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Channeling Spirit of Revolution, Chileans Are Drafting a Democratic Constitution

This attempt at Chile’s first ever democratically drafted constitution marks a symbolic rupture with the country’s past.

Constitutional lawyer Jaime Bassa, left, elected vice president of the Constitutional Convention, is greeted by elected President Elisa Loncón at the National Congress during the First Constituent Assembly in Santiago, Chile, on July 4, 2021.

This July, a constitutional convention convened in Chile following the mass uprising that swept Santiago in October 2019. The convention is the most representative body in Chile’s history, including many citizens who never previously held political office. Members include teachers, social workers, community activists and a homemaker. Half of the 155 representatives are women, and at least six are from the LGBTI community.

Rather than a purely national affair, the convention holds deep significance for the international left. In many ways, the constitutional process is a radical experiment in inclusion and participatory democracy.

Yet it is also a reckoning with past dreams and entrenched inequality. In the 1970s, Chile assumed the vanguard of neoliberalism. The convention marks a point of rupture in Chilean history, signifying the failure of the neoliberal constitution that coalesced during the military dictatorship. And it marks the culmination of a history of class struggle that extends back to the Chilean Revolution.

The Chilean Road to Socialism

The immediate catalyst for that revolution was Salvador Allende, the first socialist to win a presidential election in Latin America. Under the banner of Popular Unity, the bespectacled doctor championed an ambitious agenda, including the expansion of social services, land reform and full nationalization of the copper industry — “the salary of Chile” that garnered the majority of its export revenue.

After his election on September 4, 1970, a broad cross-section of the working class came tantalizingly close to political power for the first time. The historian Peter Winn evokes the popular ferment in Weavers of Revolution. “It was something we had never expected,” former textile worker Alma Gallegos told Winn. “It was a joy that couldn’t fit inside one, to see all the compañeros embracing each other — whether they were poor or hungry or well dressed.” Galvanized by Popular Unity’s soaring rhetoric, a militant and newly empowered working class mobilized to transform Chilean society. The promise and threat of revolution divided the country for three years, as political conflict spiraled into open class warfare.

In large part, Allende’s platform captivated voters because of the persistence of extreme poverty. During the early 1970s, the North American Congress on Latin America reported that 40 percent of Chileans suffered from malnutrition. Leading historian Franck Gaudichaud concludes that about half the working population earned less than the minimum wage. At night, bleary-eyed children slept beneath the bridges spanning the Mapocho River.

But the election promised profound change. In his first speech as president-elect, Allende simply asked to be “el compañero Presidente” — a fellow comrade and worker. The sociologist Tomás Moulian suggests that the Popular Unity was “the most democratic moment in the political history of Chile.” Working-class Chileans finally felt they were “historical subjects” with the ability to construct a more just society.

Seizing the moment, the parties composing Popular Unity suspended ideological differences to pursue socialism through political means — what observers called the “vía chilena” (“Chilean road”). Allende’s adviser, Joan Garcés, aspired to transform the class composition of the state, harnessing legal channels to check elite power and democratize the economy. By stanching the outward flow of profits and nationalizing strategic sectors, Chile would accumulate the surplus necessary to develop domestic industries, expand the internal market and fortify a welfare state.

Yet Allende and Garcés’s vision of a dirigiste state bestowing socialism on obedient workers failed to anticipate the grassroots surge that followed. Their “revolution from above” inspired a “revolution from below” that radicalized the vía chilena, while accelerating a confrontation with the oligarchy and the Nixon administration in the U.S. Previously disenfranchised groups — those the elite cruelly called “los rotos ” (the broken) — occupied farms and seized factories; formed worker assemblies, industrial cordons and neighborhood councils; and became formidable political subjects with a sharp sense of their own agency. Above all, they built “people power,” making the revolution their own.

Political ferment boiled over in factory seizures, often to the chagrin of cautious bureaucrats. The machinist Carlos Mujica recalled that he and his colleagues seized factories to demonstrate that “workers were also capable of managing a business.” Labor organizer Jorge Varas watched workers at the Yarur textile mill spontaneously demand nationalization. “I have never in my life seen anything like this,” he exclaimed. “It was incredible. It was revolution!” Two thousand workers shouted, “We want socialization!”

Yet Popular Unity faced aggressive backlash. Adversaries engineered a legislative impasse and charged Allende with totalitarian designs. Meanwhile, the Nixon administration financed opposition parties, organized an embargo and goaded the military to strike.

Before the revolution, Nixon largely neglected Latin America. But the revolution jolted his administration into action. Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier confided that Allende’s election “noticeably upset” the president. “That son of a bitch, that son of a bitch,” Nixon barked while pummeling his palm with a fist. “We’re going to smash him.”

