Latin America Advisor

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Has Covid Halted Momentum for Change in Chile?

A photo of empty streets in Santiago, Chile. // Photo: Municipality of Santiago. Last year, protesters filled the streets in Chile to push for social change. Now, Santiago’s streets are all but deserted as residents observe stay-at-home orders to curb the spread of coronavirus. // Photo: Municipality of Santiago.

Chilean lawmakers postponed the much-anticipated constitutional referendum, initially scheduled for April 26, to mid-October as the country grapples with the coronavirus health crisis and its economic consequences. Will the delay in the vote influence the referendum’s outcomes—and if so, how? To what extent have social concerns in Chile been put on the backburner as new crises have emerged? Has the pandemic interrupted protesters’ momentum and hopes for social change in Chile, and what implications does this have for Chilean politics and society?

Patricio D. Navia, clinical professor of liberal studies at New York University and professor of political science at Universidad Diego Portales in Chile: “Chileans have been forced to rethink their priorities now that the country faces a pandemic. By rescheduling the plebiscite, the government and the opposition acknowledge that Chile has bigger problems than the decision over whether they ought to write a new constitution. As in most other countries, people’s priorities are now to avoid being infected with Covid-19 and the economic fallout from social-distancing policies. As the economy is expected to contract drastically during the second half of 2020, the plebiscite will be held under very different conditions than when the government and opposition first agreed on the roadmap to respond to social protests. If the pandemic is not under control by October, turnout will be much lower than needed to give legitimacy to the process. Though rescheduling is always an option, Chile will have its presidential election in November 2021—with presidential primaries scheduled for July 2021. Making the constitutional process coincide with the presidential election is a bad idea. If new constitutions in Latin America have recently been characterized by the expansion of unfunded mandates and promises of generous social spending that often goes unrealized, drafting a new constitution at the same time that candidates are making promises to get re-elected is a recipe for fiscal irresponsibility. Chileans overwhelmingly support a new constitution, so it is highly likely that they will vote in favor of it, whenever the plebiscite is held. As the coronavirus pandemic hits the economy, Chileans will likely see unemployment and poverty rise. The pressure on the government to increase social spending and go deeper into debt will increase. Given the election season, nobody will care much about fiscal responsibility. The real problem will be for the next government. With a new constitution that ambitiously expands social rights and an economy in shambles, a highly indebted state will be in no position to meet the needs of an impoverished population, much less to meet the high expectations that led Chileans to protest. Chileans will probably find themselves a year from now longing for conditions Chile had before the riots broke out in October 2019.”

María Cristina Escudero, member of the 2019 technical committee to launch the constitutional process: “According to the polls, the vote—if it had been held on April 26—would have led to the establishment of a constituent assembly that would have proposed a text for citizens to ratify. For a long time, citizens have called for a new social pact to replace the 1980 constitution, and it is unlikely that the pause brought by the pandemic will eliminate the social pressure for this to happen. It is true that Covid-19 took over the political agenda and citizens’ concerns, but it has also exposed the cracks in the political, economic and social model that the 1980 constitution supports: a health system that does not protect all people equally; an educational system that has reproduced inequities, and therefore does not guarantee the continuity of distance education for a majority of children and young people; a property structure that does not give the state tools to look after the common good; and a system of decision-making that obscures the relationship between authorities and citizens. When Chile returns to normalcy, citizens will have many new examples of why the 1980 constitution should be replaced. There are voices that have begun to point out that Chile must focus on economic recovery rather than on a constitutional crisis. However, the voices that argue and claim that normalcy without another constitution will only replicate the unfair system that triggered the October 2019 social explosion are more likely to prevail.”

Claudia Heiss, head of the political science program at the University of Chile’s Institute of Public Affairs (INAP) and researcher at the Center for Social Conflict and Cohesion Studies: “The health crisis has dramatically changed the landscape in Chile, from streets taken over by social mobilization to nearly empty public spaces since mid-March. The urgency of the demand for a new constitution has given way to the immediate protection of health and the concern for sustaining livelihoods in the face of the pandemic and its serious economic consequences. Empty streets, however, do not mean the clamor for structural political and social change has disappeared. Postponing the electoral schedule for the constitutional process was the right decision by the political system. However, it is also its responsibility to guarantee that the pandemic will not be used to twist the will of the people, which set that process in motion at a high cost for many citizens, including those whose human rights were violated during the protests. President Piñera’s suggestion that the severe economic contraction may require further postponing the plebiscite is inconsistent with his own call for a ‘new normal,’ as well as with basic democratic principles. An economic downturn cannot suspend democracy. If anything, the pandemic has made more evident the great inequality in access to health and social protection that was at the heart of the October 2019 outburst. The government’s announced economic measures are also widely deemed insufficient to protect the most vulnerable segments of society. The sense of social and economic injustice may become more evident with this crisis, leading to increased support for a new constitution in the upcoming referendum.”

Guillermo Holzmann, professor at the University of Valparaíso, Chile and CEO of Analytyka Consulting: “Two relevant factors characterized the political environment surrounding the constitutional plebiscite originally scheduled for April 26: growing polarization and the absence of specific regulation to control maximum spending in the campaign. Both these conditions remain for Oct. 25 (the new date for the plebiscite), forecasting that polarization will increase as the economic impact of unemployment and the lack of income necessary to survive as a consequence of the pandemic are added to unmet demands. Minorities and their violent expressions remain in force, and both protests and vandalism are expected to resume in response to the insufficient government action to both the country’s health needs and social demands regarding inequality. However, the government’s diagnosis seems to point in the opposition direction. The health and economic conditions leading to Oct. 25 are averse to ensuring normal development, which is why there is a proposal to postpone it again. This has generated debate, and the idea has been questioned. Chile is facing a double challenge: reasonably responding to the pandemic, both in health and economic terms, and complying with the electoral schedule, assuming the possibility of a constitutional change, against the backdrop of an environment of polarization that has not diminished since the beginning of the year. This has spurred fears of populism.”

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