Now that young politician, a 36-year-old shaggy-haired former student activist named Gabriel Boric, is Chile’s president. And this week, he received a document that could become Chile’s new constitution, a 388-article charter that envisions a progressive, feminist future for the South American nation.
“Today we begin a new phase,” Boric said Monday at Chile’s former congress building in Santiago, the 19th-century palace that has hosted the constitutional convention over the past year. “Once more, it will be the people who have the final say on their destiny.”
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Chileans are set to vote Sept. 4 on the document, which would enshrine many of the priorities of the social movements led by the younger generations: Gender equality, environmental protections, Indigenous rights, and guaranteed access to education. The constitution is one of the first in the world to be drafted in the context of a climate crisis, and to be written by a convention with gender parity. It recognizes the sentience of animals, and their “right to live a life free from abuse.”
It’s a woke constitution propelled by left-leaning millennials and built for a modern nation led by one. The question is whether Chileans are ready for it.
“What Chile decided… was to become part of the new demands raised by a specific generation,” said Sergio Toro, a political scientist at Chile’s University Mayor. Their success, he said, depends on whether they can achieve this new social pact. “If they succeed, it will mean the beginning of a different country.”
The experiment could serve as a case study in writing a progressive constitution in the 21st century – and the challenges in getting a divided nation to agree to it.
After the protests of 2019, nearly 80 percent of Chileans voted in 2020 to draft a new constitution to replace the country’s Augusto Pinochet-era, Milton Friedman-influenced charter. But it now seems increasingly unlikely Chileans will approve it – polls show the vote to reject it holds a clear lead.
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At one point, the first democratically drafted constitution in Chilean history included 499 articles, which would have made it one of the longest such documents in the world. It was whittled down to 388, plus 57 more to aid in the country’s transition to the new charter.
It’s a marked departure from the current charter, which did not mention Chile’s Indigenous peoples.
The document would enshrine Chile as plurinational – containing many distinct peoples – and raise the possibility of autonomy for Indigenous territories. One section would guarantee restitution for historically Indigenous lands at a “fair price.” Another would make the government responsible for preventing, adapting to, and mitigating the effects of climate change. Elsewhere, the document would guarantee protections for biodiversity, enshrine a right to nature, and clear the way for the country’s deeply unpopular private water rights system to be replaced.
“This has been an unprecedented process, because we were able to consider all of the evidence around climate change when crafting the new constitution,” said Cristina Dorador, 42, a microbiologist from Antofagasta. “I hope that all of this can serve as an example to other countries.”
The charter would make the government responsible for providing free higher education, health care and many other services. It would guarantee a right to housing, and to leisure time. It would require that at least half of all members of government and congress, and employees of public and public-private companies, be women. It would also recognize the government’s responsibility to eradicate gender violence.
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The first article defines Chile as inclusive and gender-equal.
“Feminism features in the constitution as one of the central pillars of the redistribution of power,” explained Constanza Schönhaut, 33, a delegate from Santiago.
It would shake up Chile’s political system, abolishing the Senate in favor of a “chamber of regions” – an upper house composed of elected delegates from each of Chile’s regions – and lower the barriers for independent candidates to run for elected positions.
“This proposal is completely different in form and content to the 1980 constitution,” said Kenneth Bunker, the director of Tresquintos, a political analysis website. “If that was drafted in one room by four generals, then this new proposal was written with full plurality.”
The 155-member constitutional assembly was made up of mostly independent and left-leaning members. Seventeen seats were reserved for the country’s 10 Indigenous communities.
The makeup of the assembly has been the subject of criticism.
“The proposal is radical because it represents only one sector of the left, which is obviously not what our country wants,” said Arturo Zúñiga, a conservative convention delegate who brandished the red, white and blue national flag at Monday’s ceremony. “In my opinion, the way forward is to find a new method for writing a constitution which unites our country.”
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The turbulent negotiations were punctuated by controversies that helped fuel a campaign to discredit the convention.
Delegate Rodrigo Rojas Vade, a popular figure during the 2019 marches, was elected to the convention on promises of free, high-quality health care – and because of his experiences suffering from a rare form of leukemia. It turned out that his diagnosis was fake, and he resigned.
The spread of misinformation and selective readings of the text have sparked battles. One conservative senator, Felipe Kast, the nephew of José Antonio Kast, whom Boric defeated in December, tweeted falsely that the proposal would allow abortions at any point during a pregnancy.
The text would guarantee the right to make free, autonomous and informed decisions over one’s body, reproduction and contraception; as well as the right to voluntarily end a pregnancy. But it specifies that abortion would be regulated by a separate law.
If voters reject the document, the 1980 constitution would remain in force, and the country would probably have to assemble an entirely new constitutional convention to restart a drafting process, said Tania Busch Venthur, a law professor who teaches constitutional rights at Chile’s Andrés Bello university .
“Chile is a country where people are not good at talking about things directly,” she said. “Perhaps this is a process where for the first time, we sat down to talk honestly, and we saw that our differences were deeper than we thought.”