“Esame constitution,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in a 1789 letter to James Madison, “naturally expires after 19 years.” Two centuries after its expiration date, citizens of the United States are suffering the consequences of a constitution drafted by 55 men who owned hundreds of human slaves, thousands of acres of landed property and millions of dollars in wealth. inherited. Fundamental rights denied, fundamental institutions paralyzed and existential crises ignored: these are the side effects of a legal framework that has not been significantly modified for more than half a century.
The United States is not alone. Dozens of constitutions around the world have been written by dictators, colonizers, and military occupiers to enshrine institutions that are inherently undemocratic and unfit to deal with crises like a rapidly warming planet. In some cases, like the UK, the constitution was never written at all, placing the political system on a precarious foundation of norms and conventions that leaders like Boris Johnson have been too eager to reject. When a cross-party committee met in 2013 to examine the UK’s constitutional chaos, its recommendation was nothing short of sweeping: that the government consider “preparations for a UK-wide constitutional convention”.
But while the United States and the United Kingdom remain trapped in a constitutional impasse, the Republic of Chile has just concluded its own national convention to replace the 1980 decree by dictator Augusto Pinochet and his military government. The product of the convention is a visionary document that would not only update, expand and advance the fundamental rights of Chileans – to health, housing, abortion, decent work and a habitable planet – but would also establish a new standard for democratic renewal in the 21st century. .
Like that of the United States, the current Chilean constitution was drafted under extremely undemocratic conditions. Pinochet came to power in a bloody coup to overthrow President Salvador Allende and set to work designing a constitution that would consolidate executive power, limit democratic representation, and enshrine free-market fundamentalism. With a clique of economists known as the “Chicago Boys” for their training at the University of Chicago, Pinochet set the country on a path of neoliberalization so extreme that Chile would become the only country in the world with a constitutionally privatized water system.
The consequences of Pinochet’s constitution were all too easy to predict – and will be all too familiar to American readers where his ideas came from. Inequality has soared: Chile has become the most unequal country in the OECD, with an income gap 65% higher than the OECD average; the combined wealth of its billionaires totals 25% of GDP. Debt has exploded: Chile’s tuition fees are among the highest in the world, trapping students in cycles of debt repayment that can last a lifetime. Precariousness has accelerated: the percentage of jobs on short-term contracts has risen to 30, while around half of all workers say they are unable to save enough to fund their retirement. Even its famous privatized water system has collapsed: millions of Santiago residents are regularly deprived of access to running water, as Chile enters a period of severe water stress.
In October 2019, millions of Chileans took to the streets to protest against these intolerable conditions. Sparked by a hike in public transport fares by incumbent President Sebastián Piñera, the protests quickly turned into a revolt against the country’s entire constitutional order – its neoliberal orthodoxy, authoritarian governance, lack of human rights protections that figured in both the policies of Pinochet’s murderous regime and Piñera’s violent crackdown on the 2019 protests. “Constituent o nada!cried the demonstrators: constituent assembly or nothing. A year later, Chileans turned out in record numbers to vote in a special plebiscite organized in the wake of the protest movement: 78% voted for a new constitution, and 79% for a convention of citizens elected for the write, rather than career politicians. .
At a time when democracies are ravaged by violent polarization, the Chilean convention has charted the course for peaceful renewal. Led by women, the convention brought together workers, Indigenous peoples and parties from across the political spectrum to draft a new constitution in a year of painstaking deliberation. The result is a document that responds directly to the growing crises of inequality, insecurity and climate change. The constitution establishes new universal public services for health, education and drinking water. It confers rights to nature and protects Chile’s glaciers, parks and large bodies of water from environmentally disastrous mining. And – four decades after Pinochet’s decree – it finally transforms Chile into a full-fledged democracy, with gender parity in public institutions, self-determination for indigenous peoples, collective bargaining for all workers and the right vote for all Chileans over the age of 16.
But the campaign to delegitimize the Chilean constitution is already underway. Even before the convention took up residence, Wall Street Journal commentators had called it a “suicide mission.” Since then, a relentless “digital war” has been waged to discredit the new constitution by spreading lies and misinformation about its content. A sitting Chilean senator falsely claimed that the constitution would change the country’s name, flag and national anthem, in a video which has gone viral across the country. Gender parity is mocked as “woke”. Workers’ rights are “divisive”. And Indigenous sovereignty is the path to a “Indigenous monarchy”. In its editorial urging Chileans to vote against the new constitution, The Economist put the new text on a roll of toilet paper. The purpose of the attacks is simple: to scare the Chileans into defending an indefensible status quo.
But the Chileans are not discouraged. After all, The Economist praised the “quick success” of Pinochet’s 1973 coup, and most of the parties currently calling to reject the new constitution are the same ones that voted to keep Pinochet in power in the 1988 plebiscite which ended his reign. More than a month before the September vote, the coalition to support the new constitution is growing around the world, exciting everyone from feminists to evangelicals, american politicians to professors at the University of Chicago. “It’s kind of a miracle that he got this far,” said University of Chicago professor Tom Ginsburg. The “Apruebo” vote is still lagging in the polls, but campaign leaders – like newly elected President Gabriel Boric – are advancing it one day at a time. “This September 4, it will once again be the people who will have the final say on their fate,” Boric said. said.
But their destiny is also ours. In the 20th century, the American constitution reigned as the model to be emulated by democracies around the world. This is no longer the case: its antiquated institutions and the absence of rights guaranteed its declining influence. Today, Chile has shown the way to a new constitutional order – rich in rights, responsive to the needs of people and the planet – that can serve as an example for the world in the 21st century. For, as even Thomas Jefferson recognized in 1789, “the land belongs to the living, not to the dead”. From Chile to the United States, may a new movement for democratic renewal come to life.