Chile’s New Constitution Rejected by Voters. What are the Takeaways?

Last week, I enthusiastically announced that Chile had approved its proposed new constitution. Within an hour of posting it, I issued a major mea culpa explaining that I’d made a mistake. That mea culpa is reposted today with the actual results of the national vote and the implications and lessons to be learned here in the U.S.

With the votes counted, according to Reuters, “While nearly 80% of Chileans voted to draft a new constitution in 2020, nearly 62% of voters rejected the new text with 99.74 percent of ballot boxes counted.” Discussion follows after a repost of my mea culpa for misreporting last week that the constitution had passed.

Major mea culpa: I reported last week that Chileans had approved their new constitution. But the election in Chile didn’t happen until yesterday. How could I have made such a mistake? I’m not gonna blame this one on my stroke last year. What happened is that a good friend sent me a photo of hundreds of thousands of Chileans in the Santiago streets celebrating, with the caption: “Tonight in Santiago at the close of the campaign to approve the new constitution.” While the headline seemed clear, in the back of my brain I thought to myself I thought the election was Sunday. So I googled “Vote on new Chilean Constitution.” And along with a few op-eds opposing a “yes” vote from folks like The Economist and the Washington Post, was an article from the BBC describing how in a national plebiscite, 78% of Chileans had approved creating a new constitution. Unfortunately this vote was in 2020 and was what empowered a kind of Constitutional Convention to be convened. The work of the convention was completed on July 4, 2022. The vote to approve the Constitution was yesterday, Sept. 4, 2022.

I make typos and write overly long sentences, both of which Roxanne is adept in fixing. But this kind of mistake I have VERY rarely made, and I apologize.


The importance of Labor Day, Our Essential Workers, and the Labor Movement

Before we dive into Chile’s heroic effort, we want to acknowledge heroes closer to home. In the U.S. a key source of grassroots power that, of late, has been gaining strength, is Labor. And today, being Labor Day, we want to tip our hats to our essential workers, especially those who work in hospitals and clinics. They are heroes too frequently abused and too infrequently acknowledged. We also want to thank Labor for the many advances they have secured in worker rights over the last century. To read more about the history of the U.S. Labor movement, click here. As usual, Heather Cox Richardson also did an excellent piece on Labor Day and the Labor movement. If we are ever to achieve anything like what Chile has attempted, it will involve strident activism from workers, the working class, and Labor. Happy Labor Day!

What Might Have Been

Well, the polling numbers were not wrong. Voters in Chile on Sunday could have transformed what has long been one of Latin America’s most conservative countries into one of the world’s most left-leaning societies. Today, we tease out what was at stake and assess what went wrong, and if there is anything to be learned from the Chilean effort to create the most egalitarian constitution in world history. From the NY Times:

In a single ballot, Chileans voted to decide whether they want legal abortion; universal public health care; gender parity in government; empowered labor unions; greater autonomy for Indigenous groups; rights for animals and nature; and constitutional rights to housing, education, retirement benefits, internet access, clean air, water, sanitation and care “from birth to death.”

It is perhaps the most important vote in the 204-year history of this South American nation of 19 million — a mandatory, nationwide plebiscite on a written-from-scratch constitution that, if adopted, would be one of the world’s most expansive and transformational national charters…

If voters approve the text, Chile, which legalized divorce only in 2004, would suddenly have more rights enshrined in its constitution than any other nation. If they reject it, Chile would have little to show for what had once been seen as a remarkable political revolution.

The 170-page text would make the Chilean state, which has long had a limited role in its citizens’ lives, the guarantor of more than 100 rights, more than any other national constitution in the world, according to an analysis by the Comparative Constitutions Project, a global survey of constitutions run by Mr. Elkins and Tom Ginsburg, a law professor at the University of Chicago.

In addition to housing, health care and education, the new constitution would enshrine the right to freedom of expression, religion and worldview. There would be the right to free time, physical activity, sex education, cybersecurity, the protection of personal data and “free and full legal advice” for anyone “who cannot obtain it.

Chileans would have the right to “adequate, healthy, sufficient, nutritionally complete and culturally relevant food”; the right to develop their “personality, identity and life projects”; and the right to “live in safe and violence-free environments,” to “age with dignity” and to die “a dignified death.

Workers would have the right to “equitable, fair and sufficient” pay and to unionize and strike. And citizens would have the right to choose their identity, “in all its dimensions and manifestations, including sexual characteristics, gender identities and expressions.

Chileans would also have “sexual and reproductive rights,” including that women could have “a voluntary interruption of their pregnancy,” language that would enshrine the right to an abortion more explicitly than any other national constitution.

One of the constitution’s clearest immediate changes would be a mandate that women hold at least 50 percent of many government positions, the first such requirement in any constitution.

The most contentious proposal is defining Chile as a “plurinational” state, meaning that 11 separate Indigenous groups, which account for nearly 13 percent of the population, could be recognized as their own nations, with their own governing structures and court systems. That would represent some of the most expansive rights for Indigenous people anywhere, according to experts.

