July 4, 2021 marked a historic milestone for Chile. On this day, the country opened its Constitutional Convention, the citizens` body created as a result of the so-called “social outbreak” initiated by the popular sectors on October 18, 2019. The professedly violent way in which the Chilean people took to the streets in October 2019 to insist upon their right to political participation was the culmination of a long trajectory of social demands that had pushed back against the precarious way of life created by the neoliberal order that has ruled the country since the Pinochet dictatorship, facilitated by the Constitution of 1980, which has served as the legal support for the neoliberal marketization of life.
Although there have been many attempts to modify the Chilean Constitution over the last 30 years, the recent struggles through social protest have their roots in the 2006 “Penguin Revolution” carried out by 13-18-year-old high school students demanding their right to a free quality education. Five years later, in 2011, this movement for free education continued amidst an international context of movements demanding greater social justice: from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street to the indignados who took to the streets and plazas of Spain to demand better living conditions. In all these cases, citizens were protesting the authoritarianism of their governments and the economic inequality that had made their lives utterly precarious. Fed-up citizens also denounced a political class that seemed unwilling to listen to the people. In Chile, in particular, the student movement of 2011 insisted quite clearly that greater social equality could only be achieved through more just access to education.
Still, the process of profound transformation that Chile is undergoing today is illegible if we fail to consider not only the urban movements that have taken place in the capital City, but also the underground war being waged between the Mapuche nation and Chilean state since 2001. This movement of cultural resistance and territorial defense has received little publicity, while being summarily stigmatized as criminal and terrorist by various presidential administrations. Nonetheless, it is but another local expression of the decolonial impulse that has been observed across Latin America since the end of the 20th century. Over the last 20 years, the Mapuche have been driven off their ancestral lands by an expanding forestry industry, their land turned into a war zone and their leaders executed. All this has been made possible by the mainstream media’s silence and the legal cover provided by the Pinochet Constitution’s criminalization of social struggles.
Its lack of leadership and planning and sudden violence notwithstanding, the 2019 Chilean uprising was far from spontaneous. Rather, it was a potent and undeniable expression of the common suffering experienced by the sector that sociologist Guy Standing has identified as the “precariate,” along with the frustration and disdain of those who anti-neoliberal critics have called the “citizen of the Global South.” The ubiquitous and emblematic use of the wenüfoye – the Mapuche flag – at all the marches since October 2019 is no accident. In recent years, the Chilean masses have identified with the cause of the Mapuche and the rest of the native peoples because they have experienced in their own flesh similar experiences of abuse, dispossession, marginalization, and silencing to those that have afflicted the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Attacks on environmental activists who have defended the right to water, accusations of collusion among pharmaceutical companies, limited and unaffordable access to healthcare and education, the private management of pension funds (called AFPs in Chile), and demands to increase social rights are all intersecting struggles that the broader social movement has defended from the beginning.
The formation of the Constitutional Convention was both moving and exemplary, for many reasons. First, because at every stage it has been characterized by citizen participation in the broadest democratic sense. This includes peaceful mass marches – chief among them the one on October 25, 2019 that brought together 1.2 million people in Santiago alone, and 3 million across the country – multiple citizen councils, the holding of a plebiscite to decide whether a new constitution was necessary or the reform of the current one would be sufficient, and finally an election to choose (from 1,400 independent candidates) the 155 citizens (half men and half women) who today make up the constitutional convention. The election even allowed those who had previously rejected the idea of a new constitution to run for the convention. In addition, 17 seats were reserved for indigenous people.