His administration worried that the vía chilena offered an appealing alternative to capitalism. “I feel strongly,” Nixon confided, “that this line is important … on the people of the world. If he can prove he can set up a Marxist anti-American policy, others will do the same.” In response, U.S. policymakers engineered an economic siege, blocking financial credits and copper markets, while supporting the Chilean opposition.

The vía chilena finally succumbed to tragedy on September 11, 1973, when conservative officers intervened with U.S. backing, searing the presidential palace’s neoclassical facade with ordnance. Although they justified the coup by accusing Allende of dictatorial intent, it was the popular ferment that preoccupied them. While vilifying the revolution from above, the Nixon administration and Chilean opposition really feared the revolution from below.

From Neoliberal Hegemony to Crisis

Under Augusto Pinochet, the military dictatorship divested from social services, smashed unions and opened the country to foreign capital. Inequality increased dramatically, as Chile became a laboratory for neoliberalism with an extreme tendency toward privatization. Even today, private interests such as the Marubeni Corporation largely control the country’s water supply, pension program and education system.

After Pinochet lost a referendum in 1988, the country slowly transitioned to civilian rule. But change was bittersweet. By accepting the 1980 constitution elaborated under his shadow, the political coalition that brought President Patricio Aylwin to power did something the military never could: it legitimated neoliberalism. A conservative Christian Democrat, Aylwin himself had backed the coup. Since then, every administration has accommodated itself to the country’s neoliberal constitution.

Popular discontent has periodically surged, most visibly climaxing in massive strikes in the education sector. In 2006 and 2011, students shut down schools across the country in order to protest glaring inequities. Tuition rates remain among the highest in the world, and access to resources varies widely across districts. Many of Chile’s youngest and most radical politicians, including Deputy Camila Vallejo and presidential candidate Gabriel Boric, cut their teeth in the student movement.

Chile reached a point of rupture in 2019 when the neoliberal regime consolidated during the transition entered an organic crisis. At the time, the national teachers’ union warned that the education system was “falling to pieces.” Educators reported stagnant wages, schools that lacked heat, and rats scurrying across classroom floors.

Union leader Mario Aguilar petitioned the government for months. “Unfortunately, there was no response,” he lamented. President Sebastián Piñera largely ignored the union’s grievances. Aguilar recalled that the government flirted with reforms, but “did not even offer them in a written proposal.” In response, teachers launched a seven-week national strike on June 3. After teachers walked out, Minister of Education Marcela Cubillos, the daughter of a Pinochet-era minister, suggested they were lazy.

The Ministry of Education became a contested space along the Alameda, Santiago’s main artery. While working at nearby archives that summer, I repeatedly found myself in the middle of a demonstration. When traffic lights turned green, demonstrators piled into the street, weaving between cars and waving union flags. A gigantic banner supporting strikers hung on the building across the street, while another adorned the nearby University of Chile.

During the strike’s fifth week, the Ministry of Education struck in solidarity with the teachers. That day the building was conspicuously vacant. A bored crowd of police in body armor fidgeted before a handwritten sign on the gate: “Ministry of Education workers support Chilean teachers!” After a solar eclipse, Minister Cubillos appeared on tabloids in solar shades. Critics portrayed her as an aloof Martian — willfully ignorant of earthly matters.

The teachers’ strike reached its inconclusive denouement on July 23 of that year. Educators returned to the classroom, but the Piñera administration remained inflexible. In retrospect, the popular strike was a prelude, illuminating dividing lines, channeling widespread discontent and foreshadowing the massive uprising that followed.

On October 18, 2019, protests gripped Santiago after authorities raised the cost of public transportation, freezing the subterranean network that knits the capital together. Chile has one of the most expensive public transit systems in Latin America. Yet the price hike was merely the proverbial drop that spilled a deluge, as thousands took to the streets to denounce long-standing grievances. A working class that once waged revolution had recovered its voice.

Protesters expressed smoldering disgust with the existing political regime, while emphasizing its roots in the dictatorship, brandishing signs such as “New constitution / without blood / without Pinochet.” An especially popular slogan stressed that the problem was structural: “It’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years.” Ultimately, the uprising signified the rejection of a liberal regime that politicians had grafted onto the edifice of a dictatorship — a negotiated transition that internalized, rather than confronted, the inequities and trauma of the past.

