How Chile’s Constitution Revolution Missed the Mark
It’s back to the drawing board for the country—and President Gabriel Boric.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
The highlights this week: Chile reflects on its failed constitutional drafting process, Brazil’s president rallies his supporters, and Argentina tanks in the world barbecue championship.
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Chile’s Millennial Political Elite Stumbles
Chileans rejected a progressive proposed new constitution in last Sunday’s mandatory referendum by a whopping 62 to 38 percent—a margin of around double what most polls had predicted. Now, pollsters are not the only ones soul-searching. The dramatic result has prompted public reflections and mea culpas among many of the draft charter’s proponents.
President Gabriel Boric, an early advocate, swapped out five cabinet ministers only six months into his presidency—generally replacing younger, far-left confidants with older, center-left politicians in an apparent acknowledgement that Chilean voters found the proposed constitution too radical. The rewrite aimed to move Chile away from the small-government economic model enshrined in its current charter, written in 1980 under dictator Augusto Pinochet.
While Chileans wanted change, the draft introduced “change to the extreme,” Lucas Perelló and Will Freeman wrote in Foreign Policy last week. The document would have been one of the world’s most progressive constitutions, paving the way for stronger protections for Indigenous Chileans, the environment, and women—including almost certainly legalizing abortion. It would have also upped the state’s obligations to provide social goods such as health care and housing.
The proposed constitution’s rejection “is the first big political failure of my generation,” tweeted economist Noam Titelman, one of the co-founders of Boric’s far-left Frente Amplio movement.
Boric’s cohort of millennial activists-turned-politicians first gained national attention during 2011 student protests calling for education reform. Many went on to enter Congress, where they successfully channeled the popular discontent behind massive anti-government protests in 2019 into an agreement with former conservative President Sebastián Piñera to allow a constitutional rewrite.
In a 2020 referendum, 78 percent of Chileans approved the measure, and, in May 2021, the country elected a constitutional assembly to draft the new charter that was heavy on left-wing activists and political outsiders—far more so than Chile’s legislature. Boric’s election as president late last year was yet another step forward in his cohort’s push for progressive change through established institutions.
The draft constitution’s approval would have been an even bigger accomplishment. But Perelló and Freeman note that its defeat is not necessarily an endorsement of the current dictatorship-era constitution. The authors cite a July poll showing that 74 percent of Chileans supported a new constitutional redrafting process in the event of the document’s rejection—which Chile’s Congress is now debating whether and how to authorize.
A new process would almost certainly be guided by a more centrist group of authors than those chosen in 2021. Writing in Nueva Sociedad on Sunday, Titelman reflected on where the rejected constitution’s architects went wrong. He argued that the independent and left-wing figures elected to the constitutional assembly did not sufficiently embrace compromises and consensus-building with its more conservative members. Instead, they opted for “maximalist” positions even when they did not have the votes to approve them.
Assembly member Patricio Fernández, a journalist who ran for the assembly as an independent candidate, made a similar comment to El Mostrador en La Clave Radio. Inside the assembly, the Frente Amplio “lacked leadership” by failing to reach across the political aisle. “I’m sure that if there was a wider majority constructed inside the assembly,” he added, the public would have viewed contentious topics like Indigenous rights differently.
Rosa Catrileo, herself an Indigenous Mapuche assembly member, also cited poor communication as an obstacle to the proposed constitution’s approval. Even though the draft included ambitious measures designed to protect Indigenous groups, Catrileo told CNN Chile that some members of her own community were skeptical of it, instead believing disinformation that circulated online—such as the false claim that expanded housing rights meant the government would confiscate private property.
Some critics also said that sitting Congress members should have played a role in the assembly to ensure the draft’s provisions could be more easily translated into legislation. The rejected charter, for example, included 388 articles and hard-to-interpret redesigns for the Senate and judiciary, which provoked uncertainty among the public. Gabriela Lotta, a Brazilian political scientist, tweeted that the Chilean drafting process should give Brazilians renewed pride in their own 1988 constitution, which was created by lawmakers with substantial input from civil society and enshrined broad social rights.
Still, she said, “I think Chile emerges strengthened from this process.”
In the likely next round of writing, some elements of the previous drafting process are expected to endure, such as the requirement that government bodies be gender-balanced, journalist Daniel Matamala wrote for La Tercera. Politicians who campaigned for the draft to be rejected have called on different occasions for its focus on climate change and its focus on shoring up social rights to remain in a future iteration.
Chile should weigh the lessons of its plebiscite carefully, Matamala wrote after the vote. “We already wasted one opportunity. Maybe the next one will be the last.”
Thursday, Sept. 15: The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee holds hearing on U.S. policy toward Venezuela.
Saturday, Sept. 24: Brazil’s presidential candidates participate in a televised debate.
Monday, Sept. 26: The U.N. Human Rights Council discusses Venezuela.
