Latin America Brief

A one-stop weekly digest of politics, economics, technology, and culture in Latin America. Delivered Friday.

Chile’s New Founding Mothers

Chile prepares to elect constitutional authors with 50 percent being women, a global milestone.

By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief.
A woman walks past electoral posters ahead of this weekend’s elections in Santiago, on May 12.
A woman walks past electoral posters ahead of this weekend’s elections in Santiago, on May 12. Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.

The highlights this week: How to read this weekend’s election for Chile’s new constitutional assembly, Colombia’s protests rage on, and see the first tests of new labor protections in the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.

The highlights this week: How to read this weekend’s election for Chile’s new constitutional assembly, Colombia’s protests rage on, and see the first tests of new labor protections in the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement.

If you would like to receive Latin America Brief in your inbox every Friday, please sign up here.


Rewriting the Rules

This weekend, Chileans will elect the world’s first constitutional assembly that is required to consist of 50 percent women. The 155-person assembly will include no currently sitting politicians and has 17 seats reserved for Indigenous Chileans; in separate ballot items, governors, mayors, and city councilors will also be elected.

The possibility of rewriting the constitution has been a prominent topic of debate in Chile since at least Michelle Bachelet’s second presidential term, which began in 2014. Constitutional rewrites have been remarkably common in Latin America in recent decades, both to mark transitions out of military rule (Nicaragua in 1987 and Brazil in 1988) and as part of the leftist Chavista wave of the 2000s (Venezuela in 1999, Ecuador in 2008, and Bolivia in 2009).

Chile’s existing magna carta was approved under Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship and gives private companies a significant role in providing and governing services, such as health care, education, water, and pensions—leading it to become one target of broad anti-inequality protests in October 2019. In a plebiscite that was delayed due to the pandemic, in October 2020, 78 percent of Chileans voted for a rewrite.

What to watch for. Since this is a very unique election that has also coincided with lockdowns, projections come with a high degree of uncertainty. At the polls, voters have the option to choose candidates from different lists, some which are more connected to existing political parties and others containing more independent figures.

Forecaster Tresquintos estimates the list aligned with Chile’s conservative and right-wing parties, Vamos por Chile, could earn at minimum more than a third of the seats, allowing its members to block proposals by more progressive delegates at the constitutional assembly. Two-thirds approval is required for articles to be approved within the assembly and then once again before the complete draft constitution goes back to the Chilean population for a final vote. Other analysts caution that right-wing Chilean President Sebastián Piñera’s low popularity could depress the right’s performance more than expected.

The other two lists that are predicted to perform well are also linked to prominent parties: center-left Lista del Apruebo and far-left Apruebo Dignidad. The lists of independents include figures ranging from Indigenous Mapuche spiritual authority Francisca Linconaointerviewed in journalist John Bartlett’s recent look at the elections in Foreign Policy—to school bus driver Giovanna Grandón, better known as Aunt Pikachu for wearing an inflatable costume of the Pokémon throughout the 2019 demonstrations.

If the right wins a third of the seats, the new constitution is unlikely to be a radical departure from the current one, although even conservative candidates argue the charter should be modernized and mention the importance of new protections for Indigenous peoples and the environment.

Key issues. The crux of negotiations in the assembly will be over how much the new constitution will guarantee state-provided services or else increase the state role in sectors ranging from health care to mining to water. Currently, around 80 percent of Chileans use a poorly funded public health sector for most of their care, and private water companies have come under harsh criticism for leaving poor areas dry or polluted. Many left-wing assembly candidates suggest raising taxes on Chile’s rich to fund new government expenditures, which more conservative candidates oppose.

More consensus might be possible on issues like granting regional administrators more autonomy from the central government and new legal recognition to Indigenous peoples, such as the Mapuche.

The quota effect. Another element to watch as the assembly begins its work (they have nine months to write it with an optional three-month extension) is how gender parity and the quota for Indigenous members will affect proposals. Some candidates have called for gender balance to be required in all government bodies in the future. Platforms from leftist candidates mention expanding reproductive rights while many conservative Vamos por Chile candidates openly oppose legalizing abortion.

In Chile’s legislature, a recent bill to decriminalize abortion earned little traction, but both new legislators and a new president are due to be chosen this November. Presidential polling shows a divided field, with no candidate earning more than around 15 percent of voter support at this point. Debates in the constitutional assembly will certainly influence the November elections. They’ll also be closely watched across the region, where other countries are weighing how to adjust their social services in the wake of the pandemic’s shock.


The Week Ahead

Friday, May 14: Ecuador’s new Congress takes office.

Saturday, May 15 to Sunday, May 16: Chile holds elections for its constitutional assembly and governors, mayors, and city councilors.

Friday, May 21: Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico participate in the G-20 Global Health Summit.


What We’re Following

Colombia’s chaos. Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez’s efforts to talk with civil society leaders do not appear to have calmed the country’s ongoing national protests, which entered their third week on Wednesday. Colombian Foreign Minister Claudia Blum resigned Thursday amid international criticism of the government’s handling of protests. After originally denouncing a tax hike, demonstrators are now decrying police violence and a proposed health sector reform as well. At least 42 people have been killed, one of them a police officer, authorities said Tuesday.

