SANTIAGO – Not content with just protesting, the hundreds of thousands of Chileans who have taken to the streets over the last two weeks to denounce the country’s right-wing government are meeting in parks, squares, schools and other public venues to debate proposals for radically overhauling the social, political and economic foundations of their society.
Some are informal, spontaneous gatherings, while others are organized by Social Unity Roundtable, a coalition of unions and grassroots organizations trying to formulate a coherent national program for change.
“They are townhall meetings where the citizens can say what they want and have that included in a document that contains the requests raised by the people,” Social Unity’s Belen Saavedra told Efe.
On Thursday, Saavedra helped organize a meeting of some 50 people in Santiago’s Ñuñoa neighborhood.
Following the Social Unity guidelines, the residents split up into groups of up to 10 people. Within each group, a moderator is chosen to coordinate discussion of the causes of popular unrest, the opportunities created by the mobilization and what can be done to transform Chile.
“The same questions are debated in all of the meetings,” Saavedra said.
Amid demands for free education, better health care and higher wages and pensions, participants return again and again to the idea of convening a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution, she said.
Chile’s current constitution is a legacy of the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
The chairman of the community board in Ñuñoa, Rodrigo Molina, told Efe that the townhall meetings give citizens a chance “to participate, to offer opinions and to be heard. To see why the crisis happened and which measures the country needs, because the people know the country and its reality better than anyone.”
“After all these days of intense social activity and mobilizations there has to be something that involves a change inside the institutions and which a legal, juridical value to be able to make the transformations that are needed,” according to Leandro Infante, a Ñuñoa resident who took part in Thursday’s meeting.
The townhall meetings recall the 2011 May 15th Movement in Spain, where the “indignados” (angry ones) held public assemblies to demand genuine democracy and an end to corruption.
That movement gave rise to a new leftist party, Podemos, which quickly became a force in national politics.
So far, none of Chile’s existing parties has been able to claim the right to speak for the uprising that brought 1.2 million people – more than 5 percent of the country’s population – into the center of Santiago a week ago.
“We understand that all the demands and reflections we make in the assemblies are political. The problem is when parties who want to co-opt that space arrive,” Fernando Aguirre, coordinator of the assembly in Santiago’s Brasil neighborhood, told Efe.
He said he hopes to see the emergence of something akin to direct democracy.
Chile’s billionaire president, Sebastian Piñera, has announced plans for a dialogue with the citizenry, but the protesters show little interest in talking with the government.
For one thing, people no longer believe the president, according to Molina, who says the aim of the townhall meetings is a complete overhaul of the existing model.
“We need a new system from beginning to end. The people of Chile are shaking the foundations of the country, but the authorities seem unconvinced that they need to change,” Molina says.