Defeat of the Chilean Constitution

Carolina Bank Muñoz

This mural on the side of a building in Arica depicts the Afro-Chilean legacy. Photo: Nell-Haynes-Flickr

[DECEMBER 17 WAS THE Chilean voters’ second rejection of a draft constitution. The first, discussed in detail in this article, rejected a strongly progressive draft by a commission with left and Indigenous participation. The second and recent rejection was a rightwing draft produced by a highly conservatively dominated body. As a result of these rejections, the Pinochet-era constitution created by the dictatorship of 1973-89 remains in place.–ed.]

ON OCTOBER 18, 2019, Chile despertó (woke up). It started with students jumping subway turnstiles in protest of a 30-cent subway fare increase, and quickly escalated to a series of massive protests. Activists astutely pointed out “no son 30 pesos, son 30 años” (it’s not 30 cents it’s 30 years), once again bringing to light the devastating privatization of education, pensions, healthcare and nature. The fare hike was seen as only the most recent assault by a neoliberal regime that had produced all of this.

During the October uprising, then President Sebastian Piñera, who had opposed the arrest and trial of Pinochet, declared war on protesters. He brought the military into the streets, forced a curfew, and took political prisoners. Human Rights Watch documented over 11,500 civilians injured in marches in the first six weeks of demonstrations.

Two dozen protesters and some bystanders were killed, and a shocking 400 people suffered from ocular trauma, mostly resulting from rubber bullets.

This last number is particularly striking because it represents 70% of all ocular traumas in the world over the last 21 years.

The conclusion is obvious: Soldiers aimed at protesters’ eyes to permanently disable them, as part of an open campaign of deliberate brutality. The repression opened old wounds from the trauma of the torture and abuse of the 1973-89 dictatorship — but it also fueled the movement in the streets.

In response to brutal state repression of the protests, over a million people flooded the streets of Santiago, and hundreds of thousands more across the country, demanding the resignation of President Piñera and proposing a constitutional convention. Piñera ignored these calls, but they created a political crisis for his government.

Fearful of his loss of control over the situation, Piñera offered concessions that included reducing the salaries of state officials and halting the subway fare increase. But the masses continued to march.

In early November, labor and social movement organizations called for a general strike if Piñera did not resign and approve a process for a new constitution. The general strike began on November 12, with widespread participation from Chile’s largest unions across all sectors, and threats of a boycott from the International Dockworkers Council.

The general strike marked a turning point in the movement. Piñera did not resign, but his government was forced to negotiate the terms of the new constitution.

The result was an agreement that outlined the process for determining whether a new constitution should be drafted, and whether Chilean citizens should have a voice in selecting who would draft it — both questions to be decided through a plebiscite.

The Constitutional Convention Process

An overwhelming number turned out for the plebiscite on October 25, 2020, despite its initial postponement and strict COVID restrictions. Seventy-eight percent of voters favored drafting a new constitution, and 79% voted that it should be a constitutional convention with representatives chosen by the people. Constitutional delegates would have a year to produce a draft of the constitution.

The resulting draft constitution, delivered to Chilean President Gabriel Boric in July 2022, was heralded as the most progressive constitution in the world.

The preamble started by affirming that Chile is a democratic and social state, plurinational, regional, and ecological. The statement acknowledged the responsibility of the state for the wellbeing of its population (reducing inequality, providing social services, caring for the environment). It recognized diversity in terms of Indigenous and Afro-descendent populations, as well as regional diversity.

The new constitution was a response to the disastrous consequences of the neoliberal project over the last 40 years.

Among its most important contributions were the establishment of plurinationality — autonomy, self-determination and self-government of Indigenous nations — and the right to freedom of association including the right to unionization, collective bargaining, strikes, and the right to determine at what level bargaining would take place (branch, sectoral or territorial); gender parity in elections and in elected office, the right to abortion and bodily autonomy, and the right to choose your sexual and gender identity and to have it recognized by the state; and finally, over 50 articles addressed climate justice.

Despite a massive social uprising and an unprecedented constitutional convention process, the proposed constitution was ultimately rejected on September 4, 2022, by over 60% of voters. An astonishing 75% of voters from the lowest-income quartile rejected it. In other words, voters who had the most to gain from the proposed constitution voted it down overwhelmingly.

