Chile: We thought we were progressives in the neoliberal lab

Karla Henríquez reports on the disastrous referendum result.


On 4 September Chile rejected the proposal for a new constitution in a referendum. 62% of citizens voted against the proposed new constitution in a referendum that saw the largest citizen participation in the history of the country (in which the vote was compulsory for Chilean residents). This overwhelming result now forces us to be critical about our interpretation of the social revolt that shook the country on the 18 October 2019, and about how capitalism has permeated people’s lives.


Chile has been known as the ‘laboratory of neoliberalism’. The foundations of the system were laid during the Pinochet dictatorship and enshrined in the 1980 constitution that remains in application, and will do so until the Chilean people agree on a new one. This constitution defines Chile as a subsidiary state, that is, with minimal participation in the economy. It has allowed the consolidation of the political and economic elite as a class that decides the country’s present and future.

The richest 1% of the population concentrates 49.6% of the country’s wealth while the monthly salary of 50% of the workers remains below 450,000 pesos (£442). This also means that within the collective forces that made it possible to write a new constitution, there is a profound inequality that translates into consequences of suffering, excessive effort, physical and mental exhaustion, and the run-on effects of the economic inequality on which Chilean society is built. Capitalism structures Chilean society and its pillars, preventing almost any possible change. We are led to believe that every achievement is the result of a great personal effort that is then experienced as an individual victory, with airs of superiority, and that this is expected to make us happy.

In October 2019, Chile was site of one of the most important citizen revolts in recent years. For more than 120 consecutive days, protesters gathered in the squares and streets of cities across the country to demand a change, to live with dignity and end the abuses of the economic and political elite. The spark of the revolt came from high school students who paralysed the underground in Santiago. They did it because they saw their parents coming back exhausted after long days of work in exchange for a salary that was not enough to make ends meet and even less to ensure decent pensions. They didn’t want that future.

The referendum

That social unrest forced the neoliberal president to accept a referendum on a constitutional process. A year after the social revolt, 78% of the voters decided to entrust the writing of a new constitution to citizens chosen by a unique and unprecedented mechanism in constitutional and democratic matters. All the members of the Constitutional Convention were elected by popular sovereignty, half of the 154 members were women, and 17 were indigenous people. Most of them did not belong to conventional political parties. The constitutional convention worked for a year.

Meanwhile, a leader of the 2011 student mobilisation was elected to the presidency of the country, and still 44% of Chileans voted in favour of the leader of the far right. The 36-year-old Gabriel Boric became the youngest elected president in the history of the country and one of the youngest around the world. Everything suggested that another Chile was possible. However, while all this was happening, we forgot that we remain one of the most capitalist countries in the world and that we have to bear its various consequences.

We lost our way when everyone took a stand on their specific rights and became the spokesperson for their own struggle. This gave rise to a constitutional proposal that focused on social rights and enshrined in a Carta Magna some of the rights that the conservatives had opposed with most vigour; gender parity, the right to abortion, the recognition that Chile is a plurinational state, the end of centralisation and the end of the subsidiary state. Such a progressive constitution proposal found an echo way beyond our national borders, and we were dazzled by the international support calling to approve the new constitution. All this boosted our self-confidence, with one effect being that we enclosed ourselves in a bubble among like-minded people that only allowed us to think about winning the referendum and burning the constitution designed by Pinochet with speeches and arguments that did not resonate among the most impoverished classes and popular neighbourhoods.


We cannot deny the influence that fake news, the oligopoly of the press, national channels and social networks on the Internet had on the rejection campaign. But we also have to recognise that we blinded ourselves and left aside the thousands of workers that the secondary school students represented in October 2019. The people that carried the approval campaign forgot those who face day by day the uncertainty and the possibility of losing their jobs, those who suffer the most unleashed violence of the capitalist system. We left out – or were not able to see – those who live in the so-called ‘sacrificed zones’ and suffer the consequences of pollution from our industries, those who get sick when they are not more able to cope with the aggressive working conditions, those whose water has been taken away, the violence against the Mapuche people, and all those who struggle to solve their most basic needs and don’t manage to do it. Their daily struggles are different from the ones we envisioned in the debate around this new constitution. Their lives did not get enough attention.

Today, we face a difficult scenario in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, forcing us to think about who we have become. The entire Chilean society seems to be shaken by the results of the referendum. High school students took to the streets to demand a different constitution. University students suspended classes to set up days of reflection. The Right has grown stronger and much more vindicative, as have all the actors of the campaign to reject the new constitution. They take the victory as their own and have already succeeded in a reshuffle of the government cabinet. Meanwhile, the supporters of the new constitution, unhappy with the referendum result, show their darker side. The concentration of votes in favour of the rejection was in the poorest sectors of the country, which find themselves a new target of the blame-game. They are laughing at as ‘using their privilege of having access to water’. And they, in turn, are called ungrateful, lazy for not having read a constitutional proposal they rejected, for not ‘taking advantage of the opportunity’ that the country gave them to get out of poverty.

In Chile we believed we were progressive, and we showed off with the range of new social rights granted by the new constitution. Those involved in individual struggles positioned themselves in the search for a better Chile and that distanced us from the working class. The mandate of the new constitution and its campaign for approval asked to look at the others, those who suffer the most from the consequences of capitalism, but we looked at ourselves and wanted to change the country from a floor from which those who suffer the most from the system were invisible. There are still, of course, social movements urging us to regroup, and we now need to look again and reflect if we are to do something different.

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Karla Henríquez is a Chilean social psychologist and member of Social Movements in the Global Age (SMAG) at CRIDIS, Université catholique de Louvain

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