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Episode 6: Chile, part 1 of 2. Writing a new constitution.

Today we will be hearing about Democracy In Chile from my two guests Rodrigo Retamal and Paloma Contreras. Our conversation will be divided into two podcast episodes, so make sure you check out the second half.

I lived in Chile between 2009 and 2011 while doing my anthropology PhD research. While I was there, a major Presidential election was going on: the one that brought Sebastián Piñera to power, the first conservative president since the end of the dictatorship.

A man climbing scaffolding to erect an enormous Chilean flag over a stage
Workers erecting a stage in the street during celebrations on election day, 2010.

Along with Bolivia, Chile was the beginning of my interest in how democracies work in other countries. I saw so much during that election that confused and surprised me! Just as I did in Bolivia a few years earlier.

(I am hoping to cover Bolivia soon, btw.)

It’s quite likely many people listening don’t know much about Chile's history, however. And I realized only after recording the episode that my guests and I had not done a good job of providing any background.


If you are new to this country, here are some basics to get you started.

A very brief recap of Chile's political history

Chile was colonized by the Spanish back in the 16th century and became Independent in 1810. However, the indigenous groups living in the Souththe Mapuche – never really stopped fighting for their land and freedom. Although they are officially Chilean, Mapuche and other indigenous peoples have long been discriminated against and oppressed.

Like its neighbor Argentina, Chile saw multiple waves of European immigration over the centuries, and considers itself more ‘Europeanised’ than ‘indigenous’. As a result, it's not that unusual to find blond, blue-eyed Chileans with Polish, German, or Italian last names walking around the capital city of Santiago.

As Rodrigo will tell us in this conversation, race, indigeneity, and colonialism are still highly relevant to any debate about citizenship and democracy in Chile today - and especially the debate around the new constitution.

For most of the 20th century, Chile was considered to be an unusually strong democracy – especially when compared to other countries in the region. So when the US-backed military coup occurred on September 11th 1973, it was truly shocking. It was as unbelievable as a sudden military overthrow of the UK (or US) government would be today.

The coup took out the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, who died by suicide in the Presidential Palace rather than be taken prisoner. It was the beginning of an incredibly violent right-wing dictatorship headed by General Pinochet. Over the next 18 years, 200,000 Chileans fled or were driven into exile. An estimated 40,000 people were killed or tortured. And the total number of people who were forcibly disappeared will never be known.

Democracy returned to Chile in 1990. And it was at this point that a new national Constitution -- one that General Pinochet drafted -- came into effect. For the last 32 years, therefore, Chilean democracy has been operating according to the laws of its former dictator. A man who, incidentally, died peacefully of natural causes in 2006, thanks to a British Home Secretary deciding not to follow through on his arrest for crimes against humanity.

All this is to say: it’s not always clear whether authoritarianism was unequivocally overthrown in Chile by liberal democracy.

The constitution referendum

In this first episode we also talk a lot about the recent failed referendum on changing the constitution.

I find it fascinating that other countries in the Americas have updated and re-written their constitutions many times, while the US considers this blasphemous. (For a thorough discussion of the changing constitutions in Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Mexico, see this article by Dante Figueroa and Daniel Rocha de Farias).

A constitution is supposed to represent the country as it sees itself; it stands as a collective agreement on the laws and principals that all citizens abide by. You could almost say that writing a constitution is an act of drawing a nation's portrait. The US constitution has become this static, quasi-mythological text: the portrait of the nation as a young man, perhaps... which I guess makes our current political situation the creepy old man in the attic? I might be going too far with this metaphor...

Anyway: Back to Chile!

In the last few years Chile has been going through a contentious process of re-writing the constitution. The goal is to replace the dictatorship-era rules and laws with a document that better represents the democratic present. As Rodrigo and Paloma tell us, however, this is not a simple process...

Additional reading on immigration

Migration Policy has an interesting article on Chile's changing attitudes to European v. Central/South American immigration. Given Rodrigo and Paloma's discussion of anti-immigrant sentiment, it's interesting to see some of the actual numbers. And to put the current fear-mongering about 'hoards' of immigrants in historical context.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is a good place to start, when trying to understand why there are so many displaced people moving around the Americas at the moment.

Meanwhile, Chatham House picks up the part of the story the UNHCR politely avoids: namely, the role of the US in this refugee crisis.


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