How do we make sense of this overwhelming rejection? Scholars and pundits like Rene Rojas, Roberto Pizzaro Hofer and Ernesto Ottone have explained the rejection of the constitution by critiquing its focus on identitarian and social justice provisions, by explaining how the mandatory vote forced tens of thousands of apolitical citizens to the polls, or by arguing that the proposed constitution was out of step with ordinary people because it was too radical.

What is under-theorized from these writers is the role of race in the constitutional convention process and plebiscite.

While it is certainly true that there are multiple explanations for the rejection, some of which I write about in a special issue of The Forge, I think for too long Chile and Chileans have not wanted to reckon with race. Before getting to an analysis of the role of racism in the rejection vote, I want to spend some time situating Chile racially.

Chile’s Racial History

Since its independence from Spain, Chile has seen itself, and has been viewed by in other Latin American countries, as a “white country.” This national narrative was established so early in its history that race data (outside of categorizing Indigenous people) was not collected in any censuses from 1810, when Chile gained independence, to 2022, producing over 200 years of erasure of Afro-descendant communities in Chile.

Criollo nationalism, promulgated by the Chilean-born children of European settlers, served the Chilean state well as it sought to expand its territory further into the North and South in the mid-19th century.

The expansion in the South was driven by the “Pacification of the Araucanía,” where the largest concentration of Mapuche people lived, between 1851-1883. The war included the Southern Colonization project, which recruited European immigrants, especially Germans, enticing them with free land in the “uninhabited” areas south of the Rio Bio Bio.

These European immigrants had the dual roles of dispossessing the Mapuche people from their land while “improving” the Chilean racial stock through blanqeamiento. (Nearly 100 years later there would be another sizeable German migration because of World War II).

Almost simultaneously, colonization of the North was driven by the War of the Pacific with Peru and Bolivia between 1879-1883. The war ultimately ended with Chile’s acquisition of Arica and its population of Afro-descended peoples, who were subjected to a process of Chileanization along with the Indigenous groups of the North.

In the aftermath of these wars of conquest, Criollos, for example Nicolas Palacios, constructed an image of a purer and better Chilean Race. In 1904 he published Raza Chilena (The Chilean Race) in which he argued that the exceptional Chilean race is made up of two patriarchal, warrior peoples — the Visigoths of Spain (deemed to have the purest blood through the Nordic line), along with the Mapuche Indigenous people (deemed the strongest warriors and most intelligent of the Indigenous groups).

This led to a national narrative that considered racial mixing in Chile was superior (read whiter) and more effective than in the rest of Latin America. It produced a somewhat different version of what Tianna Paschel calls “mestizaje nationalism.”

Erasure of both Afro-descended and Indigenous populations through mestizaje nationalism speaks to the depth of both settler colonialism and anti-Blackness in Chile as foundational features of its history. This is well articulated in Anibal Quijano’s concept of the Coloniality of Power, in which he argues

“Coloniality is a constituent and a specific element of the pattern of capitalist power. It is based on the imposition of a racial/ethnic classification on the world’s population as a cornerstone of the pattern of power and operates in each of the planes, spheres and dimensions, material and subjective, of every day social existence and societal level.”

So by the early 1900s, Chileans already experienced themselves as racially homogeneous and the idea of white mestizaje became firmly entrenched in the national imagination. European migration to Chile throughout the 20th century, until about 1973, acted to further establish this white racial identity, particularly in Santiago.

The violent overthrow of the democratically elected president Salvador Allende by Augusto Pinochet in 1973 shifted racial dynamics in interesting ways.

On the one hand, the percentage of the foreign-born population drops below one percent. On the other hand, the Mapuche, who at this point have largely been erased from history, are now categorized as “violent terrorists.” This is at the same time that Pinochet is implementing the neoliberal shock doctrine by privatizing education, healthcare, pensions and national industries.

Mapuches as “terrorists” becomes a convenient narrative to justify violent state repression of this community. Pinochet dissolves the limited land agreements reached with the Mapuche during the Pacification of the Araucanía and hands these land titles to private mining and forestry corporations.

In the post-1989 transition to democracy, Chile re-emerges as the most politically and economically stable country in Latin America. But the fundamental tenets of neoliberalism are not challenged by the transition governments. Nonetheless, this political and economic stability begins to attract immigrants, initially from neighboring countries such as Argentina and Peru.

