Chile at the Barricades

Can a once-in-a-generation political revolution survive the pandemic?

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To walk the streets of Santiago was to read a collective scroll of inchoate rage.Photograph by Tomás Munita for The New Yorker

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I arrived in Santiago in early March to a city transformed. In my previous trips to the Chilean capital, Santiago had always seemed relatively orderly and safe, but now all that had changed. What had begun, the previous October, as civil disobedience against a metro-ticket price hike had escalated to encompass decades’ worth of political, economic, and social grievances, and the impact was everywhere. Plaza Italia, the city’s traditional meeting place for political rallies and championship celebrations, had become known colloquially as Plaza Dignidad, or Dignity Plaza. The scarred blocks surrounding it, which until recently had been a lively upper-middle-class neighborhood dotted with bars, restaurants, hotels, and theatres, were mostly shuttered now, or else burned and abandoned. The area was being referred to as Zona Cero—or Ground Zero—and had the weary, blighted look of an urban battleground, with broken street lights, boarded-up windows, and sidewalk cement cracked into pieces conveniently sized for throwing at police. One morning, a friend and I walked through the burned and looted remains of an old Italianate building, a casona that had been the central office of a private university. Little was left, except the building’s crumbling husk of white, graffiti-covered walls. A few homeless men tended to a small trash fire in the courtyard.

More than a dozen metro stations across the capital were closed, including Baquedano, whose circular entrance in Plaza Dignidad had been transformed into an open-air art gallery, a swirl of colorful, intricate murals celebrating the protests and denouncing the police, demanding the resignation of President Sebastián Pi?era, and calling for a new constitution. A short walk from the plaza, streams of blood-red paint dripped down the cheeks of the bronze statues that stood in front of the National Museum of Fine Arts—a reference to the more than four hundred protesters who had suffered eye injuries at the hands of Chilean police. Although the violence had waned since November 15th, when Congress agreed to hold a referendum to decide whether the majority of citizens favored the creation of a new constitution, it certainly had not stopped. Day after day, I came across an improvised march down the center of a busy avenue, a skirmish between students and police officers at the entrance to a metro station, or the shards of a smashed window glinting on the pavement, the acrid smell of tear gas wafting across an intersection.

To walk the streets of Santiago was to read a collective, anonymous scroll of inchoate rage: Abort the police, Die Pi?era, ACAB, Bankers to the gallows. The graffiti was on seemingly every wall and sidewalk in the central districts of the city. “Anti-everything,” I read one day, a phrase that lodged in my brain and served as a kind of shorthand for understanding many of the conversations I had in Santiago. Scores of medical brigades had sprung up to tend to the wounded protesters who fought police every night. Their shields, made of corrugated metal or modified oil drums, had become, for many, a symbol of heroic resistance. La primera línea, the front-line protesters, who risked nightly beatings, arrest, tear gas, and rubber bullets in order to hold the Plaza Dignidad, were the subject of awe and worried conjecture: who were they, where did they come from, why did they seem to have so little to lose?

And still, somehow, life continued. One night, I saw a police truck scatter protesters who had set fire to a small barricade; as the street filled with tear gas, I hurried around the corner, and found myself at a storefront dance studio that was hosting tango lessons. Another evening, I was eating dinner at a sidewalk café when a police van rolled by, its blue lights flashing. In an instant, all the diners at the restaurant and at the one next door had put down their forks and knives and beers and napkins to yell vulgarities at the cops. It happened so quickly, a reflexive, automatic response—“?Fuera paco culiao! ” “Fuck off, you fucking cops!”—and a moment later they all fell back into their conversations, as if nothing had happened.

I’d left New York in a barely contained panic—it was the coronavirus, of course, beginning to encroach upon the edges of normalcy. The scale of what lay ahead was hard to fathom, a variety of doom that felt both inconceivable and inevitable. In Chile, where the virus was barely a rumor, many people, including me, wore face masks and goggles, but these were meant to protect us from tear gas, not from an infection. As it turned out, the first case of the coronavirus in the country had already been confirmed, on March 3rd, the day before I arrived, in a provincial city several hundred miles from Santiago. The patient was a thirty-three-year-old man who had travelled to Southeast Asia and fallen ill upon arriving home. President Pi?era expressed confidence that the situation was under control. “Since the very moment we knew of the appearance of this new virus, we’ve taken all the measures recommended by the World Health Organization and those we deemed necessary to protect the health of our countrymen,” he said. “We’re prepared.”

