On Sunday, Chileans voted down a proposed constitution drafted by a conservative-dominated assembly by more than 10 points. It was the second failed attempt at replacing the country’s constitution: The public rejected a left-leaning draft by a far larger margin a year ago. After the results of the latest vote were announced, President Gabriel Boric reiterated that no further attempts would be made to replace Chile’s 1980 constitution, which was put in place under General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. The outcome of Sunday’s referendum brings an end to a four-year political cycle that began with demands for a rebuke of the free-market model imposed under the dictator. Said model made Chile the envy of developing economies worldwide—until stagnation, disillusionment, and mass unrest shattered the prior consensus.
“Chile’s aborted attempt to rewrite its constitution is a cautionary tale.”
In the early phase, when progressives like Boric took the lead in opposing the old constitution, the international left saw Chile as a model for radical change, and some American leftists argued the United States should rewrite its foundational document from scratch. Now that Chile is stuck for the foreseeable future with the constitution it spent four years trying to replace, few seem to be turning to the South American nation for lessons. This is a mistake. Chile’s aborted attempt to rewrite its constitution is a cautionary tale for all of those seeking a radical break—whether from the right or from the left—with the “end-of-history” consensus known as neoliberalism.
Until 2019, Chile was regarded as the pinnacle of Latin American development and a testament to the benefits of free-market economics. To be sure, the model erected by Pinochet and the Chicago Boys—the University of Chicago-trained economists tasked with implementing a radical overhaul of the economic order—eventually restored Chile’s macroeconomic stability following the inflationary chaos unleashed under Salvador Allende’s socialist government. This stabilization allowed the country to attract investment and achieve impressive rates of growth. But the reforms also brought about catastrophically high unemployment, which would have been difficult to sustain under democratic rule. Eventually, the resulting discontent led many Chileans to vote against keeping Pinochet in power in the 1988 referendum that ended his rule.
The irony is that the fruits of the Chicago Boys’s neoliberal reforms came mainly under the stewardship of Pinochet’s democratic successors. After two decades of political turmoil and economic pain under Allende and Pinochet, Chile witnessed an economic boom in the 1990s thanks to high commodity prices. Democratically elected presidents also secured trade deals that had previously eluded the pariah dictatorship. GDP growth averaged 7 percent a year, and per capita GDP doubled by 2010—the year Chile became the first South American country to join the OECD.
A generation of center-left leaders took steps to mitigate the worst effects of the model imposed under Pinochet. Of the eight presidential terms since 1990, only two saw a conservative in the Casa de la Moneda—in both cases the moderate Sebastián Piñera, who served non-consecutive terms between 2010 and 2014 and again between 2018 and 2022. But Chile’s center-left post-dictatorship governments also deepened some of the most pernicious elements of Friedman’s libertarian utopia, in particular the privatization of pensions, healthcare, education, and even water. If Tony Blair was Margaret Thatcher’s greatest achievement, perhaps the former socialist Ricardo Lagos was Pinochet’s: as president between 2000 and 2006, Lagos expanded the dictator’s Friedmanite reforms with gusto.
Beneath all the achievements hailed by economists, the “Chilean miracle” had a dark underside. Rates of single motherhood soared from 13 percent in 1975 to 40 percent in 2015. Mass unemployment during the 1980s, the result of Pinochet’s fiscal austerity, gave way to mass job insecurity during the period of rising prosperity. Older forms of informal employment gave way in recent years to the expanding gig economy of delivery and rideshare apps.
Moreover, despite all the radical changes, the Chilean economy never escaped the curse suffered by most of Latin America: reliance on the export of primary products. Chile accounts for about 25 percent of global copper production, and the mineral accounts for 55 percent of the country’s exports. In 2014, a commodities bust caused the price of copper to plummet. This same cyclical downturn unleashed political chaos across South America. In Brazil, most notably, it led to the impeachment of the center-left president Dilma Rousseff and the rise of the far-right president Jair Bolsonaro. In Chile, it was the far left—which had been squeezed out of power for decades by neoliberal centrists like Lagos—that was able to capitalize on the crisis.
As growth slowed, much of the population became dissatisfied with the suite of privatized services rolled out during the dictatorship. Student protests against the semi-privatized education system, which kicked off over a decade ago, were one of the first signs that something was amiss. The health care system, meanwhile, manages to be both expensive and inefficient, with Chileans often facing long waits for treatment. The private pension system, which was held up for decades as a model by neoliberal reformers, pays just 20 percent of retirees more than the minimum wage. The center-left president Michelle Bachelet’s largely failed attempts at reforming the system only deepened resentment and spurred demands for more radical change.
