The Chilean Constituent Assembly II

Image: Alisha Lubben


Considerations about the background to the Constitutional Convention

It is difficult to find a consensual narrative on most of the points under discussion in the Chilean Constitutional Convention. Limits of validity of the agreement of November 15, 2019, quorum of 2/3 for approval of the text, which rights should or should not enter the final text, unicameral or bicameral Congress. Everything seems to be under discussion: from diagnoses about society, about the political system and about all the dissatisfactions that led to the desire for change, to proposals about the form of State that will emerge from the Constitutional Convention.

One of the few points of consensus in this recent history seems to be the following: the Constitutional Convention installed in July 2021 only exists because the social outbreak October and November 2019.

That there is a causal link between the two things, nobody disputes. But… there are controversies about the significance of convening the Constitutional Convention for Chilean society. There are those who defend that the Constitutional Convention was the great victory obtained by the social outbreak. There are others who identify in the "Agreement for Social Peace and the New Constitution” of November 15, 2019, a great cunning by members of the traditional political system to dampen and interrupt a social revolt that could achieve much deeper social transformations if it continued.

What exactly happened in October 2019? It's not very easy to explain. It is not easy because what happened seems to have been, at the same time, a very united movement, pointing in the same direction throughout the territory of Chile and, on the other hand, a kaleidoscope of different agendas and demands. There is unity and there is pluralism at the same time. Similar to the new Constitution being drafted.


“It’s not only 30 pesos, it’s only 30 years”

The final straw that led people to demonstrate in what became known as zone zero (zero zone) – formerly Praça Itália, today Praça Dignidade, Baquedano metro station – was an increase in subway fares in October 2019. I will try to elaborate an approximate narrative of what I have read and heard so far. But… it is important to register: mine will be one more among the many narratives of those intense days.

First of all, it is important to say that Chilean social dissatisfaction dates back much earlier than October 2019. Since at least 2006, with the so-called “penguin revolt”, students, women, retirees, and other not-so-organized social groups have taken to the streets. streets to protest. The protests were of different sizes and with different impacts on their specific agendas. The objective fact is that Chilean society seemed mobilized in its various agendas.

On October 1, 2019, through the Resolution 42.470/2019, President Piñera's government announced a 30 peso increase in public transport fares in Santiago during peak hours (the equivalent of 20 cents of Real). Since the announcement of the increase, some young people have started to be seen “jumping the tourniquet”, or jumping over the subway turnstiles. The action was a form of political protest, organized on a decentralized basis. The week of October 14th began with this political action being practiced more intensely. It was only on Friday, October 18, 2019, that the demonstration took on greater proportions. “It’s not only 30 pesos, it’s only 30 years” became a motto of those days. The 30 years of the motto coincide with the then 39 years of the 1980 Constitution, a fact that does not seem to be a mere coincidence. Hundreds of young people began to “jump the tourniquet” from subway stations.

As a reaction, the Chilean government closed in mid-afternoon all subway stations, the entire rail transport system in the city. Considering that this is a medium used by approx. 2,6 million people on weekdays and considering that the population of Santiago is approximately 6 million, it is possible to envision what this complete closure meant for movement in the city.

During my time in Chile, I conducted long interviews with 21 people (longer than half an hour, consented and recorded). Two conventional (elected members of the Constitutional Convention); four advisors from conventional; six university professors; two researchers with work related to the Convention; three administrators or businessmen; two militants linked to NGOs and/or specific agendas; a civil servant and a waiter. The text is all in male to make the list easier, but I interviewed about the same number of women as men. In addition, these occupations relate to the time of the interview. The advisers and conventional. for example, they are also teachers and activists of social movements and other occupations. But as I interviewed them as conventionales and assessors, I preferred to classify them that way.

Cesia Arredondo, manager of a bookshop in Santiago, gave me a detailed account of the events of October and November 2019 in which she participated day by day. The interview took place at zero zone, epicenter of the demonstrations, which made all the memories and narratives vivid, in dialogue with the places. She claims that a part of the October 18, 2019 protesters may have been more or less involuntary. Thousands of workers leaving their jobs on Friday afternoon. Thousands of workers without a subway to travel back to their homes. One of the main avenues of Santiago already taken by a growing demonstration. Santiago is a flat city, people started walking. There is something, however, that these objective elements do not fully explain. It would be possible to expect – note Cesia and Sérgio Grez, a university professor who was also interviewed – that people would be against the youth movement, would be irritated by the “turnstiles” protest that led to the closure of the subway, on a Friday -Friday night.