“If I had opposable thumbs, I could’ve given you the world.”
Cartoon by Lonnie Millsap

About a week later, a cluster of cases appeared, centered on the upper-class school St. George’s College, in Santiago. A thirty-nine-year-old teacher had apparently been infected by someone returning from Italy. Before becoming gravely ill, the teacher met with colleagues, students, and parents, seeding an outbreak that eventually spread to more than seventy people. On March 13th, the school sent a message to parents, asking that all families quarantine for fifteen days. They expected classes to resume at the end of the month.

Instead, within a matter of days the government had imposed a system of “dynamic quarantines” across Santiago—that is, stay-at-home orders for specific districts that had been identified as hot spots. Initially, these were mostly wealthier areas, where infections could be traced to overseas travel. Outside the quarantined zones, life went on as usual: bars and restaurants remained open and hundreds of thousands of people continued to move across the city, commuting from home to work and back, as if nothing were happening. Even within the quarantine area the household employees of families living under stay-at-home orders kept working, travelling to and from the quarantined districts every day. Naturally, inevitably, the virus travelled with them.

Still, it would be incorrect to say that the threat wasn’t taken seriously. On March 18th, the government closed all national borders to foreign travellers. The next day, after some prodding from the Medical College, the political parties that had agreed on the constitutional referendum gathered once more, this time to postpone the vote from April until late October of 2020. At the time, there were fewer than three hundred cases of COVID-19 in Chile. The first death attributed to the virus was confirmed on March 23rd, and by then the number of cases had more than doubled.

Zona Cero fell within the first quarantine area the government announced, and so the unprecedented public-health emergency managed what the President, political parties, and the police had not: to empty Plaza Dignidad of the protesters who had held it since the previous October. One afternoon in early April, President Pi?era stopped by the desolate plaza. Photographs soon emerged of him sitting at the base of the graffiti-covered statue of General Manuel Baquedano, a nineteenth-century military hero, and resting an elbow on his knee. “Pi?era Out” had been spray-painted on the statue behind him, but the President faced the opposite direction. He appeared to be smiling.

The 2019 uprising began at the National Institute, Chile’s oldest and most famous public high school, housed in a gray and unlovely building just a few blocks from the Presidential Palace, in Santiago. On a normal weekday, more than four thousand boys dressed in blue-and-gray uniforms come here from the far reaches of the capital to attend classes in morning and afternoon shifts. The Institute, like a handful of other schools in the older districts of Santiago, is often referred to as a “liceo emblemático,” an emblematic school, in recognition of its history and its central place in the national drama. The Institute’s founding, in 1813, predates that of Chile itself, and the school counts seventeen Presidents among its graduates.

But this prestigious, almost mythical school, which shaped the young men who then shaped the nation, has changed through the years. The élite have mostly dispersed to the foothills of the Andes, far from the center of the city, and, these days, institutanos are more likely to come from the working-class districts of La Florida or Puente Alto. The hulking building itself has fallen into disrepair, with crumbling walls and peeling paint. Overcrowding is a concern: students on the second shift end their classes after eight in the evening, which makes basic cleaning and maintenance both a logistical and a budgetary challenge. The disconnect between the Institute’s proud history and its complicated present is not lost on the current generation. “The only way to explain this is to say we were abandoned,” Rodrigo Pérez, who served as the student-body president in 2019, told me last March.

That year, as in most recent years, classes were often interrupted by strikes, walkouts, takeovers, and alarmingly violent clashes with police. The atmosphere was volatile: a protest might erupt in the morning, forcing the evacuation of the school, but a few hours later there would be no trace of it; it was just part of the background of a normal day. “If it happened at another school, no one would even notice,” Mario Vega, who has taught history at the Institute for more than twenty years, told me, “but, because of the school’s presence, everything that happens here is news.” Police checked backpacks as students entered the building, arresting and detaining them almost at will, and, more than once, firing tear gas inside the school. At one point, officers were stationed on the roof to keep an eye on students, and they stayed for several weeks. It was humiliating. “The cops would piss on the roof and it would leak into the classrooms,” Pérez told me.

Then, last October, the institutanos turned their attention to events outside the school, setting in motion the political upheaval that still roils Chile today. The immediate catalyst was the announcement of a modest price hike for the Santiago metro: the basic adult ticket for a rush-hour commute would cost thirty pesos more, an increase of less than four cents, with students and the elderly exempted. But the students were outraged—it would, after all, be working-class families like theirs who shouldered the extra cost. Within hours of the announcement, Pérez and his classmates were on WhatsApp, organizing a walkout for the next school day.

