The day after the election in B.C., the same day as the election in Saskatchewan, another vote took place at the other end of the Americas.
The people of Chile voted overwhelmingly to abolish the constitution imposed by dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1973, after a military coup deposed elected president Salvador Allende.
The two Canadian elections didn’t change the flavour of government in the two provinces, let alone their ideologies. The Chilean vote changed the direction of a whole country.
Chile’s current president called it “the beginning of a path that we must all walk together.”
The vote didn’t actually change Pinochet’s constitution — yet. Rather, Chileans voted by almost 80% to establish a constitutional convention, which would have a year in which to create a new constitution from the ground up.
They also voted, at nearly the same proportion, against the present government appointing members to the convention. Rather, all 155 members would be directly elected by the people.
The old constitution was devised by Juan Guzman, a far-right advisor to General Augusto Pinochet.
Traditionally, most Latin American countries have been governed by oligarchies — an elite, mostly the historic landowning families. Before the coup, Chile had a reputation as the most democratic country in South America.
Pinochet’s new constitution gave power back to the elite. It privatized social welfare, penalized public education and health care, led to high costs of living and appallingly low pensions.
To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, it was “government of the few, by the few, for the few.”
I had visited Chile about six months before the coup. I stayed with a Canadian woman and her Chilean husband. They took me around the barrios where they worked.
Under Allende’s socialism, poor families received adequate food every week, meat and vegetables. Their children went to school. They had medical clinics available to them.
Unfortunately for him, and for Chile, Allende tried to nationalize three huge copper mines in the far north of the country, owned by American companies Anaconda and Kennecott, without compensation.
America would not tolerate interference with the divine right of American corporations to make money. It still won’t — witness the retaliation against Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia for nationalizing their oil and gas industries.
America in those days saw anything labelled socialism as a mask for pure communism. And communism came from America’s nuclear foe, the USSR. An irrational terror of the so-called “domino effect” led the U.S. into the Vietnam wars. And even though it failed to win that battle in Saigon, the fear of domino communism still applied to Chile.
So, in what is now almost universally recognized as a U.S.-backed coup, Pinochet and the army took over the Chilean government.
Allende may have committed suicide. Or may have been murdered, like Moamar Qaddafi in Libya.
Instead of food, education, and healthcare, Pinochet brought in mass arrests, imprisonment, torture, and repression.
Pinochet’s reign of terror lasted for 17 years. Eventually he risked his rule in a 1990 referendum, and lost. But the constitution he set up for himself remains in place 30 years later — putting a straitjacket on attempts at reform.
Chile lives and breathes politics. When I was in Santiago, a political rally drew twice as many people as an international soccer match. I doubt if it it’s different now.
All last year, Chileans demonstrated against the constitution. It started in a small way —students protested raises in metro transit fares. But it grew. Until eventually the government had to yield.
Geographically, Chile is the least-unified country in the continent. It is 4,300-km long —- the distance between Vancouver and Montreal — but never more than 350 km across. As a comparison, imagine extending the Alaska Panhandle all the way south to Baja California, with all the climatic variations.
The Atacama desert in Chile’s far north is the driest place on earth. Tierra del Fuego in the far south is one of the coldest, wettest, and windiest places on earth. In between lie mountains, and more mountains — half of the total length of the Andes.
For people living in that diverse a geography and climate, to vote with anything approaching unanimity is a near miracle.
“I never imagined that us Chileans would be capable of uniting for such a change!,” Maria Isabel Nunez, 46, told the Deutsche Welle news agency.
The British Guardian newspaper called the vote “a beacon for the world.” Maybe it is.
Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. To contact the writer: firstname.lastname@example.org