It would be a momentous shift for Chile, which banned all forms of abortion until 2017, when it legalized the procedure only in cases of rape, an unviable fetus or a threat to the mother’s life.

The constitution also states explicitly that ‘nature has rights’ and “the state and society have the duty to protect and respect them.’ It also orders the state to protect animals, ‘recognizing their sentience and their right to live a life free from mistreatment.'”

NY Times. The Morning, Sept: 4: “Chile Votes on Constitution That Would Enshrine Record Number of Rights”

No wonder I was exuberant when I thought this miracle of a constitution had passed. This proposed constitution is comprised of a laundry list of rights and protections that cover virtually every aspect of human endeavor. The constitution is nothing less than an economic, environmental, animal, social, racial, gender, and indigenous rights Utopia. So, naturally when I misunderstood two headlines and opening paragraphs, concluding that this miracle of justice had passed, I rushed to share. All of us are thirsting for even a grain of good news and reason to hope. And this wasn’t a grain, it was a mountain. So, unfortunately, I published an erroneous report that on Friday, the vote had been held and the constitution had passed, only later to read much bleaker news: the vote had not occurred, but was on Sunday. The polls looked bad, and experts and even the leftist Chilean president were not expecting it to pass. Talk about deflation.

It is easy to understand how this Constitution could fall short of passing, given that since Pinochet’s coup, Chile has been far and away the most socially conservative country in South America. But it is good to recall that in 1970, before Pinochet’s coup, Salvador Allende was close to democratically transforming Chile into a socialist country. So there were credible reasons to believe Chile could pull this off. But in the summer of 2022, conservative forces in Chile, no doubt supported by international corporate interests, had a field day with the constitution’s many elements, misrepresenting what the constitution actually said, claiming it afforded criminals more protection than victims. (Sounds like NM Republicans on this one.) Ads have also falsely claimed the Constitution would ban home ownership and allow abortions in the ninth month (again, sounds like NM Republicans), neither of which is remotely true. The NY Times put it this way:

Now, it appears the sweeping ambition of Chile’s proposed constitution could also be its downfall. Many Chileans worry that the new charter would too drastically change their country, and their concerns have been amplified by confusion over the details, uncertainty over the impact and rampant misinformation.

NY Times. The Morning, Sept: 4: “Chile Votes on Constitution That Would Enshrine Record Number of Rights”

How Did Such a Utopian Constitution Emerge?

After decades of violent oppression, most Chileans thirsted for dramatic change. The NYTimes describes the process this way:

Chile’s proposed constitution is so bold and unconventional in large part because it was drafted by many political outsiders who were allowed to run for the constitutional convention that drafted the document. Fresh off protests against the political establishment, Chileans voted for independents to fill more than half the 155 seats, electing lawyers, academics, journalists, two actors, a dentist, a mechanic, a chess master and a bevy of left-wing activists, including one who became famous for protesting in a Pikachu costume. Seventeen seats also went to Indigenous people.

Leftists won more than two-thirds of the convention’s seats, putting them in full control of the process since a two-thirds majority was necessary to add measures.”

NY Times. The Morning, Sept: 4: “Chile Votes on Constitution That Would Enshrine Record Number of Rights”

If the text is rejected, Mr. Boric, Chile’s president, has said that he would like to see a new convention draft another proposed charter.

Lessons Learned

Power matters. A grassroots reaction to decades of oppression had organized a massive campaign calling for the convention to create a new constitution. The measure to create the new constitution overcame conservative misinformation and achieved almost 80% of the vote.

Democracy is messy. Adhering to their principles, the grassroots movement organized a highly participatory and democratic process for selecting who would rewrite the constitution. Those who were at the table looked like the people of Chile, not suited business folks, politico. and think-tank experts. They developed a constitution that reflected the aspirations of the group quite openly. But with the framers representing virtually every Chilean progressive cause, from women’s, Indigenous, and animal rights to environmentalists and labor. And in having the votes to pass each new element to the constitution, they created elements for all these groups, resulting in a Chilean pizza with virtually every imaginable ingredient of rights and protections.

Every single right and protection erupted out of an experience base that had proven that exploitation would occur, if these rights and protections weren’t enshrined.

Power matters. While the grassroots movement had the power to pass the plebiscite to draft a new constitution, it didn’t have the framework to control the messaging and control the misinformation campaign that planted seeds of fear that, this was a bridge too far.

We see the same fear-based argument in every NM legislative session, with a chamber of commerce or a business lobbyist claiming that the sky would fall if we raised the minimum wage. We hear from gas & oil lobbyists every time we propose to enforce methane rules or raise lease prices… their industry will collapse and soon thereafter, so will the state’s economy. And so bills like the Health Security Act, Local Choice Energy, Public Banking, and The Green Amendment face mountains of misinformation in every hearing, with that misinformation coming from known lobbyists who appear every year and provide dinners and generous campaign contributions to grease the wheels.

Clearly, it is easier to get something before the legislature or the voters than to pass anything that might even slightly rein in business greed or protect our planet or some population in need of protection or support.

