Referendum choice not black and white, Chileans say

Denis BARNETT and Jordane BERTRAND
·3-min read

One hopes for a "legitimate" constitution, the other believes Chile's problems can be resolved without a new one -- two voters on opposite sides lay out their arguments ahead of Sunday's referendum, and say the choice facing the country is a tricky one.

- 'Ethics and legitimacy' - 

Ernesto Quintana says he'll be ticking "Apruebo" (I agree) for  "reasons of ethics and legitimacy" when he gets to his Santiago polling center on Sunday. 

The current constitution, he says, prevents social progress.

"The current constitution....was written during the dictatorship, a period of restriction of freedoms, without participation of the citizens, of course, and in the context of terror," Quintana, a Santiago-based psychologist, told AFP.

"It is a constitution that favors the neo-liberal system at an extreme level, it has perpetuated a totally unequal system," said the 38-year-old, who has taken part in several mass demonstrations in the capital since the beginning of the social crisis in October 2019.

Not a member of any political grouping, he says he wants health and education -- essentially the responsibility of the private sector in the copper-rich South American country -- to become fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution.

"Today people who have money have better education, better health, better housing, ....and all these things could be reformed by changing the constitution."

The son of communist militants hunted down under Augusto Pinochet, Chile's military ruler between 1973-1990, Quintana will also vote for a new charter to be drafted by a "Constituent Convention" composed solely of elected citizens, and not by a "mixed convention" that would combine citizens with lawmakers.

"I don't want the political parties to be involved," said Quintana, who simply doesn't trust the country's politicians to do the job.

He sees the Constituent Convention "as an opportunity for the voice of all citizens to be taken into account in a more direct, more participatory way."

- Not pro-Pinochet' -

Santiago restauranteur Francisco Pereira is keen to point out that being against a re-write of the constitution and voting "Rechazo" (I reject) doesn't makes one pro-Pinochet.

He agrees that Chile needs "change" and in particular more egalitarian health, education and transport systems.

He says he even "applauded" when Chileans first took to the streets in October last year to demand more social justice.

For him, however, the demonstrators were gathering "to change laws, to improve pensions, to denounce inequalities in general," but not specifically to change the constitution.

The 48-year-old stresses that he has "always been against Pinochet, against the dictatorship". But he says that in a perfect storm of social crisis, violent demonstrations and the coronavirus pandemic which has hit Chile so hard, the timing is simply not right to change such a fundamental pillar of the law.

"The problem is that we are deciding to change the constitution in a moment of crisis, and it's not a good basis on which to base changing the constitution,' he said.

"Chile does not need constitutional change at the moment, like every other country in the world, it's in the middle of a serious economic crisis."

"Social reforms require money, and the instability" -- due to the referendum and social tensions -- "is not very attractive for investment, for growth."

Lawmakers should take advantage of the kind of political consensus displayed in Congress last November when left and right-wing blocs signed an agreement to hold the referendum.

"Before wanting to change the constitution, we must first solve problems through the law," by voting reforms through Congress, Pereira said.