HOT SPRINGS, Arkansas — In the midst of COVID-19, a new Chilean constitution is on its way. After a year of nationwide protests, the people of Chile have made their dissatisfaction with the current system clear. Chile is the richest country in South America on a per capita basis, but it is also the most unequal country out of the nations in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Inequality and class separation is a phenomenon in Chile dating back to the era of Pinochet, reflected by his constitution that was still in use until now. However, the winds of change are rising in Chile, with a new Chilean constitution marking the beginning of a new era.
The Legacy of a Dictatorship
Augusto Pinochet rose to power in September 1973 after he worked to stage a military coup d’état to overthrow President Salvador Allende, a democratically elected socialist. The U.S. was particularly invested in Chilean affairs from 1963 to 1973. Covert CIA intervention amounted to millions of dollars spent to sway the Chilean public against Allende. Pinochet’s resulting 17-year dictatorship laid the foundation for neoliberal policies still present in Chile’s economy and the privatization of many social sectors such as the pension system, healthcare and education.
The free market Pinochet imposed was effective in boosting Chile’s wealth and reducing poverty. However, it also resulted in social disparities and the narrow concentration of wealth. Working and middle-class people in Chile face the effects of Pinochet’s infringements on labor rights to this day. He set temporary work contracts that deprive workers of protection and the right to unionize, amplifying job insecurity and low wages. The dictator also made the pension system private, laying the responsibility of retirement accounts on the individual. Meanwhile, most could barely save enough for retirement. He also privatized the healthcare system, leaving the public system where it is now — underfunded.
Pinochet’s constitution, drafted and approved in 1980, codified the policy changes the dictator had made and solidified socioeconomic inequalities that have changed little as the nation transitioned into a democracy.
Today and the Uprising for Equality
The poverty level in Chile fell from 20% in 2006 to 3.7% in 2017, but the cost of living has also increased. Many Chileans live in debt with half the nation earning $550 a month or less. As of 2017, figures show the richest 20% earn 8.9 times more than the poorest 20%. It is a slight decrease from the income gap in 2006, but not enough for many Chileans.
Protests began in October 2019 and were sparked by a 4% hike in bus fare pricing. This may seem small, but 30 pesos is roughly 14% of daily wages for low-income Chileans. Resistance to paying bus fares quickly transformed into thousands of people taking to the streets to protest 30 years of inequality. They protested the inequalities instituted by Pinochet in healthcare, pensions, the high cost of secondary education and numerous other issues. The protests, at times violent, pushed President Sebastián Piñera to meet the demands of a new constitution.
Hogar de Cristo
Founded in 1944, decades before Pinochet’s rule, Hogar de Cristo is a public charity that honors the lifelong mission of Jesuit priest and founder, Fr. Alberto Hurtado, to aid the poorest in society. It is one of the largest and most reliable nonprofits in Chile, assisting more than 40,000 lives impacted by extreme poverty yearly. Viewing poverty as a violation of human rights, the charity’s multiple social programs serve Chile’s impoverished children, elderly, mentally ill, homeless, addicts and unemployed. Most notably, Hogar de Cristo has housing programs for the elderly who are mildly or highly dependent on others to live, an effect of the pension system.
The organization also has programs for the educational and social reintegration of poor children who drop out of school due to low income and familial complications. As the nation contends with the systemic issue of socioeconomic inequality, Hogar de Cristo is working to solve the issue alongside it, starting with one life at a time.
What’s Next for Chile
The plebiscite, postponed due to the pandemic, took place on October 25, 2020. Approximately 80% of the voters approved the referendum and chose to have an elected body of citizens rewrite the constitution. The people of Chile gathered around Plaza Italia, where more than a million people protested on the same day in 2019, to celebrate the biggest win they have had since the referendum to topple Pinochet and become a democratic nation.
What lies next for Chileans is another vote in April 2021 to elect the 155 citizens who will write the new Chilean constitution. This will be the first time the people of Chile are assigned to a congressional assembly. The convention provides an opportunity for gender parity and official representation of Chile’s indigenous populations. However, there are still rules to the assembly and it will not be easy to finalize the constitution. Another referendum will allow citizens to vote and approve or reject the new constitution in 2022.
Chile has a long road ahead. Some experts say the constitutional change will not be enough to meet the immediate needs of the people, but Chileans are hopeful. Socioeconomic inequality has long impacted education, healthcare and pensions in Chile. If the new Chilean constitution takes into account the dignity of the poor, the country will be a step closer to fundamental change, stripping away the lingering influence Pinochet had on the nation.
– Johana Vazquez