The desert cities – VIII

Image: Ricardo Kobayaski


Commentary on recent developments in international politics

Forty million cases worldwide, more than 1,1 million deaths, with the pandemic intensifying in the United States, India and Brazil, three countries that add up to around 22 million cases and half a million deaths from Covid-19. In Europe, too, a new wave of contagions raises concerns. Madrid remains in a state of alert. In Barcelona, ​​the epidemic intensifies. And across Catalonia, bars and restaurants will only be able to take takeout orders. Tourism, which was already paralyzed, is another economic sector hit by the pandemic.

The news is increasingly reminiscent of the drastic measures of the first wave of the coronavirus, in March and April. Macron has imposed a curfew from 21 pm to 6 am in the most affected French cities, including Paris. In Italy and Germany, the contagions exceed those of March. In the Netherlands, restaurants close. Portugal adopts new restrictions (prohibits gatherings of more than ten people and imposes new limits on business hours, to prevent contagions from increasing again after the summer holidays in Europe). But already in October, daily cases are breaking records.

The indication that the pandemic is advancing at an unusual speed in Europe is the increase in the “positivity rate”, the percentage of positive cases per test performed. If the first alert sounded in Spain, last weekend the Czech Republic and the Netherlands were the countries in which this rate grew most rapidly. Next came Belgium, Romania and France. The good news is that the death rate from the disease is going down. Some also breathe a sigh of relief when they learn of the new estimates on the performance of the economy in the euro zone, which would fall “only” 8% this year, less than the 13% predicted in April. Even so, much higher than the worst record so far, a drop of 2,9% in 2009. In any case, these are estimates that depend on many variables.

a frustrated society

In the midst of the pandemic, Chile had to postpone its plebiscite, which will finally take place on Sunday, October 25. A consultation on the convening of a Constituent Assembly that puts an end to the rules established by the civil-military dictatorship, led by General Augusto Pinochet, who governed the country between September 1973 and March 1990.

The first question they will have to answer is whether they approve or reject the convening of a Constituent Assembly to replace the 1980 one left by Pinochet. The second refers to the composition of this Constituent Assembly: whether with 155 representatives elected for this purpose; or with 172, with half elected directly and the other half made up of current parliamentarians, elected among themselves.

No one doubts the victory of “Approved”. Even sectors of the Pinochet right joined the movement, to later play their cards in the election of constituents. Among the accepted norms is that each article must be approved by two thirds of the votes, which has given rise to criticism from those who expect difficulties in reaching agreements, especially on the most sensitive issues. It should not be lost sight of, however, that the issues not approved will have to be regulated later in another way, but nothing of the old constitution will remain in force, the one under which the dictatorship founded its regime according to extremely liberal conceptions. “Chile has the highest level of inequality among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries,” recalled Margarita Seminario, deputy director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), headquartered in Washington.

The Chilean economy – he added – is open and market-based, with very limited state intervention. What supporters of constitutional reform are looking for is to expand the role of the State in the economy so as to allow progress towards the creation of a welfare state. An expansion of the social safety net would have "a profound impact on the daily lives of Chileans". For everyone in the middle and lower class who “suffered the effects of economic inequality and lack of financial security”. Seminario recalls that pensions are low, health and education services are expensive and, in general, the cost of living is unsustainable for the majority.

The plebiscite will take place during the commemoration of the first anniversary of the beginning of the protests that, since last year, cornered the government and triggered a wave of repression that left dozens of Chileans attacked and tortured by the Carabineros blind and also killed. The promise of economic development of the dictatorship and the regimes that succeeded it did not materialize. “Not all Chileans benefited from the economic expansion of these years and the protests revealed a broad and deep frustration with inequality,” said Maria Borselli and Adrienne Arsht, from the Atlantic Council. The perspectives that they can achieve this objective through a new constitution are analyzed in the interview with the leader of the commune La Reina, Pedro Davis, which accompanies this note.

Leader of La Reina commune, Pedro Davis: “Not much to celebrate”

“There's not much to celebrate”, said Pedro Davis from the other side of the screen. More than 50 years of history encapsulate this comment, from the years when, with Unidad Popular, he participated in the efforts being made in Chile to open up original paths and renew politics. Political processes in Chile were already ahead of those of its neighbors; manifested themselves there in the most complete way: in 1970, with the election of Salvador Allende. In 1973, with the civil-military coup that carried out a liberal reform, the most radical and most conservative of all those attempted at that time in Argentina, Uruguay or Brazil. All under particularly cowardly and cruel military regimes. Fifty years have passed and his voice echoes over five thousand kilometers away – in Santiago, while I am in San José –, on the eve of a plebiscite that aims to revoke Pinochet’s constitution: “There is not much to celebrate”, affirm. Economist, community leader, he was councilor and candidate for mayor of La Reina, nestled at the foot of the mountain range, a wealthy commune, but where there is no lack of mixed impoverished sectors. What follows is the edited result of our conversation.

The “I approve” campaign

From the conversation comes the comment on the plebiscite next Sunday, October 25th. The “I approve” campaign, he says, “was basically by social organizations, with little presence of parties, going from less to more, in a somewhat strange environment, without some of the usual forms of previous political campaigns. It is also very different from the 1988 plebiscite, when the “No” campaign defeated Pinochet's aspirations to remain another decade in power and generated great enthusiasm in the country”. He values ​​positive things, “such as the self-convened demonstrations, which were often greater than we expected. It encourages people to work. But the campaign also had its low points, sometimes caused by divisions in the opposition, such as the one that occurred last week in Congress, when a constitutional charge against former health minister Jaime Mañalich was defeated.

