Plebiscite in Chile: How is the country doing, after a year of protests and the coronavirus hit?

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This Sunday they will vote whether to approve or reject a new Constitution to replace the one inherited from the Pinochet era.

Any cursory analysis of current affairs in Chile reflects more the impact of the pandemic than the footprint of the wave of protests that erupted a year ago, which evaporated in March due to the health emergency and re-emerged before the imminent celebration this Sunday of what is its most visible fruit: the plebiscite on a new Constitution.

The pandemic quarantined citizen unrest, economic activity sank when it began to recover from the blow of the protests and forced the government to take special measures in the face of the recession, which blurred and dwarfed the social agenda that it launched last year to meet the demands of the protesters.

Although the pandemic forced postponement of the plebiscite, which was scheduled for April, it remained alive throughout the time the protests hibernated and persists as the key instance that can solve the social crisis.

Is it then the only achievement of the protests, which semi-paralyzed the country and which, along with massive peaceful demonstrations, experienced episodes of extreme violence that left at least 30 dead, thousands of injured and brought back the shadow of police repression for their violence in controlling the demonstrations?

“No, no, there are more fruits of that,” former Chilean president Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006) told the EFE agency, who illustrated that the State has increased its level of public debt from 30% to 40% of GDP to respond both to citizen demands in the protests and to the pandemic, although more to the latter than to the former, he acknowledged.

For the political scientist of the Diego Portales Claudio Fuentes University, there was not much progress in response to the outbreak and with the coronavirus the reform agenda went to the urgent.

“I do not know if the pandemic is an excuse but it has been an obvious brake because all the actors immediately began to try to solve the health crisis more than other much more structural issues,” he added.

In numbers, the pandemic plunged economic activity to 15.3% in May, the month in which the quarantine began in the capital of the country, the main source of contagion at that time.

The unemployment rate reached a historical record of 13.1% in July, dragging the middle class into precariousness and increasing the number of poor people, which ECLAC estimates that in 2020 the current 9.8% could rise to 13.7%.

Faced with a government focused on alleviating the crisis that these data illustrate, the plebiscite remained as the only channel that can motivate a change that responds to the citizen proclamations of the protests.

“Everything was channeled through the constituent process and now we are in a logic in which the majority of political and social actors are depending on this result to advance in more substantive reforms of the political system,” Fuentes told EFE.

The plebiscite arose in November of last year from an agreement between the ruling and opposition political forces to achieve social peace and offers citizens the possibility of choosing whether or not they want to change the current Constitution, inherited from the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet ( 1973-1990).

Social networks, the protesters’ banners, the chants and the statements of the people on the street put together the account of the protest: inequality It suffocated them and they needed profound changes in some of the pillars of the Chilean neoliberal model, such as pensions, health or education.

On the fifth day of the uprising, the country’s president, Sebastián Piñera, said he had heard these demands, apologized for not having seen these problems before, and announced a series of social benefits in pensions, medicines and minimum income, among others.

A year later, this social agenda is 82% complete, according to the government, and although measures such as the establishment of a guaranteed minimum income or the stabilization of electricity rates are already in operation, some of the most ambitious reforms, such as the pension or the National Health Fund, remain open.

“Since the social outbreak, Chile has not made any structural reform to the basic problems that it exhibited in terms of education, pensions, health or dignity, only that they were left in a secondary situation as a result of the pandemic,” Dante Contreras told EFE, Professor of Economics at the University of Chile and former Executive Director of the World Bank.


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