In Chile, it seems there’s always someone protesting about something. This year the South American nation has seen large protests of students demanding better education, workers pressing for their pensions, women fighting for reproductive rights, among others.
Ahead of the presidential elections scheduled for November, Chilean candidates are in the spotlight on whether they will attend these needs or stick to the country’s status quo.
These requests can be all traced back to one single origin, the constitution, which was created in 1980 and approved in 1981 under the military regime that disappeared, tortured and killed tens of thousands of Argentines.
The head of military Augusto Pinochet, with the support of the U.S., staged a coup against leftist president Salvador Allende on Sept. 11, 1973 and the country saw a new political and economic system born.
It’s been more than ten years since Pinochet died on Dec. 10, 2006, but his constitution still lingers in the fate of Chileans.
After overseeing one of the darkest and bloodiest times, filled with repression and persecution, the country faces an opportunity to finally put these decades-old laws behind it.
Carla Amtmann, a former student leader in Chile, said in an interview with teleSUR that social organizations in the country are pushing for one solution: a constituent assembly.
“We are sure that one of the urgent roads that Chile needs to take is the democratic re-foundation based on a participatory mechanism,” Amtmann told teleSUR.
“It has to be a constituent assembly to create a new constitution, a constitution that changes the logic under which our country is sustained," she insisted.
According to Amtmann, from this constitution, several other laws are derived, such as the privatization of 98 percent of water, a labor code that doesn’t guarantee bargaining rights, and the privatizations of copper, one of Chile’s main resources.
“When the dictatorship was over, there was a consensus that the dictatorship was really bad in violation of human rights, but was very good in development and economic development,” Amtmann said.
“The majority of the sectors understand that such economic consensus does not exist anymore and that what we inherited from the dictatorship in the economic matter wasn’t positive,” she explained.
Among the main issues affecting Chile are the pension systems, called AFP, which Amtmann pointed out are a mandatory share given to companies, which they use to invest abroad, and if these volatile actions fall the country’s pensions decrease. But not their millionaire gains.
Six private entities administer Chile's private pension funds which, in total value, amount to roughly 71 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, according to the AFP's superintendence. However, the average pension is only around US$300 monthly.
Pensioners assert that the amount is even further reduced by excessive commission charges, benefiting, first and foremost, private banks.
“Chile was the first country in the world to install a neoliberal system, in times of dictatorship, and establish economic pillars that continue to this day, and that in general, we can describe as a dispossession of all the guarantees of the social rights of the citizens,” Amtmann said.
Education in Chile has also been a thorny debate and a cause for clashes with the government of Michelle Bachelet, due to the large privatizations at all levels of the sector.
Rising education costs in Chile have cut many students out, leaving countless others with crippling debts. Meanwhile, private companies in the education sector continue to make large profits and many public institutions have closed down or undergone mergers.
“We have a model that strips away our rights and that is creating crises everywhere. And that crisis has turned into social mobilizations and social discontent, and in a search of transformation and reform to change the current economic situation,” Amtmann told teleSUR.
Since then, many reforms have been passed that have addressed some of these old laws, albeit not leading to a complete transformation of the state. One of the recent most controversial ones, was the approval of Chile’s Constitutional Court to allow abortion in only three cases: in the case of rape, if the mother's life is endangered, or if the fetus is malformed.
Still, the lack of actions by authorities to change the backbone of the country sparked large protests especially in 2011 by students, teachers and hundreds of thousands taking to the streets of the capital Santiago and across Chile to demand quality education.
“Without a doubt, they marked a before and an after in our national history and put forward on the table the need to transform this economic pillars that were installed during the dictatorship and had not been touched before,” Amtmann commented.
She agreed that the social groups need to turn their protests into political actions as well. She is part of the newly former Broad Front, or Frente Amplio, which she believes will be strong enough to push forward social initiatives in the upcoming Congress.
“What we need is a construction of alternative forces, for many years in our country mainly after the dictatorship, a political model was established in which there was no space for alternatives that effectively would question the economic model," she said.
The Frente Amplio coalition was formed through a convergence of various left-wing parties, and other movements looking for an alternative to the New Majority coalition, in which Bachelet won two presidential terms, which many see as not meeting the social demands of citizens.
The party also has a candidate running for the upcoming presidential elections, journalist Beatriz Sanchez. “We believe this complementary action is fundamental so we can be not only a social force which is active and discontent but also a social force of change.”
For these elections, several polls show a lead for former president, right-wing politician Sebastian Piñera. The 60-year-old former senator was president between 2010 and 2014 but was unable to immediately offer himself up for re-election, as Chilean law forbids it.
This will be Piñera's third run, following a failed bid against current president Bachelet in 2006.
Piñera has said that he doesn't support the free education program proposed by Bachelet but will support a system of credit and scholarships. He also said he will not reform the Pinochet constitution.
Amtmann said this will represent a regression for the country. “He embodies that consolidation and deepening of the dictatorship model."
But President Michelle Bachelet has also been criticized for not listening to the public outcry and failing to deliver on what was her promise during her second presidential candidacy.
On April 28, 2015, Bachelet called for a Constituent Process to discuss an approval to draft a new constitution, which could be the eleventh in the history of the country.
“Unfortunately we had a government that could have promoted this with a lot more strength but the pressure and fears to deliver and delegate power apparently have been stronger,” Antmann said. “But we are sure that the democratic forces in Chile are larger than the undemocratic forces.”
The reform, if it had been followed through, would have had three stages, one to inform citizens on civic and constitutional matters, the second one of dialogues inside the community, and another to collect the inputs of all Chileans.
“The demand of a constituent assembly in Chile has been historical, since the beginning of the 20th century," she added, "It’s not recent, every time there has been a constitution in our country it has been done turning their back to the citizens, we have never had a participatory process for a constitution.”
The first step for Chileans is to push forward a plebiscite, that would ask people how they want to change their constitution.
Congress would then need to approve a mechanism of either a constituent assembly, a mixed Constituent Convention of lawmakers and civil society, or a Bicameral Commission with members of the Lower House and the Senate.
“There seems to be a consensus that we need a new constitution, what we don’t have a consensus on in our country is which is the mechanism to do it,” Amtmann says.