Mañalich was accused of putting the lives and health of the population at risk for his decisions in the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic, which forced him to resign from office. The result of the prosecution was 71 votes in favor and 73 against, with seven abstentions. But several opposition deputies abstained and this causes discomfort for people working on the street campaign”. It seems that not everyone is rowing in the same direction, he assures. In the commune of La Reina, four groups were formed by “Aprovo”: one from concertation, another from the Frente Ampla (FA) and another from Chile Digno. The fourth is that of the La Reina Social Unit, coordination of dozens of traditional and self-convoked social organizations, formed since October 19 of last year, when popular protests broke out across the country and whose first anniversary was celebrated this week.

“The 18th marks the anniversary of the beginning of last year's mobilizations”, recalled Davis. “We are preparing to make it as big as possible. The government will crack down. We will continue working at Articulação Cidadã, we believe that this is the way to truly empower ordinary people”. “La Reina Social Unit is a group that is much more active than the others, developing mobilizations for the 'I approve' and 'Constitutional Convention' options every day”. He believes that in La Reina they will get a good result. “Of the communes with more resources, it will probably be the best, even better than in Ñuñoa (neighboring commune, scene of recent political and cultural concentrations). We were on the street, delivering advertising from house to house, with few resources, with a lot of volunteer work”.

the angry people

Davis highlights the differences between the two campaigns. For him, the “Refusal” “is very violent. The other is more friendly, more affectionate. The 'Refusal' option is more present in the center of Santiago, in the richest communes, with Carabineros protecting their demonstrations, some of them with people carrying firearms. On the contrary, in the 'Approve' demonstrations, the police presence is intimidating. Although there was no violence, there is a provocative attitude from the Carabineros, with many troops and asking people for their ID”. In fact, he adds, “there's not much to celebrate. People are very angry, they are aware that the new constitution will be very minimalist”. “I approve” will win with more than two thirds of the votes, he assures him.

In addition to the consultation for or against the Constituent Assembly, there is a second consultation in this plebiscite – on how to write the new constitution – which is confusing and the “Refusal” campaign adds to this confusion. It is a question of voting between two options: whether the Constituent Assembly will be composed only of 155 representatives, elected for this purpose on an equal basis (men and women), or whether what has been called a “mixed convention” of 172 members will be established: half elected by popular vote and the other half formed by current parliamentarians”.

In this second consultation, he assesses that the first option will win by little. “But the Constituent Assembly will ultimately be made up of militants from the parties (in whom people trust very little), as they are the ones with the resources and organization to campaign. It will be very difficult for independents to be elected”. Despite everything, he guarantees that constitutional change is important, even if a large part of the population is not happy with the agreements of November last year, when the political parties agreed to call this plebiscite.

A “minimalist” constitution

There are four blocks supporting the “I approve”: the concertation (which we call Concertation 3.0, made up of Christian Democrats, Socialists, PPD [Party for Democracy], radicals and right-wingers, members of the Ciudadanos), heirs of the old concertation (which lasted until the government of Michelle Bachelet); those of the Frente Ampla (FA); the left that was not in the agreement of last November (humanists, communists, the group of the mayor of Valparaíso, Jorge Sharp, the ecologists, the libertarian left and other movements); and those on the right, who support “I approve” but intend to win many seats in the Constituent Assembly to defend their interests.

Regarding the election of the Constituent Assembly – if it wins the “Approval”, as all polls indicate –, the progressive political parties, which defend a new constitution, will take separate lists for each district and, in the Chilean electoral system, this translates into significant losses of representation. “This will allow the right to have more relative strength. Admittedly, we never thought we could have enough strength to pass a constitution as we wanted. Let's get less than that. But the right won't have the necessary two-thirds to pass the articles either. They will have to negotiate, ”he explains. “Each new article will require a two-thirds vote to pass. This means that the result will be very minimalist; there will be no agreements on conflicting issues, such as changing the subsidiary role of the State, human rights, recognition of indigenous peoples, or water rights, for example. “It is not a very easy situation. The constitution will be a hybrid. There is a level of disenchantment about what can be expected from a Constituent Assembly made up of party representatives, with the same old tricks. It is assumed that what is not approved in the Constituent Assembly will go to parliament, with its “binominal” character, which will discuss the issues eternally. It is very complex”.

And so, in his opinion, this effervescence will follow. “It is a very scary situation. I have a feeling that starting in April there will be a state of permanent assembly. Legality will continue to be overcome in practice, people no longer ask for permission to demonstrate, they simply manifest. When the rules don't match what people are willing to accept, he does it and that's it. The State has armed itself again, Piñera has brought paraphernalia, they are prepared for war, with vehicles, weapons and gas”.

citizen articulation

“We think that the discussion of this Constituent Assembly will be prolonged. No bridge was built between social movements and political parties. The movements do not have a direction, nor a space for dialogue with the political. A bridge is missing. Faced with this reality, we proposed to promote the greatest possible number of assemblies in the different territories of the commune to converge in a communal Constituent Assembly, a mechanism to call representatives to account”. “We set up a collective, Articulação Cidadã La Reina, made up of self-appointed neighbors. We are a hundred people. There are practically no party members. There are people from all organizations in the commune who work for the purpose of trying to influence policy. We will continue working on the Citizen Articulation”.

Gilberto Lopes is a journalist, PhD in Society and Cultural Studies from the Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.


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