In Chile, as in most Latin American countries, there is a complex relationship between the government and indigenous peoples. The latest chapter of this tense interchange took place during the referendum on September 4th, 2022, when the Chilean people rejected a new proposed constitution for the country—62% of the votes cast opposed the new governing document.
This rejection also implied a rejection of recognizing indigenous peoples as political actors—the proposed constitution was the first in the history of Chilean constitutionalism to include indigenous peoples. The rejected constitution controversially included the concepts of plurinationality (or plurinationalism), interculturalism, and legal pluralism. Critically, the proposal also recognized collective rights as enforceable by indigenous peoples, including the rights to prior consultation, self-determination and territorial autonomy, and linguistic rights.
The expansive document additionally recognized the right of indigenous peoples to obtain the repatriation of cultural objects, human remains, the right to cultural identities, including their cosmovision, way of life, and institutions. It also enshrined the right to ancestral knowledge and access to intercultural justice. The draft also prohibited the forced assimilation of indigenous peoples.
For some people, the main problem with the proposal was using the term “plurinationalism.” According to Constitucionalista, this concept means a political project that recognizes the existence of several indigenous peoples within a state, participating in political life as a collective group with the right to determine their own priorities. Plurinationalism conveys a particular understanding of equality, democracy, and the structure of the state wherein several nations may coexist within the boundaries of a single state. The term is used in the current Constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia. The indigenous confederation of Bolivia used it for the first time in Latin America during the 1980s.
Several surveys taken after the Chilean referendum state that one of the main reasons that voters rejected the project was because of the constitution’s use of plurinationality and protections of indigenous autonomy. According to Cadem, 35% of those who rejected the proposal did so for these reasons. For example, in the south of Chile, in the Araucanía region, mainly populated by Mapuche people, the new constitution was rejected by 73.69% of the voters.
The path to rejection started at the beginning of the process. There were many red flags signaling the outcome and the “discomfort” of non-indigenous persons as they prepared to go to the polls:
- The problem of finding the mechanism to include indigenous representatives in the Constitutional Convention.
- Right and far-right representatives negatively representing indigenous peoples within the Convention itself.
- Several “fake news” campaigns rhetorically warping the meaning of plurinationalism to influence voters.
Indigenous Representation at the Convention
In October 2019, a social uprising changed the political situation in Chile. The major protest started by high school students against the increase in the cost of public transportation snowballed into larger mobilizations fighting for social justice. The political atmosphere turned violent as protestors, police, and military forces got involved. The two most essential characteristics of this uprising are the use of indigenous peoples’ symbols, which helped spread awareness for indigenous peoples’ rights, and the overall demand for a new constitution. Using the Mapuche people’s flag in the protest, the Wenufoye helped to increase awareness of indigenous causes. Its use has become a symbol of the inequality and violence that Mapuche and the Chilean people experience daily – and as a symbol of resistance to and desire to change the dominant liberal paradigm.
The constitutional convention process began in Chile with a constitutional amendment approved on December 24th, 2019. The first step was a entrance plebiscite, on October 25th, 2020, regarding the option to create a new constitution and the mechanism to carry it out. The results of this plebiscite gave a new constitution the support of 78.27% of the votes. The chosen mechanism was a constitutional convention with 155 representatives, approved by 78.99% of the votes. When this plebiscite took place, the role of indigenous peoples was not well-defined. Chilean people voted not knowing whether indigenous peoples would have seats at the constitutional convention.
The inclusion of indigenous quotas was problematic for the constitutional amendment of December 2019. Thus, Congress delays the constitutional reform regarding the topic. The main discussions were the number of indigenous delegates and if that number should be included in the 155 seats or it should be 155 representatives plus an indetermined number of indigenous representatives. Congress Representatives decided to present a separate amendment on the topic. Senator at the time, claimed that adding indigenous peoples to the 155 seats of the convention would produce “an imbalance and a disproportionality between the indigenous peoples that apply to the convention”. After a lengthy discussion at the Congress, the indigenous peoples achieved 17 reserved seats included on the 155 seats, and a different voting procedure. These seats were distributed proportionately to the ten indigenous “ethnicities” recognized by law: 7 to Mapuche, 2 to Aimara, and 1 for the rest. On May 15th and 16th, 2021, the 155 delegates to the Constitutional Convention, including the indigenous delegates, were elected during a special two-day election. Their work started on July 4th, 2021.
Political Mischaracterization of Indigenous Issues at the Convention
The ways in which right and far-right political actorsharacterized the representation of indigenous people at the was problematic. Since the beginning, the narrative of some media and detractors of the new constitution was to express fear for the changes and portray indigenous peoples as “asking too much.” There are two clear examples of how these political actors negatively characterized the indigenous presence at the Convention: the reactions to the speech of the president of the Convention and the Convention’s sanction of the right to restitution of indigenous land.
In the first example, the delegates needed to elect a president and a vice president. Indigenous peoples were highly optimistic about the outcome of this election. After a complicated process, the president of the Convention elected was Elisa Loncón Antileo, a Mapuche activist and scholar. In her subsequent victory speech, she stated that: “I salute the peoples of Chile from the north to Patagonia, from the sea to the mountains, to the islands, all those who are watching us today […] I’m grateful for the support of the different coalitions that placed their trust and dreams in the hands of the Mapuche nation, who voted for a Mapuche person, a woman, to change the history of this country.” The president expressed her hope for significant changes for indigenous peoples – a . For example, Carlos Peña, chancellor at Universidad Diego Portales stated that the words of Loncón were “excessive as an inaugural speech”. He added that the current constitution only recognizes one nation, the Chilean nation.
