Santiago, Chile, October 25, 2020. View of the vote cast by the winners in the Plebiscite in Chile. Vote text: National Plebiscite 2020. Do you want a new constitution? + I Approve - Rejection. Photo: Klopping/ Shutterstock
Counting of votes of the referendum that took place on October 25, in Chile, for the elaboration of a new Constitution for the country. Photo: Klopping / Shutterstock

From Pinochet's "clinic" to post-neoliberalism "laboratory": Why will Chile make a new constitution?

A week ago, Chileans decided to write a new Magna Carta, with the participation of women and minorities

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I’m sure the name The Clinic, a popular Chilean political satire magazine founded in 1998, in addition to mocking The London Clinic – a private institution that General Augusto Pinochet checked into, in London, that same year, to undergo surgery after being warned by the Scotland Yard that there was an international arrest warrant in his name – also marked for publishers the end of what the General thought was his immortality. 

Lifetime senator and enjoying the fortune usurped during his absolutist government, Pinochet spent 503 days in London immersed in a legal fight that, in the end, came to the conclusion that the dictator’s health had deteriorated so badly that he was not fit to be judged.

Back in Chile, Pinochet remained under house arrest until his death, never having been convicted of the more than 300 cases that weighed on him, from crimes against humanity, such as murder and torture, to corruption, money laundering and forgery of documents. But when he died, he was no longer a lifelong senator, nor was he a Chilean patriarchal figure from a country forged in blood.

With Pinochet dead, it was still needed to “kill” a “book” that synthesizes the dictator’s ideas.

Exactly a year ago, I was writing about the protests that broke out in Chile. The reason, which seemed mundane, the increase in the metro fare, proved to be just the last straw for a population dissatisfied with the economic system implanted since Pinochet – at the same time, protests also erupted in Ecuador and Bolivia, resonating the old identity differences in Latin America.

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At that same time, on my way to Buenos Aires to cover the presidential elections, I wondered if these movements were not events of resistance to colonization, as if the continent was going through an identity crisis that came from a childhood suppressed by colonizers, a youth shaped by foreign economic systems and dictatorships sponsored by spurious interests, in addition to maturity grounded in mandatory globalization.

Ecuador and Bolivia fit this model well, with their original people still living under economic apartheid. But conservative, Catholic and neoliberal Chile, apparently a model of “civilization” for its neighbors, “raised eyebrows” when it showed that its earthquakes were not just natural incidents.

Chile “the laboratory” of neoliberalism in Latin America, looked more like the “clinic” of a system that breathed by devices. Many were taken by surprise, since the economic indexes, when looked at a high level, did not show a society decadent for being unequal.

Pinochet’s shadow was still cast on the pages of a constitution forged during the dictatorship, paved with the ideals of Milton Friedman, professor at the University of Chicago, precursor of neoliberalism. Ironically, Friedman believed that capitalism and freedom went hand in hand, generating equality, with a minimal state.

Such a theory applied in Chile, generated for many the discrepancies that we see today and, for others, the economic boom of yesterday. However, the clinic of decades-long economic experiments in financial products and freedom of capital, without a social cushion for the population, no longer contemplates the new Chile.

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As a matter of fact, in Chile, such a system was the foundation of the protests we have seen since last year, with a population tired of accumulating duties and being deficient in rights. It was the absence of fundamental rights, such as free university health and education, meager retirement pension (Chile adopts individual capitalization, with little or no State contribution to social security), the strong police presence, the privatization of public companies and the tyrannical traces of the Pinochet dictatorship in the current Constitution that took thousands of Chileans to the streets and to the polls to ask for a new Constitution.

Many were slow to see that although Chile led the region’s per capita GDP, the country was also one of the nations with the greatest wage disparity in South America, with a number of billionaires exceeding Russia – that is, with a social inequality that challenged economic prosperity.

A Constitution where women and minorities play a role

The idea of ​​a new Constituent was accepted, last weekend, by about 80% of the population. Not only that: the new Constitution will be written by elected constituents (politicians who want to participate must give up their positions to run for a seat in the Constituent); with the representativeness of minorities (10% must be indigenous, since the Mapuche, a predominant ethnic group among the indigenous peoples of the country, were considered non-existent in the current Constitution): and at least 50% must be women.

It will be a joint assembly, unprecedented in a world marked by an overwhelmingly male majority in the political sphere. The process may take up to two years, but it will forever change the history of one of the countries until then considered the birthplace of “neoliberalism” in the region. Some experts even venture to say that the first post-neoliberal country in the world may be born and wonder if this movement will not be contagious. 

The effects on Latin America

It is still not known what role will fit Brazil in this new Latin America. With Economy Minister Paulo Guedes, Brazil even rehearsed a few steps mirroring the Chicago school of economics, where Guedes attended, and in the Chilean system, whose conception he participated in. But the COVID-19 pandemic has stopped Guedes’ momentum for the time being.

A defeat by Donald Trump in the presidential election in the United States, and a deepening of the trade war with China, added to a Europe dissatisfied with Brazil’s environmental policies, curbing multilateral agreements due to this dissatisfaction, may lead the country to become one international outcast.

On this board, it is imperative to be aware of what happens to the neighbor. It will be difficult to sell a dying system whose appearance seems prosperous, but which, naked, is yet another facet of the continent’s social inequality. 

The Sunday of October 25, 2020, arrived carried by a river of blood and losses, but that will dictate the direction of Chilean history in the coming years. In the 2019 protests, 36 people lost their lives to police violence, more than two thousand were injured and 356 ended up blind, victims of the rubber bullets used by security forces to suppress the demonstrations. At the time, the truculence of carabineros, the Chilean police, already seemed to announce the depth of the changes desired by the Chilean people.

Counting of votes of the referendum that took place on October 25, in Chile, for the elaboration of a new Constitution for the country. Photo: Klopping/ Shutterstock

The Sunday before the referendum on the Constitution had already been of commotion in South America, with the Bolivians bringing back the party of Evo Morales, in the person of President Luis Arce. Morales had left the country months before, after resigning under violent upheavals. In exile, he passed through Cuba and Mexico and took up residence in Argentina, protected by the newly elected Alberto Fernández. Arce, Evo’s historic Minister of Economy, now is back as president in a sort of redemption of Morales before the world.

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In February, it will be Ecuador’s turn to choose its destination. The tide of change is whipping the shores of the Latin American continent at considerable speed. 

It may be that Chile continues its vocation as a laboratory or “clinic” for experiments in Latin America, in a way never contemplated by Pinochet. No one knows yet what it exactly means to de-liberalize a country.

But Chile can be the laboratory for a new system that allows the balance between a social state and a liberal one. It is too early to say what will come out of the new Constitution. Some points are predictable, others depend on the process itself. The thing is that Chileans have chosen a new path in the direction proportionally opposite to the road they have followed so far.

Translated by Anna Lima