“The real problem of philosophy / is who washes the dishes” writes Chilean poet Nicanor Parra. Surely, he continues, the problem is also “God / truth / the passage of time”. But first, who washes the dishes. The concrete reality of social hierarchies and economic precarity is inextricable from abstract questions of moral values and temporality. Likewise, protesters in Chile have recently asserted that the real problem of the Constitution is who can ride the subway. Surely, the problem is also the foundations of the state, government, and institutions. But first, who can ride the subway.
In early October 2019, high school students in Santiago started jumping turnstiles to ska music all over the city, ostensibly in protest against a public transit fare increase. Within days, demonstrations against social and economic inequality escalated across the country, culminating in “the biggest march of Chile” on October 25, with 1.2 million people defying violent police repression. No son 30 pesos, son 30 años (“It’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years”) was a leitmotiv of the protests. The 30-peso fare hike broke the promise of democracy made over 30 years earlier.
A national plebiscite in 1988 ended Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorial rule (1973-1990) yet the 1980 Constitution remained, mired in its illegitimate origin. Under the Concertación (center-left coalition governments of 1990-2010), Congress passed a series of constitutional amendments, most significantly in 1989 and 2005, but left intact several provisions that maintain the structure of inequality to this day. By tethering the affordability of public transit to the tenets of democracy, the youth of Chile affirmed that material conditions are constitutional concerns.
A few weeks after the October 2019 protests, Congress agreed to a referendum on the Constitution. Last fall, one year to the day after the biggest march, Chileans voted in a landslide for a new Carta Fundamental. Members of the Constitutional Convention are being selected on May 15-16 to draft the document, which will be submitted to popular vote next year. A brief trip back in time will help us contextualize the moment and highlight the stakes of these elections.
The 1980 Constitution was drafted under the influence of some of the first successful neoliberals, the “Chicago Boys”. These Chilean economists had been trained at the University of Chicago under a cooperation agreement with the Catholic University of Chile, signed in 1956 on the basis of Point Four of Truman’s January 1949 inaugural address, aimed at “making the benefits of [US] scientific advances…available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas.” The Chicago Boys transplanted “free market” ideas into the Chilean landscape. Soon, they allied with the gremialistas, who worked alongside conservative parties obstructing Salvador Allende’s democratic socialist agenda in Parliament. The gremialistas defined family as the fundamental unit of society and private property as the quintessential liberty.
These conservative forces supported the 1973 coup against Allende. Starting in 1975, drastic cuts in government spending led to falling wages and soaring unemployment, dismissed by officials of the regime as evidence that some workers were simply superfluous. Meanwhile the financieras scaled up their loans and speculative investment (Chile’s foreign debt skyrocketed in the ensuing years; a major economic crisis hit the country in 1982). The Chicago School appears like a watermark throughout the junta’s agenda, with references to Friedrich Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty, James Buchanan’s “balanced budget,” and Milton Friedman’s views on education, social security, and inflation control. (Pinochet’s Secretary of Labor and Social Security José Piñera—notably, President Sebastián Piñera’s brother—also borrowed from Friedman’s playbook, popularizing reforms through frequent television appearances.)
The 1980 Constitution was authored by the Comisión Ortúzar, which the junta appointed immediately after the coup. To this day, it underwrites the vast power of private actors in the economy and establishes counter-majoritarian features of core legal and political institutions. It authorizes private entities to act in the domains of healthcare (Art. 19.9), education (Art. 19.11), and social security (19.18). It asserts the subsidiary role of the state in the economy (Art. 19.21). It affirms the right to purchase nearly any category of goods (Art. 19.23), grants extensive protection to private property rights, authorizes mining and fossil fuel concessions, and allows for individual ownership of water resources (Art. 19.24). To prevent organized majorities from reordering the economy, it requires supermajorities for several categories of legislation, carves out ample purview for the Constitutional Court (Ch. VIII), and establishes strict independence of the Central Bank (Ch. XIII).
The Constitution enabled a wave of privatizations in areas such as social security, healthcare, water and mineral resources, and education, as well as labor reforms. Legislation that went into effect in 1981 mandated that Chilean workers deposit ten percent of their earnings into individual accounts managed by private pension fund administrators (Administradoras de Fondos de Pensiones, AFPs) that invest these savings in financial markets. Over 90 percent of retirees earn less than half the minimum wage, while AFPs post billions in profits each year. A two-tier healthcare system was set up in 1981 and consolidated in 1990 with private insurers (Instituciones de Salud Previsional, Isapres) attending to the fraction (less than twenty percent) of the population who can afford them, whereas public provision of care is predictably underfunded, leading to severely unequal health outcomes.Also in 1981, the Water Code was passed, implementing private ownership of water. The same year, mining legislation ushered the privatization of state-owned companies in energy and communications, then in infrastructure and construction. The LOCE (Ley Orgánica Constitucional de Enseñanza) was enacted in March 1990, the last days of Pinochet’s regime, setting the stage for an education system dominated at all levels by private institutions thriving on student loans. Finally, under the constitutionally-guaranteed “freedom to work” (Art. 19.16), labor legislation curtailed workers’ associative rights, undermining collective bargaining, outlawing strikes in several sectors, and jeopardizing unions.
