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‘Everything is Won by Fighting’: Chile Protests Yield New Constitution, But Material Demands Remain

© REUTERS / JORGE SILVAA demonstrator poses for a portrait in front of a graffiti reading "Constituent Assembly" during a protest against Chile's government in Santiago, Chile November 13, 2019.
A demonstrator poses for a portrait in front of a graffiti reading Constituent Assembly during a protest against Chile's government in Santiago, Chile November 13, 2019. - Sputnik International
Chilean lawmakers have agreed to redraft the country’s constitution following weeks of mass protests. However, the agreement ignores protesters’ material concerns, so posturing by the government and mass media as having addressed the protests’ raison d’etre could introduce a dangerous impatience to the police and make the violence worse.

The 12-point “Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution” was signed early Friday morning by lawmakers from both the ruling and opposition political blocs in the National Congress. The plan calls for an April 2020 plebiscite in which Chileans would vote as to whether they want a new constitution and whether the constituent assembly that drafts it will be a mixture of legislators and elected delegates or be composed purely of delegates specially elected for the task.

If the plan moves forward, elections to the convention would take place that October, when local and regional elections are slated to be held, and drafting of the new constitution could take up to a year. It would require the ratification of two-thirds of the delegates present, and then approval in a nationwide referendum, before it could become the Andean nation’s highest law.

‘Parliamentarians Don’t Have Credibility’

A previous version of the plan presented by Chilean President Sebastián Piñera unveiled last Monday would have seen only present officials redrafting the constitution, not an elected constituent assembly.

“Parliamentarians don’t have credibility today,” said Sen. Manuel José Ossandón, who is part of Piñera’s governing coalition, according to the Los Angeles Times. “The parliament doesn’t have credibility to do something without the more active participation of the community.”

In response to the lukewarm idea, labor leaders called a national strike the following day which failed to totally materialize, although major demonstrations continued to rock cities spanning the length of the 2,563-mile-long country.

Marta Lagos, a pollster and political analyst, told the Wall Street Journal on Friday that demonstrators would continue to demand further concessions, since their movement is fueled by far more immediate concerns than simply forming a new constitution. 

When the protests first began in mid-October, they were sparked by a hike in transit fares on Santiago’s subway system. However, as the demonstrations swelled, they quickly took aim at the country’s neoliberal economic system in which such necessities of life as water are privatized and the gap between rich and poor is among the largest on the planet.

“Political guarantees are not enough,” Lagos said. “Without social guarantees, there won’t be social peace. There could be a truce but not peace.”

Among the protesters’ demands are the inclusion of social security and other welfare provisions in the new constitution as guaranteed rights.

‘Highly Irregular and Undemocratic’

The present constitution dates to 1980, when it codified the pro-business, neoliberal order ushered in during the previous seven years of military rule. Former President Augusto Pinochet ended the military rule created when he led a coup d’etat against then democratically-elected socialist President Salvador Allende in September 1973, although he remained the country’s president for another decade. However, the transition was only gradual, ensuring de facto military rule until 1988 and providing extensive protections for businesses and few for ordinary citizens.

The plebiscite that approved the constitution was also "highly irregular and undemocratic,” as a US Government Publishing Office report on Chile characterized it.

As a declassified CIA report from 1988 noted, “The government left no stone unturned to ensure a favorable outcome in the plebiscite, resorting to extensive intimidation of opposition groups, arbitrary measures to undercut the efforts of those advocating a ‘no’ vote, and at least some fraud during the balloting and the tabulation of votes.” 

Some measures mentioned included counting blank ballots as “yes” votes, refusing to lift the state of emergency that restricted political activities of opposition groups prior to the vote and requiring many peasants and rural voters to fill out their ballots in the presence of their employers or public officials.

Left-Wing Opposition to the Deal

The only party that didn’t agree to Friday’s grand deal was the Communist Party of Chile, which has eight lawmakers in the legislature but a strong presence in the labor and student movements that are helping to give the protests structure.

Journalist Alina Duarte told Sputnik from Santiago on Tuesday that the communists, reflecting a broadly popular position held by protesters in the streets, refused to sign because “it was not only about the constitution, it was an agreement for peace … it was an agreement that didn’t consider the things that already are going on in Chile.”

