It began innocuously enough. The decision to raise metro fares in Chile, though, sparked massive nationwide unrest. Over a million people thronged the plaza in Santiago, and at least 30 protesters were killed. A year later, Chileans have voted overwhelmingly in a referendum to replace the country’s Pinochet-era constitution with a new one, to be drafted by an elected constituent assembly by 2022, which will then be subject to another referendum before it’s approved. For the first time, Chileans will have a set of governing principles that are not the legacy of a dictatorial regime but represent the will of the people.
Through the far-right dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-90), and then as a democracy since the 1990s, Chile has been an economic success. But it wasn’t just metro fares that brought millions to the streets. The vast inequality in wealth and access to social goods like healthcare and education, deepened the cleavages in society. The mass protests last year, and now the promise of a new constitution, are a consequence of that structural inequality. The challenge before the soon-to-be-elected constituent assembly is a historic one. The document it drafts cannot merely reflect the popular will of the moment, it must strike a balance.
Important issues such as the recognition and rights of the Mapuche indigenous population, powers to form unions, and water and land rights will be at the centre of the debate. It is equally important to ensure that conditions conducive to business and private capital remain. These issues are complex, and will require deliberation, debate and compromise. Yet, for a country that has not had its voice or founding principles enshrined in a document until now, it is an opportunity to be relished.