Particularly significant for the Chilean mobilization has been the election of Mapuche linguist and scholar Elisa Loncón to preside over the convention. Her presence represents the struggle of an indigenous people that for centuries has confronted head-on the laws made by a state that does not acknowledge them as political interlocutors. More broadly, it signifies the resistance of a far more diverse and complex citizenry than the present Chilean state is able to legally recognize. Moreover, for Latin Americans, Loncón brings to mind vivid recent memories, such as Rigoberta Menchu’s 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, the 1994 neo-Zapatista uprising in southern Mexico, or the 2005 election of Evo Morales as president of Bolivia. As a Mexican myself, the election of Loncón to lead the Chilean constitutional convention naturally awakened in me intense, moving memories of the National Democratic Convention held by the Zapatistas in Chiapas in 1994, followed by the even larger National Indigenous Congress in 1996. The indigenous Ttotzil, Tzeltal, Tojoabal, Choles, and Zoques issued a call to Mexico’s other indigenous nations and to civil society to establish dialogue on their terms, in their languages, and on their land. They made an offer that is hard to criticize: “a new world with room for many worlds.” The presence of Comandanta Ramona, leader of the Zapatistas armed forces and representative of the struggle of indigenous women, introduced us mestizo observers to a new way of understanding the meaning of oppression, along with the battles these women have fought over the course of their daily lives and in the domestic sphere. Above all, the neo-Zapatista struggle awakened in the youth a profound consciousness of the meaning of the colonial wound. The neo-Zapatistas back then taught us so much! And they continue teaching us much about themselves and their brothers and sisters among the indigenous nations of the Americas. This struggle has required years of unlearning so that we could recognize that there are a variety of ways to exist. And also, to find ways to heal the wounds inflicted by the colonization of people and of knowledge.
Nevertheless, this awareness of the wounds of colonialism and its basis in racism has not spread equally across all of society. In fact, one of the controversial points raised by Loncón’s opening speech was her reference to a popular mandate to “re-found Chile,” heavily commented upon by radio and television pundits the next day. Unsurprisingly, her statements were roundly criticized by the Chilean right. In their defense of Chile’s history as a republic, the right insisted that “re-founding” the country would imply reinventing a national history that has already happened and should not be denied, but rather honored and renewed.
Like in most of Latin America, the problem is that the structural racism that has primacy among a significant portion of the elite has been a necessary condition for the formation of the nation-state in the early 19th century, its affirmation in the first decades of the 20th, and its persistence until the present. Because of this, the oppression carried out against indigenous peoples, their cultures, and their epistemological systems has not been acknowledged as the basis of the republican tradition across the region.
When Elisa Loncón refers to “re-founding Chile,” she is advocating a paradigm shift that recognizes the history of denial, genocide, and epistemological destruction to which indigenous peoples have been subjected – all under the protection of the law. This shift should, first and foremost, acknowledge the racial and patriarchal roots of both colonialization and the nation-state. Next would come the adoption of restorative measures, which for most of Chile’s indigenous peoples would mean the return of their land, as well as facilitating a path toward greater epistemological and legal justice. There is a vast difference between recognizing multiculturalism and defining Chile as a plurinational state. The former, which is often applied with a celebratory or folkloric hue, does not force the state to offer legal guarantees that protect the survival of non-hegemonic cultures; the latter does. Some of these guarantees include: the right to their language and territory, self-determination, the rights and protection of native cosmogonies, the acknowledgment of bio-cultural rights, and the passage of laws that, departing from an anthropocentric paradigm, protect natural entities such as a river or mountain and make them subjects of rights. In this process, comparative law with other plurinational Latin American states, such as Bolivia and Ecuador, will be fundamental.
Due to all the above, the critiques made by the representatives of the Chilean status quo demand a deeper reflection, on the locus of enunciation and historical positionality of those who argue in favor of the need to re-found Chile – a reflection, by the way, that the white, male, cisgender, residents of Santiago who have made these critiques do not appear to have done. Their own place of privilege from which they suspiciously criticize Loncón’s plan to “re-found” sheds light on the prevalence of the belief in white, male, Western superiority that remains unable to comprehend the epistemological and demographic changes of a new century. Even so, Chile is taking gigantic steps toward the future its society needs.
Despite the long road that remains ahead, I celebrate, with great expectations, the awareness with which Chilean society, deeply wounded by the social and ideological polarization inherited from the dictatorship, is being transformed. A promising and hopeful future awaits this country. As its people set their gaze high, with humility, this future will come to pass.
Translated from Spanish by Bryan Pitts.
The opinions expressed in this blog post represent the views of the author and not of the UCLA Latin American Institute.