SANTIAGO, Chile – President Michelle Bachelet, the outgoing Chilean leader leaving the office on March 11, fulfilled one of her electoral promises as she presented a bill for a new Constitution that will replace the current version that was drawn up during the Pinochet dictatorship.
The lengthy process to begin the change proposal to the supreme document of the Chilean state started in October of 2015 when Bachelet addressed the country through a nationally televised and radio-transmitted message in which she announced that the first steps were being taken.
The Socialist Party’s Bachelet, who served as President of Chile from 2006 to 2010 and left office with very high approval ratings but was constitutionally barred from re-election, returned to the nation’s top political position in March of 2014.
Among the many promises she made in instituting changes once she returned to the Moneda (presidential palace) was the construction and ratification of a new Constitution.
Given the long and tedious process required to accomplish this task, along with the reform-heavy workload already taken on by Bachelet, many had doubted whether the process would begin during her second mandate until she presented her project this week.
“As this was one of my promises and the fact that I said I would govern until my last day, this should come as no surprise to anybody,” Bachelet said in reference to conservative criticism to the timing of her decision, which was made just days before her mandate ends on March 11.
“Chile needs a new and better Constitution, one that is legitimate and respected by everyone, one born in democracy and one that truly expresses the popular will of the Chilean people,” Bachelet said in 2015. “The process is underway already as it started from the moment that millions of Chileans manifested their will for constitutional change at the ballot boxes last year,” she then explained.
Chile’s three-decade-plus-old Constitution, written under the rule of former right-wing military dictator Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), has been modified in small pieces over recent years but is in need of a complete teardown, according to the Chilean leader.
“Our current Constitution,” she said, “was imposed upon many by few.” For this reason, it was “born without legitimacy and has not been accepted as its own by by the citizenry of Chile” and it “is incompatible with the needs and demands of today.”
Bachelet explained this week that the new Constitution does not mean a “start from zero” as certain measured have been introduced in recent years that have “eased the authoritarian character” of the current document.. However, Bachelet said it still “contains many mechanisms that hinder the full ability to exercise democracy and these mechanisms cannot be eliminated with just more of new, partial amendments.”
“A nation’s Constitution is the mother of all laws in that nation, it establishes the basic rules of a nation’s political system, it defines the values that govern a nation, it is what unites a nation, it defines the character of a democracy and it is the legal basis for making progress possible,” said Bachelet in stressing how important the project was for her.
Tentatively, the presentation of Bachelet’s project was due to coincide with national elections in November of 2017 but her proposal was delayed due to congressional backlogs of other reform packages.
In any case, Bachelet was not going to be returning due to term limits so she would not have overseen the implementation of a new Constitution as the head of state.
In her place will be conservative former leader Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014) who defeated the broken center-left to left coalition’s candidate Alejandro Guillier in the run-off vote in December. For her part, Bachelet said that she told Piñera about her plan for the Constitution presentation when the two shared the tradition post-election dinner between the outgoing and incumbent leaders.
Despite the heavy workload associated with the project, Bachelet was emphatic in stating that the new Constitution does not signify a refoundation of the country. “This is not starting from zero but rather using our republican heritage and modifying it to fit today’s society,” she said.
Some of those ideas included in the new Constitution that are central to today’s society include “dignity, freedom, equality, solidarity and respect for the fundamental rights of all human beings” marked by guarantees in access to health care and education and a pathway to the elimination of discrimination and salary inequality.
Politically, the new Constitution contains passages that allude to the possible change in presidential terms from four years to six (through popular referendums) and the possible elimination of re-election (for congressional members), among others. An interesting insertion is the idea of the Citizen’s Initiative of Law, a public motion that can be reviewed in Congress if it has the support at least five percent of vote-eligible Chileans.
Despite its presentation now, the motion still has a very long way to go; there will be an official and binding debate of the new document in Congress and then, a Bicameral Commission of Senators and Deputies (or a Constituent Convention of Legislators and Citizens) will determine who defines the official wording. In any case, the final text of the new Constitution will have to be ratified through a popular referendum.
On September 11, 1973, the democratically-elected leftist Salvador Allende was faced with a violent coup staged by the Chilean Armed Forces, led by Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Augusto Pinochet. From that date, Pinochet led Chile with an iron fist for the duration of the dictatorship, which finally ended in 1990.
Over 40,000 people were victims of grave human rights abuses in the South American country during the dictatorship, including kidnapping, torture, rape, forced disappearance and murder, and that number could be even higher according to some estimates. Additionally, some 200,000 Chileans were forced out or fled their country during the dictatorship, with tens of thousands still in exile.
This was part of Operation Condor, a period of systematic political repression and state-sponsored terror involving cooperating international intelligence organizations conducted by the right-wing dictatorships of South America, including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay. This was all done with the staunch financial, logistical and political support from the United States. The program’s purpose was to “eradicate communist or Soviet influence and ideas,” and to suppress and eliminate any opposition, real or imagined, against those dictatorships.
The dictatorship officially ended in 1990, but democracy did not return before Pinochet and many other Armed Forces officials took measures to protect themselves in the aftermath. Those individuals greatly benefited from the Amnesty Decree, a law enacted by Pinochet in 1978 that prevents any figures from facing justice due to crimes committed during the dictatorship.
Furthermore, a provision in the transitional Constitution drafted by Pinochet in 1980, the one that still stands today, allowed him to serve as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces for another eight years after he stopped serving as President in 1990.
The continued existence of that same Constitution ensures, as Bachelet said, that many remnants of the dictatorship are present in modern-day Chile, including the systems that dictate aspects of the economy, healthcare and education.
Although there are reforms at different stages of debate, planning, ratification and institutionalization in the areas of the voting system, public education and the Amnesty Decree, as the leader also touched upon, the changes still cannot be implemented in ways that fundamentally change those political sectors.
For others, the simple fact that the same Constitution written during a dictatorship is still in effect in a democratic Chile conveys the message that the State has still not done enough (or does not want to do enough) in order to make a clean break with the legacy of the darkest years in its history.