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How Chile Fumbled Having the Most Progressive Constitution in the World (A.K.A. The Defeated)

By Alberto Cox Délano | Politics | May 4, 2023 |

By Alberto Cox Délano | Politics | May 4, 2023 |


This is a story of defeat, defeat with a capital D. As you might guess, it’s a sad story, sad with a lowercase s.

I love US sports analogies and metaphors. Since US sports are so elaborate, full of rules, and fragmented to the second, Americans have developed a wealth of metaphors that global football does not have, as it is a game of continuous movement.

The story of how Chile screwed up the opportunity to have the most progressive constitution in the world is the definition of an American football fumble. It reminds me of a particular match: Super Bowl LI, Atlanta Falcons vs. New England Patriots. Everybody was rooting for the Atlanta Falcons, not just because they came in as underdogs but because people liked them and loathed the Patriots. It wasn’t just in the US, mind you. Go and ask someone in France what they thought. It was right as the former guy’s reign of shitshow and terror had begun, everyone’s mood was low, but if there could be a modicum of hope, it would be in seeing the team from one of the Black American Capitals winning one over the team of… well, people that vote very much in line with the ATL Metro, but also, Tom Brady had gotten too cozy to the former guy. The Falcons started with a bang, winning 28-9 in the first three quarters. They had it in the bag! But as we all know, in the remaining two quarters, the Patriots managed to match them and then win in overtime (a rule for the Falcons from global football: never go into overtime).

Well, the Chilean left (and everything leaning towards it) did the same thing with the constitutional process. They had every chance to pull a win over the historical tides of capital, the status quo, and the Chilean traditional elite. And they fumbled it. Well, we fumbled it, me being a Chilean leftist. But also “we” as in, it takes a whole country to miss a historic shot.

How do I summarize the entire Chilean constitutional process? Socialist president democratically elected. Oligarchic and US intervention topple the democratically elected president. Brutal dictatorship and unlawful imposition of a reactionary constitution. Chile manages to oust the dictator via a democratic election. Center-left coalition rules the country for the next two decades, turning us into a solid second-world country. However, inequality and constitutional limitations persist. The first democratically elected right-wing government is elected in 2009. They are screw-ups. Major transformative student protests arise, putting everything about the development model into question. The right-wing government is followed by the second center-left coalition government, and major reforms are implemented, but they still fumbled it. So the same right-wing government is immediately reelected. They screw up even more. They try to suppress a minor protest against public transportation price hikes, which turns into a major uprising. All parties agree to a new constitutional process through referendums and a constitutional convention/assembly (a long-standing demand of all social movements). The pandemic hits, and mass migration from Venezuela further increases social tensions. Progressive movements win the referendum and seats on the constitutional assembly by a landslide (nearly two-thirds). A leftist president is elected, but the social tensions remain, alongside an economic downturn.

And we fumbled that chance.

How? Well, for starters, let me be clear: some of the brightest, most forward-thinking minds in Chile were elected to represent us in the Convention. But also, there were a lot of unserious fucking idiots, on the Left and on the Right. I mean, several representatives on the right ran on a platform of deliberately trying to tank the process, and some of them were truly despicable. But that’s to be expected, and overall, several right-wing members actually showed up to work, discuss, do politics defending their ideas and come to consensus. But in a country where the two biggest newspaper groups are owned by the right-wing (and not like the NYT or The Washington Post are right-wing, I’m talking GOP-right wing), and so are at least two of the major TV Networks, the Left Wing cannot afford a single idiot or a scandal, which are usually related. It all started with the discovery that one of the non-establishment candidates who had claimed to be cancer-stricken was lying about everything. That was the first misstep of many that helped the right-wing media relentlessly portray the Convention as, to use a Chilean expression, “a bag of cats” (that doesn’t need translation) - an unserious affair full of people who had no respect or care for the traditions and symbols of the country, and boy do we care here about being serious and about Republican symbology.

In short, they failed at being boring. A process like this, on this capital-H Historical scale, needs to be, paradoxically, not just devoid of scandal, but also boring, protocolar and understated.

And yet, despite all this, the Convention pulled it off. They delivered on a very, very much too-short schedule of less than a year. Big agreements were reached. It guaranteed groundbreaking rights in terms of things like health, environment, gender, housing, autonomy and recognition of our First Nations or Native Peoples. There were flaws and problems, things about the division of powers, decentralization, local organizations and on the implementation of said guaranteed rights that had not been tuned, or would probably require several amendments. But the Constitution also had a very streamlined process to amend itself. To quote former president Michelle Bachelet, herself quoting recently deceased singer Pablo Milanés, “It wasn’t perfect/But Oh! How close is she* close to what I’ve always dreamt!” Now, all that was needed was for the Chilean people to vote via a referendum with mandatory voting, whether they would approve the New Constitution or revert to the misshapen Ship of Theseus that we currently have.