Protestors hold a makeshift shield and signs during a national strike against President Ivan Duque's administration in Cali, Colombia on May 12.

Protesters hold a makeshift shield and signs during a national strike against Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez’s administration in Cali, Colombia, on May 12.Gabriel Aponte/Getty Images

A Bolivian-Chilean thaw. Officials from the two countries announced the launch of 15 cooperative task forces on issues ranging from the environment to tourism in an effort to “leave behind a particularly conflictive period,” Chile’s foreign minister said. Bolivia and Chile cut official diplomatic ties in 1978 (they still maintain consulates) and have clashed in recent years over water rights and access to the Pacific Ocean.

Rio breaks a record. Last week, Rio de Janeiro police killed 28 people while serving arrest warrants in a poor neighborhood, record casualties for a single police operation in the city’s history. One officer died in the raid. Police said they killed in self-defense, but they altered the scenes of shootings in several cases in an apparent attempt to hamper the investigation, according to hospital records.

Although human rights advocates denounced apparent signs of execution by police, many Brazilians, including the country’s vice president, said the deaths were justified. President Jair Bolsonaro has long defended police killings of people whom police suspect of committing crimes.

Seeking new vaccine bridges. Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández said Tuesday he was considering opening a trade office in China, with which Honduras currently does not have diplomatic relations, to better access COVID-19 vaccines. Hernández has also asked diplomatic ally Taiwan to press the United States for help obtaining doses; as of Wednesday, it had acquired only 248,600 doses for its population of around 10 million.

Processing with music. A religious service was held at Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue this week to mark the passing of comedian Paulo Gustavo, Brazil’s biggest celebrity yet to die of COVID-19 complications. Gustavo was an LGBTQ trailblazer whose satirical performances of Brazilian mothers made him beloved across the political spectrum, a rarity in a deeply divided country. In his honor, singer Mariah Nala performed music by one of Gustavo’s icons, Beyoncé.

Meanwhile in Cali, Colombia, anti-government protesters at the epicenter of national unrest flaunted their own musical talents. That included men donning sequin-studded velour pants and women wearing stilettos to perform a choreographed salsa performance. Journalist John Otis caught the extravaganza on video. Although salsa was invented in New York, Cali has claimed its place as the salsa capital of the world.


Question of the Week

Which of the following countries conducted a major constitutional rewrite (requiring a constituent assembly) most recently?

A) Colombia
B) Haiti
C) Paraguay
D) Peru


In Focus: Tests of a New Trade Era

A BMW employee is pictured working on a car assembly line in San Luis Potosi, Mexico on June 6, 2019.

A BMW employee is pictured working on a car assembly line in San Luis Potosí, Mexico on June 6, 2019.Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images

Some of the most significant changes established by the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) in comparison to its predecessor, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), were on labor rights. This week brought the first tests of those provisions. In the first country-to-country complaint, the U.S. government flagged alleged tampering in a union vote at an auto plant in the Mexican city of Silao, which would violate the new treaty’s guarantee of freedom of association. U.S. and Mexican unions also filed a complaint to U.S. trade authorities about union suppression at another plant in Matamoros, Mexico.

Trade officials from all three countries are currently preparing to meet for the pact’s first annual review. Mexico said it would investigate the Silao complaint, with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador welcoming the probe. “We have to intervene,” he said Wednesday, if fair wages are not being paid.

The USMCA aims to raise Mexican wages, which have been stagnant since NAFTA passed in 1994. Auto sector wages in particular are one-tenth to one-eighth that of U.S. counterparts. The effort is both for the sake of Mexican workers and to prevent U.S. companies from relocating there.

The complaints. Union leaders at a General Motors factory in Silao were accused of destroying “no” ballots in a vote about whether to recognize the union that has controlled worker contracts for many years. In Mexico, at least 80 percent of collective contracts are signed between unions and bosses without worker review, and companies frequently fire workers who agitate for new unions, according to Alfredo Dominguez, a top Mexican labor official.

Mexican labor authorities ordered a redo of the Silao union vote on Tuesday. Ending opaque contracts is one goal of the labor reform passed in Mexico in 2019 and slated to fully come into effect by the end of 2023.

The U.S. complaint on Silao was announced two days after the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations and Mexican unions petitioned U.S. trade authorities, saying an auto parts factory in Matamoros, Mexico fired hundreds of workers for attempting to join an independent union.

Next steps. As part of a treaty mechanism called Rapid Response, there is a five-month deadline to determine any penalties for a violation of the USMCA, including the possibility that an individual factory could face tariffs or other consequences. Regarding the Matamoros claim, U.S. trade officials have 30 days to determine whether to raise the issue with Mexico.

More tests await for the USMCA as the top U.S. oil lobby also sent a letter last week to federal trade officials, saying Mexico’s new electricity overhaul and proposed hydrocarbons bill, which hinder private participation in those sectors, likely violate treaty requirements.


And the answer is…

D) Peru

Peru’s constitution dates to 1993 and was drafted by an assembly elected shortly after then-President Alberto Fujimori (father of current presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori) dissolved the country’s congress in 1992. Haiti’s constitution was approved in 1987, Colombia’s in 1991, and Paraguay’s in 1992.

Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn