Last week saw the anniversary of the birth of Bernardo O’Higgins (born c. 20 Aug 1776). Each year the links of O’Higgins with the UK are remembered in a ceremony in Richmond-upon-Thames, where he completed his education and forged connections that influenced his future. A revolutionary leader, he led the forces to secure independence from Spain, establishing the new Republic of Chile, creating a working governmental organisation and establishing peace and order, based on the principles of freedom and democracy. Principles which resonate today and which are at the heart of what is happening now in Chile.
On 4 September 2022, in a mandatory vote, Chile’s citizens – both in country and abroad – will decide whether to Accept (Apruebo) or Reject (Rechazo) a new constitution. A difficult and controversial path has led to this point. The ‘estallido’ – or social uprising – in Chile in 2019 led to agreement between the main political parties on a process for the development of a possible new constitution. Following a referendum, a Constitutional Convention was formed with a democratically elected group of 155 diverse representatives from all walks of life, with the difficult task of defining and drafting the document.
A final draft text was presented to President Boric on 4 July 2022. It contains 388 articles (the original proposed 499 articles would have made it the world’s longest constitution). The first article describes Chile as a ‘social and democratic state’ and as ‘plurinational, intercultural and ecological’. It guarantees universal rights on the environment, housing, water and health. It focuses on social rights, particularly for women and the disabled and recognises 11 indigenous groups, representing c.13% of the population. It aims to protect and guarantee access to land water and air resources. It includes significant institutional change, including creating a national health service, a national education system and free public education at all levels. It proposes replacing the Senate with a Chamber of the Regions, although the detail is undefined. It proposes new powers to regions and communes and for indigenous territories.
President Boric has said ‘This September 4th, it will once again be the people who have the final say, the last word on their destiny.’ The general public is reported to be sceptical as to whether a new Constitution will make a difference to the prime daily preoccupations of health, education and public security. The ideals are at the heart of what many wanted to see changed in Chile. But many now feel the text as drafted cuts across principles and traditions of national identity, with a disproportionate focus on minority rights and territorial issues and, paradoxically, concerns that something that was intended to unite may prove divisive. Hence opinion is divided on its scope, the feasibility of implementation and whether it will contribute to good governance and help future unity, stability or prosperity.
If ‘Apruebo’ wins, implementation will occupy the administration for years ahead. If ‘Rechazo’ wins the current constitution remains in place and could be subject to further amendment – as has been the case ever since it was instituted under the Pinochet government in 1980 – it has already been subject to over 70 revisions. Recently on 15 July 2022 President Boric said that if the proposed new constitution is rejected, a new process should begin rather than modifying the current draft. Recent polls suggest the vote could go either way and a vigorous campaign is being fought by both camps. Whatever the outcome, this is a defining moment in Chile’s history.
Chile faces challenges but has enormous potential, not least in the role it can play, with resources key to meet global needs to address climate change and move to a net zero world. Realising that potential is key to Chile’s future. In remembering Bernardo O’Higgins and what he stood for – independence and democracy, his legacy has led to the Chile of today and the choice of citizens to define the Chile of the future. This is democracy in action.
Chairman, Anglo-Chilean Society
Former Ambassador to Chile 2014-2018
As an apolitical organisation, it is not for the Anglo-Chilean Society to comment on what should be the outcome of the vote one way or another. The mission of the society is to promote the understanding of Chile in the UK. For more information please see www.anglochileansociety.org.