With October in Our Memory, We Will Change History

Image courtesy of Felipe Cussen.

The result of the plebiscite and the clear rejection of the new constitution in Chile says a lot about its historical development since the end of the civil-military dictatorship in 1990. The following is a four-step analysis towards understanding the primary reasons behind the failure of the constitutional draft in Chile’s recent plebiscite.

“Chile, joy is on its way” was the official jingle of the 1988 referendum campaign, created for a television commercial that promoted voting ‘No’. This ‘No’ with its rainbow-logo signified the end of the civil-military dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet. Around thirty years later, a response echoed in the streets of Chile: “The joy never arrived.” The dictatorship officially ended with free elections in 1990, but it had serious repercussions on all sectors of society.

Since 1990, a long period of anger, frustration and rage resulted in a steady development of social movements in Chile. In October 2019, the frustration was unleashed in the streets in what is called ‘el despertar chileno’, the awakening of Chile. The central slogan, which formed the common ground for the different social groups, was: “It’s not about thirty pesos, it’s about thirty years.” The outrage was not triggered by a thirty-peso increase in the metro fare, but by a general frustration with thirty years of post-dictatorship. There is a latent sense that the dictatorship never quite ended. Although two truth commissions were convened, hardly any legal or social consequences were imposed on the perpetrators. The economic and social system remained almost unchanged. To give an example: Although Pinochet was arrested in London in 1998 at the instigation of the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, Pinochet remained commander-in-chief of the armed forces and senator for life until he died in impunity in 2006. Quickly, demands were made to replace the constitution that had been written and enacted under Pinochet. Thus, for the first time in democratic times, the Chilean population was called to a plebiscite on 25 October 2020.1 Nearly 51% of the population participated, of which about 78% voted in favour of the drafting of a new constitution by a constitutional convention. The convention was composed in equal numbers of men and women and 17 seats were reserved for representatives of indigenous peoples.

The constitutional convention met for the first time on 4 July 2021 and within a year its members wrote a new constitution. Their discussions could be followed online. On 4 September 2022, another plebiscite with compulsory voting took place, in which the adoption of this constitution was rejected. Around 86% cast their vote, almost 62% voted against this new constitution.2 The reasons for this are manifold. To understand why such a progressive constitution, drafted transparently by elected representatives, was turned down with great vehemence, it is necessary to take a closer look. Even though the reasons are interrelated, I will first explain some of the causes that lie in the immediate present in order to eventually approach those that have a more lasting historical foundation.

First of all, on the constitutional convention: more than half of the elected members were independent of parties, some of them working for the first time in a representative body. This certainly led to a certain unprofessionalism, which was constantly emphasised by opponents who tried to de-legitimise the convention’s work. This was compounded by the fact that the convention began its work in July 2021. This means that most of the work took place under the government of Sebastián Piñera, the former president who was not at all in favour of a new constitution.

Moreover, one can assume that the composition of the convention was a result of its electoral circumstances: it was still under the impression of the 2019 revolt, and since the turnout in the first referendum was only about 50%, it may be asked how representative the composition of the convention really was for the approximately nineteen million Chileans.

In this context, the academic language should be taken into account, based on the educational background of most of the members. This resulted in a text that was so complex and based on identity politics that it was too distant from the needs of most people’s everyday lives. Even for some centre-left politicians, the text seemed too difficult to be implemented through legislation. It might have been recommendable if the convention had asked for the population’s expectations, e.g. by means of surveys. However, neither time nor resources were sufficient for this.

Besides, a continuous delegitimisation took place, also based on its progressive and new character: it was a body completely outside the traditional political institutions, which made it even more difficult to be considered legitimate. Chile’s political system is founded on a strong presidential figure, which is why the Convention was further delegitimised by the refusal of all former presidents to attend the ceremony to present the proposed new constitution.3

Nevertheless, two major challenges for the Constitutional Convention should not be ignored, which illustrate the impressive work they have done: With very little in terms of financial resources and during a period of only twelve months, they managed to draft a completely new constitution. As well it was certainly no easy task to unite the diverse demands of the 2019 uprising.