But even during this period the foreign-born population does not exceed three percent. Not until 2010 did Chile’s immigrant landscape begin to change significantly, when then president Michelle Bachelet opened Chile’s doors to Haitian immigrants in the aftermath of the devastating Haitian earthquake.

In 2018 Sebastian Piñera offered Venezuelans fleeing the Maduro government a safe haven. The past six years or so have seen a dramatic shift in the immigrant population, which now makes up about 10% of the overall population.

Since the mid-1990s the racialization of immigrants has shifted. Early immigration from Argentina, Peru, Venezuela and Colombia were seen as a net positive. These immigrants tended to be professionals; many were white, certainly whiter than more recent immigrants.

Starting with Haitian migration, however, and more recently with poorer immigrants from Venezuela and Colombia, the narrative has shifted as they tend to be perceived as resource-draining and racialized as Black or at least darker skinned.

For Venezuelans and Colombians this process of racialization has not played out neatly along class lines. There are certainly white and poor Venezuelans and Colombians, just as there are middle class and wealthy Afro-descendant populations. But the national narrative is different. This can be seen in an interesting and subtle shift in language.

Before 2010 most people (and newspaper articles) referred to immigrants as “Extranjeros” which translates into foreigners, but also has a value-added connotation, these are the good immigrants, the immigrants that are lifting us up. After Chile opened its borders to Haitian immigrants, language shifted to “inmigrantes” or immigrants, which has a resource-draining connotation, and more recently connected to “illegality.”

This context of race, colonialism, anti-Blackness and immigration matters because all too often Chileans like to think of ourselves as white people, in a white country. Both our history, and contemporary immigration patterns threaten that (white) national identity.

Racialized Media Reporting

With a better understanding of Chile’s racial context, we can look at how elites used race to stoke fear about Chile’s national identity. They could have chosen a number of hot-button issues, including abortion, LGBTQ rights, and the environment, and to some extent they did; but according to our content analysis of more than 1500 newspaper articles (between October 2019 and August 2022), the mainstream media fundamentally relied on racial tropes.

This generally played out in two ways. The conservative media capitalized on the explosion of immigration to Chile to animate existing fears that immigrants are responsible for increasing crime, taking jobs, and using state resources (all of this should sound very familiar in the U.S. context). Similarly, the media used the threat of Mapuche “terrorism” to promote nationalism.

It tells us something important about the centrality of race in Chile when the conservative media, with so many other issues at their disposal, chose plurinationality and immigration as central weapons to undermine the proposed constitution.

Keep in mind that in the 140-page draft constitution, plurinationality is mentioned a total of 13 times, race only explicitly mentioned once. There is no reference to immigrants or migrants at all. Yet gender and LGBTQ issues are mentioned 70 times, and environmental issues a whopping 90 times.

Let me start with a discussion on how the media used immigration.

While debates around immigration and immigration reform have received significant media coverage since the mid-1990s, in our preliminary analysis of La Tercera and El Mercurio we notice that coverage of immigration especially surges during four recent periods: the October 2018 uprising, the height of Covid, preceding the 2021 presidential election, and then again preceding the final vote on the constitution in September 2022.

I’ll describe a few prominent examples. As an explanation for the Social Uprising, then president Sebastian Piñera proclaimed on national television: “We are at war with an unrelenting and powerful external enemy who respects nothing and no one. An enemy willing to use violence and crime with no limit…” Close advisors to Piñera speculated that the uprising was payback from Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela and left-wing immigrants he sent as agitators after Piñera was elected in 2018.

This perception of Venezuelan left-wing agitators (often racialized as Black) in part led government officials to deport 53 undocumented immigrants for their participation in the social uprising, the majority of whom were from Venezuela. More Venezuelans were imprisoned for their participation in the protests, as well as Peruvians, Colombians and Dominicans.

Over 100 articles alluded to immigrant agitators. For example, one article in El Mercurio reports, “immigrants were agitating, when the country needed peace.” Another quotes the Minister of the Interior, who states that “immigrants who are participating in the violence against the Chilean state, will be deported.”

