On 4 September, Chileans went to vote on a new constitution that would have heralded a new political, economic, and social order for the country. The current constitution is considered socially and politically obsolete, since it has been in place since the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990). That constitution limited the state’s role in providing basic services such as access to water, healthcare, security, and education, and prevented the poorest sectors of society from accessing these services.
This state of affairs has produced many conflicts and protests, culminating in Chileans demanding a more plural and democratic constitution. In the student demonstrations of 2011, youth protested the current educational system, called for an end to for-profit universities, and demanded free public education. In 2019, riots erupted in response to the ongoing social and economic crisis. Protestors took to the streets to express their frustration with an economic system that had left them in debt and without access to healthcare, basic education, or retirement pensions.
As a result, in October 2020, almost 80% of Chileans voted in favor of drafting a new constitution and holding elections for a new constituent assembly that would represent the diversity of Chilean society. Almost two years later, in the plebiscite held on 4 September, only 38% voted in favor of the new constitution while 62% voted against.
This constitution would have been one of the most progressive of Chile’s history, since it provided for the protection of basic rights. The draft constitution also took a progressive approach towards gender equality, the environment, access to water, free public education, voluntary termination of pregnancies, abolishing the senate, and plurinationality.
Although it was expected that these issues might produce conflict between different socioeconomic groups within Chilean society, it was surprising that a vast majority came down against the proposed changes. The defeat of the draft constitution can be attributed to misinformation campaigns, including the dissemination of fake news that misrepresented the contents of the constitution, especially with regard to plurinationality.
The legacy of colonialism has cast a long shadow over Latin America, and Chile is no exception. Chile was established as a Eurocentric and homogeneous society that denied the existence of ethnic and cultural diversity within the state. In this racialized conception of the nation, non-white groups were excluded from political debates and decisions and their demand and needs were ignored.
Although the current constitution fails to recognize indigenous Chileans as part of the nation and indeed has been used to criminalize their activities, indigenous groups have continued to fight for their identities and for the right to be recognized before the law.
Indigenous peoples currently make up 12.8% of Chile’s population. According to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, a majority of indigenous Chileans are Mapuche (85%), with the other 15% belonging to the Aymara, Diaguita, Atacameño, Quechua, and other peoples. Indigenous groups are among the most vulnerable in the country. According to the Chilean Social Development Ministry, more than 30% of indigenous people lived in poverty as of 2017, while a majority lived in the poorer regions of the country. They have also endured persecution from the military and have been targeted by antiterrorist laws when they have fought to reclaim or preserve their lands.
The draft constitution stated in its first article that: "Chile is a social and democratic state governed by the rule of law. It is plurinational, intercultural, regional, and ecological." These ideas are further elaborated upon later in the text of the draft constitution, which would have established an indigenous judiciary system and created autonomous territories for indigenous groups to live in. In other words, it recognized the existence of many different indigenous ethnicities and cultures and held the state accountable for the injustices to which these groups were subjected for centuries. By recognizing that Chilean society is plurinational, the constitution would also have recognized the right to multiple identities within Chile, guaranteed collective and individual indigenous rights, and facilitated indigenous participation in the political sphere at the local, regional, and national level.
However, the draft constitution provoked intense debate, since many felt that it could exacerbate divisions in the country. Some critics argued that the constitution did not provide appropriate boundaries for political autonomy and indigenous justice. Fake news and fearmongering about a dire future for the country if the constitution were approved had negative repercussions for achieving justice. The campaign against the new constitution also argued that creating autonomous indigenous territories would jeopardize land used for agriculture and mining, attesting to vested economic interests in land claimed by indigenous Chileans.
It is important to highlight that the new constitution defined Chile as a single indivisible territory, even as it emphasized the need to recognize the many peoples within that territory. The term "nation" is a historical, sociological, political and anthropological concept that can incorporate different cultures and perspectives. Recognizing indigenous peoples is part of a democratic commitment to recognizing diversity and the social, cultural, environmental, political and economic contributions that indigenous people can make. Unfortunately, this is not how most of Chile’s population sees the situation. The country now faces the political challenge of moving forward under the same constitution adopted decades ago under the military regime.
Despite rejecting the constitution, Chilean society will need to continue to grapple with these questions. During this process, the country will likely need to rethink its prejudices and come to understand that recognizing indigenous rights would provide the basis for a stronger and more united Chile.