By Tomás Lavados
Source: Getty Images
On October 18th, 2019, a series of violent protests erupted suddenly across Chile. Their apparent spontaneity and the speed with which they spread throughout the country were astonishing, as well as the level of violence and repression that were seen in the following days and months. Their immediate cause? A small increase in the subway fares in the capital, Santiago. Nobody could have foreseen that such policy decision would have led to chaos. Several analysts watching it from a distance started theorizing about what they thought were the real, underlying causes that led to this social “explosion”- the subway fare hike was just the very last drop, the igniting spark.
Interestingly, even the people protesting didn’t seem to agree on that. The protests were very disorganized, without any clear leadership, and without a single motive or list of demands. In the streets, signs could be seen demanding better pensions for retired people, an improved healthcare system, loan forgiveness to university students, land for indigenous peoples, and basically every other demand you can think of. This led many to interpret that the protests were against the whole economic and political system that dictator Augusto Pinochet established and left in place after leaving power in 1990, which was based on Neoliberal policies. Pinochet left in place a system that was very hard to change through its own rules, making many feel that his shadow still looms over Chile, maintaining the grip of the elites who once supported him, and preventing the country from becoming a more equitable nation. One popular slogan seen in the protests read: “it isn’t about 30 pesos, it’s about 30 years”- implying that in the last 30 years since the return to democracy, no attempt had been really done to change the system, and nothing had been done by politicians to improve the lives of ordinary Chileans.
This is not objectively true. Since the return to democracy, the multidimensional poverty rate in Chile has decreased from 34.7% in 1990 to 7.4% in 2017 (Ministerio de Desarrollo Social & UNDP). Life expectancy has increased from 73.5 years in 1990 to 80.2 years in 2019 (World Bank). Also, very importantly, you don’t get imprisoned or executed by the State for openly criticizing the president or stating your political opinions. Even though Chile remains a very unequal country, at least, most Chileans are better off than what they were under the dictatorship.
That being said, it is true that the military did leave behind a constitution that benefited a minority (the elite associated with the far-right who had supported Pinochet, and who still control a large share of Chile’s wealth), by establishing high quotas needed to change anything in it or its associated Organic Laws. Until the year 2005, a number of Senators were directly designated by the military, although many of such authoritarian Institutions were finally changed during the administration of socialist President Ricardo Lagos. The constitution also established a hyper-presidential system, in which the president has veto and agenda-setting powers, besides the ability to declare a State of Emergency (a state, by the way, in which the country has been nonstop since the beginning of the Coronavirus Pandemic, with strict curfews in place). Vestiges of authoritarianism still haunt the country.
It is hard to tell whether the root cause of all of Chile’s problems, including economic inequality, lies in the current constitution or not, but Chilean politicians saw a way out of the 2019 crisis through it. So, in an agreement between most political parties, they offered people a plebiscite, asking Chileans whether they wanted to write a new constitution. The plebiscite took place in October 2020, and Chileans overwhelmingly voted in favor, with a 78.28% rate of approval. A Constitutional Convention was then elected, in May 2021, with the mandate of drafting the new document. The results of this election were also surprising: a majority of the elected members were independents (48 out of 155 seats), and it included many young people and several who had never before been actively involved in politics. This tells that Chileans want change, effectively rejecting traditional political parties and the people who have been in power for the last 30 years. The Convention also has a great representation of women (77 seats or 49.7% of the total) and of indigenous groups (17 seats). Arguably, never before has a constitution of the country been written in such an equitable fashion.
Most Chileans, especially young ones and those from lower social classes, see this process with hope. To start, the purpose of changing the Constitution is largely symbolic. The Constitution is the last standing symbol of the Pinochet regime. And there are certainly many positive things that could come from a new one: rights like education and health being enshrined to a greater extent, stronger protection for the environment, a fair use of water, and, especially, more democratic rulemaking- a president with less power and maybe even some instances of direct democracy for the people.
However, there are also dangers involved in rewriting all the rules of the game from scratch, and they should not be underestimated. This is not the first time a country in Latin America decides to try a refoundational project, and some of the attempts have been disastrous. For example, an issue at stake is the protection of Central Bank independence (which is enshrined in the current constitution, and was arguably a factor contributing to Chile’s great macroeconomic stability compared to other Latin American countries in the last several decades). In recent weeks, after the Central Bank raised interest rates in response to rising inflation, there have been voices inside the Constitutional Convention questioning whether its independence should be maintained. But removing it could have disastrous economic consequences. Governments will always face a huge temptation to “print” more money when they need it- it is far easier and politically less costly than raising taxes, and borrowing has its limits. There is nothing to stop them if they directly control the Central Bank, and unrestricted money creation can quickly spiral out of control into hyperinflation. We have repeatedly seen this happen in several Latin American countries. Since the 1990s, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Nicaragua, Peru, Ecuador and, most recently, Venezuela have suffered because of it. Let us hope Chile will be wiser, and can avoid falling into this trap.
Latin America also happens to be a region that loves making new constitutions: between, 1978 and 2008, it drafted 15 new ones. How much good they have done to their respective countries is unclear; it would be an interesting subject of research.
One of the particularly interesting things about the new Constitutional Convention is that 41% of its members are under 40 years old, and the average age among all its members is just 44. This speaks of a great generational replacement that is taking place in the country, observed throughout most public offices. In the last municipal elections, several elected mayors were under 30, and the leading candidate for the next presidential election- which will take place in November this year, is 35. If elected, he would be the youngest president in Chilean history. Furthermore, data shows that more young people are voting than ever before.
The new generation that is taking power is full of optimism. But they didn’t live under Pinochet. Thus, the “30 years” argument makes sense to them. They may be naïve in not realizing that reality could have been much worse. They tend to downplay the possibility that attempting to make too many changes too quickly can destabilize a country and lead to chaos- this is arguably what led to Pinochet in the first place.
Older people are more cautious, if not scared. Many of them lost their savings of a lifetime during the Coronavirus pandemic (one of the measures taken to reactivate the economy was allowing people to withdraw money from their retirement funds, and at least 2 million people have been left with zero money in their accounts). Those who believed in the previous system felt betrayed. It is uncertain whether those funds will ever be restored, or whether the money remaining in the accounts of those who didn’t withdraw it will not be confiscated by a future government. Due to the enormous uncertainty created by current conditions, some wealthier individuals from older generations have begun leaving the country, or at least, taking their money out.
In Chile, Millennials are finally getting positions of power. They are a generation whose time has come, and they are full of ideas and utopian dreams. But with great power comes great responsibility. Will they use it wisely?
Tomás Lavados is a Master of International Affairs student specializing in International Development and Nonprofit Management. He grew up in Chile, where he obtained an undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering. After working for some time in the energy industry and as a private-sector consultant, he turned towards the social sector, and has thereafter worked for nonprofit organizations in Brazil and Chile. He loves rock music and avocado toast, and hates reggaeton.