Sniffing the winds of change in Chile referendum

Denis BARNETT
·3 min read
At the National Stadium in Santiago, people queue to cast their ballot in an era-defining referendum on the constitution
At the National Stadium in Santiago, people queue to cast their ballot in an era-defining referendum on the constitution

Dashing around downtown Santiago, taxi driver Jose Gallardo had never seen so many people out voting, and he felt he could sniff change in the southern spring air. "For Chile, it's now or never," he said.

Gallardo, 63, had a ringside seat at the referendum vote from inside his black and yellow cab as he ferried voters to polling centers from early morning.

"People voting, all over, and so many young people. You didn't see them voting in the presidential election, but you see them today."

Voting is no longer compulsory in Chile, and turnout reached only 50 percent for the 2018 election of the country's billionaire president, Sebastian Pinera. 

Analysts were predicting a higher turnout on Sunday, despite real fears over the coronavirus, which has hit Chile hard.

- Chilling memories -

Thousands were voting at the National Stadium, used as a detention center where opponents of Augusto Pinochet's regime were tortured. 

Many, like psychologist Elias Perez, 39, were hoping to banish the dictator's constitution to the past.

"Chile is full of symbolism," said Perez.

"To be able to exercise the right to vote in a space of profound pain, where there were systematic violations of the human rights of many compatriots, and to be able to generate change in this same space is a symbolic way of paying honor and tribute to all those who are no longer with us." 

Pinochet imposed a right-wing dictatorship that lasted for 17 years, during which at least 3,200 people were killed or disappeared as a result of political repression.

Around 38,000 were tortured, many at the National Stadium.

And the wounds of the past are not forgotten. At football games, a section of one of the stands always remains empty, out of respect for "the missing" under the regime.

A banner above it reads: "A people without memory is a people without a future."

- Looking to the future -

Marcelo Gana was looking to the future as he joined around 300 people lined up outside the voting center at the Liceo de Aplicacion boys' high school.

"This is historic, it's exciting, and something which is going to change our country. I'm with my family here and we're all excited!" said Gana, 29.

Mask-wearing voters were marshalled into three lines and kept apart to comply with measures against the coronavirus pandemic. Only 20 were allowed to enter at a time. 

"This is the first real opportunity we have to make the necessary changes, to improve health, education and to have a more equal society," said teacher Pilar Matus, 47, as she took her place in the line.

Diego Valenzuela, who brought his little daughter along, said he was "happy and proud" to vote. "We believe that yes, there will be change and we can achieve new things."

The ballots contain two questions. The first asks if the voter wants a new constitution, and if so, whether the responsibility of drafting it should be handed to a convention combining citizens and lawmakers, or another made up solely of citizens. 

"Since we are the people who believe we can change things, we are the same people who must write the constitution," said Valenzuela, 28. "There is not much confidence in politicians anymore."

Not so for Andrea Benson, who was preparing to reject a new constitution.

"I feel bad, very bad. This is a country that used to work well in Latin America and now things are failing, one does not want that for one's country," said Benson, 26, her eyes welling.

For her, changing the constitution had ominous consequences.

"Some people haven't instructed themselves what the change they're going to make here means, and some of us do know what it's going to do, what that big change is going to mean for this country." 

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