What is next for Chile? While President Boric has indicated he’d like to rerun the process, develop a new draft, and put it to another vote, the entire process required such an enormous investment of human energy and commitment, it is hard to imagine that succeeding. And to win in a new election, the new constitution would need to be less complex and comprehensive, with any and every attempt to remove any protection resulting in howls from activists for that population. Another round of convening, writing, finalizing, and ultimately passing a new constitution will be formidable, to be kind. Still, the taste of what could be is on the lips of too many Chileans and that taste will certainly linger. It was so close.

Implications for the U.S and NM. It is difficult, even dangerous, to draw conclusions about political activism in our state and nation from a country like Chile, so different in experience, culture, and political environment. But there does seem to be something to be learned: If you ask for everything, stick to your principles, and it is all or nothing, your efforts may come to nothing.

Think about Joe Biden trying to pass a truly meaningful climate bill. He spent months trying to move Senator Manchin. But when that effort failed, Dems tried to placate him, resulting in horrific concessions to gas and oil, a very bitter pill. But with that pill came vast investments in green infrastructure paid for by increases in taxes on corporations and the wealthy. With that pill came provisions to reduce pharmaceuticals, another win. It wasn’t a Chilean pizza addressing all that is needed to be done, but it was better than nothing.

Clearly, just as in Chile, there was the power to propose bold change, but not the power to effect it, so too in the U.S. Congress and NM Roundhouse. Unless and until we have the power to overcome the Manchins and Lundstroms of the world, we will fall short of our aspirations and bitter pills will be part of our diet. In Congress and in the Roundhouse, every vote matters and we have work to do here in NM to continue building power and marginalizing those who stand in the way of progress.

Elections Matter. It may seem trivial to compare two NM races to such a bold, sweeping effort in Chile, but Retake focuses on building locally because that is where we have some influence, and each piece in the power puzzle matters. We have a midterm coming and the chance to add progressive blue votes in the Roundhouse and U.S. Congress. We are lucky to have Gabe Vasquez, a tremendous candidate for U.S. Congressional District 2, and if he wins, he will help the Dems hold the House. Gabe will be in Santa Fe tomorrow, Tuesday, for a Meet & Greet (details below). Also coming to Santa Fe, on Thursday, is another tremendous candidate, Augustine Montoya, running for the NM House in Dist. 22 (details below). Both candidates are running against NRA-backed and MAGA -aligned Republicans from the lunatic fringe. So these would be huge wins. Find out more below. Also check out our Election Guide & Endorsements for all New Mexico races at this link. You will find info on every NM House race and how you can get involved. You will also find info on Working America and how, through their proven campaign strategies, you can have an impact on U.S. House & Senate swing races.

Tuesday, Sept. 6, 6 to 7:30 p.m., an evening in Santa Fe with Gabe Vasquez, candidate for Congressional District 2. Gabe has a good chance to beat right-winger and Trump loyalist Yvette Herrell, but he needs our help. Please come meet Gabe on Tuesday, Sept. 6 in Santa Fe. (Address provided upon RSVP.) RSVP, donate, or get more info here. You can also watch my recent interview with Gabe at this link. Those who watch it, quickly donate… He is that impressive. Come on Tuesday and meet him up close and personal.

Thursday, Sept. 8, 5:30 to 7 p.m., meet and greet Augustine Montoya, candidate for House District 22 in Santa Fe, at the home of our friends Mariel Nanasi and Jeff Haas. Co-hosts include NM State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard, Senators Antoinette Sedillo Lopez and Liz Stefanics, Representatives Matthew McQueen and Andrea Romero, and House District 47 candidate Reena Szczepanski. Augustine is a young, enthusiastic, bright light with solid progressive values who is running against the NRA- and MAGA-aligned Stefani Lord (R), and as a result of redistricting, he has a real shot at winning if he can raise the funds to mount a sustained campaign. RSVP by email to to receive the address. Learn more about him in our Aug. 31 blog at this link. Donate directly to Montoya’s campaign at this link. You can watch my interview with “Augie” at this link. We hope to see you on Thursday!

Parting Thoughts

Last night, we watched a preview for a CNN documentary on the Russian dissident Alexei Navalny who was asked for his parting advice, should he be killed: “You can’t give up. You’re not allowed,” he replied. I offer this quote because, all of us are suffering from campaign fatigue, with in-boxes jammed with opportunities or campaign fundraising deadlines, and televisions replaying one ad after another. We may be tired, but we can’t give up. That $50 donation you make will be added to others sending $500. They all add up. That meet & greet may be the one where you meet the inspiring candidate that gets you to canvass or call on their behalf.

Bottom line: You can’t give up. Roxanne and I hope to see you Tuesday and Thursday night. Onward, we have much more to do, and so little time.

In solidarity & hope,

Paul & Roxanne

P.S. Look for a major post on the Health Security Act tomorrow. We will lay out where it stands and what will be proposed in 2023. Even if you think you know the HSA well, this will update you and ready you for activism.

Categories: International politics

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1 reply

  1. Here’s a good article on why Chile voted against its proposed new constitution.

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