The brutal suppression of democratic opposition cleared a dissent-free testing ground for this neoliberal agenda. In August 1976, exiled Chilean dissident Orlando Letelier denounced the Chicago Boys for “provid[ing] an appearance of technical respectability to the laissez-faire dreams and political greed of the old landowning oligarchy and upper bourgeoisie of monopolists and financial speculators, [while] the military [applied] the brutal force required to achieve those goals.” He concluded: “Repression for the majorities and ‘economic freedom’ for small privileged groups are in Chile two sides of the same coin.” Letelier was assassinated the following month at Sheridan Circle, in Washington, D.C. Later that year, in Stockholm, Friedman was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. The Mont Pèlerin Society held its November 1981 meeting in Viña del Mar, where the Navy had planned the coup against Allende, abetted by the CIA.
The Chilean model has informed neoliberal reforms in the region and beyond—from private pension systems across Latin America to the sweeping “Rogernomics” agenda in New Zealand. Santiago is a hub for corporate headquarters on the continent, a stable, prosperous place for “Doing Business” with exemplary credit ratings. A few days before the October 2019 protests began, President Sebastián Piñera had in a television interview portrayed the country as a “real oasis” in the midst of a convulsed Latin America.
But this is not how a majority of Chileans experienced their country. The erosion of public services compounds the unequal income distribution and resource appropriation. Electricity, water, and food must often be purchased on credit. A quarter of the population cannot repay their debts. Private educational institutions serve to turn money into connections. For most, the prospect of living wages and doctors’ appointments exists on an ever-vanishing time horizon. The public transportation fare increase, then, meant not only precarity and anxiety, but also unfairness. It underscored the already low incomes, weakened unions, and lack of social protection. It exposed a constitutional structure entrenching privilege and exclusion, perpetuating a private oasis in the midst of a public desert. (The uprising resonated with a longer history: previous fare increases gave rise to the 1949 Revolución de la chaucha“Revolution of the twenty cents,” and the 1957 Batalla de Santiago; in nearby Brazil, protests against the poor state of public services in June 2013 were also sparked by subway fare hikes.)
In fact, the protests of October 2019 followed decades of resistance by diverse groups building on each other’s actions. In 2001, students organized demonstrations against the unequal education system engendered by the LOCE. El Mochilazo, as it was called, was followed in 2006 by the “Penguins’ Revolution,” named for the black-and-white uniform of students, then by a resurgence of protests in 2008. In 2009, during the first presidency of Michelle Bachelet, a new law replaced the LOCE, but failed to reduce inequality. In the “Chilean Winter” of August 2011, during the first Piñera government, over a hundred thousand students marched for good, accessible education. Beside student movements, enduring contestation of the pension system (which achieved partial reform in 2008) erupted into massive “No+AFP” demonstrations in 2016. Activists repeatedly opposed water privatization. In 2011, they averted the HidroAysén megaproject in Patagonia, whose hydroelectric dams would have flooded nearly 6,000 hectares of national parks and protected areas, affecting six Mapuche communities. Workers in the mining sector and beyond went on strike for better working conditions. Crucially, protests called for a new Constitution. In 2015, then-President Bachelet launched an effort to solicit views on the issue, and over 200,000 people participated. The process faded but social movements had staked their claims: economic conditions are tied to belonging and power, inseparable from the demos.
As protesters hit the streets in October 2019, Piñera imposed a curfew in Santiago and declared a national emergency, authorizing the deployment of troops across the country. “We are at war against a powerful…enemy,” he proclaimed, in a sinister echo of Pinochet’s rhetoric of the “internal enemy.” For many, the sight of armed soldiers patrolling the cities in armored vehicles seemed like a ghastly memory. The youth of Chile did not back down. They revived chants and songs from years before they were born. They reclaimed public spaces, renaming their Santiago meeting point Plaza de la Dignidad, “Dignity Square.” They lost their eyes to the rubber bullets and tear gas canisters of police violence in order to uphold a vision of equality and dignity for all.
But they won. Chile woke up. On May 15-16, Chileans will elect the members of the Constitutional Convention according to gender parity and with seats reserved for indigenous groups, who represent roughly thirteen percent of the population. These are milestones for women and for indigenous communities whose century-long oppression, from the Atacama to Tierra del Fuego, has been cast in the margins of Chilean history.
There are significant obstacles in the way of the new Constitution fulfilling its democratic promise. While the Constitutional Convention will be composed of directly elected citizens (in contrast to a mixed Convention, half of which would have been sitting members of Parliament), it remains to be seen if grassroots candidates—as opposed to well-known political elites—can garner enough support. In addition, before being submitted to a final referendum, the draft of the Constitution must be approved by a two-thirds majority of the Convention, a threshold which is likely to derail the boldest reforms. Furthermore, among the series of amendments passed in Parliament to frame the process of constitutional reform, Art. 135 mandates that the new Constitution “respect…the international treaties ratified by Chile.” This provision safeguards the interests of foreign investors, especially powerful in agribusiness and mining. Chile has the largest lithium reserves worldwide. Mining represents 55 to 60 percent of the country’s exportations, with copper accounting for roughly half of that share. As global supply chains are reconfigured towards “green” energy (or, perhaps, the offshoring of pollution allowing high-emission sectors to paint themselves green) and commodities boom, there is immense pressure from multinationals to maintain the current modes of extraction, resulting in the precarity of workers and displacement of indigenous communities. The administration of land, water, and mineral resources, then, will be a critical component of the new Constitution, of vital importance for indigenous people. Realizing shared, ecological prosperity requires breaking free from the current system.
Surely, a legal text does not suffice to create social transformation. But Chileans have demonstrated the power of sustained protest. They demand that the Constitution respond to the foundational questions: Who can work the land, drink the water, and breathe the air; who can ride the subway, and who washes the dishes.