Chileans agree to replace dictatorship-era constitution

Chile’s most important political parties have agreed to call for a new constitution to replace one impose by a military dictatorship almost 40 years ago

SANTIAGO, Chile -- Chile’s most important political parties agreed Friday to call for a new constitution to replace one imposed by a military dictatorship almost 40 years ago, a move that follows a month of turbulent social protests in the streets.

The agreement calls for an April 2020 plebiscite asking Chileans who should draft that document: the existing Congress or a new group made up of legislators and specially elected citizens. Holding the plebiscite itself will require a modification of the existing constitution.

The agreement follows 29 days of demonstrations that began with a protest over subway fares and expanded into a mass movement against inequality that has shaken the nation. At least 25 people have died and thousands have been injured.

It wasn’t immediately clear if the pact would pacify the hundreds of thousands of Chileans who have taken to the streets in recent weeks.

“They are hearing what the people have been asking for so long,” said Pedro Alastuey, a 36-year-old physical education teacher who took part in some of the protests. But he added, “Until they give a concrete solution to the demands of the people, it will be very hard to stop this.”

Socialists, conservatives and moderates agreed on the new plan, though the Communist Party balked, demanding an all-citizen drafting committee.

Those drafting the new constitution will start “with a blank sheet,” said Socialist congressman Marcelo Díaz.

“The agreement is historical and creates a potential path out of the crisis,” said Jenny Pribble, associate professor of political science at the University of Richmond.

She said the fact that even groups that had long balked at such changes signed on “reveals the impressive power of the street protests.

“Just one month ago, such an agreement would have seemed impossible,” she said.

A broad swath of the center and left of Chile’s political spectrum has long demanded scrapping or major overhauls to the 1980 constitution imposed by the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, which overthrew democratically elected Socialist Party President Salvador Allende in 1973.

Pinochet’s government killed or tortured thousands of suspected leftists while imposing a rigid free-enterprise model that privatized a large share of social services such as health care, pensions and education, an approach embedded in the constitution.

Even though Pinochet left power in 1990 after losing a referendum to extend his term, succeeding center-left governments found it impossible to replace his constitution — in part because the document itself created such difficult standards for passing amendments — though some reforms were made in 2005.

Under the constitution, changes to laws on health, education and many other areas require passage by a supermajority, making it easy for a conservative minority to block reforms.

Claudia Heiss of the Public Affairs Institute at the University of Chile said the 1980 charter has irked many Chileans because it was initially imposed after a fraudulent referendum and its contents “were never either proposed or ratified democratically by the Chilean people.”

It imposed “a minimum state, a subsidiary state that should basically have minimum intervention in the economy.” It also made many changes difficult by requiring super-majorities, essentially giving right-wing parties a veto over reforms.

Heiss said that has held the state back from promoting social development projects and led to the problems that eventually prompted the recent protests.

While Chile’s overall economy has boomed under the 1980 constitution, it is also one of the most unequal, with high levels of poverty plaguing a seemingly prosperous nation. More than 1.2 million pensioners receive far less than the minimum wage and many middle-class Chileans find themselves trapped by student debt.

Conservative President Sebastian Piñera wasn’t directly a part of the new agreement — a fact that “signals that his administration has been badly weakened by its mismanagement of the crisis,” Pribble said.