[News] Chile's New Constitution, Wiping Away the Last Stains of Pinochet

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Thu Oct 29 11:41:12 EDT 2020


  Chile's New Constitution, Wiping Away the Last Stains of Pinochet

by Ariel Dorfman <https://www.counterpunch.org/author/ariel-dorfman/> - 
October 29, 2020

It is not often that a country gets to decide its destiny in one 
momentous election. I am thinking, of course, of the United States. But 
I am also thinking of the referendum in Chile 
where, this past Sunday, the people of that country decided by a 
landslide—78.27 percent of those who voted—to give themselves a new 
Constitution and thereby drastically redefine the way they wished to be 

Though a change in its founding document is not on the ballot in the 
United States, we should, here in America, pay close attention to what 
just happened in that distant land at the end of the earth. Heartened 
and inspired by the sight of ordinary people forcing a small ruling 
elite to accept, against all odds, the need for radical reforms, we 
would do well to learn some valuable lessons from that Chilean experience.

Sunday’s victory in Chile did not come easily or swiftly.

The Constitution that Chileans have just voted to supplant was installed 
by Gen. Augusto Pinochet in a fraudulent plebiscite in 1980, seven years 
after a lethal coup overthrew the democratically elected Socialist 
president, Salvador Allende. Pinochet’s /Ley Fundamental/—as it was 
called by those who drafted it—ostensibly established an itinerary for a 
transition to a restricted form of democracy, as there was to be another 
plebiscite in 1988 to ask citizens if they wished the general to remain 
in office for another eight (endlessly renewable) years. In reality, 
that Constitution guaranteed that, no matter who was in charge of the 
country, there would be no possibility of questioning the oppressive 
system that the dictator and his allies had built, particularly the 
neoliberal economic model of exploitation that had been imposed on 
workers with unprecedented violence.

And, in effect, when Pinochet lost that 1988 plebiscite and was forced 
to retire as president (retaining control of the armed forces, of 
course), the Magna Carta he left behind acted as a straitjacket that, 
for the next 30 years, blocked all key efforts to create a more just and 
equitable society. The center-left coalition that has governed Chile for 
most of that period was able to negotiate a number of amendments to 
Pinochet’s fascist Constitution—and, significantly, lift a large section 
of the country’s destitute population out of poverty—but none of those 
amendments altered the ability of a minority of right-wing legislators 
to undermine any attempt to alter the way in which wealth and power were 
distributed. And it was presumed that a populace traumatized by torture, 
executions, disappearances, exile, and incessant censorship and 
persecution would not dare to rebel against such an immoral situation.

And that is how things would still be today if a startling revolt had 
not exploded in mid-October of last year. Sparked initially by groups of 
students jumping subway turnstiles to protest a small hike in the fares, 
it soon grew into a nationwide uprising by millions of Chileans who 
threatened to bring down President Sebastián Piñera’s conservative and 
unpopular government. Though the demands were wide-ranging—for better 
salaries, health care, education, housing, environmental protection, 
clean water; for Indigenous, LGBTQ and women’s rights; for reforms to 
the miserable pension plans and the untrammeled ferocity with which the 
police operated—the one issue that united all those who had taken over 
the streets was the urgent need to get rid of Pinochet’s Constitution 
<https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/24/opinion/chile-protests.html> and its 
stranglehold on Chilean society.

Alarmed at what such an upheaval might unleash, right-wing leaders who 
had till then adamantly vetoed any changes to the status quo made up 
their mind to decompress the situation and avert a full-scale revolution 
by agreeing to hold a referendum in which voters would decide if they 
wanted a new Constitution, either choosing Apruebo (approval) or Rechazo 

Many of those hard-core Pinochetistas believed they would be able, as 
time went by, to derail that referendum. They insisted that the current 
Congress was perfectly capable, with much less effort and cost, of 
instituting some of the most salient transformations being called for. 
They used the pandemic to claim that it was too dangerous to carry out 
an election in those conditions (though they had no such qualms about 
opening malls!). And when that delaying tactic failed, they ran a 
vicious campaign of terror against “socialism,” warning that those in 
favor of a new Magna Carta were extremists intent on turning Chile into 

The people repudiated them. The right-wing proponents of the Rechazo 
option have garnered a scant 21.73 percent of the vote. It is true that 
several major figures on the right, sensing where the wind was blowing, 
came out in favor of a new Constitution, but the verdict is inescapable. 
The Pinochet era is finally over.

As a native of Chile, I had planned to fly to Santiago with my wife to 
participate in this historic event, but we were unable to do so due to 
the perils posed by Covid-19.  I would have liked to witness the rebirth 
of a nation that seemed to have died when the coup destroyed our 
democracy all those decades ago. I was 28 years old when Salvador 
Allende became president and such a fervent enthusiast that, three years 
later, when he was overthrown, I was working at La Moneda, the building 
where he died, and was only saved from sharing his fate by a chain of 
incredible circumstances. Along with so many who believed in Allende’s 
dreams of a liberated Chile, I have spent most of my life since then 
hoping for a moment when those dreams of his would be echoed by future 
generations. That has now come to pass. The road to justice has been 
opened and, by the middle of 2022, Chileans will be governed by a 
Constitution that embodies the wishes and needs of the vast majority.

