- Alejandra Flores Carlos is one of just 17 Indigenous members elected to a body tasked with rewriting Chile’s Pinochet-era Constitution.
- For decades, Chile has served as a bastion of neoliberal economic policies. Now a popular protest movement is flipping the country’s politics on its head.
As a young student activist in 1986, Alejandra Flores Carlos was arrested and spent time in Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s notorious prisons. Now, 35 years later, Flores Carlos is among a select few handpicked by her country’s people to dismantle the very legal framework that justified that authoritarian rule.
An Aimara Indigenous woman, the Spanish-language teacher and social activist is one of the 155 people elected in May to draft a new Constitution that could replace the one issued during Pinochet’s brutal far-right dictatorship in 1973. It’s a change that would have seemed impossible just two years ago.
For decades, Chile has been a laboratory of neoliberal policies pioneered by the so-called “Chicago Boys,” students of American economist Milton Friedman who were at the helm of the country’s economic policies. But a series of student-led protests against a sudden hike in the transport fare in the country’s capital, Santiago, in October 2019 quickly turned into mass demonstrations against the South American country’s deep seated inequalities and the lack of government action to tackle them. That movement has now turned Chile into an unlikely emerging beacon of left-leaning social movements, with a former student leader the current favorite to become the country’s president after the November elections.
It is such a responsibility to have the power to change things.
Alejandra Flores Carlos
Nothing captures that political shift like last year’s landmark referendum where Chileans voted to throw out the Pinochet-era Constitution, and the election in May this year to elect the constitutional convention that will write the nation’s new guiding document. In a country where Indigenous peoples have rarely had a voice, 59-year-old Flores Carlos was initially in disbelief when she was elected to the body. But these are no ordinary times.
“It was a very emotional moment,” she tells OZY. “It is such a responsibility to have the power to change things.” Flores Carlos campaigned without any financial support from a political front. All she had were volunteers and WhatsApp, where she reached out to people as the nation was under lockdown. That she still won illustrates people’s disenchantment with traditional politicians, Flores Carlos says.
It also underscores the unique paradox that is Chile. On the one hand, the copper-rich nation has made great economic progress over the last two decades. So much so that it is the best-ranking Latin American nation in the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Human Development Index while its poverty rate is well below regional standards. But its high inequality levels prevent a large part of the population from accessing essential services, fueling growing social frustration.
Underneath it all, activists and scholars say, lies the 1973 constitution, which through its liberal economic policies has contributed to the privatization of education, health and pensions, making them unattainable for many.
“Most people in Chile are in deep debt, using credit cards to buy daily groceries,” Flores Carlos says. “That led to anger and frustration which then made people take to the streets, demand change.”
The constitutional convention is a pathbreaking initiative that represents that hunger for change. It is the only parliament in the world to have equal gender representation. Also, 17 of the seats were reserved for candidates from Indigenous communities, rare in a country where they’ve long marginalized. They include Alisa Loncón, a 58-year-old teacher and member of the majority Mapuche people, who was chosen to preside over the process of rewriting the constitution.
Her election was charged with symbolism. Chile’s current Constitution does not officially recognize Indigenous people (making it one of just a few countries in Latin America that does not). The astonishing diversity of representation is part of what makes this process historic, says Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International.
“This is the result of many years of unanswered demands from the most marginalized groups and represents a seismic change when it comes to the protection of Chile’s most basic human rights,” Guevara-Rosas says.
For Flores Carlos, meetings with the other elected representatives are filled with hope. She says her activism and experiences under Pinochet’s rule — including her time in jail — have shaped her political journey. “The anger for what was happening at the time, the disappearances, the deaths, trumped the fear we had … just like today,” she says. “The desire to change has always been our driving force.”
Not all is perfect. Flores Carlos says the constitutional convention lacks basic resources including computers, phones or even an office for the 155 parliamentarians to use. Time is also a challenge. The group has until early 2022 to put forward a proposal for a new text before every citizen over the age of 18 is asked to vote on it.
But Flores Carlos is on a mission. She wants to ensure historically marginalized people, and their needs, are properly represented and that the new Constitution marks a new start for those previously ignored by her country.
“I never imagined this would happen,” she says. “But today, we are making history.”