The Institute lies within the district represented in the Chilean Congress by Giorgio Jackson, a leftist and himself a veteran of the widespread student protests of 2011. On Monday, October 7th, Jackson was in a meeting when he heard shouting, and he ran to the window in time to see dozens of uniformed adolescents, filming with their phones as they marched toward a nearby metro station. Once there, the institutanos jumped the turnstiles en masse. “We must have had a hundred and eighty, two hundred students running down to the platform,” Pérez recalled, with evident pride. Word of the action spread quickly among the hyper-connected teen-agers of Santiago, with texts and Instagram posts and WhatsApp groups amplifying the news. In response, the economics minister at the time, Juan Andrés Fontaine, defended the new prices. He recommended that workers wake up a little earlier to avoid paying the extra thirty pesos. “Unfortunately, this effort is necessary,” he told a reporter.

By midweek, students at several nearby schools had joined in the protests, and by the following week young people were jumping the turnstiles at metro stations across the city. On Tuesday, October 15th, in response to a fire caused by a Molotov cocktail, classes at the National Institute were suspended for three days. It proved to be the last full day of classes for the academic year, which would normally run until December. That Friday, after more fare evasions and clashes with police, the transportation minister, Gloria Hutt, abruptly ordered the metro closed.

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Every weekday, the Santiago metro moves about two and a half million passengers across the sprawling capital, the equivalent of almost half the city’s population. Without it, Santiago is an untenable proposition, a fact that became painfully clear that afternoon, when the transportation system all but collapsed. Stranded commuters pushed onto overcrowded buses that could scarcely move in the snarled traffic. Most had no choice other than to walk home. “It looked like a march, but it wasn’t,” Jackson told me. “There were no signs. No slogans. It was simply people walking in the middle of the streets because they didn’t fit on the sidewalk.” The metro stations themselves became targets: more than half of Santiago’s hundred and thirty-six stations were vandalized, some burned and severely damaged. But if the government’s intention was to turn public opinion against the students and blame them for the inconvenience of the shutdown, it backfired spectacularly. Instead, hundreds and then thousands began to congregate at Plaza Italia. Neighborhoods across Santiago came alive with the sound of wooden spoons banging on pots and pans, in an hours-long citywide cacerolazo. Similar protests sprang up in dozens of cities across the country. Out of thin air, it seemed, a social and political revolution had begun.

Catalina Pérez (center), the president of the Democratic Revolution, explains the coming plebiscite in an open market.Photograph by Tomás Munita for The New Yorker

The events of October, 2019, became known as el estallido, or “the explosion.” Protesters gathered in Santiago’s Plaza Italia that first night, and more or less held it for the next several months, despite the declaration of a state of emergency and a curfew, and despite nightly battles with police, who used water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets in increasingly violent attempts to disperse them.

Just days before the uprising, President Pi?era had given a radio interview in which he described Chile as “a true oasis” in Latin America. Comparing the nation favorably with its neighbors, which were beset by recession and corruption scandals, he added, “The more I see these crises, the more we must appreciate our country.” The truth is that this statement became controversial only in hindsight, after el estallido had made a mockery of Chile’s supposed tranquillity and order. Since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship, in 1990, the country had positioned itself as an outlier in South America, a stable democracy with strong institutions and a thriving middle class. But, while economic growth has been relatively steady during the past thirty years, lifting hundreds of thousands of Chileans out of extreme poverty, those numbers don’t tell the full story of the country today. According to a 2017 United Nations Development Program study, the wealthiest five per cent of Chilean households hold more than fifty per cent of the wealth, while more than half of salaried workers hardly earn enough to maintain a household. The campaign slogan for the 1988 referendum that ended Pinochet’s dictatorship was “La alegría ya viene,” or “Happiness is coming.” Catalina Pérez, the president of the leftist Democratic Revolution party and, at twenty-nine, one of the youngest members of the Chilean Congress, told me that, for most Chileans, that happiness never came. “For eighty per cent of Chileans, this democracy is an unfulfilled promise in political and economic terms,” she said. The widespread availability of consumer goods in Chile and the country’s apparent prosperity mask a stark inequality—among the highest in the region—and a workforce stretched to the breaking point. The poorest Chileans are spending nearly a quarter of their monthly wages to finance debts. According to Forbes, Pi?era himself is worth nearly three billion dollars, and his family is among the five richest in the country. In recent years, discontent has boiled over several times, with occasional large mobilizations, focussed mostly on education, but also on health care and the much criticized private pension system, known as A.F.P.s.

