Protests in Chile: What is going on and who is behind it?

Protests in Chile: What is going on and who is behind it?

In Chile, mass protests continue over dissatisfaction with the social system and the renewal of the Constitution.

This time, protests coincided with the March 8 holiday. Women in Chile took to the streets to celebrate International Women’s Day and to participate in the protests (thousands of women took part in International Women’s Day marches in Chile on Sunday, calling for calling for “equality and an end to violence”, according to media).

Reasons for the protests

The Chilean protests began last October. Initially, people came out against increases to metro fares in the capital, Santiago. However, within a few days, the protests developed into a series of nationwide demonstrations against inequality, social injustice and the cost of living.

Major grievances included health care reform and a privatized pension system, as well as problems with the education system.

Chile is relatively well off in terms of GDP (ranked among the top five in the region). According to the World Bank, Chile has been one of Latin America’s fastest-growing economies in recent decades, enabling the country to significantly reduce poverty. Between 2000 and 2017, the population living in poverty (at US$ 4 per day) decreased from 31% to 6.4%.

Nonetheless, that wealth has not been distributed in a balanced way among the population, and basic services have begun to cost more and more every year. The quality of medical and educational services directly depends on how much one earns. As student protesters explain, they want to “get the marketplace out of education.”

The imbalance in the quality of education between public and private schools and the growing debts of university students are a major concern for the authorities.

One of the main demands of the protests, along with cheaper education and health care, was a referendum including the possibility of amending the constitution.

In early March, Interior Minister Gonzalo Blumel reported that police detained 283 people after clashes in which protesters placed stones and bricks in the security forces. Seventy-six police officers were injured and several police stations were attacked.

The Chilean cities of Antofagasta, Temuco and Concepcion also saw outbursts of violence.

“We are subjugated to the rich. It’s time for that to end,” a protester commented.

The feminist element of the protest was inspired in response to Sebastian Piñera’s words on Tuesday which invoked outrage: “Sometimes it’s not just that men want to commit abuse, but also that women put themselves in a position where they are abused.”

This is the result of widespread liberal propaganda throughout the country, especially in the wake of the #metoo movement.

The coming referendum

On April 26, 2020, a large referendum is scheduled to be held in Chile, during which the population will be asked two questions about the Constitution

This is expected to be the first of several protests ahead of the historic referendum in April, when Chileans will vote to reform the Pinochet era constitution. The document has already undergone dozens of amendments since 1980, and now the possibility of an entirely new Constitution is on the table.

On the coming referendum the Chilean voters will be asked if they want a new constitution, and if they want it to be drafted by a “Constitutional Convention” (made up by members elected directly for this convention) or a “Mixed Constitutional Convention” (made up in halves by currently-sitting members of Parliament and directly-elected citizens).

The referendum on 26 April will consist of two questions. The first is “Do you want a new constitution?” The options are “Reject” or “Approve”, and polls show that about 70% of Chileans are currently planning to vote for the latter option. Since voting is not mandatory, it is not clear how many people will vote; at the last presidential election the voter turnout fluctuated between 50-60%.

The second question is formulated as follows: “What kind of body should draft the new constitution?” Here, the options are “Mixed Convention” and “Constitutional Convention.”

If people vote to rewrite the Constitution, a second vote will be held on 25 October, at the same time as the national and regional elections. The members of the Constitutional Convention will be elected there as well.

The third stage is scheduled for 2022 (tentatively, 6 March), when the popular vote will decide to accept or reject the new constitution after it has been drafted.

Pro and contra

Those in favour of a new constitution claim that the existing one lacks legitimacy because it was written during the Pinochet dictatorship. This document is at the heart of Chile’s social security system, which is considered weak by European standards. The main supporters of rewriting the Constitution were left-wing oppositionists.

Criticism usually concerns the following points:

– the number of supermajority requirements for even regular legislation

– the composition and powers of the constitutional tribunal

– Numerous social rights are declared, but not always respected in practice.

-public and private property issues

The rewriting process, if voted for, can be a cohesive and stabilizing force in society and can help to address issues such as weakening trust in institutions and different political forces (center-left Michelle Bachelet and center-right Piñera).

Recently, however, rallies against the new constitution have also erupted. So far, they are a minority, but we will see the exact numbers during the April referendum.

Some politicians and most of the population agree with criticism of the injustice of the social system, but consider it useless and even harmful to rewrite the fundamental document. In their opinion, blaming the Pinochet Constitution for all the troubles is not only foolish, but also harmful, as it will only be a simulation of the popular vote. Some opponents of change point out that, despite the shortcomings of the system, millions of people have been saved from poverty since the 1980s and are also afraid of changing private property laws.

