a new constitution should contain, he thought for a moment, then answered, “That’s not for me to say. That is something that only the people of Chile will decide.”


  • Camila Osorio is a member of The New Yorker’s editorial staff.



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