The second factor I would like to address is the political situation and the government: since 11 March 2022, Chile has a new president, Gabriel Boric Font, who at 36 years old is the youngest in the country’s history. Due to the revolt in 2019, the political balance of power in the country appeared to shift fundamentally.4 The strength of this social uprising stems from a long series of mobilisations, including the 2011 student movement, in which Boric and some of his current ministers were key participants. This shift in the balance of power seemed to be confirmed in the presidential run-off in December 2021: For the first time since the return to democracy, a party alliance (Apruebo Dignidad) was elected that does not belong to the two central government coalitions.5 Notably, the election recorded the highest turnout in presidential elections (55.65%). With Boric, a new generation prevailed, the generation that was still in its infancy at the end of the dictatorship. The difficult generational “in-between situation” was so aptly described by the writer Nona Fernández in her novel Space Invaders (2013): “There we are submerged. We don’t know how to wake up.” In the end, this generation had to learn to wake up, instigated by the post-dictatorship generation.

As promising as this may sound, the political circumstances of 2022 were not on Boric’s side: the referendum vote was certainly in large part a rejection of his government as well as an expression of a general dissatisfaction with the political apparatus and a crisis of confidence. In this respect, a widespread depoliticisation and exhaustion is evident after the revolt and the long pandemic-related lockdown. This was also expressed through compulsory voting, which has not existed in Chile for the last ten years. The increasing shift away by Boric from his former political ideals and a strong rapprochement with the politics of the Concertación has further intensified the decline in trust.6

However, the number of those who voted for Boric roughly corresponds to the number of those who voted for the new constitution on 4 September 2022.7

A key factor in the failure is the communication strategies: Although the government supported the new constitution, it was the opposition that drove the campaign. It received many times the amount of election donations, most of it anonymously.8 In Chile, media such as television and newspapers are largely monopolised. The “Rechazo” campaign began as early as June 2022, before the convention had even finished its work. The draft of the new constitution was distributed on the streets and was available for free as a PDF, artists and activists presented their favourite articles on social media, articles were projected on the advertising screens in the metro stations. But all that was definitely not enough. The amount of “fake news”
plays a crucial role: even erroneous editions of the constitutional text were circulated on the streets.9 Central threats were the alleged expropriation and a scenario comparable to Venezuela (Chilezuela). In this context, it is left to the supporters to ask themselves how they could have framed their campaign differently by responding in a clearer, strategic and more proactive way.

In terms of the economic situation: Chile is a country of extreme economic inequality. The richest 10% concentrate a wealth of 66.5% and only 1% of the population has a wealth of 26.5%.10 Meaning, the presumed stability and economic prosperity of this South American country (“la Oasis de América”), only a few benefit from it. The pandemic exacerbated the increasing poverty and crime on the streets and the international crisis as inflation hit the country hard with its already high cost of living. Threats from international companies regarding the new constitution did not make the situation any easier. They peaked when the Jeffrey Bezos-owned Washington Post warned that Chile’s rich lithium production could be reorganised, affecting global supply chains. It is difficult to overlook the post-colonial patterns at play here.

This brings me to my last and most challenging to summarise aspect: the continuity of social structures and the relevance of latent and contentious memories. Chile is a country whose past is the subject of fierce controversy. The legacy of the civil-military dictatorship (1973-1990) has not yet been fully overcome. Considering that truth and reconciliation commissions have been established and the existence of a Museum of Memory and Human Rights, one might think that the country has done a good job in dealing with its past. Nonetheless, the country is still strongly marked by polarisation, if not division; the memory of the last century shapes the present.

Most recently, this became clear on the forty-ninth anniversary of the coup, 11 September: while President Boric visited the grave of former socialist president Salvador Allende at the national cemetery, José Antonio Kast, his former opponent in the presidential elections, tweeted that, with the military coup of 1973, Chile had chosen freedom by preventing a Marxist revolution. Not coincidentally, it is reminiscent of the friend-foe dualisms of the Cold War era. This is not surprising, because the dictatorship not only meant the end of the socio-political utopias from the 1960s and early 1970s, but also led to a complete restructuring of the social, political, cultural and economic system. Under the influence of the so-called “Chicago Boys,” Chile became the only country where neoliberalism was implemented as a realpolitik project with massive privatisation policies (from education over pensions to access to water) and a repressive attitude towards trade unions.

Another but equally important factor is the fear of change, especially when it comes to understanding why the people rejected a constitution that would have guaranteed them basic rights: Chile is a conservative country, characterised by structural patriotism and Catholic values. In addition, evangelical churches, especially in the Araucania (in the extreme South), are influential, and they called for people to vote against the new constitution.11 Fake news such as that the Chilean flag would be abolished, combined with concepts that were not easy to understand, such as the idea of plurinationality, thus fuelled fears.

The rising migration rate and structural racism, especially against indigenous peoples, complicated the situation for the Convention immensely.

