Neighbours meet to plot path out of Chile crisis amid exasperation at elite

John Bartlett
Neighbours gather while taking part in a neighborhood town hall meeting in Santiago earlier this month. Photograph: Pablo Sanhueza/Reuters

[Editor: Citizens' Assemblies seem to be growing in popularity world-wide - setting up citizens' assemblies is one of the three demands of Extinction Rebellion.  Something similar was also done recently across Canada to promote discussions for a Canadian Green New Deal.]

November 13, 2019

In the dappled shade of Santiago’s Parque Almagro, hundreds of Chileans sat immersed in conversation, reflecting on the past, present and future of their country.

As strikes and protests continue across the country, tens of thousands of people have attended spontaneous town hall meetings to seek a way out of more than a month of sometimes violent political unrest.

“These past weeks have been physically and emotionally exhausting,” said Florencia Olivares, 27. “We have been protesting every day, choked by teargas and not knowing how this might end, but seeing people come together to discuss a better future gives me hope.”

As President Sebastián Piñera wavers between attempts at conciliation and promises of further crackdowns, many Chileans have given up waiting for the government to offer solutions – and are instead taking it upon themselves to address the causes of the crisis.

Self-organised events, known as cabildos, have been held the length of the country – and even hosted as far afield as the UK, Australia and Canada.

At the recent gathering in Parque Almagro, the hum of conversations lulled only for a volley of whistles and jeers directed at a passing police van, caked in paint and peppered with indentations from earlier clashes.

According to organisers, this event was held to keep environmental matters on the agenda after the cancellation of the COP25 climate change summit which had been due to take place in Santiago. (It will now be held in Madrid.)

The global climate summit and the Apec convention – which was due to be held this week – were both cancelled as the government struggled to contain social unrest that has claimed more than 20 lives, according to the latest figures from Chile’s human rights institute.

A total of 5,696 people have been detained in the disturbances and 2,009 hospitalised – more than half of whom were injured by firearms. The institute is also compiling 283 legal cases relating to allegations of homicide, torture and sexual violence levelled against the police and military.

But as the violence continues, more than 15,000 people have attended 450 cabildos across Chile, according to Unidad Social, a national alliance of 115 unions and other civil society groups which has been providing guidelines for the cabildos and recording the results.

Neighbors gather to discuss the crisis in Santiago.
 Neighbors gather to discuss the crisis in Santiago. Photograph: Pablo Sanhueza/Reuters

Almost every social group, profession and academic discipline has organised cabildos targeting specific areas of reform. An event organised by Colo-Colo, one of Chile’s biggest football clubs, attracted 1,500 people to their Monumental stadium in the capital.

“Anyone can arrange a cabildo – irrespective of their politics, religion or social group,” says Camilo Mansilla, who is part of Unidad Social’s organisational committee.

“The legacy of the [Pinochet] dictatorship and subsequent governments was to create a political class that has not been able to respond to our demands, so we are organising ourselves to regain sovereignty over our communities and territory.”

The meetings’ conclusions are non-binding, but a team from Unidad Social is sifting through proposals from each cabildo – and so far, the most common demand is for a constitutional assembly to draft a new constitution.

Chile’s current constitution was devised by dictator Augusto Pinochet’s trusted advisers and ratified by a questionable 1980 referendum.

Although it has been reformed several times, it still places heavy emphasis on private property but makes no mention of environmental protection – nor does it enshrine the right to water or housing – making it a symbolic target for protesters seeking to address the neoliberal model at its core.

A recent poll showed that 78% of those surveyed were in favour of a new constitution, while politicians from across the spectrum have come out in support of reform, which would require two-thirds of both the congress and senate.

However, the government has said it plans to reform the constitution through congress rather than convening a constitutional assembly – as the opposition and civil society had been demanding.

Many protesters say civil society needs to participate directly.

“We need to replace the constitution and the people want to play an active role – but we just can’t do that without a constitutional assembly,” said Olivares. “If we want to see real change, it’s now or never.”

[Top photo: Neighbours gather while taking part in a neighborhood town hall meeting in Santiago earlier this month. Photograph: Pablo Sanhueza/Reuters]