By Sofia Bifulco
— In the past four weeks Chile witnessed its largest national-scale social mobilisation in recent history, with a record-breaking number of participants: according to official reports on October 25 in Santiago alone 1,300,000 people marched. Following a strike for the price hike in metro fare on October 19, people have been protesting on a daily basis, chanting that they “woke up” from the 30 years of hardship that shaped Chile’s return to democracy. While the country has improved in terms of economic health and poverty reduction since the end of the dictatorship, Chileans still suffer from deep inequality. Now, protesters are demanding a reduction in the prices of basic needs.
Their demands relate to problems which are linked by a common thread: they are the result of the set of values embedded in the current constitution imposed in 1980 under the Pinochet dictatorship, a constitution which is considered illegal and non-representative by many. Therefore, it is believed by protestors that the government cannot solve the situation without providing a draft of a new constitution.
The Chilean constitution might be one of the most problematic legacies of the dictatorship era. In the Santiago neighbourhood of Nuñoa, the Chilean Vocal Academy organised a talk open to citizens of different ages hosting two lawyers, with the aim to educate citizens on what a constitution is. All the participants, including university teachers and even some deputies, considered the current Chilean constitution illegitimate and not representative.
It is considered illegitimate because it was approved in 1980 by a plebiscite, a direct vote of the people, conducted in a state of terror, without the scrutiny being monitored by any external actors. “It was a yes or yes” recalls Javier Correa, citing Orwell’s book 1984 when talking about the state surveillance of the voting process that led to the 1980 constitution. Indeed, the repression of the military against political opponents is famous for its brutality and use of torture.
Moreover, the constitution is considered not representative of the people since it was drafted by the ruling military to a small group made of the economic elite. Because of this, the constitutional text created a hierarchy of values and needs that correspond to the ones of a very small part of society. It is strongly focused on economic neoliberalism – free market trade, privatisation and individualism – without being backed by any state welfare provision for the less fortunate.
At a reunion held by the faculty of economy of the Pontificia Universidad de Chile, university teachers, entrepreneurs, and economics students agreed that the hyper-privatisation of national goods transformed citizens into consumers. Basic needs, such as water, were sold as commodities that not everyone could afford. Today, living in Santiago one can see that the distance between social classes is such that they are even geographically segregated. In Santiago while most people live in the city, the elites live in luxury houses on top of hills. Most of the protests in Santiago take place in Plaza Italia, which recently changed its name to Plaza de la Dignidad (Dignity Square), a square in the heart of the city where many historical protests took place. Some members of the young elite don’t even know where to locate the square on a map of Santiago.
A combination of factors led the Chilean people to take the streets. The metro fare increase was the tipping point for the majority of the population, amplified by a public statement from President Sebastian Piñera describing the country as an “oasis of well-being” thanks to economic expansion. After exiting a harsh dictatorship, Chileans believe that the current situation is unacceptable and are not willing to stop until “Dignity becomes a habit”. Unlike previous generations, who feared protesting because of the dictatorship’s methods, the Chilean youth has shown by enduring four weeks of teargas and brutal repression by the police that they are fearless and willing to protest.
Mass-scale mobilisations have paralysed the country and caused Chile to cancel two international conventions planned for the coming months. So far, there have been two government measures tasked with addressing demands. After the first week, Piñera implemented a social agenda consisting of a few reforms. After the second week, he replaced eight ministers. People consider the reforms superficial and the newly introduced ministers “members of the same old group of friends”. The demand for the draft of a new constitution undoubtedly entails a long-term project that might take years, but it is beyond doubt that the problem at stake goes beyond the price of things. It is of structural nature. Thus, it won’t be fixed with the short-term supply of reforms, but rather with the draft of a new constitution, voted by a fair plebiscite.