What We’re Following
Argentina’s assassination attempt. A Brazilian man and his Argentine girlfriend have been arrested after the man tried to assassinate Argentine Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Buenos Aires last week. The man pulled the trigger of a gun at short rage at Fernández de Kirchner’s head outside of her house, but it did not fire.
Argentine investigators say they believe the attack involved previous planning by the couple, but they did not immediately announce evidence of a wider plot against the vice president. Still, the attempt remains another symptom of dangerously high political temperatures in Latin America. The detained man had spoken out against Kirchner’s leftist policies on Argentine television and had a neo-Nazi symbol tattooed on his elbow.
The would-be assassin’s gun may have jammed because it was old; if he had had access to a newer firearm, the story could have turned out very differently. Unlike neighboring Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro was stabbed during his last campaign in 2018—and where more than 45 politicians were killed in the first six months of this year alone—Argentina does not have a recent history of high-level political assassination attempts. That is, until now.
Ukraine-sized refugee flow. Flows of Venezuelan migrants fleeing the country’s economic and political meltdown temporarily abated during the coronavirus pandemic. Now, the number has begun to rise again. A total of 6.8 million Venezuelans have left the country since 2014, receiving countries reported.
That’s around the size of the current Ukrainian refugee crisis. But Venezuelans have received far less support from international donors than their Ukrainian counterparts. By last week, United Nations member states had only pledged 13 percent of the funding the U.N. tried to raise in late 2021.
“There’s real donor fatigue,” Refugees International’s Rachel Schmidtke’s told FP’s Robbie Gramer.
While international donations lag, it is neighboring Latin American countries that continue to do the heavy lifting when it comes to receiving Venezuelan migrants. Ecuador, for its part, has just kicked off what will be a yearlong process of granting regular status to over 300,000 Venezuelans on its soil.
Roasted pride. Argentines experienced a rare moment of national unity this week in outrage over their country’s 51st-place performance at an international barbecue competition in Belgium.
The South American agricultural powerhouse prides itself on its grilling prowess. But the Argentine team was thrown off by the technical constraints of the contest, its team director told La Nación, including a requirement to use an egg-shaped Japanese-style meat smoker instead of cooking over an open fire.
“Argentina was taken out of its comfort zone,” the president of the Argentine Federation of Barbecuers told the newspaper. He added that judges paid serious attention to each team’s desserts and side dishes, while the Argentine team’s specialty was meat.
That excuse was not good enough for online commentators. Some tore apart a published image of one of Argentina’s dishes, criticizing it as “an aberration,” ugly, and, similar-looking to an alien in the science fiction film District 9.
Musician Rosendo Faulkner speculated on Twitter that the problem could have been the haute cuisine background of the Argentine chefs, several of whom work in restaurants in Europe. “When I’m president, anyone who represents Argentina in the Barbecue World Cup will have to have worked at least two construction jobs,” he said.
Question of the Week
Which of the following is not a typical ingredient in Argentine chimichurri sauce, used to accompany steaks?
You might be thinking of the Mexican condiment pico de gallo.
FP’s Most Read This Week
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In Focus: Bolsonaro’s Big Photo-Op
For weeks, as he lagged in polls ahead of Brazil’s Oct. 2 presidential election, Bolsonaro called for his supporters to attend Independence Day military parades across the country to show their support for him. They occurred Wednesday, the 200th anniversary of Brazil’s split from Portugal.
Bolsonaro made speeches to attendees of bicentennial events in both Rio de Janeiro and Brasília, encouraging audiences to vote for him and attacking his political opponents against a backdrop of military parades and airplane flyovers—all broadcast at length on state television. Experts in Brazilian election law told newspaper Valor Econômico that the president violated a ban on using government resources for his own campaign, and opposition parties have filed complaints with election authorities.
In the meantime, Bolsonaro got the images of packed crowds he sought, as tens of thousands of demonstrators turned out in Brasília, Rio, and other cities where he did not personally appear, such as São Paulo.
Foreign Policy spoke to attendees of the Rio de Janeiro demonstration, who repeated Bolsonaro’s unsubstantiated claims that Brazil’s electronic voting machines are unreliable and that he is leading in the polls. The mainstream media “is lying” about the election, and any potential arbitration by Brazil’s Supreme Court “cannot be trusted,” retiree Fátima Barbosa said. Bolsonaro supporters who addressed the crowds from atop trucks lining Copacabana beach repeated similar messages.
Barbosa said that if the voting machines show a victory for Bolsonaro’s election opponent, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in October, she plans to attend any protest Bolsonaro calls for to object to the results. Nurse technician Roberta Rocha, also at the event, said that if the voting machines show a Lula victory, Brazil’s Army “will demand a recount,” and that courts cannot stop them because “the Army is a greater force, and it is with Bolsonaro.”
This kind of widespread narrative suggests the high tensions surrounding the election won’t end when the votes are counted—not least because Bolsonaro’s supporters have embraced his new permissions for civilian gun ownership.
Speaking to a crowd of tens of thousands in Rio on Wednesday, the president said that leftists “should be wiped out of public life.”
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
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