ourEconomy: Analysis

Neoliberalism was born in Chile. Now it will die there

A new constitutional convention is imagining a country radically different from the one forged by murderous dictator Augusto Pinochet

Carolina Pérez Dattari
31 January 2022, 3.05pm
Widespread protests across Chile in 2019 led to a referendum, at which people overwhelmingly voted for a new constitution
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Luis Sandoval Mandujano / Alamy Stock Photo

When Chile overwhelmingly elected Gabriel Boric on 19 December, I was elated. Left-wing Boric had been pitted against the far-Right José Antonio Kast, who had systematically denied the climate crisis, attacked the rights of immigrants, women and the LGBTQ community, and spoken admiringly of Augusto Pinochet, the murderous dictator who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990.

Now, under 35-year-old Boric, who heads the Frente Amplio (‘Border Front’) coalition, the country has a chance for serious and meaningful change – to move away from the economic and social model forged by Pinochet. It is widely acknowledged that the neoliberal model first took hold not in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain or Ronald Reagan’s United States, but in Pinochet’s Chile. Under the dictatorship, the state was shrunk to the minimum, relinquishing to profit-driven businesses the provision of rights through the privatisation of public services.

This turned Chile into a country with housing, health, and education for the rich; a privatised pension system in which social security is at the mercy of investment profitability; a plundered natural environment; communities without access to drinking water as a result of deregulated agribusiness, and a tax system that does nothing to change the fact that the country is one of the most unequal in the world. Pinochet’s biographer, Mario Amorós, characterises the dictator’s legacy as “a model installed by blood and gunfire that benefited the elites who controlled the media and held the economic power”.

Persistent and widespread protests erupted across Chile in 2019, against extreme inequality and for a new constitution to replace the one imposed by Pinochet. The protests forced a 3am showdown on 25 November 2019 in the National Congress, under the watchful gaze of millions of Chileans following the events on television. Capitulating to public pressure, several political parties agreed to a referendum on whether to draft a new constitution.

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At that referendum, which was held in October 2020, 78% of people voted ‘yes’, leading to the election of a historic ‘Constitutional Convention’ of 155 people tasked with rewriting the constitution. The convention – to which I am an adviser – includes delegates from across the political spectrum, many of whom are independent of political parties, as well as feminists and environmentalists. It met for the first time on 4 July last year, with a clear directive: drafting the first democratic constitution in Chile’s history, with gender parity and indigenous representation. It has a year to fulfil that mandate, and the public will vote again in October on whether to approve its proposed new constitution.

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Convening democracy

The convention’s first move was to elect Elisa Loncón, an Indigenous Mapuche feminist university professor, as its chairperson. In her first speech in the role, she said: “Thanks to all of you for placing your trust in a Mapuche woman to change the history of this country…This convention is for all Chileans from every sector and every region and… against every system of domination…It is for a Chile that protects Mother Earth.”

Participation rules adopted by the convention are critical to its success. One notable example is the convention’s decision to hold interim public referendums for provisions that fail to obtain two-thirds approval but do receive three-fifths support, which provides a way to skirt potential roadblocks set up by conservatives. Another is known as ‘the popular initiative’, which allows any citizen to propose a constitutional provision on any issue if they can gather more than 15,000 signatures in support.

Graffiti on a wall
Graffiti from Chile’s 2019 protests reads ‘Neoliberalism is born and dies in Chile’
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Carolina Pérez Dattari. All rights reserved

Through seven thematic commissions, the Constitutional Convention is discussing key transformations. These include declaring Chile a plurinational state – recognizing the country’s several nations and granting them degrees of autonomy – and recognizing nature as a subject with rights, to provide more tools to protect ecosystems. Another pivotal proposal is to change the role of the state from one oriented to individualism to one oriented to solidarity. Also high on the agenda is eliminating all gender-based asymmetry in public and political participation, enabling a state with equal representation in its judicial, legislative and executive branches.

One of the most groundbreaking discussions is on the institution of a National Care System. Currently, domestic and unpaid care work accounts for the majority (53%) of productive work in Chile, equivalent to 22% of GDP. Some 72% of this work is carried out by women. A National Care System would not only recognize caring occupations as work, but would pay for and professionalise these services. The long-standing demand of Chilean women for our sexual and reproductive rights – and the possible adoption of a law that permits abortion – is also at the centre of this proposal.

Many of these proposals will be strongly contested. Boric’s opponent Kast attacked both women and nature in his election campaign, committing to closing the Ministry of Women and denying global warming. The promise to extend the rights of nature will be strongly opposed by the supporters of Big Business, as it runs against Chile’s history as an exporter of raw or semi-processed materials like copper and more recently lithium, as well as export-oriented agriculture. “The Chilean model is based on extractivism, and a new Constitution could insist that a company has to maintain ecological equilibrium,” explains political scientist Claudio Fuentes. Chile’s Right occupies almost a third of the convention’s seats.

Still, Chile has begun 2022 with a sense of optimism. Gabriel Boric’s new government is charged with organising the October 2022 referendum over the new constitution. “If it’s successful, it will be a model of hope, and not only for Chile,” says constitutional expert Bruce Ackerman. During the 2019 protests, a piece of graffiti declared, ‘Neoliberalism is born and dies in Chile’. A new constitution could make this wish come true.

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