Dissatisfaction finally boiled over in the 2019 Estallido Social (social explosion), which began with protests against transit fare increases but snowballed into a general revolt against the neoliberal model. In October of that year, over a million demonstrators—equivalent to one fifth of the population of Santiago—took to the streets to protest inequality. Eventually, the nascent social movement coalesced around the core demand to replace the 1980 constitution. Piñera, the embattled president, acquiesced to a referendum on the question of Chile’s magna carta, and in October 2020, 80 percent of Chileans voted to convene a constitutional convention.
For a time, the hard left, which had been marginal in Chile ever since Pinochet toppled Allende, appeared ascendant. The progressive Gabriel Boric, a former student activist who promised that Chile would be the “tomb of neoliberalism,” defeated the Pinochet apologist José Antonio Kast by a large margin in 2021. In a show of the zeitgeist, voters also elected left-leaning delegates to the 2021 constitutional convention by a margin of two to one.
“The televised convention quickly devolved into Chile’s own oppression olympics.”
What ensued in the convention made clear that the Chilean left has more in common with the college-educated progressives of North America than the leftists of Mexico and Bolivia—who still manage to appeal to workers and rural populations. The televised convention quickly devolved into Chile’s own oppression olympics. Things got off to an inauspicious start when some delegates protested Chile’s national anthem at the convention’s inauguration. At a later point, “eco-conventioneers” heckled delegates from the Socialist Party for voting against environmental restrictions.
The final text of the constitutional draft mandated that all public institutions have at least 50 percent of their members be women, meaning that men could be in the minority, while women could not. Even more controversial was the proposal to create a plurinational state similar to that of neighboring Bolivia, where indigenous peoples make up over half the population—as opposed to just over 10 percent in Chile. And unlike in Bolivia, the charter’s ambiguous language suggested that indigenous Chileans would be tried under a parallel justice system regardless of their jurisdiction.
Widespread disgust at the identitarian excesses of the first convention was a major reason the resulting constitutional draft was rejected by voters, but it wasn’t the only one. The advent of unforeseen events since 2019, most importantly the pandemic and the arrival of large numbers of migrants from Venezuela, pushed Chilean politics to the right as concerns over pensions and health care gave way to concerns over immigration, public safety, and inflation. In the past several years, uncontrolled immigration along Chile’s northern border has skyrocketed and crime has more than doubled, although the country remains one of the safest in the Americas.
Around half a million Venezuelans are estimated to have settled in Chile in recent years—an enormous figure considering that the country has a population of just under 20 million. Anger over immigration has converged with fear over crime prompted by the arrival of Venezuelan gangs like the Tren de Aragua. At the same time, the post-pandemic years yielded inflation of over 10 percent in 2021 and 2022. Throughout, Boric has been unable to maneuver a gridlocked congress, though the administration reluctantly instituted a crackdown on immigration.
After the failure of the first constitution, voters elected a new convention dominated by delegates from the far-right Republican Party of José Antonio Kast—the younger brother of the Chicago Boy Miguel Kast, who had been president of Chile’s central bank under Pinochet. If Boric signaled a rupture with the Chilean neoliberal model maintained by his center-left predecessors, Kast conversely advocated for a reversion to the Pinochet-era combination of social conservatism and free-market economics. The right-wing constitutional convention was less scandal-plagued than the left-wing one, albeit still contentious. This time, vague language left open the possibility that abortion would be banned altogether, with no medical exceptions, and that water would remain privatized. That said, the fact the right-wing document lost less resoundingly than the left-wing one speaks to the continued backlash against Chilean progressivism.
Kast and his allies had favored preserving the 1980 constitution from the outset. In this sense, despite the defeat of the document they drafted, Sunday’s vote is still a win for the right. But like the left, the right is almost certain to draw the wrong lessons from the tumult of recent years. The reality is that Chile’s economic model is fundamentally unchanged. Under Boric, economic growth continues to depend on the country’s still stagnant mining sector. At the end of the day, Chile is yet another polarized and highly unequal resource colony in the Americas. So long as the country continues to rely on the export of primary products, it will be unable to escape the endless cycle of boom and bust.
Read any mainstream assessment of Chile’s constitutional experiment, and you are likely to encounter testaments to the moderation of the country’s voters. This is true to an extent, but can’t account for why, in 2019, they so resoundingly rejected an economic model seen worldwide as a beacon of success. The truth is that Chilean voters, on the whole, are interested neither in progressive identity politics nor in dogmatic social conservatism—nor in third-way centrism. Rather, like so many others, they hunger for the quotidian staples of industrial democracy: stable and well-paying jobs, security, good pensions, immigration enforcement, and affordable, reliable healthcare. Under Boric, the left has made clear it can’t deliver on these items.
Like Brexit in Britain, Chile’s multiyear constitutional experiment offered a rare opportunity to forge a new societal and economic consensus. Its failure portends an interminable struggle over control of a declining economy between a performative, self-defeating left and a similarly impotent reactionary right. Whatever the future brings, one thing is certain: The Chilean miracle has run its course.