SANTIAGO, Chile – On the wooden benches of the Estadio Nacional in Santiago, University Professor Luís Cifuentes spent long, empty days in the spring of 1973 ignoring the excruciating screams that came from the bowels of the stadium.
During the brutal dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet (from 1973 to 1990) around 40,000 left-wing political prisoners passed the stadium. An estimated 3,200 were murdered or disappeared and 27,000 were tortured.
Cifuentes, now 73 years old, survived but could not avoid the abuse. He was electrocuted and interrogated by soldiers in the largest of around 1,168 prisons in Chile.
“Once I was blindfolded and had to march through the stadium in the dark,” he said. “I stumbled upon something strange and reached down to see that they were the cold bodies of murdered prisoners.”
On Sunday the stadium became one of the capital’s most emblematic polling stations and Cifuentes returned almost half a century later to accompany his wife, Gricelda Figueroa, 56, who cast her vote in a nationwide referendum.
Late on Sunday, the Chilean electoral commission reported that nearly 15 million people – including Cifuentes and Figueroa – had emerged, 78 percent of whom had voted to replace the constitution from the 1980 dictatorship, a symbol of the brutal Pinochet Years.
A new constitution would seek to address imbalances in Chile that have made it one of the most unequal countries in the world, with power heavily centered on the ruling elite, mainly based in Santiago. Health, education, ethnicity and gender are at the heart of the debate.
As Chile prepares for a new chapter that breaks with its bloody past, a vocal young generation has added their voices to the call for change.
“My generation are the sons and daughters of the people who went through the dictatorship,” said Alondra Arellano, who is Chile’s youngest party leader at the age of 22. She was elected president of the center-left Convergencia Social in August.
“Our parents bear the scars of those years and live in fear of raising their voices,” she said. “I have a family that has been tortured or exiled, and my generation realized that if something changed, we had to take action. “
Arellano comes from the low-income suburb of La Cisterna in Santiago and has made a name for himself in university politics. She led Chile’s vocal feminist movement in 2018. She decided to take the step into traditional politics to change the system from within.
Your generation seeks to avenge the lack of justice that was shared after the end of the dictatorship. Pinochet was charged on more than 300 charges, including human rights abuses, and was arrested in 1998. He died in 2006 after serving as an unelected “life senator” who was safe from prosecution.
President Sebastián Piñera said on Sunday evening: “So far the constitution has divided us. From today onwards, we should all work together to make the new constitution a symbol of unity and stability.
A relic of Pinochet’s brutal past
Protests against inequality exploded across the country in October last year, and Chile has since been gripped by a socio-political crisis. Because of its connections with Pinochet, the constitution had become a focal point of anger.
When Piñera’s approval rating fell towards a nadir – it would hit an all-time low of 6 percent in January, the lowest for any president since Chile’s return to democracy – he brokered a deal with party leaders last November for a referendum on the first letter to hold the country’s democratically drafted constitution.
The current document has been ratified by a fraudulent referendum in 1980and anchors an extreme interpretation of the principles of free market and privatization, which critics believe puts profit before life.
For those in favor of the model, the constitution has been the cornerstone of growth and stability in Chile since the return to democracy in 1990. World Bank data shows that Chile’s GDP grew by around 800% between 1990 and 2018. nevertheless a third of the total wealth belongs to the richest 1%.
For many, the constitutional process is an opportunity to heal the deep wounds in Chilean society that have been masked by the country’s economic success and the tradition of apathetic silence among the country’s ruling elite.
Basic social rights to housing are not enshrined, while mentions of health care and education relate to choice of provider rather than guarantees that the state will provide them. The country’s indigenous population – 13 percent – is currently not simply recognized and treated as “Chilean”.
However, Chile will now draft the first constitution of a country with equal participation of women after a law was passed in March guaranteeing gender equality.
“Chilean society is incredibly segregated and our elite have very few channels of communication that extend beyond their circles,” said Daniel Brieba, political scientist at Adolfo Ibáñez University in Santiago. “The social movement did not necessarily call for a new constitution – that call later merged – but while this might be a necessary symbolic step to replace the Pinochet constitution, it is also far from addressing all of the problems we have have in this country. “
While the vote gave a significant mandate for the revision of the constitution, the process will also be difficult given the divisions within the political class and society of Chile as a whole.
“This will lead to a consensus and, at least symbolically, it will be a fresh start for Chile, although with such polarization in Chile there are legitimate fears that it could lead to an incoherent document,” added Brieba.
For Cifuentes, the step that Chile has taken is enough.
“We will never get back the country we built before the dictatorship, but we have a chance to do something better,” he said.
“If there is a new constitution, a whole chapter of my life will be closed, but that has not happened yet,” he said. “This vote was symbolic and symbolic of what I want: to get away from Pinochet’s constitution.”