Days after el estallido, with the streets of Santiago and other major cities filled with protesters, Pi?era was no longer celebrating Chilean exceptionalism. “We are at war with a powerful, implacable enemy, who respects nothing and no one, and who is willing to use violence and delinquency without limits,” he announced on the evening of October 20th. It wasn’t clear whether he was referring to the students or to outside forces, but, in any case, he ordered the Army into the streets, a provocative act in a country where memories of a military dictatorship are still fresh. The following day, acting on a proposal from Pi?era himself, the Senate reversed the thirty-peso price hike, but it was too late. On October 25th, an estimated 1.2 million Chileans gathered in Plaza Italia, the largest demonstration in the nation’s contemporary history.

By early November, what had begun as a relatively small protest by a couple of hundred high-school students had become an existential crisis for the country’s political order. On any given Friday night, there might be tens of thousands of protesters in Plaza Italia. The Chilean police force, which, until recently, had been one of the most trusted institutions in the country, attempted to control the situation, but its violent tactics were soon condemned by international human-rights organizations. For those on the left, the unrest represented a unique—and unexpected—opportunity to pursue demands that had been unthinkable just a few months earlier, including, most significant, the demand for a new constitution.

“A year ago, if you talked about a constituent assembly you were treated like an opium smoker,” Catalina Pérez told me. For the left, crafting a new constitution has been a goal, if not an obsession, for years, and in early November, with thousands of ordinary Chileans taking to the streets every night, the once far-fetched idea had begun to seem realistic. The marchers’ oft-repeated slogan captured a sense of exhaustion with the status quo: “It’s not thirty pesos, it’s thirty years”—a reference to the three decades since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship and?the country’s return to democracy. “What about health care? What about education? What about labor? What about pensions?” Pérez asked. “It’s not about the price of the ticket. It’s about thirty years of abuses.”

In the eyes of its critics, the 1980 constitution is the origin point for those abuses. After the 1973 coup, Pinochet’s military junta consolidated its power through state terror, operating outside any legal framework to disappear and torture thousands and send thousands more into exile. The U.S.?Congress responded by blocking arms sales to Chile, an embargo that continued for more than a decade. Meanwhile, Pinochet’s campaign against his enemies went global, with political assassinations carried out in Buenos Aires and even in Washington, D.C., just a couple of miles from the White House. The 1976 election of President Jimmy Carter, who placed special emphasis on human rights, put the Chilean dictatorship in an even more precarious international position, with the country in danger of being considered little more than a rogue state, known worldwide for its brutality.

Shortly after taking power, Pinochet appointed a commission to write a new constitution, and in August, 1980, he announced that the work was complete. There would be a referendum just a month later, on September 11th, not coincidentally the anniversary of the coup seven years earlier. At the time of the 1980 vote, all political parties were illegal, all television stations were controlled by the regime, and there was no opposition press. The country remained in a state of emergency. While Pinochet campaigned for his new constitution all around the country, the opposition was allowed a single public event, held in the Caupolicán Theatre, in Santiago. The rally wasn’t televised, but three radio stations broadcast the speeches nationwide, while thousands gathered at the theatre in the largest public demonstration against the regime since the coup. The keynote speaker that night was former President Eduardo Frei Montalva, who urged Chileans to vote no and demanded the formation of a constituent assembly. Predictably, given the anti-democratic circumstances of the vote, the 1980 constitution was approved by a suspiciously high two-to-one margin. Less than two years later, Frei Montalva died mysteriously after undergoing a procedure at a clinic in Santiago. It took nearly four decades to confirm what his family had always thought: that he’d been poisoned by Pinochet’s secret police, with the co?peration of the doctors who’d treated him.