“The agreement didn’t talk about repression and a  … committee for truth … so they are not going to investigate the crimes about torture, disappearances and the violation of human rights over the last four weeks,” Duarte explained. “They are just thinking about a new constitution. So that’s basically why the Communist Party didn’t want to sign this agreement. And also because they are not talking about housing, health care, education, and so the people are still really, really upset.”

The agreement has also been opposed by more left-wing elements of the opposition Frente Amplio alliance that signed the deal, including 72 high-profile members who resigned in protest from alliance member party Convergencia Social because the agreement is “essentially contrary to the demands that different and diverse manifestations have enunciated in the streets. Its construction was carried out by a set of party and parliamentary directives that do not represent the majority will of the mobilization, excluding, in short, that Chile woke up,” according to a statement by the resigners quoted by El Mostrador.

“The protagonist of the constitutional process will not be the people, they will not have the social sectors that have mobilized in the street,” Valparaiso Mayor Jorge Sharp, one of the party members who resigned, told El Desconcierto. “In that sense, it seems to me that beyond the content of the agreement, the signal that is delivered is bad because the country [has] changed, and the political forms of representation have to change as well. But the way in which this agreement was developed expresses the opposite.”

Duarte told Sputnik a major problem faced by the protest movement is that “they don’t really have a leadership, a visible leadership that can talk for people. They are negotiating in the congress, but not with the movements or with someone like a spokesperson who can tell what to do and what to agree. That’s good and that’s bad at the same time, because the government and the congress are now showing in the mass media basically, they’re having a campaign on this agreement, and they’re saying that things have to stop, specifically the protests.” 

“That’s really dangerous, because I think that’s now the beginning of the offensive of the government against the population in the streets,” Duarte said, noting it allows Piñera to “look like he really listened to the people.”

‘Still a Lot of Demands on the Table’

Even with regards to the agreement reached, no structure is laid out to ensure that a complete cross-section of Chilean society is represented in the constituent assembly. For example, when Venezuela set about forming such a body in 2017, seats were reserved in the constituent assembly for dozens of social groups, from the elderly and disabled to indigenous people, women, industrial workers, farmers, students and more.

“The congress people chosen, or that are already elected, they don’t really represent the voice of the Mapuches, indigenous people, women ... it can happen that, I don’t know, 100 white men can discuss the new constitution,” Duarte noted.

“So there are a lot of issues that make the people stay in the streets, and they are calling for national strikes once again,” she said. “Yesterday they took to the streets after a month of protests, and they are going to keep in the streets; they’re going to stay there. Yesterday was called ‘Super Monday’ because there were protests all over the country.”

“I think the repression we are going to see now is going to get worse,” Duarte said, “because of the campaign, the government and mass media campaign on this agreement that makes it seem that everything is finished and that all the people now agree with the congressmen. But the reality is that the people weren’t listened to after a month of protests, and they still have a lot of demands on the table … education, health care, housing.”

“There are so many people [living] in the streets of Santiago … there are so many students, like in the US, they have amazing debts. For studying at the university, [because of] health care, it’s like in the US. There are so many similarities. I’ve never experienced this in another country in Latin America: Chile is the nearest thing to the US system about exclusion, about repression, about the role of the mass media, about inequality. So yeah, they are going to stay in the streets, they are going to keep fighting. This is a fight that isn’t over yet. I think this is going to last at least another two or three weeks.”

One older man who recalled the time of the dictatorship hailed the younger protesters for fighting so fiercely for change.

​“I’m here with the youth. With hope, with hope in this youth that fights for all the elderly, for those who are coming, and those coming next, and I hope we get what we want,” he said in a video that has gone viral on Twitter. “Nothing is achieved easily. In this country, everything is won by fighting, by dying. I am a son of the dictatorship, and I admire this youth who took to the streets to fight for us. As an old person, I want to thank everyone here, all this youth, these young people who have said ‘enough,’ who have lost their eyes for us. Thank you very much! I can’t talk anymore because I am too moved … thanks to all of them, to all the youth.”

At least 26 people have died in the protests, with more than 2,000 hospitalized. Al Jazeera noted that at least 200 people had suffered severe eye injuries as a result of the prolific use of rubber bullets and pellets by the police and military. Thousands of protesters have been arrested as well, with numerous reported cases of disappearances and arbitrary arrests, including of journalists and political radicals, such as leaders of the Young Communist League.

By Morgan Artyukhina

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