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What A New Constitution Could Mean For Chile


Chile is in the process of reinventing itself. It's working on creating an entirely new constitution. The current one dates back 40 years to the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. The new one will be drafted by an assembly of 155 people, many of them entirely new to politics who were elected this month. NPR's South America correspondent Philip Reeves has been following along and joins us now. Hey, Phil.


SHAPIRO: Why did the Chileans decide to do this? What led up to it?

REEVES: Well, this goes back to the huge mass protests that erupted in Chile at the end of 2019. I don't know whether you remember, but they went on for several months, and at one point well over a million people took to the streets. These protests were fundamentally about social inequality, a feeling among Chileans that their government fails to provide them with basic social needs - you know, pensions you can actually live on, a decent public health and education system and so on. In Chile, the private sector plays a big part providing these services, but they're expensive. And many Chileans feel that they just get a very raw deal.

Chile's president, Sebastian Pinera, responded to this uprising by agreeing to a public referendum over whether to dump the old dictatorship-era constitution, which many Chileans sort of see as a kind of - symbolizing a political system that's run by an elite that prioritizes the market economy over welfare. And that referendum happened this last October, passed overwhelmingly. And now, Chile's just elected the people who'll actually sit down and draft the new constitution.

SHAPIRO: Who are those people? I mean, this is a huge, complicated undertaking. Tell us about the people who are going to be doing it.

REEVES: Well, this is the big surprise. Traditional establishment parties who ran for seats in this assembly, they did not do well. President Pinera's right-wing coalition was expected to win a third of the seats, which would have given it a veto. In fact, they got considerably less. And the assemblies ended up with a big chunk of seats, about 60%, going to independents and newcomers, many of them linked to a broad array of left-wing parties and social movements and indigenous groups.

Some analysts argue that that's a very good thing because unlike the government that ruled Chile since the dictatorship years, this body actually represents the country. But there's one other crucial and fascinating thing. Half of the delegates are women. There was a gender parity rule. So we have an unprecedented situation in which Chile's constitution will be drafted half by men, half by women. And it'll be fascinating to see how that affects the outcome.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. And when you look at what this new constitution is likely to say, how would you expect it to change Chile?

REEVES: Well, you know, it obviously depends what's in it. The assembly has up to a year to write the new constitution, and it's going to be a very tough national conversation about what kind of country Chile should be. The delegates will have to address the core issues that mobilized so many people during those 2019 protests. So that could, for example, mean creating a constitutional right to quality public health care, for example. You know, there's a multitude of difficult issues to be hammered out - indigenous rights, water rights, which is a huge issue in Chile, environmental protection, guarantees that Chile's notoriously abusive security forces will, in fact, be held properly to account.

Some Chileans actually worry that because this is such a wide conversation and so many competing interests involved in having it, the new constitution will wind up being like a giant wish list that the country just can't afford. And there's one other important thing. Whatever document this assembly finally comes up with will be put back to the electorate for a mandatory national vote on whether to accept it.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's South America correspondent Philip Reeves. Thank you.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.