The constitution’s chief architect was the right-wing intellectual Jaime Guzmán, a law professor at the Catholic University in Santiago, and a close ally of the Pinochet regime, who was assassinated in 1991. Guzmán envisaged an eventual end to the dictatorship and a transition to democracy, with constitutional safeguards in place to protect the nation from socialism and preserve the market capitalism that he hoped would transform Chilean society. Crucially, the post-Pinochet democracy outlined by the constitution would be forced to continue many of the economic policies the dictatorship had put in place. In most respects, the constitution worked as designed. A few years ago, on a trip to Santiago, I met Luis Hermosilla, a lawyer for the Guzmán family, in his office in Vitacura, a district of banks and embassies and high-rise buildings made of glass and steel. Guzmán had been Hermosilla’s professor, and a man he loved and admired. When we finished the interview, Hermosilla stood by his office window and, with a sweep of his arm, said, “This is the Chile Guzmán made.”

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Guzmán’s political opponents would mostly agree—but, for them, that’s precisely the problem: Guzmán’s constitution, as they see it, acts as a kind of straitjacket on Chilean democracy. Claudia Heiss, a professor of political science at the University of Chile, told me that the constitution has served, again and again, as an impediment to social progress. Important reforms have passed the Chilean Congress, and even been signed into law—only to be struck down by the Constitutional Tribunal, an independent court that rules on the constitutionality of legislation, as well as on Presidential and judicial decrees. Heiss cited an example from early 2018, when the Constitutional Tribunal overturned a bill that had given SERNAC, the government agency charged with consumer protection, the power to levy fines against businesses that committed fraud or abuse. The reform had passed with broad support, and the court’s ruling caught many by surprise. SERNAC’s director said that the decision severely diminished his agency’s ability to protect consumers, and could be “potentially catastrophic.” As arcane as it may seem from the outside, Heiss said, it should come as no surprise that the people’s rage began to focus on a legal document. Even before el estallido, she told me, “there was a growing sense that the constitution was having a real impact on the problems people faced.”

Heiss noted the almost surreal ironies of growing up under Pinochet’s constitution. Chilean high-school students in the nineteen-eighties studied a kind of theoretical civics: they learned about a Chamber of Deputies and a Senate, and they learned about elections, but, of course, none of these things did or could exist under a dictatorship. From 1980 until the return of democracy, a decade later, the constitution was a useful piece of fiction, and even after Pinochet had given up the Presidency he remained the head of the armed forces before serving, along with eight other allies, as an unelected senator. Chile’s democracy in those early years was precarious; President Patricio Aylwin, elected to succeed Pinochet and lead the transition, admitted as much, famously conceding that he would pursue justice for the many victims of the military regime only “insofar as it is possible.” In any case, Aylwin had no authority to remove Pinochet as head of the armed forces.

Cartoon by Karl Stevens

A series of reforms to the constitution in the two-thousands eliminated the designated senators, but the desire by many on the political left to rewrite the country’s foundational legal document did not go away. Replacing Pinochet’s constitution with a new one would be a way of breaking—finally and definitively—with the legacy of his regime. “There are grandparents who were tortured during the dictatorship who see this as the end of a cycle and say, ‘I can die in peace,’?” Catalina Pérez told me.

In the days after el estallido, as public discourse coalesced around the constitutional question, mayors from across the country and across the political spectrum began to publicly support a referendum to decide the issue. On November 13th, Mario Desbordes, the leader of President Pi?era’s own party, expressed his support as well. When we spoke, in March, Desbordes said he’d always known that political reforms were necessary, but the anger he witnessed last October caught him off guard. “I think the majority of us thought we had more time,” he told me. “The violence surprised us all.” Desbordes is a somewhat anomalous figure among the traditionally aristocratic élite of the Chilean right. He grew up in the working-class district of Maipú and served as a police officer for seven years, before becoming a businessman and eventually entering politics, in his forties. It was a trip to visit his mother, Desbordes told me, that convinced him that there was widespread support for the protests. The local metro station had been burned down, and the entire neighborhood was out banging pots and pans. As he saw it, “a pressure cooker had exploded.”

Once Desbordes had broken with the right, it was only a matter of time. On November 15th, after a historic daylong negotiation in Congress, the political?parties reached an agreement and a referendum was scheduled for the end of April.

The pandemic did not end the revolution unleashed by el estallido, but it did quite abruptly change the subject. March and April, which would have been consumed by the tense run-up to a historic vote, were instead spent dealing with an unprecedented public-health emergency.

By mid-March, Pi?era’s government had managed to secure nearly nine hundred respirators, and eventually expanded the number of available intensive-care beds from about seven hundred to nearly three thousand. The President and other political leaders wore face masks at press conferences, while preaching social distancing and hand-washing. Chile quickly became first among South American nations in tests per thousand residents (and it was still leading the region in August, with a rate comparable to that of Germany). Even as the number of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths steadily grew through March and mid-April, the public-health system did not collapse, nor did the hospital beds and respirators run out, as many had feared might happen, and as would occur in some neighboring countries.

