An unprecedented effort of imagination – From social protest to a constitutional referendum in Chile

By David Carré and Paul Cavada-Hrepich


On October 25th 2020, Chileans massively approved to rewrite their national Constitution. What might seem like an ordinary exercise of democracy for other nations arguably is the most genuine democratic act in the whole history of our country. This referendum, however, is not a coincidence but a direct consequence of the social unrest that broke out nation-wide in October 2019—usually referred to as “Estallido Social” [Social outbreak]. This is why we would like to share in this article a humble overview of the socio-political dynamics that have been taking place in our country and of what we foresee as likely future challenges, as well as a note of hope. We believe that the Chilean case might cast light on similar civilian uprisings taking place in other countries of the region, like Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia.

In writing this, we are positioning ourselves as citizens rather than scholars—whilst still being influenced by our background as cultural psychology academics. We do so because this referendum has to be understood in relation to social dynamics that have been part of our past and recent history, which have shaped the current state of the country. Our past tells a story of bicentennial republicanism—that has time and again bowed to reactionary interests. Our recent history shows that referendums can change what had seemed impossible to change—like ousting Pinochet’s regime in 1988.  

In this endeavor, we start by referring to the longstanding unrest behind the social outbreak, followed by an exploration of how the latter ignited a more profound process of change. Finally, we will discuss some of the challenges that our democracy faces—and will face—in order to accomplish the social change sought by the referendum.

Chile despertó!

Exactly a year before the referendum, October 25th 2019, more than a million of civilians across different cities in the country took over the streets chanting “Chile despertó” [Chile woke up!] This massive, pacific demonstration had no particular leader or political party behind it; there was instead a shared and robust feeling that “enough is enough.”

Baquedano Square, epicenter of demonstrations since October 2019 in Santiago. © Chepo Sepúlveda Egaña

This protest took place a week after the social outbreak had started on the evening of October 18th 2019. What initially was covered by the media as an uproar following a 30 Chilean pesos (USD$0.04) raise in the Metro fee, was quickly understood as the straw that broke the people’s back. As many wrote in banners and social media messages, “no son 30 pesos, son 30 años” [It’s not about 30 pesos, it’s about 30 years]. This is said in reference to the continuation, if not deepening, of a free-market mindset that followed the return of democracy in 1990. Through discourses of economic growth and consumerist rights, all governments after Pinochet reinforced the idea that individual effort—rather than collective solidarity—is the only way to improve quality of life.

“It’s not about 30 pesos, it’s about 30 years” banner. Retrieved from: 

Let us remember that under Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973-1989), the rawest version of the neoliberal model was implemented in Chile. In practical terms, this has meant free market (de)regulation for healthcare, education, pensions, transport, utilities, housing and any other area of public interest and common good. Highways, public transportation, even water is all run by private corporations. The state has been, at most, a regulator (and oftentimes a very flexible one). Although this model has contributed to extending the coverage of social services and significantly increasing the (average) income per capita, it also restricted access to any of these services based on your income and capacity of consumption. In this context, capacity of consumption is not to be confused with disposable income. Eventually your income might decrease, but your capacity of consumption might remind the same. People move money (that do not have) between credit cards to cover basic expenses to pay, for example, their water bill. So, at the end of the day, people live a standard of life based on their capacity of consumption rather than their actual income. If you can’t pay for healthcare, you might as well end up waiting years for surgery.

With a state that loosely regulates and takes no responsibility in the common welfare, people’s lives became increasingly vulnerable and precarious. In practical terms, households exclusively depend on their own income to cover any expense (from utilities to medical bills), for the State does not provide a (social) safety network. Thus the average Chilean household owes around 75% of their total income, according to the Chilean Central Bank. So it is relatively common, and even natural, to begin a month paying overdue debts only to take new loans in order to make it through the month, i.e. buying groceries on loaned money. This is not even living paycheck to paycheck.

These authoritarian neoliberal economic and political measures might have begun with Pinochet, but they kept developing under both center-right and center-left democratic governments—along constant scandals of institutional corruption. Politicians’ ignorance of and distance from people’s everyday lives transpired in their policy-making and in the opinions expressed in the media by them, which constantly triggered people’s indignation. The disappointment in politicians was somehow softened as people compared the situation with that of other countries in the region. (which had more blatant cases of corruption, like Fujimori’s Peru), but it progressively turned into a profound distrust of every political institution. This is why the social outbreak had no political party or leader behind it, only a deep feeling of social discontent. “Chile no se vende” [Chile is not for sale] and  “No más abuso” and [No more abuse] were the shared expressions by the millions who hit the streets. And this feeling was simmering for decades before finally erupting into a boil; breaking the mirage of a stable OECD country that was being presented abroad. 