During the peak of the COVID pandemic, these two newspapers shifted their analysis from dangerous outside agitators to racialized messages about the lack of sanitary conditions in migrant communities.

We found dozens of articles that emphasized multiple immigrant families living in small spaces and the dangers of spreading COVID. One prominent example was the case of a fire in the working-class neighborhood of Estación Central, with La Tercera reporting that immigrants who were COVID positive fled during the evacuation, practically putting the entirety of Chile at risk:

“Fire Chief Diego Velazquez stated that there were ‘2 to 3 covid positive people, we already alerted the health department, the municipality, and they are looking for these people, because they were mixed up with other people in the same apartment and in the building and we don’t know where they are.”

The quote doesn’t specifically state that the people they were looking for were Black, but we can nonetheless assume this from the article, because of racially coded language that allows us to make these connections. For example, we know that Estación Central is a densely populated Haitian neighborhood.

Countless other articles already established that poor and often Black immigrants lived in cramped, unsanitary conditions. For example, a more sympathetic article in El Mercurio reports, “Delia Fernandez is one of hundreds of immigrants who attends the communal food bank to survive. When there is no food at the bank, she has to make ends meet to feed the 13 people in her small apartment.”

When the quote about the fire specifies that people were sharing an apartment, in a Black immigrant neighborhood, it makes it fairly easy for readers to reach a particular conclusion about who fled, whether or not it is accurate. In this case, other reports of the fire make it clear that these were Haitian immigrants.

Toward the Vote

During the leadup to the plebiscite on the proposed constitution, 87 newspaper articles explicitly mention immigration and plebiscite in the same article and another 48 mention immigration and the constitutional convention, even though the proposed constitution contains no articles on immigration.

For example, Cristián Allendes, president of the National Society of Agriculture, states “our top priorities for the convention are securing water rights, land rights, and control of Indigenous and immigrant populations.”

While the conservative media were using immigration to create a sense of national crisis, especially in the North, they invoked Mapuche “violence and terrorism” to stoke racial fear in the South.

In over 70% of the newspaper articles we looked at covering Mapuche struggles for self-determination during this period, “terrorism” or “violence” was used to describe direct action tactics or property destruction, even in the vast majority of cases where there was no threatened or actual harm to humans.

La Tercera reports:

“Clearly ‘there has been a resurgence of the conflict between mapuches and the Chilean state in the last few years, with 359 attacks attributed to mapuche extremists since 2020. The majority of these attacks have been directed at commercial activities, and businesses in the region.”

The article clearly intended to raise alarm about an out-of-control situation with Mapuche extremists. The last sentence of the quote is noteworthy, stating that most of these attacks are directed at commercial activities and businesses.

The report doesn’t explain that what little land the Mapuche have is further encroached upon by the logging and mining industries. Nor does the article explain that Chile’s anti-terrorism law passed in 1984 during the Pinochet dictatorship continues to be disproportionately applied to Mapuche communities.

Ahead of the final vote on the new constitution, dozens of opinion pieces and columns in La Tercera and El Mercurio made a case for Chilean nationalism and patriotism, citing that plurinationality was divisive. For example, Francisco Bartolucci Johnston wrote:

“Chile is a single race, a single people, and a single nation, which has been forged throughout five centuries of history with the input of its Indigenous peoples, the Spanish founders, and from a variety of identities that throughout time were integrated into the country. This fusion of races is Chile, and gives a place to the Chilean nation and its own culture.”

This quote recalls Nicolas Palacio’s description of a unique and exceptional Chilean race. In the end, media representations of both Mapuche “terrorism” in the south, and an invasion of “illegal” immigrants from the north, created a crisis of internal and external enemies who threatened Chilean national identity rooted in “white mestizaje.”

Graphic: The Forge

Stoking Fear

Having established how the media stoked racial fear as a key strategy to undermine the vote on the proposed constitution, I want to focus on how this played out as unions tried to turn out their members for the approval.

Union and social movement activists I spoke to often reported that there was a lot of confusion about plurinationality in their conversations with members.

Ten workers I interviewed in March 2022 expressed that they thought plurinationality was about both Indigenous people and immigrants. They interpreted it as formally recognizing many nationalities. Some of these workers, being immigrants, were excited about the prospects of legalizing their status, while Chilean nationals suggested that they were sympathetic to the recognition of Chile’s Indigenous groups but did not believe that Chile should open its borders to everyone.

