“It’s like someone who owns a beautiful house, but they don’t want it anymore because it was built by a father who was a rapist. It’s not that the house is bad. It’s that it was built by that father,” he said.
“Writing a new constitution is an act of atonement,” Navia said. “Since Chileans couldn’t put Pinochet in jail for human rights violations, they now want to kill the constitution as an historical trial of sorts against him.”
Pinochet died at age 91 in 2006, not having been convicted of any crimes. However, opponents say that more than 3,000 people died as a consequence of political violence under his rule, notably during “Operation Condor,” a campaign against political dissidents during the mid-1970s, including many whose bodies or fates have never been known. Many thousands more were tortured in secret detention centers or intimidated into exile.
“Not only are they not getting a slice of the cake, they haven’t even been invited to the party,” Navia said. “And the demand for a new constitution is precisely that, a demand to be invited to the party.”
Creating a new constitution was espoused by the first leftist leaders after the fall of the military dictatorship in 1990. President Ricardo Lagos promoted the biggest reforms in 2005 — and the current constitution includes more than 250 amendments — and presidential candidates first seriously discussed the idea of a referendum in the 2009 campaign.
Chileans are not only deciding whether they get a new constitution, but who’s writing it and how. If as expected creating a new constitution is approved, a constitutional assembly would be chosen in April 2021 at the same time municipal and regional elections are expected to be held.
For Camila Vallejo, a Communist Party member of the Chamber of Deputies and a former student leader, writing a new constitution is about social justice.
But others say writing a new constitution may not be the best way to solve Chile’s problems which are similar to challenges facing other Latin American countries, including lack of sustainable growth, poor job creation and endemic inequality.
The Colombian-born analyst says his own country tried this experiment in 1991, assembling 100 people to write a new constitution in five months with mixed results.
Everything Chileans want, Pizano said, “can be addressed by amendments such as we’ve done in the United States rather than rewriting the whole text.”
“Can one create prosperity and fairness from a blank slate? Why hasn’t the United States switched its own constitution even though we have amended it 27 times? Israel and the United Kingdom don’t have written constitutions. Yet they are in some ways examples of liberal, democratic countries. And that’s what we want,” Pizano said, noting that the best-written constitution does not guarantee everything Chileans want.
Navia, the NYU professor, agrees, saying legislators should focus on improving the economy.
“You can’t write it into the constitution that there will be better pensions. You need the money for the pensions first. And you can achieve that with better growth, more foreign investment and several other improvements that a new constitution may end up making it more difficult to obtain.”