Chile’s Di Lampedusa Strategy: After Years of Debate, Has Anything Changed?

This is the dirty little secret of recent Chilean history: the agreement to change everything will end up changing nothing.


Source: Sebastián Vivallo Oñate/Agencia Makro/Getty Images.

Just a little over four years ago, on the long night between November 14 and 15, 2019, Chilean parliamentarians sought to negotiate an end to the increasingly violent protests that had paralyzed the country for nearly a month. Many in the political class were convinced that they needed to provide a political signal to calm the county, to channel violence towards a political—a constitutional—process. And so, even senators and deputies who had previously opposed a new constitution for Chile signed the “Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution”. The photograph of the agreement’s announcement, with dozens of parliamentarians from the left and right crowded around a small table, is telling. Few were smiling. One deputy in particular, Gabriel Boric, looked especially somber. 

After the agreement was reached, the protests diminished, but did not disappear. Neither did the violence. “Social peace” did not arrive. Especially on Friday evenings, Santiago’s Plaza Italia continued to be a no-man’s land, as hooligans gathered for their weekly evening of rage. The protests only really stopped when Covid appeared and the government imposed a draconian curfew that lasted for months. This is the dirty little secret of recent Chilean history: the constitutional agreement that was supposed to bring peace didn’t. The agreement to change everything—at least for the foreseeable future—will end up changing nothing.

“If we want everything to stay as it is, everything has to change,” says the character Prince Tancredi to his uncle in Tomasi di Lampedusa’s classic novel The Leopard. Less well known is the other half of the quote: “Unless we ourselves take a hand now, they’ll foist a republic on us.” The novel is about a political class trying to come to terms with change, about trying to ride the bull to avoid being trampled by it—precisely what Chile’s Congress tried to do. With similar results.

On December 17, Chile will hold a referendum on a second constitutional proposal (the first having been decisively rejected in September 2022). Whatever the result, it is not premature to declare that the process has failed and that the hopes of the 2019 constitutional agreement were misplaced. The explanation is simple: a new constitution was the wrong answer to the wrong question.

The question asked at the time was, ‘How can we stop the violence?’. The assumption was that the violence had a political motive. The still-unexplained arson which incinerated some 70 subway stations on October 18, 2019, was, in theory, a response to a 30-peso hike in Metro fares. But everything that followed was not. In reality, there was not one ‘Estallido Social’ (Social Explosion), but two, each piggybacking on each other.

On the one hand, there was a violent expression of urban rage: those committing the arson and looting were not making a political point. They were taking advantage of the political moment to steal televisions. And on the other hand, the millions of middle-class protesters who organized peaceful demonstrations were demanding better social policy—essentially better pensions, health care, and education. Their political handlers hoped that the accompanying violence would pressure authorities to act. This explains why, for weeks, leftist leaders were trying to justify the protests rather than to temper them, even when they turned violent. And it helps explain why, over the course of only one month, conventional wisdom accepted that a new constitution was the answer. In a world where there are no obvious answers, even the wrong idea can seem like a good one.

In December 2019, 56 percent of those asked believed that a new constitution would solve their problems. By last October that number had dropped to 19 percent, according to a CEP poll. This was predictable; a long constitutional negotiation, tackling everything from the rights of indigenous people to women’s reproductive rights to how many seats there should be in Congress, was always going to test citizens’ patience. Their demands for better pensions, health care, and education appear to have been drowned out in all the talk over whether a constitution can and should ban residential property taxes (something that is indeed in the current proposal).  

According to a Cadem poll in late November (before the polling ban came into effect), this second proposal will again be rejected, with 38 percent in favor and 46 percent against. The trend, however, seems to be on the side of approval; people simply want to get this all over with. Whatever happens, Chile will end up either with a new document drafted by a constitutional council controlled by the far-right Partido Republicano, or the current constitution originating in the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (but amended many times over the past 43 years). In four years, Chile failed to agree on a constitution suitable for the challenges of the 21st century. The current proposal maintains the economic and social structure (including private health care and pensions), makes few changes to the political structure and is even regressive on women’s rights. Four years of constitutional debate will change almost nothing. It is as if Prince Tancredi himself had written it.

Robert Funk is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chile and a partner in Andes Risk Group, a consulting firm.

Global Americans takes pride in serving as a platform that offers in-depth analyses on various political, economic, environmental, and foreign affairs issues in the Western Hemisphere. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Global Americans or anyone associated with it, and publication by Global Americans does not constitute an endorsement of all or any part of the views expressed.

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