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People gather to celebrate the victory of the referendum, in Santiago, Chile, on October 25, 2020 that will replace its 40-year-old constitution, written during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Felipe Vargas Figueroa/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

People gather to celebrate the victory of the referendum, in Santiago, Chile, on October 25, 2020 that will replace its 40-year-old constitution, written during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Felipe Vargas Figueroa/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Chile, Bolivia, El Salvador Lead On Decolonial Constitutional Change

Legalizing the world we need: social movements with constitutional visions.

Simon Davis-Cohen

October has been a busy month for South American social movements and constitutional change. It joins October 2019 as a critical moment for mass movement demands.

Yesterday, October 25, the Chilean people passed a referendum to abolish Augusto Pinochet’s constitution of 1980.

A week ago, on the 18th, Bolivia’s indigenous socialist Movimiento al Socialismo returned to power after winning a decisive election against the coup-installed rightwing evangelical president Jeanine Áñez. For Bolivia, this signaled a return of the nation’s Law of Mother Earth and “vivir bien” or “good life” governance, “a complex set of ideas, worldviews, and knowledge deriving from indigenous movements, activist groups, and scholars of indigeneity.”

Two weeks before Bolivia’s election, constitutional change passed the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador. The reform, led by the FMLN and socio-environmental groups, would constitutionalize water as a public good that people have a human right to access for personal survival. It is a rebuke to the nation’s authoritarian president Nayib Bukele and corporations eyeing the nation’s water crisis.

These developments are not isolated: decolonial constitutional demands are being elevated elsewhere, including in Iraq and Lebanon.

October 2019

In the first days of October 2019, protests erupted in Iraq. Youth flooded the streets to demand a better world. Of their demands: the abolition of Iraq's ethno- and sectarian-based muhasasa system, which “determines political representation based on communal identities (religious, ethnic, or sectarian).” (The system was created by the United States in 2003 and has roots to the British colonization of the region.)

Two weeks later, on October 17, 2019 the Lebanese government proposed a regressive WhatsApp fee, bringing similar decolonial demands to the streets of Beirut. A core demand: protesters wanted to abolish Lebanon’s sectarian voting system that bases representation on religion.

The next day, the 18th, the government of Santiago, Chile hiked its public transportation fare.

Chile 2020

On October 18, 2019, Chileans revolted against the fare hike—joining Iraqis and Lebanonese. These protests quickly led to demands for the abolition of Augusto Pinochet’s neoliberal constitution.

One year and one week later (yesterday), Chilean voters approved a referendum to scrap the Pinochet constitution. The historic vote signals a departure from neoliberal and colonialist systems of law, which in Chile’s case protected “freedoms” for consumers, rather than basic human rights and the necessities of life. As Claudio Nash, a professor of international law at the University of Chile, recently explained to NPR: "In Chile the right to health is not guaranteed as a right….What is guaranteed is the freedom of people to choose the health system they want—the public system, the private system—but access to quality health care is not guaranteed."

In December 2019, a “citizen consultation” held by Chile’s Association of Municipalities in 200 municipalities showed the electoral popularity of replacing the constitution. Citizens aged 14 and up were allowed to participate.

Bolivia 2020

The electoral victory of Bolivia’s Movimiento al Socialismo returns to power the indigenous-led socialist government that passed the 2010 Law of Mother Earth, a key piece of legislation for international movements to advance decolonial legal frameworks, including for the Rights of Nature.

El Salvador 2020

El Salvador has been dealing with constitutional crises throughout 2020. In February, authoritarian president Nayib Bukele intimidated and coerced the country’s Legislative Assembly, threatening to dissolve it while invoking emergency law.

Now, in a rejection to Bukele’s power, and the corporate control of land and water, constitutional reform has passed the Legislative Assembly, to establish a fundamental human right to water that guarantees access to a quantity of clean water “sufficient for personal and domestic use.”

Under the reform, the state would have the "obligation to remove whatever barrier, be it fiscal or economic, which impedes access to water—especially for the poor and historically marginalized groups." (All translations by this author.)

The constitutional reform also aims to sustainably preserve water systems and declares water “bien público” or a “public good.” To take effect, it must be ratified by the next Legislative Assembly (2021-2024).

The reform was first proposed through a collective of human rights and socio-environmental groups, academics, and attorneys who presented an initial initiative to the Legislative Assembly in August 2018.

Movements in the United States Playing Catch-Up

In the United States, the mainstream constitutional debate centers around the structure of the Supreme Court, and its number of judges.

Beyond this conversation on process, United States social movements for substantive change in the law are slowly gaining momentum. They can look to their Southern neighbors for inspiration.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Simon Davis-Cohen is a writer and filmmaker focusing on political rights, municipal activism and mass incarceration. He works on research and communications for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund and edits the Ear to the Ground newsletter. Follow him on Twitter: @SimonDavisCohen

Simon Davis-Cohen

Simon Davis-Cohen is a writer and filmmaker. He can be found on Twitter @SimonDavisCohen

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