It was the economic response to the disaster that split the political parties along predictable ideological lines. By mid-April, Pi?era’s government had begun to emphasize the need to reopen the economy, and, in late April, Pi?era announced a phased reopening plan that he called Safe Return. “There’s no contradiction between protecting the health and life of the people, and protecting their jobs, their income, and their quality of life,” he said. The strategy was intended not to suppress the virus but to mitigate its impact.

As the left pushed for emergency subsidies to keep Chilean workers at home during the pandemic, Pi?era’s allies in Congress resisted. By May, with infections rising at an alarming rate and much of the country in quarantine, the legislative debate was deadlocked on the size of the household subsidy the government would pay to those who were most in need. In the end, Pi?era’s allies won, and the first round of subsidies was only sixty-five thousand pesos, about eighty-one dollars. Families struggling in an economy ravaged by the coronavirus were subjected to images of senators celebrating their legislative win.

Pablo Ortúzar, of the conservative think tank I.E.S., told me that Pi?era’s strategy was to centralize the response to the virus. The President’s approval ratings had dropped as low as six per cent in the wake of el estallido. “The administration saw it as a way to recover the legitimacy it had lost,” Ortúzar said. It soon became clear that Pi?era’s plan for a safe return to normalcy had been premature. In a TV interview, Jaime Ma?alich, the health minister, admitted that the virus had spread at a pace he had not anticipated, in part because of social conditions. “There is a level of poverty and overcrowding that I was not aware of,” he said—another example of the startling disconnect between the political élite and the lived reality of millions of ordinary Chileans.

In the middle of May, with new cases spiking by more than sixty per cent, a strict quarantine was imposed across Santiago’s entire metropolitan region, along with a couple of provincial cities. The Army and the police were charged with enforcement, detaining and arresting violators. Residents of Santiago, who had previously been allowed daily outings, were now limited to two a week, for groceries and other necessities. By mid-June, Chile had one of the highest per-capita rates of infection in the world, and a few days later Ma?alich resigned, after the investigative Web site CIPER revealed a discrepancy between the number of deaths reported in his daily briefings to the nation and the far higher number that he sent to the World Health Organization. By the end of June, more than two hundred and seventy-five thousand Chileans had tested positive for COVID-19, and the virus had claimed more than five thousand lives.

Just as the unrest in the weeks after el estallido had made an agreement on a referendum possible, the pandemic and the battered economy presented the Chilean left with another unexpected opportunity. This time, it was the chance to reform the controversial private pensions known as A.F.P.s, which are more or less like American 401(k)s, only with miserly returns. The proposal would allow Chilean workers to withdraw ten per cent of their A.F.P. holdings without penalty. The spectre of el estallido hung over the debate. “If we reject the withdrawal, there’ll be another social explosion,” one senator said. The U.D.I., the conservative party founded by Jaime Guzmán, on the other hand, argued that the proposed reforms were a short-term solution that would have long-term consequences for the middle class. Pablo Ortúzar told me that he found the entire debate frustrating. “There was never any discussion of the common good. No discussion of the economic impact,” he said. Workers in the informal economy were left out, and of course those with savings would benefit more. Ortúzar saw the left’s push as purely tactical. “Everything was defined by the polarization of October,” he said. Nevertheless, the Senate vote was watched by millions of Chileans. When the reform measure was approved, many districts of Santiago erupted in a celebratory cacerolazo once again. Catalina Pérez told me that the vote “would be remembered as one of the foundational events for the Chile that was born last October.”

By late July, with the coronavirus curve flattening, the country cautiously prepared to reopen for a second time. The last quarantine covering Zona Cero was lifted on August 17th, and residents emerged from their homes to discover that the area had had a makeover: many of its colorful murals and much of the political graffiti had been covered with fresh paint, the street lights repaired, the sidewalks restored. Soon protesters, in smaller numbers now and flanked by large contingents of police, appeared in Plaza Dignidad again. By then, some parts of the country had been in a continuous lockdown for four and a half months.