I don’t have clear evidence to prove that linking issues of Indigenous sovereignty with immigration was an intentional strategy on the right, but the confusion of plurinationality with open borders suggests it was an easy link to make, or rather one that readers could be counted on to make without the need to state it explicitly. Camila, a feminist activist, called it a “perfect storm.”

The confusion about the meaning of plurinationality, a central feature of the proposed constitution, speaks to challenges that labor and social movement organizations faced in mobilizing their members to vote to approve the new constitution. Unions generally de-emphasized the social movement provisions in the constitution, particularly plurinationality.

Union leaders in the Starbucks union and in the Valparaiso Port union, who were younger and came out of student activism, mistook the symbolic politics of waving the Mapuche flag as an indication that the provisions around Indigenous sovereignty would not be controversial.

In response to my questions about plurinationality, Pilar, a Starbucks worker, said “there has been a huge cultural shift in Chile. More and more people are identifying with their Indigenous roots. Look at all the Mapuche flags in the protests. It’s a non-issue. People are already onboard with the Mapuche struggle.”

Others, such as the leaders of the Mining and Walmart unions, didn’t see plurinationality as a central issue for their membership and preferred to engage with the provisions most directly associated with labor. For example Federico, a member activist in the mining union, stated:

“[W]hen I go talk to members about the constitution, I focus on the labor provisions. I tell them that it will make us stronger and more powerful. The other provisions are important, I support them, but ultimately our members will vote in favor of it because it changes things for them.”

In short, labor failed to anticipate how the right would use provisions around Indigenous sovereignty and a more generalized fear about “illegal immigration” to produce an outsized sentiment that the progressive constitution would divide Chile’s core national identity, firmly rooted in “white mestizaje.” As a result; they lacked strategies to undercut the impact of this powerful narrative.

Union leaders often told me that they really wanted to figure out how to better incorporate immigrant workers into the union. They understood that they needed to address serious racial inequities in the workplace. Yet at the end of the day, they have not been able to address these issues fast enough.

The labor movement’s failure to address plurinationality, racism and anti-Blackness, to build solidarity between immigrant workers and Chilean nationals, and to inoculate their members against racist tropes, ultimately undermined their efforts to organize a strong yes vote for the proposed constitution, which would have been a game changer for everyone.

Contemporary Racial Formation

The constitutional convention process is a rich site for us to explore contemporary racial formation in Chile. The Chilean center and far right acted as a unified class, using their arsenal of resources to provoke fear and crisis. The left was disorganized and did not anticipate how the right would mobilize race.

Our content analysis shows that both “illegal” immigration in the North and Mapuche “violence” in the South, during the constitutional convention and leading up to the September 2022 plebiscite, were effectively used to convince voters that the constitution imperiled Chile’s national identity.

The far right took the trope of the violent Mapuche directly from the dictatorship, and added the threat of a racialized immigrant population to their playbook. These tropes ultimately served to preserve their economic and political interests.

Chile’s legacy of “white mestizaje” was under-theorized by scholars who were more likely to attribute the No vote to social class, political mechanisms, and the “radicalism” of the proposed constitution.

Importantly, it was misunderstood or misapprehended by labor and social movement actors who either ignored race in their organizing or assumed that symbolic politics like the widespread waving of Mapuche flags, indicated that questions of Indigenous sovereignty would not be controversial.

But the effective campaign of promoting racial fear and instability trumped symbolic politics. Even though 80% of Chileans say they agree that Indigenous people should have rights, when these claims were tested in the proposed constitution with policies that would allow Indigenous people to have their own judicial system and be formally recognized, most Chileans voted against it.

While this was a devastating loss, I think there are many lessons to be learned from the constitutional process. As in Chile, U.S. labor and social movement organizations must confront the right’s effort to create wedges and divisions along multiple axes. And the Chilean example helps us think through questions about how labor and social movement politics should deal with white supremacy as part of a larger political project.

Like its Chilean counterpart, the U.S. labor movement doesn’t have a great track record on race and immigration (though this certainly has been changing). I believe looking carefully and critically at Chile for both scholars and activists will be fruitful in the struggles to come.

January-February 2024, ATC 228

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