That's not what happened. On the contrary, instead of irritation and dissatisfaction with the protest, most people thought that the political demonstration of the young people who jumped the turnstiles was fair and that it should be supported. In fact, there were so many reasons to protest that… maybe it was also a case of taking to the streets to protest. Thus, the closure of subway stations drove many citizens to the streets, in what became a huge protest. At some point during the night, dozens of subway stations were set on fire. (Here an assessment of the damage described by the Santiago metro itself on October 19, 2019).

I couldn't come to terms with exactly what happened to the subway stations that night. Some young people are still in prison today, more than two years later, accused of being responsible for the incidents and damage that night, and also the days that followed. Several, however, have already been acquitted due to lack of evidence that they were involved in the fires. The Chilean police – or the carabineros, as they are called – immediately began a violent repressive action against political demonstrations (here some videos). The next day, October 19, 2019, Piñera reversed course and revoked the 30 peso increase in ticket prices. But… it wasn't 30 pesos, it was 30 years of neoliberal policies also organized by the 1980 Constitution. Even with the government's decision to maintain the old tariffs for transport, both the weekend and the following week were followed by numerous protests.

It is interesting to register some reactions of the political system to the events. Since the 19th of October, Saturday, the curfew, or curfew. No one was allowed to leave or being on the streets between 22 pm and 7 am in Santiago and other urban centers, the measure remained in the days that followed. On October 20, 2019, Sunday, Piñera announced that the country was at war  and suspended classes for the week that was about to begin. However, as early as Monday, October 21, the General in charge of the State of Emergency in Chile, Javier Iturriaga, declared “I am a happy man, and the truth is that I am not at war with Nadie“. It thus explicitly contradicted the President's statement. The Army was no longer a means of containing the social crisis. The repression was really the responsibility of the police, and its tragic balance was as follows:

“Between October 2019 and January 2020, to protect the “model”, the government of President Sebastián Piñera arrested 22 people, injured 282 (including 460 children), tortured 183 citizens (or more, as this number refers to the who had the courage to denounce it), caused ocular trauma to 27 Chileans, sexually assaulted XNUMX victims and killed XNUMX people. All this in four months, within a “protected democracy”, shielded against popular experiments of the Allendist type.” (SALEM, Joana. Normality was the problem. Pink Magazine, 2021.

The violence used against demonstrators appears to have increased public support for the demonstrations. The following Monday, October 21, the streets were full of demonstrators again. In cities throughout Chile. And the demonstrations were getting more and more crowded, always with a lot of violence and repression.

Part of the Chilean elite began to say “We didn’t see him coming”. They claimed, therefore, to be a surprise the enormous social malaise that manifested itself in the streets. A phrase by President Piñera's wife, said in an audio that was leaked to the press, became famous. He claimed that Chile seemed to have suffered a alien invasion. Immediately, images of aliens began to be used by demonstrators, symbolizing the degree of ignorance and alienation of a part of Chilean society with the living conditions in which most of the population lived.

O height of demonstrations took place on October 25, 2019, the Friday following October 18. One million people took to the streets. The protests no longer concerned the 30 pesos that had already been revoked. A much wider and more dispersed general malaise was being manifested there. Many of my interviewees used the word “anger” or “disgust, disgust, repugnance” to describe the feeling that took Chileans to the streets at the end of 2019.

The political system and inequalities – another word repeated in virtually all of my 21 interviews – engendered anger mixed with disgust. The feeling was one of rejection, “dismissal” than existed until then. Against the system. Against political parties. Against the logic of the subsidiary State, which withdraws from social life and leaves to the private sector the responsibility for guaranteeing, depending on economic capacity, rights so closely linked to human dignity: health, education, retirement, transportation, water... turned into demonstrations of great proportions in the streets of the whole country.

Even all repressive efforts were unable to reduce either the frequency or the number of people at the demonstrations in late October and early November 2019. On October 30, Piñera had to publicly announce that it would not be possible to host COP 25, UN Climate Conference, which was scheduled to take place in Chile in November.

Piñera was weakened, without support from the Armed Forces. The political and social crisis “fell into the lap” of the Chilean National Congress, as interviewees also described. Someone had to give some answer. O "I agree for Social Peace and the New Constitution" it was the solution found to provide an institutional response to the immense dissatisfaction that the demonstrators took to the streets.

*Ester Gammardella Rizzi is a professor of the Public Policy Management course at EACH-USP.

Originally published in the magazine Counsel.

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