One afternoon in March, I went with the political scientist Claudio Fuentes to a school in La Florida, a working-class district southeast of Santiago. The day was bright and hot, and it got brighter and hotter, it seemed, the farther we moved from the center of the city. This was a different Santiago, bleached of color, with fewer trees and broader avenues, and block after block of low-rise housing.

Mario Desbordes, the president of National Renewal, at his office.Photograph by Tomás Munita for The New Yorker

Fuentes teaches at the Diego Portales University, but in the run-up to the referendum he’d stepped out of the classroom, and was offering workshops on the constitution and its history to community groups and schools across the country. It was a personal project, and he told me that he found it heartening to discover how much interest there was in the topic. El estallido had made people hungry to know more about the current constitution, about what the referendum might mean. Still, the same distrust that many Chileans felt toward the political élite extended to him, Fuentes told me. He found this bemusing, hard to square with his own background. He’d grown up in San Bernardo, another working-class district of Santiago, the son of a truck driver and a stay-at-home mom. His last name is not a typical upper-class surname of the Chilean élite, nor, with his dark hair and olive skin, did he look the part. But he was a university professor, had studied abroad, occasionally even appeared on television, and that was enough. Every time he gave a workshop, even as he entered spaces that felt entirely familiar to him, he had to prove that he belonged.

When we arrived at the school and introduced ourselves, the security guard informed us that the event had been cancelled. We stood there a moment, in shock, until the guard finally smiled. It was a coronavirus joke, told in that dim recent past when people could still joke about the virus. We all laughed, and the guard beckoned us inside. In the cafeteria, a couple of hundred straight-backed wooden chairs had been arranged in rows. As we waited for the students, I chatted with a tall, thin veteran teacher named Sergio Salazar, who told me that on the night of el estallido neighborhood parents had gathered to protect the school, in case the rage spilled over and someone attacked the building. Thankfully, he said, nothing had happened.

A few minutes later, the uniformed students filed in, filling the back rows first, joking with their classmates, casting a few ambivalent glances at the strangers. Fuentes began right away with questions: “How many of you know that there’s a referendum in April?” Everyone raised a hand. He quickly established the stakes of the debate. “How,” he asked the students, “do we want to be governed?”

What followed was a thoughtful discussion about the political structure of a nation, the mechanics of the vote, the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, and what might lie ahead if the referendum was approved. Even then, the details were in flux. Only the week before, the Congress had mandated gender parity for a constitutional assembly, should the referendum pass. There was talk of similar guarantees for the Mapuche community, Chile’s largest indigenous group, which makes up more than seven per cent of the population. Meanwhile, the students had their own questions: Why doesn’t Pi?era resign? (He can’t, by law.) Who might write a new constitution? (Either a group of elected citizens or a group of citizens and lawmakers, depending on the outcome of the referendum.) What might that new document say? This last question was unanswerable for the moment, and those opposed to the referendum argue that that is precisely the danger. Why should Chile leap into the unknown? Why not reform the existing constitution instead?

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Chile, Fuentes explained to the students, has had ten constitutions in its history, but none have been written by the people. At one point, he asked the students if they thought their country was a democracy.

The entire room of young people shouted “No!”

I watched the adults in the room exchange confused glances. Sergio, the teacher I’d been chatting with, had answered yes, and now stood with his arms crossed, smiling awkwardly.

Fuentes later admitted that he’d been surprised by the unanimity and the vehemence of the response to what he thought of as a simple question with a simple answer. Chile is a democracy, an imperfect one, but a democracy nonetheless. Then he said, “But we have to distinguish between formal democracy, elections, and so on, and democracy as a sense of belonging, a feeling that your decisions matter.” In light of that more elastic definition, it was easy to understand the students’ response. In Chile, “there is no connection between the representatives and the represented,” Fuentes told me. He hoped for a big turnout at the referendum in October, for a convincing victory; otherwise, he feared, the moment and the opportunity for building a more authentic democracy would be lost.

A few years after the 1973 coup, Jaime Guzmán wrote an op-ed for El Mercurio, a right-wing newspaper that supported Pinochet. The dictator’s constitutional project was just getting under way, with Guzmán’s leadership. “No one who reads the 1925 constitution,” Guzmán wrote, “can really be convinced that it is still valid.” He went on, “It is dead as a matter of practical reality, and, more importantly, it is dead in the minds of the Chilean people.”

In September, the polls, as they had consistently done throughout the year, were predicting a victory for a new constitutional convention. By Guzmán’s own logic, it would appear that the 1980 constitution is already dead.??


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