SANTIAGO – The enshrining of basic rights in a new constitution is the principal demand of millions of demonstrators who have taken to Chile’s streets in recent weeks to demand an end to inequality and to the neo-liberal model established during a 1973-1990 dictatorship.
President Sebastian Piñera’s center-right administration on Sunday expressed support for a constituent process, in its latest bid to defuse the biggest social crisis in recent Chilean history and lift a government approval rating that has plunged to just 15 percent.
The announcement, however, was received with mistrust by the public due to the Chilean right’s longstanding resistance to overhauling the constitution.
Approved in 1980 in a controversial referendum around midway through Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s 17-year military regime, Chile’s constitution is seen as the root cause of the country’s gaping inequality because it was designed to encourage the privatization of basic sectors such as healthcare, education and the pension system.
“A CONSTITUTION FOR THE RICH”
“The state fulfills a subsidiary role, and business always takes precedence over basic rights,” said Vicente Villalobos, a young man who needed to take out a hefty loan to attend university and dreams of having access to a free, high-quality education.
Therapist Carola Marin said it is hard to believe that Piñera, a billionaire businessman, would want to draft a new constitution, adding that the current charter was crafted to line the pockets of the upper classes “make the poor poorer.”
“People are now going into debt to eat and dying because they don’t have money to go to the hospital,” the 40-year-old professional told EFE.
Marin has been taking part in protests every afternoon since Oct. 18 in Plaza Italia, a large roundabout that has become the epicenter of a social revolt that thus far has left 20 dead and thousands of people injured and arrested.
Police efforts to crack down on the protests, meanwhile, have led to accusations of abuse and torture.
Despite a reduction in poverty in recent decades and relatively high levels of economic growth, Chile remains one of the world’s most unequal countries. Seven out of every 10 workers earn less than $750 a month, and half of all retirees receive a monthly pension of just $250.
“The current pension system is really barbaric and humiliating,” 60-year-old plumber Luis Tureo told Efe, adding that a new constitution must be adopted that “prohibits business being done with pensions” and establishes a pay-as-you-go system in which workers, employers and the government all contribute as opposed to the current one based on individual capitalization and run by private-sector pension funds.
Chile’s current pension system has been in place since 1980 and has been a favorite of free-enterprise enthusiasts worldwide.
“Chile is no kind of model,” said Javiera Gomez, a young woman who said a new constitution needs to enshrine protections for natural resources, recognize indigenous peoples and guarantee equality between men and women.
According to many experts, including Octavio Avendaño, a sociology professor at the University of Chile, the only way to bring about a more just country is to emulate European models and “do away with the idea of a subsidiary state and with the inviolability of (private) property rights.”
THE CONSTITUTION: A BEST SELLER
Calls for a new constitution have been heard since the start of the crisis, but that clamor has only grown in recent days and made the national charter one of the biggest-selling books nationwide. “I’ve gone to several bookstores, and it’s sold out,” a Chilean photographer told EFE.
The latest Cadem survey showed that nearly 80 percent of Chileans said they were in favor of a new constitution, although the government has not yet laid out the mechanism for a constituent process.
“The process can’t be left in the hands of the current Congress because of how discredited (elected officials) are among citizens,” said Avendaño, who advocates a formula backed by the opposition and most demonstrators: the organization of a referendum and the convening of a Constituent Assembly.
Chile’s constitution has been amended more than 40 times in recent years, but its neo-liberal essence (favoring privatization and trade liberalization) has not changed due to the sizable majorities needed in Congress for a major overhaul. Former President Michelle Bachelet unsuccessfully pushed for a constituent process during her second term in office from 2014 to 2018.
A professor at the Netherlands’ Utrecht University, Javier Couso, told EFE that Chile’s constitution is one of the most difficult to amend.
He added that its chief architect – Jaime Guzman, who was assassinated in 1991 – had said the charter was so well shielded from change that a future administration diametrically opposed to neo-liberal ideology still would be forced to pursue a course of action “not so different from what one would hope for.”
“It may seem impossible, but we’re experiencing something historic and witnessing the beginning of the end of the Pinochet constitution,” Couso said.