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Chile's new constitution is put to the test at a vote


Three years ago, anti-government demonstrations swept across Chile. They have now led to big change for the country on the Pacific coast of South America. A special assembly has written an entirely new constitution which must be ratified or rejected. NPR's John Otis is there.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Folk musicians fire up the crowd here in the Chilean capital of Santiago. Hundreds have gathered to show their support for a new constitution. It would replace the old one that was written during the country's military dictatorship that lasted for 17 years.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).


OTIS: It was a brutal period. In fact, this event is taking place just outside the national soccer stadium. It was turned into a concentration camp in 1973 when General Augusto Pinochet seized power and began arresting his opponents.

ANDRES SOLIMANO: Many people was killed here. They used torture, disappearance. It has a very sad history.

OTIS: That's Andres Solimano, who at the time of the coup was in high school and saw several of his classmates arrested. Even though Chile is now a democracy, he points out that Chile's constitution was written during the dictatorship.

SOLIMANO: Thirty-two years after the end of the Pinochet regime in 1990, we still have that constitution. So it's very much a due constitutional change.

OTIS: There are other reasons why Chileans want to reset the rules for their nation.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Despite years of economic growth, there's a large gap between rich and poor. That, plus low wages and rising costs for transportation, health care and education, led to violent protests in 2019.


OTIS: About 30 protesters were killed, and hundreds were injured. To calm the waters, the government agreed to a constitutional rewrite. Last year, Chileans elected a special assembly that spent 12 months drafting the new Magna Carta.


OTIS: I pick up a copy at a kiosk in front of the presidential palace. It's long, with nearly 400 articles. Some strengthen women's rights, including the right to abortion. Others call for more protection for the environment and Indigenous groups and for better access to housing, education and pensions. But to guarantee more rights, Chile's left-wing government, which has been in power since March, will have to spend more, says political analyst Claudio Fuentes.

So all this is going to cost a lot of money.

CLAUDIO FUENTES: For sure. And then the question will be taxes.

OTIS: Indeed, the specter of higher taxes and more state intervention in the economy has turned off many Chileans, including retired police officer Hector Yanez.

HECTOR YANEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: He says the current constitution opened the door for the best period of economic growth in Chile's history. There's also been a major TV campaign to convince Chileans to vote against ratification on September 4.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: This TV spot claims, falsely, that the new constitution will provide more rights to criminals than to their victims. The negative messaging seems to be working. Recent polls show more Chileans plan to reject the new constitution than ratify it. If so, it would be a blow to President Gabriel Boric.



OTIS: In a recent interview on Chilean TV, Boric said he found it hard to imagine that the no-vote would prevail.


BORIC: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: But if it does, Boric said, this isn't the end. Instead, he said, Chileans would go back to square one and start the constitutional rewrite process all over again.

John Otis, NPR News, Santiago, Chile. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.