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Chile Offers a Blueprint for Effectively Channeling Outrage

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An expert’s point of view on a current event.

June 11, 2021, 9:57 AM

In 2019, Chile faced its most severe political crisis since the events of its democratization three decades ago. In response to mass demonstrations, the government made a once-unthinkable announcement: It would hold a vote on replacing its dictatorship-era constitution. Observers from across Latin America have praised the country’s remarkable capacity to articulate an institutional solution to protests, where other nations have repeatedly failed. Across the region, leaders seem to be stuck in an interminable cycle: slowly accumulating public discontent, facing large-scale protests after one unpopular measure breaks the camel’s back, promising change, then repeating the same old patterns.

The latest country to see massive political turmoil is Colombia, where a wave of protests spread across major cities in May after the government of President Iván Duque announced a tax hike so unpopular that even members of his own party sought to distance themselves. The country was already facing one of its worst-ever economic crises as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The large-scale and largely leaderless demonstrations were met with harsh police violence. More than 40 people have been killed, and over 800 injured. The country has now entered a second month of sustained civil unrest. Protesters have called not only for police reform but also for structural changes around public health, tax policy, and economic inequality. Unsurprisingly, numerous analysts have wondered: Can Colombia reproduce Chile’s strategy of organizing a broad debate on adjusting its social contract?

Such an outcome would be highly desirable—after all, Chile has so far succeeded in promoting a societywide debate about its greatest challenges. But expecting Colombia to follow Chile’s example risks focusing on the outcome alone while neglecting the underlying factors that have allowed Chile to achieve such a fascinating response, one that involves a Constituent Assembly with gender parity and ample space for Indigenous populations and social activists without formal party affiliation. It is not the Constituent Assembly per se but rather the process that led to it that deserves attention.

Merely calling for a new constitution elsewhere in the region may not be the best solution for every nation and, regardless, is unlikely to change much without paying attention to the process that led to Chile’s outcome. Without access to institutional channels, so-called antipolítica (anti-politics) and outrage against the political system are certain to fail. Even worse, these sentiments can easily be taken advantage of by anti-democratic leaders. In Chile, an institutional solution has been possible because new Chilean leaders had established strong ties among popular demands, political parties, and institutions. By contrast, in many other countries in the region such as Colombia and Brazil, protests are often short-lived: intense, unsustainable outrage that ultimately fails to transform into political projects.

The path to Chile’s success was laid well before the 2019 protests. In 2006, Chile experienced a series of demonstrations led by high school students that came to be known as the “March of the Penguins” in reference to protesters’ school uniforms. These became the largest student protests in Chile’s history, exceeding even those under the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship. Demanding free high school and university education, the movement called attention to the profound inequalities in Chile’s society—in part a consequence of Pinochet’s neoliberal constitution—and produced a broad public debate about education, social mobility, and the lack of meritocracy.

While few results were achieved at the time, the seeds of today’s broad consensus that Chile’s model needs adaptation were sown back then—not through violent protests but through inclusive dialogue. Students started meeting with high-level politicians and began to organize regular forums during their school breaks. While an emergency spending bill from then-President Michelle Bachelet at the time was rejected by the protesters, who asked for a greater role in the articulation of education policy, these debates led numerous participants to pursue a career in public policy. In 2011, another wave of protests swept Chile, among the largest in the country’s history, when university and high school students took to the streets calling for education reform and limits to the role of the private sector in Chilean education. They further deepened the public perception that broader change was necessary and that the political system and its elites were struggling to deliver.

Looking back, the greatest tangible consequence of the 2006 and 2011 protests was the emergence of new leaders who were comfortable engaging with political decision-makers and determined to occupy positions of formal political power. In 2013, Camila Vallejo, president of the University of Chile Student Federation (known by the Spanish abbreviation Fech), was elected as the country’s youngest congresswoman at age 25. Student activists Gabriel Boric of Fech and Giorgio Jackson of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile were also elected to Congress. The latter two ran as independent candidates and soon began to organize and transform the social movements they were part of into political parties.

In Chile, parties usually form coalitions, but the main center-left coalition, the Coalition of Parties for Democracy, was not an ideal vehicle for the likes of Boric and Jackson—in part because the traditional center-left parties had not been able to relate to the sense of renewed citizenship among younger voters that had emerged during the 2006 and 2011 protests. This power vacuum left space for new parties to emerge, and former student leaders were crucial to organizing them. New parties including Democratic Revolution and Social Convergence organized a coalition called Broad Front, inspired by a similar outfit in Uruguay. Boric, Jackson, and others succeeded in channeling protest movements into party politics without losing touch, for example by continuously participating in cabildos—local assemblies—where citizens voice their demands, but also by maintaining close ties to social movements. Their influence could be strongly felt as Chileans went to the polls to elect the members of the Constituent Assembly last month.