Not that their success helped much. All the right wing needed was to repurpose the messier parts of the process to taint the whole. And lie.

The lie that worked the best was that this Constitution would lead to expropriations of private property, namely homes. A complete fucking fabrication, but one that worked. The catastrophe that has been Venezuela over the last few decades, visible to us in the… SIGH, now less manageable migration to our country, that has been Latin America’s right-wing main propaganda tool. They were further aided by astroturfed “centrist” “organizations” of prominent figures and some Christian Democrat dipshits that saw their Senate seats challenged. And as Gabriel Boric’s government was just starting, with some misfires, the right wing managed to associate the New Constitution with his government.

The final nail in the coffin of the process, though, was me. “Me” as in every left-wing person who did not do enough to campaign for the pro-new constitution campaign. I mostly stayed at home, unlike during the presidential campaign. I caught that very typical US left-wing bug of defeatism. Worse still, the campaign was held in the middle of winter, a very cold winter, and my propensity for catching lung diseases and seasonal ennui had me throwing in the towel in a ring I had barely even set foot on. I was lazy, I was too afraid of facing other people in support of a process over which I had my doubts, not realizing that any actual progress will always scare you a little, will always be hard to understand, and will always take three times the effort than a right-winger needs. I was sad, I was also busy studying something I wasn’t even actually made for. And I reckon there were tens of thousands just like me all over Chile (because you don’t need millions to convince millions, if you know how to distribute the workload). See, being a committed leftist is the ultimate act of personal responsibility.

The referendum was held on September 7th, 2022. Another unmentionable scandal further undermined our morale. But that day, the turnout was historic. With every adult in Chile automatically registered, the results were as legitimate as they could be, and over 85% of eligible voters turned out. It made us hopeful, it gave us the false expectation that we could actually pull this off, or that the defeat would be by a tiny margin.

It was the other way around: the new constitution was rejected 62-38. Every person who had never voted before voted against it. Unlike other victories, nobody actually celebrated the “victory,” save for a bunch of posh c**** in rich neighborhoods. I drank myself to sleep that night. We had lost almost every single district but a few working-class ones and our equivalent of Brooklyn.

Somehow, the process was restarted a few months later. It consists of a “table of experts” appointed by the political parties and a smaller group of elected representatives. It’s a watered-down version, but it’s not the worst part. Over the last few months, as the government (MY government) still struggles with approval ratings, the right wing, and especially the populist and extreme right wing, have gained popularity. These have been hard few months, violent crime has objectively increased for a country that was always safer than the US. Chileans scare easily. The new election for representatives will be this Sunday, May 7th, and I’m honestly checked out like most of us, all the young people that actually took part in the process, in one way or another, since the protests of 2011. It has been heartbreaking, but at least, unlike young people after the coup of 1973, our hopes were dashed by a legitimate democratic process.

But still, there is a third component to our fumble. We on the left tend to follow a party line where we cannot fault the people for the legitimate democratic decisions they make. And it’s partly true, more so in a country still lagging behind on every educational metric, where most people still have a hard time understanding what they read, at every socioeconomic level. But… come on, man! How could you actually believe they were going to take away your home, in this economy, when you know damn well the Chilean elites would let that fly? How can you be so uncritical?

Can we partly blame a country for the decisions they make? I certainly will never forgive the US people who voted for the former guy… the second time. Or those who re-elected President Piñera for that matter. Because the new process will be tainted, especially by the populist right wing, led by literal conmen and harassers. How can you let fear get such a hold on you when you have so much to gain?

It takes a whole country to make a historical blunder: The Reactionaries Lying, the Progressives Failing to Convince, but also the People failing to actually empower themselves, and just defaulting to a Status Quo that never delivered for them. And the most frustrating thing is that we, the Leftists-Progressives, can only do something about our third of the blame.

I am not angry at my people, though. I am disappointed, and I am sad. And I guess I can’t fault us for getting way ahead of the entire World when we have usually been a bit behind the times. It’s just that I really wanted to be proud of something more than Culture. I wanted us to lead the World. Perhaps we were always too small (in every sense) and too far away from where Everybody Else Lives, the literal End of the World, for us to actually be a lodestar. It’s just so hard to see that we couldn’t even help ourselves when, historically, by ourselves has always been the only way we ever achieved anything.

Alberto Cox

*Note: “Constitution” is a feminine word in Spanish.