Yet the October 2019 uprising also dramatized the continuing importance of the Chilean Revolution to the political imaginary and lexicon. After curfew, protesters defiantly saturated the air with songs by Quilapayún, Víctor Jara, and other revolutionary artists whose songs have become emblems of resistance. At the height of the uprising, 1.2 million demonstrators packed the Plaza Italia, an event that inevitably stirred memories of the vast gatherings that defined the Popular Unity period.

Initially, the Piñera administration responded with repression. Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas into crowds, eventually injuring thousands of civilians and notoriously blinding Fabiola Campillai. A mother of three, Campillai was in a peaceful neighborhood and heading to work when police inexplicably fired a tear gas canister into her face. The Chilean Human Rights Commission has denounced Piñera before the International Criminal Court for overseeing “a systematic and widespread attack against the civilian population.”

In many ways, the bare-fisted response was suggestive. A neoliberal laboratory, Chile’s welfare state has suffered debilitating blows. When citizens interact with the state, it is often with the repressive apparatus: the very institutions that originally imposed neoliberalism. Above all, the violence revealed the desperation and weakness of a political regime that had lost legitimacy — and a working class that had lost its fear.

Democratizing the Constitution

Twenty-eight days after the initial uprising, the government presented plans for a plebiscite that would allow citizens to vote for a constitutional convention. The news was a bombshell. Many protesters indeed regarded the 1980 constitution as the underlying issue. Yet the historical significance lay even deeper; as the historian Gabriel Salazar emphasizes, Chileans had never democratically drafted a constitution before.

Pressure from below again forced the hand of those at the top. The official plan cited “the country’s grave political and social crisis,” claiming its object was “to seek peace and social justice through a procedure that is indisputably democratic.” President Jaime Quintana of the Senate portrayed the plebiscite as a “peaceful and democratic” solution to the crisis. “This is a historic night for Chile,” Quintana announced, admitting that, “we [politicians] are indeed responsible for many of the injustices that Chileans have pointed out to us.”

In October 2020, 77 percent of voters approved the formation of a constitutional convention, and, in May, Chileans elected their representatives for the convention. The high voter turnout and results signified an unambiguous rejection of the status quo. A remarkable number of representatives were independents who had never held political office. Many were young (their average age is 45 years old), brandished progressive credentials and participated in the very social movements that had converged on the Plaza Italia.

Feminists even convinced organizers to accept gender parity. “We know not only feminists will enter because of parity, but also women opposed to women’s rights,” noted activist Karina Nohales. Yet even they “will enter thanks to the parity that feminism achieved.”

The revolution’s legacy is palpable throughout this process. A founder of the convention’s leftist coalition, Gabriel Boric, pointedly referenced Allende after winning its nomination for the November presidential election. Boric claimed that the revolutionary “reverberates in our memory,” paraphrasing his famous prophecy that “much sooner than later, great avenues will again open, through which will pass the free man, to construct a better society.”

New avenues opened when the convention convened on July 4, 2021, marking a symbolic rupture with the past. Instead of graying party bosses in stiff suits, enthusiastic representatives strolled alongside ordinary citizens from the Plaza Italia to the former National Congress Building singing a revolutionary hymn. The president of the convention, Elisa Loncón, is a Mapuche academic with a history of Indigenous rights activism. In her first official address, she denounced colonialism and racism, while promoting a constitution that acknowledges Chile’s plurinacional character.

Loncón describes the convention as an “exercise in participatory democracy, in inclusion.” Her colleague and vice president of the convention, Jaime Bassa, emphasizes that the convention is “without a doubt” the most representative institution in the country’s history, reflecting its political, cultural and geographic diversity.

Rather than placate dissent, the convention has stimulated and rechanneled political activism. A community organizer living near Plaza Italia observes that the constitutional process has inspired “many conscientious people.” The excitement among neighborhood organizations, feminists, environmentalists, and others is irrepressible. “You see the enthusiasm of people wanting to participate, wanting to contribute with their own knowledge.”

Social movements, communities and individual Chileans have inundated the convention with petitions, proposing everything from the right to sports and water to environmental and consumer protections.

Currently, the convention faces daunting challenges. Conservatives have launched a smear campaign, accusing its leaders of partisanship, incompetence and reckless spending. A leading progressive representative, Rodrigo Rojas Vade, triggered a national scandal after wrongly claiming to have cancer. And the fate of the eventual document remains an outstanding question.

Yet 50 years after Allende’s election, ordinary Chileans are pursuing revolutionary change through legal means, democratizing the state by literally overhauling its constitution. In other words, they are following a strategy reminiscent of the vía chilena. And as in the Chilean Revolution, change has come from the bottom.

The author would like to thank Sarah Priscilla Lee of the Learning Sciences Program at Northwestern University for reviewing this article, which combines academic scholarship and Chilean news media.

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