Demonstrations delay launch of Chile’s new Constitutional Assembly

The swearing-in ceremony of the architects of Chile’s new constitution got off to an unfavorable start on Sunday after protests outside and inside the venue, and clashes with police forced the event to be postponed.

Problems arose after demonstrations, organized by independent, left-wing and indigenous groups that had delegates to the constitutional body, and other interest groups, met heavily armed police barricades outside Santiago’s former congress building, where the ceremony is being held.

Clashes broke out after some participants attempted to cross the barriers, prompting police to respond with tear gas and water cannons.

Delegates within the event then protested to organizers over heavy-handed police tactics, thumping drums and yelling at a classical youth orchestra playing the national anthem.

Amid requests from delegates to withdraw “repressive” special forces police, the electoral court official presiding over the ceremony agreed to suspend the event until noon.

Hundreds of Mapuche march through the Plaza de Armas in Santiago as Chile begins writing its new constitution this morning

— John Bartlett (@jwbartlett92) July 4, 2021

The spat underscores the intense challenges of drafting a new magna carta against a backdrop of deep division that still lingers after Chile was torn apart by mass protests that began in October 2019 over inequality and elitism and were sparked by a fierce police response. .

The constitutional body is made up of 155 deputies, including 17 indigenous candidates, split equally between men and women, and was elected by popular vote in May.

It is dominated by independent and left-wing candidates, some with roots in the protest movement, with a smaller proportion of more conservative candidates supported by the current centre-right government.

Vale Miranda, the youngest constitutional deputy at 20, wrote on Twitter that she and other deputies were trying to stop heavy-handed security forces blocking protesters.

“Now they beat us and just cleave my lip!” she said. “Let the whole world know that there is no democracy in Chile.”

Marcela Cubillos, a candidate representing the governing coalition, said the deadlock was “a bad sign”.

“Today should be the day when our important work begins, to fulfill the mandate given to us by the Chileans,” she said.

Chileans voted overwhelmingly in a referendum last year to tear up the current constitution, drafted during Augusto Pinochet’s 1973-1990 dictatorship.

The delegates vowed to raise issues such as water and property rights, central bank independence and labor practices, raising investors’ nerves about potentially significant changes to the free-market system of the world’s largest copper producer.

Before the ceremony began, deputies from Aymara and Mapuche held spiritual ceremonies with song and dance in the downtown streets surrounding the body’s new headquarters and on a nearby hill.

Not recognized in the current constitution, they hope that a new text will give their nations new cultural, political and social rights.

“We are walking with our people and our history to open the gates they have placed for us,” said Elisa Loncon, a Mapuche delegate and university professor who is seen as a candidate for the body’s presidency.

Muted government

The government of center-right President Sebastian Pinera remained silent as events unfolded.

His coalition failed to secure the necessary one-third of the seats on the body to fend off drastic changes.

The inauguration is not the first sign of tensions in the process. Last month, when Pinera wanted to remind deputies of the need not to exceed their mandate, he was knocked down by some deputies who said they would set their own rules.

In recent weeks, there have been angry complaints from the government by delegates about budgets, COVID-19 rules around size gathering and who would chair the ceremony.

The committee has up to a year to agree on common rules, set up committees and draft a new text.

Leandro Lima, a Southern Cone audit risk analyst, said the independents have given “legitimacy” to the process given Chileans’ deep distrust of established politics, but lack of policy experience and deep ideological divisions could cause critical delays in composing the text itself.


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