Learning about Chile’s draft constitution over tea

By Patricia Nieto Mariño

Santiago, Aug 2 (EFE).- Homemade bread, avocado and tea are the traditional components for Chile’s traditional “once” (afternoon snack), and a group of elderly citizens on Tuesday added a surprising ingredient – a draft of the new Constitution – on which they will have to vote in September in an obligatory plebiscite.

Combining their “once” with reading and discussing the new national charter is the basis for this novel gathering, dubbed “La Once Constituyente” (The Constitutional Once), which is being pushed by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and assorted organizations within civil society.

“The main objective is for the citizenry to clarify their stances with an eye toward the plebiscite on Sept. 4. They need to meet, discuss their doubts and become informed (about it),” Felipe Ajenjo, the UNDP’s Governance and Territory chief in Chile, told EFE.

About 40 of these encounters have already been held around the country, with the groups made up of voters of different ages and educational levels, all with the aim of making “tea time” – a typical social ritual in Chile – into a “meeting to talk about the country’s future and to move away from confrontation,” he added.

The Constitutional Once idea was coordinated by Patricio Saldivar. “We’ve come to join together and talk. It’s not important how each person votes, but we want them to do so in an informed way,” he said at the gathering, where about 30 elderly people met in a civic center in Santiago’s northwestern Cerro Navia neighborhood.

“Soon, we’ll have one of the most important elections of our lives. Do you know when it will be?” he asked the group after passing out a practical guide summarizing the main points in the new constitution. “September 4th!” responded the group in unison.

On that date, Chilean voters must head to the polls to either back the proposed constitution, the drafting of which commenced in 2021 in response to a massive wave of protests for greater equality, or to vote to keep the current Constitution, drafted in 1980 during the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship but then partially reformed when the country returned to democracy.

Georgina Perez, 73, spoke up first in the discussion: “I don’t understand anything. I don’t even know what a constitution is,” she blurted, while the rest of the group nodded their heads.

Among other things, and with Saldivar’s mediation, the group expressed their doubts and lack of knowledge about the document and the constitutional process – and they then discussed the concept of a constitution, the main differences between the 1980 document and the new one, moving through issues that caused them the most concern, such as retirement pensions, healthcare and housing.

“The low retirement pensions is what concerns me the most because we don’t have enough money. I’d like to know what’s going to happen with that issue,” Rosa Fernandez, another member of the group, told EFE.

If the experts agree on anything, it’s about how the campaign in the runup to the vote has been rife with fake news and misinformation.

“I’ve heard … that with the new constitution we’re not going to be able to own our own homes and we’ve only going to be able to rent,” Irene Hernandez, 75, said.

The faces of the group showed that she was not the only one who had heard that rumor but the coordinators of the session had an easy solution: they opened the draft document to the section discussing owning private property and specifying that as a right.

“For us, it’s very difficult. We don’t have the ability to understand such complicated laws. At least now things are clearer for me,” Hernandez told EFE after the meeting.

For months, public surveys have found that most people would vote to approve the new charter – which was drafted by a progressive-leaning constitutional convention and was focused on expanding social rights – but now the main polls are showing that people are gravitating toward keeping the current Constitution.

In any case, undecided voters continue to represent a large portion of the electorate, with 42 percent of the public saying they don’t know how they’ll vote, according to Data Influye, and 34 percent saying they’ll leave their ballots blank or nullify their votes, or won’t even bother to go to the polls, according to the Mori survey.

“We’ve aired many doubts. About the current Constitution, nobody’s ever told us what it says. It was written during the dictatorship in a closed room,” Francisco Ovalle, another retiree attending the meeting, told EFE.

“Now, we have some homework. To carefully read the new one to understand it thoroughly,” he added after the unusual, original and instructive afternoon tea time.

EFE pnm/jm/lll/bp

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