Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Approval or Rejection? Chile's Pending Plebiscite

When I arrived in Santiago in late February, the COVID-19 pandemic was barely underway but, a few months earlier, the estallido social had done away with the complacent view that Chile was the longstanding exception to regional disorder. Ignited by what had seemed a minor Metro fare increase in October, the “social explosion” transformed the capital's urban landscape, such as the landmark Plaza Italia that activists renamed “Plaza Dignidad” (a term which should need no translation).

Late last year, activists turned Santiago's Plaza Italia into "Plaza Dignidad," a rallying point for anti-government protests.

In the aftermath of the explosion, the center-right government of President Sebastián Piñera acceded to demands for a plebiscite on a convention to reform the 1980 constitution that was the legacy of the late dictator Augusto Pinochet and his legal enabler Jaime Guzmán, and that ensured that the far-right would be over-represented in Congress. Pinochet’s legacy also included a “Chicago Boys” macro-economic system which, even as it made Chile Latin America’s most prosperous economy, brought enormous concentrations of wealth and major disparities—including health coverage and student debt—for which the Metro fare increase may simply have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.

It’s been building over the years, though, as I saw reinforced over the past several days when I discovered the Chilean TV series “Bala Loca” (2016) on Netflix, in which the paraplegic Mauro Murillo (Alejandro Goic)—victim of an automobile accident—is a former TV star turned crusading journalist intent on exposing the corruption behind one of the privatized health services known as Instituciones de Salud Previsional (ISAPREs). A brief trailer (in Spanish) follows here.

Murillo sets up an online news site known as En Guardia (a reference to The Guardian may not be purely fortuitous), but is unable to recruit one of his preferred journalists, Patricia Fuenzalida (Catalina Saavedra). who prefers to freelance and then dies, supposedly coincidentally, from a bala loca (“stray bullet”) during a supermarket robbery. I’m not completely up on the slang here, but its strikes me that Murillo himself, in investigating her death, becomes something of a “loose cannon” as he sees conspiracy in various government institutions including the military. He’s also an alcoholic and a cocaine junkie, facts that figure into the ultimate resolution of the story.


Bala Loca takes some inexplicable digressions and non sequiturs, particularly regarding family issues, so that its ten episodes probably could have been condensed into no more than six. Still, it offers some insights into what’s created today’s political scenario.


That said, the referendum originally called for April but postponed due to the COVID crisis, will take place this Sunday October 25th. The consensus is that it will pass, despite the hysteria of hard-core pinochetistas, as detailed in a recent New Yorker article by Peruvian journalist Daniel Alarcón. How exactly a new constitutional convention plays out, though, could be another issue entirely.

Before postponement of the plebiscite, posters rejecting it were not uncommon in upper-class districts like Las Condes.

That’s because, even if the plebiscite gets a favorable #Apruebo (“I approve”), there’s likely to be a contentious convention to determine the content of the new constitution. That’s unlike the plebiscite of 1988, when opponents of extending Pinochet’s autocracy were virtually unanimous in their rejection of him—as depicted in Pablo Larraín’s landmark movie No. The details remain to be worked out.

Custom Search