The second example of tension occurred over the inclusion of the right to restitution of indigenous lands. According to la Tercera, a prestigious journal in Chile, after the approval of this right, the political world alternately called it “historical” or “very serious.” On the one hand, it was historical for indigenous peoples because it recognized a long-time claim for the communities to have access to their ancestral lands and territories. On the other hand, however, it was a very serious matter because it would mean free access to all expropriated lands in Chilean territory. This would amount to an “indigenist agrarian reform,” according to Ricardo Neumann, delegate of Renovación Nacional, a right-leaning political party, at the Convention. Neumann’s comments, however, discount the language of international treaties of indigenous human rights – which state the right to the land and territories of indigenous peoples, as ILO’s Convention no. 169 and The UN Declaration of rights of indigenous peoples (UNIDRIP).All these international instruments are very strong in “preserving the particular connection between indigenous communities and their lands and resources [because it] is linked to these peoples’ very existence and thus “warrants special measures of protection””. In particular the right to restitution of ancestral territory forces to the states and government to adopt measurement to restore the rights of indigenous peoples over their territories and it has been developed by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights.
The term “indigenist” used by Delegate Neumann refers to a wave of public policies in Latin America in the 60s and 70s that wanted to improve indigenous peoples’ conditions. However, they were made without their participation. The elite of Latin America enshrined these policies, and they did not always fit with the indigenous way of life. This reality was the furthest from what happened in the Convention, in which indigenous peoples led the conversation regarding their rights, including carrying out the previous consultation according to national and international standards. Neumann’s comments display a lack of communication and clarity over the natural of indigenous policies.
Fake-News Campaigns Surrounding Indigenous Issues
Throughout the entire process of the Convention and then when the draft of a new constitution was ready for voting by the people, “fake news” was a factor. One of the primary victims of these smear campaigns were indigenous peoples. According to “El Mostrador”, 50% of people in Chile declared that they knew of at least some information that was faked regarding the convention’s work or the articles in the document. Most of these cases were misrepresentations of actual articles. For example, the some misinformation stated that plurinationalism would lead to the loss of the unity of the states; that indigenous peoples would become first-class citizens with unassailable rights while the rest of the Chilean people would be second-class citizens; that the indigenous flag would officially replace the Chilean flag; and that the creation of a Plurinational Unicameral Parliament instead of an asymmetric parliament would allow indigenous peoples to declare their land legally independent and create new states out of existing ones. All these misrepresentations helped to create an air of uncertainty about the exact nature of the proposed changes and the role indigenous peoples would play in the new constitutional order.
After the defeat of the proposal for a new Chilean constitution, several indigenous leaders and scholars analyzed the rejection of the text. According to Natalia Caniguan, the discussions about plurinationalism smacked of elitism and did not help to fit the basic needs of deprived indigenous peoples. Richard Caifal stated that the rejection was from all sectors, indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, having diverse causes; however, we know that people prefer more incremental change, less traumatic. Rosa Catrileo, one of the most active indigenous Mapuche delegate at the Convention, said that the role of fake news in the process was one of the leading causes of rejecting the proposal. In a sense, indigenous elites are still processing what happened with the results of the project for new constitution. The analysis is not closed and the question remains: Why the plurinationalism did not work for Chilean society?
Now the question arises, what will happen to indigenous peoples? Elisa Loncón stated on her Twitter account that, after the results of the plebiscite, indigenous peoples should wait for their recognition at the constitutional level. Politicians from all political parties are in talks to decide about drafting another constitution. The process, however, has been complicated by difficult discussions over constraining the types of changes that could be made to the Chilean system by a new constitution. Political actors have been especially concerned over what some have terms “borders” – limitations to what the new delegate in a new Convention can do or even change. One of the borders has been the participation of indigenous representatives at the convention. Their number at a new convention will be lower than the process that finished on September 4th.
In the end, the possibility of having a new constitution was a chance for indigenous peoples to participate in the process and change the liberal paradigm. It was the perfect opportunity for indigenous peoples to present their demands in a democratic context (Caniuqueo Huircapan, 2019). Thus, the demands were related to recognizing indigenous peoples as a nation, implementing the concept of self-determination, and establishing a plurinational state with several collective rights. Today, we are still determining if the process will continue. However, we know there will be a weaker recognition of indigenous peoples than the 2022 proposal, maybe with multiculturalism or interculturalism, but without plurinationalism as a new way of building the Chilean state.
The experience of having a Constitutional Convention was historic for several reasons. Democratic mechanisms elected it, and for the first-time indigenous delegates or representatives were part of the process. The project of the new constitution included indigenous peoples not as “ethnicities” but as political actors with several rights. If we compare this process with others in Latin America, without a doubt, the participation of indigenous peoples was real, with their voices constructing a legal instrument and not symbolic. Even if the outcome of the process was not all positive, it could be. However, as Chilean society, it allows us to talk about plurinationalism, intercultural principle, collective rights, and self-determination, among others. The outcome of rejecting a legal document that embraces a different way of life is not something we can find only in Chile. We can see it too in the United States, with The Supreme Court decreasing the level of protection of indigenous peoples for different reasons in a short period. Then, as Elisa Loncón states, indigenous peoples in Chile, in the United States, and the rest of the world are still waiting for recognition and a higher protection standard.
Katherine Becerra Valdivia is an Assistant Professor at Universidad Catolica del Norte, Chile and the author of Indigenous Collective Rights in Latin America, Role of Coalitions, Party System and Constitution (Lexington Books, 2022).