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Chileans rejected the new constitution, but they still want progressive reforms

I confess that I am in mourning. On Sunday, a resounding 62% of the voters in Chile, my country, rejected the adoption of a new and progressive Magna Carta; leaving in place, for now, the fraudulent constitution imposed by dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1980 that has acted as a straitjacket to indispensable reforms.

Like many of my compatriots I believed that the new constitution, born in response to a popular revolt three years ago, would be ratified. It was the most ecologically advanced such founding document in world history, granting personhood to nature, protecting rivers and air and forests. It extended democracy, established gender parity and popular participation, granted Indigenous peoples the recognition they had been denied for centuries, lovingly answered the need for universal health care, decent education and pension funds, access to water, sovereignty over mineral resources, the care for animals and children – things that generations of Chileans have been fighting for.

It is tempting, but insufficient, to blame the rejection of the new constitution on a massive disinformation campaign funded by the richest Chileans – though they outspent the approval forces four to one – or as a result of a protest vote against the radical president, Gabriel Boric. Albeit only recently inaugurated, he has been unable to stem rising crime, to calm violent conflict involving Indigenous activists and the state, or to curb inflation. It is clear that a majority of the electorate thought that the constitutional convention had overreached, going too far in reforming the judicial and legislative systems. Some also found its 388 articles – it is the longest such document in the world – confusing and even extravagant (giving legal status to glaciers and defending culturally appropriate food).

I also suspect that, though few would openly admit it, a large number of my fellow countrymen and women are uneasy about the emphasis on the autonomy of Indigenous peoples, and the insistence on “plurinationalism” in a land that prides itself on its unity. I remember coming to live in Chile at the age of 12 and being told over and over again that there were no “Indians” in the country, that they had all been assimilated. It may well be that this current attempt to bring those nations, their languages, customs, and culture, out of invisibility was a challenge to what innumerable Chileans felt to be their deepest identity: their European heritage. This is basically an unwillingness to deal with the atrocities of history, and the dispossession of those native Chileans.

Although we have missed a unique chance to finally bury the authoritarian Pinochet constitution – which has been the facilitator of Chile’s neoliberal economic policies and, therefore, of its current crisis – I am comforted by the certainty that a new constitution will eventually be adopted. Sunday’s referendum was not the end of the road, but one more faltering step in the search for justice. Most of those who voted to reject the new national charter also voted, in 2020, with a majority of almost 80%, to replace Pinochet’s constitution. Indeed, the desire for significant reforms – for a different, participatory, vision of our future, for a nation that protects nature and cares for its most vulnerable people, that expects women to be protagonists and diversity to be tolerated – is strong and uncontested. Even politicians who campaigned for rejection, including rightwing ones who have resisted change for decades, have paid attention to citizens’ demands and promised to replace the constitution created during the dictatorship.

Though the convention that was drafted has been rejected politically, most of the dreams it embodied – of liberation and equality, of female and environmental rights – continue to be culturally valid and even victorious.

What lies ahead is, nevertheless, a thorny and complicated path. It is now up to congress (where rightwing forces have close to half the votes and could veto what does not serve their interests) to decide the roadmap that would create a text that, while preserving many of the best ideas of the rejected document, would also appeal to the common sense of mainstream Chileans. Though this process will now be in the hands of the privileged elite whom millions took to the streets to protest against, those streets and those millions are still there. They will be forcefully pressing for their demands to be met. And, the executive branch has at its head a 36-year-old president who is committed both to radical change and the search for a consensus that will guarantee lasting peace.

My only advice to my compatriots in the struggle is to remember the words I once heard from the great Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal: “The constitutions of tomorrow will be written with the love poems of today.”

Perhaps, after all, love will prevail and I will stop mourning.

  • Ariel Dorfman is a Chilean-American writer and the author of Death and the Maiden, The Compensation Bureau and Voices from the Other Side of Death

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