On September 4, Chileans will vote on whether to adopt a new constitution that would usher in sweeping democratic, social, and economic reforms.
The current constitution dates from the reign of General Augusto Pinochet, who imposed human rights horrors and brutal free market economic policies on the South American nation for 17 years after taking power through a 1973 coup.
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who’s been working to uphold the U.S. Constitution as the leader of the 2021 Trump impeachment trial and as a member of the House committee investigating the January 6 U.S. Capitol attack, sees the Chilean initiative as part of what he calls the “global project” of democracy. On August 30, he released a video commending the democratically elected assembly that drafted the 387 articles in the Chilean proposal.
“This Constitution represents not just a legal victory,” Raskin said, “but decades of political organizing and commitment by the Chilean people to make your country a global leader for freedom, equality and democracy for all.”
Long before he became a leading constitutional scholar, Raskin was well familiar with the struggles of Chilean social justice movements. When he was 13 years old, agents of Pinochet assassinated two of his father’s colleagues in Washington, D.C.
The victims, Ronni Karpen Moffitt and Orlando Letelier, worked with the congressman’s father, Marcus Raskin, at the Institute for Policy Studies. Moffitt was a 25-year-old American development associate while Letelier was a former high-level official in the democratically elected Chilean socialist government of President Salvador Allende that was toppled by Pinochet.
As Letelier and Moffitt rode together to work on September 21, 1976, they were killed by a car bomb on Massachusetts Avenue, less than two miles from the White House.
Massive protests in recent years in Chile, one of the world’s most unequal nations, have echoed Letelier’s critiques of Pinochet-era economic policies, which he saw as inextricably entwined with the dictator’s human rights abuses.
“Repression for the majorities and ‘economic freedom’ for small privileged groups are in Chile two sides of the same coin,” Letelier wrote in an article for The Nation magazine that inspired Naomi Klein’s book Shock Doctrine.
The proposed constitution turns the Pinochet model upside down, elevating the common good over elite interests.
Pinochet privatized the public pension system, a move that enriched corporations and large investors in Chile’s capital markets but delivered disastrous results for seniors. The proposed constitution would grant the elderly the right to “sufficient social security benefits for a dignified life” — reinforcing a key campaign pledge of Chilean President Gabriel Boric to shift back to a public pension system.
A new social security system would also provide protection in the event of disability, maternity and paternity, and unemployment, with benefits extended to those who perform domestic and care work.
Pinochet imprisoned trade unionists and dissolved the national labor federation. The constitutional reform significantly expands worker power. It grants public and private sector workers the right to form unions and bargain collectively at any level — going beyond current rules that limit bargaining to the company level. It also extends the right to strike to public sector workers and allows all workers to strike whether or not they have a union.
Some of the other labor provisions are less defined but would give workers strong levers for demanding further progress. For instance, the proposal would guarantee the right to “equitable, fair and sufficient” compensation to ensure workers’ livelihoods and ban “all forms of labor precariousness, as well as forced, humiliating or degrading work.”
In contrast to the profit-focused Pinochet-era model, the new proposal guarantees the rights to water and decent housing, creates a national health care system, and would make public universities free.
The Pinochet constitution is the only one in Latin America that does not acknowledge indigenous peoples, despite the fact that about 12 percent of the country’s population identifies as indigenous. The new proposal would greatly expand rights for these communities and their voice in political decision-making.
In 2019, Rep. Raskin joined other U.S. lawmakers in denouncing repressive actionsagainst Chilean protestors who were demanding structural social and economic changes to address the country’s extreme inequalities. Those protests ultimately led to the constitutional reform process.
In Raskin’s new video statement, the Maryland Democrat said he’s impressed by the proposal’s “commitment to the highest standards of democracy and human rights for Chileans,” including the rights of women and indigenous people, the independence of the courts, and guaranteeing the separation of powers.
“Democracy is a global project,” Raskin said, “and by designing this unique constitution for Chile, you are moving the whole world closer to freedom and strong democracy for all people.”