ROSARIO, Argentina – After almost a year of civil unrest, interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Chileans overwhelmingly approved a bid to scrap the constitution written under the mandate of General Augusto Pinochet, a dictator who ruled the country until 1990.
The Chilean conference of Catholic bishops called the Sunday’s referendum, where almost 80 percent of those who cast a vote did so in favor of re-writing the constitution, a “great example of civility and participation,” expressing that in the new path now undertaken by the country the citizens will have a fundamental role.
They also called on Catholics to get involved in the process, so that Christian values are reflected in the new Constitution.
The bishops urged Chileans to continue on in the path of dialogue, towards the “decision that the voters will have to make to determine in April 2021” who will take part in the drafting of the country’s new Magna Carta.
People on Sunday had two decision to make: On re-writing the constitution, and if it were to be re-written, who should do it. The country voted in favor of doing so, and determined that the draft should be written by members elected directly to a constitutional convention. A second vote will be held in April, alongside municipal and gubernatorial elections, to chose who will be members of this commission.
Chileans are expected to vote for a third time regarding the constitution in 2022, accepting or rejecting the draft.
Sunday’s vote had originally been scheduled for April 2020, but was postponed due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. More than 50 percent of those who could vote did so, which is considered a high-turn out for a country where voting is not mandatory.
After the result of the referendum was announced, thousands flocked to the Plaza Italia in downtown Santiago, the country’s capital, to celebrate the end of the last vestige of the former military regime — chanting, dancing, waving flags and setting off fireworks.
“This plebiscite is not the end; it is the beginning of a path we should all undertake together,” said Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera after the results were made public.
“Until now, the Constitution has divided us,” he added, speaking from the Presidential Palace. “As of today, we should all cooperate to make the new Constitution become one home for all of us.”
“Today, citizenship and democracy have prevailed, and peace has prevailed over violence,” said Piñera. “This is a victory for all Chileans.”
On the Sunday before the referendum, tens of thousands flocked to the streets of Santiago and in other cities to mark the one-year anniversary of the protests that led to this week’s referendum. Oct. 25, 2019, saw some 1.2 million people in downtown Santiago rally for change, and since then, there were several massive protests, many of which ended violently, with protesters and the police clashing.
Both last year and last weekend, two Catholic churches were attacked during the protests.
Though violent groups often dominated the headlines, at the core of the protests was a call for sweeping change in the Chilean society, including higher wages and pensions, better health care and education, and generally a better distribution of wealth in one of Latin America’s most unequal countries.
The fact that the referendum was conducted peacefully was remarked on by the Chilean bishops: The voting “has been a great show of civility on the part of young people, adults and the elderly. This great participation should call us to reaffirm respect for the decision expressed at the polls.”
“Today the unity of wills is necessary to continue the construction of a better country, because the constituent process that is coming forward needs us all with the best of each one of us,” the bishops wrote.
Addressing the country’s Catholics, the bishops invited them to be “interested, concerned and have an active participation in the processes that are coming up to, because nothing that involves the dignity of the person can be foreign to believers.”
“For this reason, it is necessary to promote in the new fundamental charter the essential Christian values on which the life of our nation has been founded,” the bishops wrote.
The prelates closed their statement calling for Our Lady of Carmel, patroness of Chile, to guide over the country so Chileans can continue expressing, “as we did today, the best of ourselves in the search for justice and peace, through fraternity and social friendship.”