Chile’s new political elite also gained more traction with the growth of the country’s feminist movement, which had been building strength for years but gained visibility in 2018, with a sophisticated political mobilization to combat sexism. It transformed the public debate, uncovering a culture of harassment at universities through performance-based protest, smart social media campaigns, and recruitment of established female politicians. When the protests began in 2019, activists had already accumulated experience and a powerful message, ensuring that issues such as gender parity moved into the political mainstream—where they found support from women on both the left and right—and would become a reality for the constitutional assembly.

This is all the more remarkable because the political system, while offering some points of access and dialogue, such as a vibrant civil society and the Senate’s willingness to meet the student protesters back in 2006, in many other ways did not offer a conducive environment for active political engagement. Notably, protesters have traditionally been exposed to a high risk of suffering physical harm from the country’s security forces.

During Chile’s 2019 protests, cases of excessive violence from protesters and a disproportionate response from security forces made international headlines. But observers often overlooked the remarkable creativity, energy, and pragmatism of protesters who articulated tangible plans. For example, the Broad Front signed an agreement to hold the constitutional plebiscite, which led to harsh criticism from more radical protesters who rejected negotiating with the political establishment. Protest leaders such as Boric and Catalina Pérez, president of Democratic Revolution, succeeded as credible interlocutors with policymakers, who then prioritized their ideas. Rather than producing long-term political instability, the widespread focus of the protests on a specific demand—the creation of a Constituent Assembly—has begun to allow for a broad debate about a new social contract.

When Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera announced the country would vote on exactly that, it was possible to draw a direct line from the early demands of students back in 2006. After 13 years of patient political mobilization and institutional engagement, during which establishment political elites had resisted the creation of a Constituent Assembly, Chile was ready. In October 2020, after a six-month delay due to the pandemic, nearly 80 percent of Chilean voters expressed their support in a plebiscite for a new constitution, to be drafted by a directly elected constitutional assembly rather than a mix of directly elected representatives and sitting politicians.

In May, citizens chose the members of the consistent assembly. Dominant anti-establishment sentiment routed traditional parties, leading Piñera to recognize that the country’s political establishment not been “adequately tuned in to the demands and desires of the citizenry.” Many individuals who led political movements during the past 15 years won political office as mayors this year, and many now sit in Chile’s Constituent Assembly, which will have nine months to negotiate a constitutional draft, with a possible three-month extension. Boric, the Fech activist, will compete in his coalition’s primary contest, to be held in July, for Chile’s next presidential elections in November.

The results of Chile’s response to structural problems can’t be judged solely by its attempt to write a new charter. The new Constituent Assembly is composed of an extraordinarily high number of independent candidates alongside delegates of traditional political parties, and it will be difficult to find consensus. The document they produce will also need to be submitted to a public referendum next year. It is far too early to confirm that a new constitution will bring lasting, positive change. But the process that led Chile to where it is today shows the country has already succeeded.

Compare Chile’s experience with Brazil’s, where similar discontent in June 2013, decrying insufficient public services, corruption, and police violence, kicked off a downward spiral that produced years of nonstop political instability, anti-establishment sentiment, and the rise of a highly divisive and authoritarian president, Jair Bolsonaro. Contrary to Chile, where new leadership was highly critical of established elites but not of the political system per se, unrest in Brazil led to the emergence of anti-systemic forces willing to elect a candidate with a long history of praising outright authoritarian measures, such as closing Congress and the Supreme Court, thus limiting political dialogue and inclusion.

Chile’s case offers useful lessons for governments and civil society in Latin America. Protest movements are far more likely to lead to lasting change if they are capable of negotiating with policymakers and, more importantly, articulating clear strategies to operate within existing institutions, such as launching candidates within existing parties or creating new ones. It is natural that citizens have lost their faith in politics, particularly when constantly faced with corruption scandals involving political elites. Yet Chilean protesters were unafraid to be called politicians or launch their own parties. Promoting the emergence of new leadership in civil society and helping nongovernmental organizations establish a dialogue with political parties may, in the end, be more effective than establishing a divide between civil society and political decision-makers.

Many Latin American countries are bound to experience turmoil in the coming months and years, due to the pandemic’s effect on already severe economic inequality. Colombia is already there, and its experience shows there is no easy way out. To respond constructively to citizens, governments should foster the emergence of young leaders who can connect protesters with institutions and political parties. They can provide the glue that has been lost—or failed to emerge in the first place—in many political systems across Latin America.

This is not a CAPTIS article. Originally, it was published here.