Critics also point out that the uneducated or inattentive part of Chileans are not particularly sensitive to the details of the referendum, and the second part of the “Mixed Convention” question misleads them. They often misperceive it as a mixed system with representation of different genders/nationalities, for example, and vote in favour of the paragraph.

With little support from the Congress, it would be logical to vote for the second option – however, as some publications believe, people do not read the rules carefully and take the mixed convention as a gender equality of men and women, and so they plan to vote for this option.

The problem of coincidence of the referendum with local elections is that voters are likely to choose members with known names at the local level – or artists, athletes or other well-known candidates in their respective constituencies.

In November 2021, parliamentary and presidential elections are scheduled. If no candidate wins more than 50% of the votes in the first round, a second round of presidential elections will be held on December 19, 2021. The presidential primaries will be held in July 2021. Thus, the Constitutional Congress will draft a new constitution at the same time as the new presidential election cycle unfolds – it is likely that voters’ attention will be too distracted from key constitutional issues by the electoral race. “The maximalist constitution is the more likely outcome”, believes the author of the article.

Chileans who want changes in the constitution expect to improve social rights – pensions, higher pensions and salaries, rights – but many have not even looked into the existing one, and the name “Pinochet” alone puts them in a state of rage.

Meanwhile, the history of Latin America clearly shows that the rewritten constitutions do not necessarily solve internal problems of pensions or inequality – it is only a formal procedure that may lead to nothing in practice, opponents of innovation note. According to their assessment, real changes will bring tax legislation and sustainable economic development, rather than changes in the wording of the constitution.

If the majority suddenly votes against the changes in the constitution, the Pinochet document will have the seal of democratic legitimacy, and will only undergo minor changes.

“Drafting a whole new constitution that will end up being similar to the current text might be a solution to correct the illegitimacy of origin of the current constitution. Yet, given the way in which the constitutional process has been drafted and the two-year calendar that constitutional change will entail, the cost of this redemption effort seems too high. Indeed, it may simply end in frustrated expectations – and cause society to become even angrier.”

Piñera’s headache

Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, a representative of the political “right wing”, has been rebuked for being a billionaire and capitalist amid broad social crisis. Fearing new outbursts of violence in the streets (the protests have more than once turned into open vandalism and even ideological anti-Spanish actions), Piñera and his ruling coalition have agreed to hold a historic referendum. Ruling alliance and opposition political forces presented a 12-point “Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution” on Friday, which outlined the basic steps for a new constitution with citizen participation.


Violent clashes between demonstrators and police resulted in more than 30 deaths, thousands of injuries and 445 injuries to the eyes caused by the use of police weapons, resulting in 34 people being blinded.

Bombers burned down buildings, metro trains and stops and looted hundreds of supermarkets. The riots led to the military taking to the streets for the first time since Pinochet’s reign.

Part of the resurgence of protest activity in March is associated with the return of people from the southern hemisphere for summer vacations. This month will also mark the 30th anniversary of the end of the military dictatorship 1973-1990, as well as International Women’s Day.

Historical context

In the early twentieth century, Chile was one of the most developed Latin American States. As of now, the main source of profit remains copper, which is mainly responsible for the country’s high GDP.

Chile is rich in the history of protests and coups d’état after the election of Salvador Allende among the offended petty bourgeoisie and the times of Pinochet which resulted in massive repression.

For Piñera, the agreement to hold a referendum is a chance for political salvation. He has regained some positions, although it remains largely unpopular for the continent with a predominantly “left” slope. At the same time, he is taking a risk – the coalition may split because of the April referendum. While the majority of the Right is hoping for support for a public vote on the new constitution, the right-wing presidential candidate Jose Antonio Cast is likely to oppose it – if “no” wins, Cast may well try to capture the Piñera coalition.

If the authorities change, the country’s geopolitical course may also change. Under Piñera, Chile continues to be guided by the US line (which uses it very effectively to put pressure on Venezuela).

This will also bring them in line with Israel despite the country’s recognition of Palestinian rights. Chile has a Palestinian community of 450,000-500,000 people, considered the largest outside the Arab world; nonetheless, Pinera still visits Israeli lands and Israel is one of Chile’s main military partners.

Piñera is trying to pursue a balanced policy at some level, including in negotiations with China. President Xi Jinping spoke with President Sebastián Piñera of Chile on the phone on 28 February.

Thus, the shifting of Piñera position (explicitly supported by third countries) may affect changes in the continent: the question is, in whose favour? Some argue that Cuba and Venezuela may be influencing Chilean domestic protests – but these countries are clearly not up to trying to export revolution given the current pressure they are under. In any event, it is clear the United States will be watching the situation closely.

United World International

Independent analytical center where political scientists and experts in international relations from various countries exchange their opinions and views.

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April 2024