If I was unable to travel to Chile to celebrate this triumph of memory 
and courage over silence and death, I have been struck, as I celebrated 
this redemptive process from afar, by its significance for the United 
States, a country where I am also a citizen.

Indeed, along with my fellow countrymen and women, I am voting under a 
Constitution that severely curtails the will of the people. It is a 
travesty that we must choose our next president through a seriously 
flawed and antiquated system, with an Electoral College that does not 
reflect the preference of the majority. And it is just as much a scandal 
that we have a profoundly undemocratic Senate, where small states like 
Rhode Island or Wyoming carry as much weight as gigantic California or 
Texas. This is the legislative body that is responsible for approving 
Supreme Court justices, who have disenfranchised large sections of the 
population and allowed corporations to influence electoral outcome with 
an endless flow of unaccountable dollars. It is a Constitution, as Alex 
Keyssar has demonstrated in his remarkable book, /Why Do We Still Have 
the Electoral College?/, that is tainted by the compromise reached by 
the Founders with Southern slave-owners and has remained a staunch 
bulwark of minority, white supremacist interests. It is a Constitution 
that has been unable to stop a psychopathic, serially mendacious 
demagogue like Trump from storming the executive office and trashing 
democracy, its norms, its institutions, its supposedly irreversible 
restraints of checks and balances. It has established a shameful system 
where profits matter more than people, where discrimination and racism 
are rampant, where the very rich can accumulate more wealth than the 
rest of the country combined.

There are, of course, many splendid features enshrined in that 
Constitution. Its defenders, including many who notice its limitations, 
point to the ways in which it has often served to expand freedom, 
maintain stability, and ensure prosperity, and therefore deem it 
possible to overcome the glaring inadequacies of that 18th-century 
document with more amendments and stopgap remedies, such as abolishing 
the Electoral College, introducing radical changes to the justice 
system, passing legislation that guarantees voting rights, giving 
statehood to Puerto Rico and senatorial representation to Washington DC.

For my part, I wonder if the current crisis of authority, the sense that 
the United States has fallen into disarray and madness, could not open 
the door to a more drastic solution. Would it not make more sense to 
engage in a process like the one that Chile has just gone through, where 
the people have taken upon themselves the right and obligation to 
determine the fundamental tenets and principles of the system and rules 
that govern their existence? Should we not at least start to envisage 
the possibility of calling for a constitutional convention as a way of 
addressing the failure of our country to live up to its promise of a 
more perfect union? Do the problems that beset us, so similar to those 
that plague our Chilean brothers and sisters—the systemic racism, the 
police brutality, the ecological disasters, the offensive disparity of 
income, the increased polarization of our public—not cry out for a 
radical reimagining of who we are? Has not the pestilence of Covid-19 
revealed that we are woefully unprepared for the challenges ahead?

It could be argued that the economic, political, and historical 
conditions in Chile and the United States are so different that any 
comparison between the two is pointless. The US Constitution, for all 
its shortcomings, did not originate in a fraud like the one perpetrated 
by General Pinochet. And it is unlikely that enough citizens in the 50 
states are so dissatisfied with their lot that they would be willing to 
undergo the sort of intense re-examination of their identity that 
Chileans are about to embark upon. I do not doubt, in fact, that most 
Americans, fearful of disruption, terrified that their country might 
crumble under yet more divisiveness, would prefer that alterations to 
their fundamental laws and institutions be carried out, if at all, by 
their elected representatives.

That was precisely how Chileans were told change would happen.

What they finally decided, after 30 years of waiting and increasing 
despair, was to use their extraordinary power as a mobilized people to 
demand action. What they understood is that the Constitution affected 
every aspect of their daily existence, even if they had no say in 
shaping it. The only way that it could cease to be an abstract, faraway 
document, unrepresentative and unresponsive to their concerns— the only 
way it could fully belong to them—was to fight for it, risk having their 
bodies bruised and their eyes blinded by police pellets, risk their jobs 
and their tranquility to create an order that they could recognize as 
their own and not imposed from above. What has been most amazing about 
the year since insubordinate Chileans forced a referendum to take 
place—and what will be yet more amazing in the year and a half ahead—is 
the vast educational value of discussing and gauging, measuring and 
weighing, the pros and cons of all manner of questions that are so often 
left to a select group of remote experts. The process itself of a 
joyful, collective reckoning with the past anticipates the sort of 
country that is envisioned, transforms and makes better those who are 
part of that communal exploration.

It is a process that, once begun, can be thrilling and emancipatory.

However long it takes for the American people to move in that 
direction—and the protests of the last months and the tradition of 
struggle for peace and justice that has always been beating in the epic 
heart of Martin Luther King Jr.’s country gives me hope that it will be 
sooner rather than later—there is one message from Chile that should 
always be borne in mind.

My family in Santiago sent me a photo of some words a young man had 
scribbled on a placard that he was parading around the city on his bike:

    “Lo impensable se volvió posible porque salimos a exigirlo y el país
    no se vino abajo.”

    /The unthinkable became possible because we went out to demand it
    and the country did not crumble./

Or, as Salvador Allende—so alive today!—said, just minutes before dying 
in defense of democracy and dignity: The future is ours and it is made 
by the people.

/La historia es nuestra y la hacen los pueblos/.

/This column first appeared in The Nation./

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