Now Chile’s future is again uncertain. It may feel like a step backwards behind all the demands formulated with the 2019 revolt and the prices paid for it: political prisoners, intentional blinding and murders. Even though on the night of the plebiscite everyone declared that a new constitution was necessary, it is impossible to foresee how and when a new process will begin. Boric is in favour of a new convention, but faces the problem that his Apruebo Dignidad coalition does not have a majority in the Senate. Another possibility would be an assembly or, what is favoured especially by the centre-right, a commission of experts. Last but not least, everything could remain as it is and only minor changes could be made to the current constitution.

As mentioned at the beginning, the events in October 2019 are based on the common ground that the promised joy about the official end of the dictatorship has not arrived – this has not changed. Yet there is no mistaking that Chile has woken up from the slumber of the transition to democracy. As three years ago, and as in 2006, high school students took to the streets and disrupted public transport in the week after the plebiscite. Just like Boric and his fellow campaigners in 2011, they are calling for a better education system. It is obvious that things are changing slowly, not for nothing did Boric declare in his inaugural speech: “We move slowly because we go far”.

Now is the time to remember that fundamental change cannot be achieved quickly, to reorder the commonalities and construct new memories. It is the students on the streets who are combining their anger with hopeful statements. A banner at a demonstration immediately after the plebiscite read: “With October in our memory, we will change history.”

Hannah Katalin Grimmer is a German cultural scientist and curator with an emphasis on memory studies and Latin America. She is a research associate at the Department of Art and Society at the University of Kassel and the documenta Institute. Her doctoral thesis examines artistic practices within the context of social movements in Chile from the 1960s to the present.

 

Notes

  1. The process was initiated through the process of the Acuerdo por la Paz Social y la Nueva Constitución (Agreement for Social Peace and the New Constitution) signed on 15 November 15 2019.
  2. “Plebiscito de Salida,” Decide Chile (N/D), available at: https://live.decidechile.cl/2022/plebiscito/.
  3. “Ningún expresidente de Chile asistirá a la clausura de la constituyente,” EFE (June 20, 2022), available at: https://www.efe.com/efe/america/politica/pinera-se-suma-a-los-expresidentes-que-no-iran-la-clausura-de-constituyente/20000035-4835467/.
  4. More than 1.2 million people participated in the biggest protest in Santiago alone and around 3 million across the country on 25 October 2019 – exceeding the record set in 1988 by the final rally of the “No” option in the 1988 plebiscite.
  5. The centre-left Concertación (later Nueva Mayoría) and the centre-right Alianza por Chile (later Chile Vamos).
  6. Camila Vergara, “Chile’’s Rejection,” Sidecar (September 9, 2022), available at: https://newleftreview.org/sidecar/posts/chiles-rejection?pc=1469
  7. 4,620,671 votes for Boric on 19 December 2021 and 4,860,093 for the new constitution on 4 September 2022.
  8. Some information about the unequal funding of the campaigns can be found here: https://www.eldesconcierto.cl/reportajes/2022/08/24/aportes-anonimos-para-campana-rechazo-recibio-900-mas-que-el-apruebo.html, https://plataformacontexto.cl/contexto_factual/89-de-los-aportes-de-campana-para-el-plebiscito-son-del-rechazo/, and https://interferencia.cl/articulos/amarillos-por-chile-inscribe-49-organizaciones-ante-el-servel-con-lo-que-podria-gastar/.
  9. “Denuncian a exconstituyente Constanza Hube de distribuir material con afirmaciones falsas sobre la nueva Constitución en medio de actividad en favor del Rechazo en Los Ángeles” El Mostrador (July 29, 2022), available at: https://www.elmostrador.cl/noticias/multimedia/2022/07/29/denuncian-a-exconstituyente-constanza-hube-de-distribuir-material-con-afirmaciones-falsas-sobre-la-nueva-constitucion-en-medio-de-actividad-en-favor-del-rechazo-en-los-angeles/.
  10. “Emparejar la cancha: El desafío de Chile ante la concentración de riqueza y brechas de desigualdad,” CNN Chile (October 21, 2020), available at: https://www.cnnchile.com/economia/emparejar-cancha-chile-concentracion-riqueza_20201021/.
  11. “Consejo de pastores evangélicos de la Araucanía acordó llamar a votar por el rechazo a una nueva constitución,” UATV (ND), available at: https://uatv.cl/2020/02/25/consejo-de-pastores-evangelicos-de-la-araucania-acordo-llamar-a-votar-por-el-rechazo-a-una-nueva-constitucion/.

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