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Op-Ed:  Will Chile approve a new constitution, or stick with Pinochet’s legacy?

A man signing a document in a ceremony that is being photographed
Chilean President Gabriel Boric signs the document that calls for a referendum on the country’s new constitution; the approve or reject vote comes Sunday.
(Luis Hidalgo / Associated Press)
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An existential choice awaits the Chilean people in a referendum on Sunday to approve (apruebo) a new constitution or reject it (rechazo), leaving in place a national charter fraudulently imposed on the country in 1980 by dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Put in those stark terms and considering the origins of the referendum, its outcome would seem a foregone conclusion. Sparked by a rebellion demanding crucial reforms stymied by the legal straitjacket of Pinochet’s constitution, almost 80% of the electorate voted in October 2020 for a constitutional convention to draft a new Magna Carta.

The composition of the 155 popularly elected delegates to the convention — half of them women — further cemented the sense that their efforts would be approved. As I was told again and again on a recent visit to Chile, the delegates “look like us, like the real country.”

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Indeed, many of them were young and newcomers to traditional politics, a large contingent came from the neglected regional provinces, and Indigenous peoples were significantly represented. Moreover, thousands of individuals and organizations that embody the aspirations for justice, equality and the common welfare shared by the majority of Chileans contributed to the proceedings.

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Another boost came in December, with the election of President Gabriel Boric, a charismatic, 35-year old former student activist and revolutionary. With 56% of the vote, the largest margin in Chile’s history, Boric and his radical agenda mirrored the proposals that shaped the new constitution and should have enhanced its chance of success.

And yet, surprisingly, polls indicate that the “reject” forces may win Sunday.

This is partly the fault of the convention itself. Its year-long deliberations were painstakingly public, transparent and democratic, and what they often revealed were tumultuous debates about extreme proposals, such as replacing the presidency, the Congress and the judiciary with a national assembly of uncertain dimensions, or making alterations to the flag. Though these proposals were never going to be adopted, a cunning, and well-financed, conservative campaign magnified them, painting the convention and its work as out of touch with the Chilean mainstream.

In addition, some major figures on the center-left object to potential harms they see in the document. The new charter defines Chile as plurinational — meaning that it contains multiple nations, a reference to Indigenous peoples. Their concern is that such a definition will require two-part governance — a separate judicial system, for example — and might endanger Chilean unity.

And there are other nitpicks: The constitution renames the Senate and slightly restructures the judiciary, giving rise to claims that the upper house will be diminished and judicial independence compromised.

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Run-off vote settles most polarized election in South American nation since return to democracy more than three decades ago.

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To complicate matters, Boric’s government got off to a rocky start. He inherited problems he hasn’t been able to resolve immediately (rising crime and inflation rates, flaws in the health, education and social security systems, violence on the part of Indigenous Mapuche activists), which sent the president’s popularity plummeting, affecting the new constitution’s prospects. Nor has it been helpful that millions of voters, without having read the proposed 178-page document, have fallen prey to a barrage of fake news about its contents (for instance, that it abolishes home ownership or treats white people as second-class citizens).

I am convinced, nevertheless, that if enough citizens come to understand the actual contents of the constitution, they will ratify what is a breathtakingly visionary, ethical and deeply democratic charter.

The new constitution recognizes solidarity, participation and freedom from discrimination as essential features of a decentralized state, daring to imagine a country with parity in male/female representation, where the justice system lives up to its name, where nature and Chile’s ecology are scrupulously protected, and where Indigenous communities are recognized as full protagonists in the nation’s story. It establishes rights to abortion, healthcare, water, housing, education and adequate pension funds.

Most importantly, this new national charter marks a significant paradigm shift in how the common good should be conceived in Chile. It defends — with affecting tenderness — the needs of children and animals, of old and infirm people, of women and gender-diverse individuals and even of glaciers and rivers.

As to objections regarding parallel Indigenous rights or issues of governance, undecided voters should take heart: The parties backing Boric have announced that, if the constitution is approved, these and other ambiguities can and will be clarified and amended.

Salvador Allende’s election as president of Chile still matters, especially now, as the United States faces a momentous election of its own.

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Finally, though, the fate of Chile’s new founding document will depend on how profoundly people feel it responds to their history and yearnings.

There is another Sept. 4 in Chile’s collective memory. On that date in 1970, with a multitude of my compatriots, I celebrated the election of Salvador Allende as president, a socialist who would find the ideals of the 2022 constitution similar to his own commitment to a just, equitable society.

Three years later, on Sept. 11, 1973, Allende was overthrown in a coup and died in the presidential palace, defending democracy. The 17 years of dictatorship that followed still corrode the land.

This Sept. 4, I believe and pray that the Chilean people’s dreams of liberation and dignity will not again be thwarted. May the new constitution become a shining model for how we must care for each other and for nature in our troubled century.

Ariel Dorfman is the Chilean American author of “Death and the Maiden.” His latest book is “Voices From the Other Side of Death.”

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