The Chilean constitutional vote: A tectonic shift?

Fifty years after the US tried to derail Chilean democracy, Chile is paving the way for a new, progressive model of governance.

A soldier stands guard inside a school used as a trial vote polling station ahead of the September 4th constitutional referendum in Santiago, Chile September 2, 2022. The sign reads 'Constitutional Referendum 2022'. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado
Chile is to hold a constitutional referendum on September 4 [Reuters/Ivan Alvarado]

In the aftermath of the deadly magnitude 8.8 earthquake that rocked Chile in February 2010, US columnist Bret Stephens – whose brand of conservative zealotry commands a regrettably lucrative market in the imperial commentariat – took to the Wall Street Journal’s opinion page to explain “How Milton Friedman Saved Chile”.

In Stephens’ view, the late free-market fundamentalist was to thank for the fact that the disaster did not cause more damage – and for giving Chileans the “intellectual wherewithal first to survive the quake, and now to build their lives anew”. Never mind that Friedman’s “intellectual” contributions to the South American nation consist of providing the neoliberal ideology that underpinned the bloody US-backed dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), which thousands of Chileans did not survive. Tens of thousands more were tortured by the state.

Never mind, too, that the strict Chilean building codes referenced by Stephens hailed from 1972, i.e. from the pre-dictatorship presidency of democratically elected Salvador Allende – whose belief in economic equality, social justice, and other diabolical things had necessitated the lethal 1973 coup against him by the guardians of hemispheric order. Following Allende’s election, US President Richard Nixon famously ordered the CIA to “make the [Chilean] economy scream”. Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s national security adviser and secretary of state, busied himself setting the stage for the coup.

Fast forward 49 years and the foundations of order are once again being shaken – but not by an earthquake. In a compulsory nationwide plebiscite on Sunday, September 4, Chileans will vote on whether to approve a new draft constitution to replace the current one, which dates from 1980 and the Pinochet heyday.

The draft came about in accordance with an October 2020 referendum in which 78 percent of voters expressed support for a new national constitution. This was one year after massive, heavily-repressed protests in Chile had shone yet another light on the country’s devastating levels of inequality and social disintegration – and on the willful obtuseness of anyone who calls Milton Friedman a “saviour”.

In terms of equality, the draft constitution does not fail to deliver. For starters, it is the first constitution in the world to be drawn up by an equal number of women and men, with significant representation from Indigenous communities, as well.

As CNN’s Spanish website notes, the document racks up a number of other firsts, too. It would be the first Chilean constitution to enshrine rights for, inter alia, women, children, and LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming people. In an unprecedented stand on behalf of Indigenous rights, the text defines Chile as a “plurinational” state, proposing greater autonomy for Indigenous territories and the recognition of Indigenous legal systems.

The new constitution would furthermore ensure a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy – a progressive step indeed in a country where abortion was totally banned until 2017. Also proposed are measures to limit the well-established potential for abuse by state security forces. In contrast to the 1980 constitution, the new 178-page draft does not once mention the word “terrorism”, which, as elsewhere in Latin America, long served as a handy excuse for inflicting corporate-friendly state terror – all, of course, with the blessing and help of the US.

Plus, the new text includes various protections for organised labour and guarantees basic rights like health, education, shelter, food, and water – which, however basic they may be, still spell sacrilege from a neoliberal perspective.

In other words, voting “yes” on September 4 might be a pretty good way to purge the ghost of Pinochet once and for all. And yet a right-wing disinformation campaign has done its best to keep the ghost alive, by propagating such fearsome tales as that – in the event the draft constitution is approved – private property will be abolished, abortions will be performed at nine months of gestation, and the country will be spontaneously converted into an Indigenous tyranny incorporating elements of Venezuela and Cuba.

Granted, there are also plenty of Chilean leftists who argue that the new document doesn’t go far enough. But it’s still a breath of fresh air in a world asphyxiated by capitalism – particularly given its emphasis on Chile as an “ecological” entity, where the state must play an active role in safeguarding the rights of nature along with human environmental rights.

It’s all certainly more inspiring than the constitution of the United States, which has been forced down the throat of many a developing nation as a model – despite the fact that the country was founded on the genocide of Indigenous folks and the institutionalised inequality of human beings. While the right to bear arms is enshrined in the US constitution, the right to more fundamental things is not, and, as the New York-based Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC) points out, “the word water appears only once in the Constitution, in a provision that permits Congress to auction off enemy warships”.

Now, half a century after the US undertook to derail Chilean democracy, Chile has paved the way for more inclusive and participatory governance than ever: a novel contract between state, citizen, and environment that has no place for Milton Friedman’s neoliberal earthquake. And while it remains to be seen whether the constitutional vote constitutes a tectonic shift, the whole process is at least shaking things up in the meantime.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.