The 2019 protests were not the first ones, though. In the last thirty years there have been multiple civic demonstrations against the injustices created by this socio-economic model. The first massive one was the 2006 “Revolución pingüina” [Penguin revolution], led by public secondary school students (penguin is a reference to the color scheme of school uniforms). In a highly coordinated effort, high-school students called for a national strike, occupied the schools, and took over the streets demanding better quality of education and equal access to tertiary education. They made visible the social fractures behind the tale of meritocracy. It was not sustainable to keep blaming inequality on people’s laziness or lack of effort; because there was a harsher reality: your family income determines the education you get. The state had to take responsibility, not only for the coverage of the education, but also for ensuring its quality.

It is no coincidence that the social outbreak of 2019 started in Santiago with public secondary school students evading the subway fare, followed by protests and clashes with the police. The situation escalated rapidly in the following days with the vandalization of public and private infrastructure. With Metro lines extensively affected, riots and clashes with the police multiplying, president Sebastián Piñera called the army into the streets, announcing a state of emergency and declaring a night curfew. Within a week, protests, churchs’ and shops’ looting, along permanent police confrontations expanded to the rest of the country. Nobody was really sure about what was exactly happening. But everyone knew that something big was happening.

Amidst the confusion, mass media focused uncritically on the violence and looting whilst the government emphasized on a fear-mongering narrative, both avoiding to address the social fatigue with the political-economic system and its central institution. On the evening of October 20th President Sebastián Piñera even declared at a press conference“estamos en guerra contra un enemigo poderoso” [we are at war against a powerful enemy]. Against this background, on October 25th 2019, the largest pacific protest in the history of the country made evident that people were done with broken promises of equality and ultimately with the way the country had been conducted. People from all walks of life denounced social injustice and claimed for better healthcare, pensions and education reforms. Drafting a new constitution and even the resignation of the President started to emerge as reasonable demands. The official narrative changed after this rally, and a day later the President tweeted that “we have heard the message.”

Ni dormidos ni ignorantes el pueblo sigue adelante – Neither asleep nor ignorant, the people moves forward

Violence was a critical turning point. Although it could be argued that police and civilians are both responsible for the awful display of violence, the facts are undeniable: according to the National Institute of Human Rights, between October 2019 and February 2020 a total of 3,765 civilians were injured, over 400 suffered eye injuries caused by rubber bullets and tear-gas grenades shot by anti-riot police, and 29 lost their lives. Many lost their sight permanently. This expression of violence by state agents reopened deep wounds in Chilean society, evoking the dictatorship’s repression and thus bringing back old collective expressions of discontent, e.g., ‘cacerolazos’ where people make noise by banging pots from their windows. 

Water cannon (front) and tear gas (back) trucks used by the police to disperse protesters. © Chepo Sepúlveda Egaña

We may venture to say that the discontent of individuals actually transformed into a shared, collective feeling; this is how the demand for real change emerged. But for those marginalized, the discontent turned into rage. This was the case for many youngsters who stood at the riot forefront—the so-called “primera línea” [first liners]. Since their childhood, they have grown up in state’s foster care institutions, preys of a system that has been repeatedly scrutinized for child abuse and corruption. When interviewed, these youngsters repeated the same message: they had nothing to lose as there was no future for them. They are victims of a false ideal of meritocracy and a society that barely supports their members. These “primera línea” quickly became a symbol of resistance-—whom probably felt noticed for the first time.

The social mobilization also embraced other excluded and oppressed causes and groups. The awareness of the indigenous conflict was one of the strongest causes in the protests. Flags of the Mapuche people were weaved along the Chilean one during the protests, where demands also were raised for the acknowledgement of a historical conflict dating back to the Spanish colonization. This is remarkable considering that in 2018, 52% of Chileans declare nothaving indigenous heritage (according to the study ‘Racial prejudice and discrimination in Chile’ conducted by the University of Talca. The Mapuche cause’s adherence revealed that many Chileans seemed to be done with social marginalization and stigma based on ethnicity and cultural background.

Mapuche flags, black chilean flags and green feminist bandanas used by the protesters at the Baquedano Square. © Chepo Sepúlveda Egaña

The feminist movement revealed itself as a moving force during the protests. The Chilean feminist collective Las Tesis created the song/performance “El violador eres tú” [You are the rapist]. which not only became a national hymn against all forms of violence against women, but echoed around the world from Buenos Aires to New York, from Oaxaca to Paris, from Vienna to Ankara. Through the social outbreak, women raised their voices condemning the patriarchalism that legitimizes structures of discriminations and violence based on gender. The state was pointed out as one of those most responsible for the maintenance of a conservative culture that subjugates women over men. Chile is a relatively conservative country where half of the female population stays at home despite holding a degree, divorce was legalized only in 2004 and abortion—under three restricted conditions—in 2017. On March 8th 2020, more than two million women took over the streets of different cities in Chile condemning violence against women, human right violations—and thus the current government—and demanding a new Constitution that would include women’s voices. After the 2020 referendum, the movement is celebrating its first accomplishment, as the convention in charge of drafting the new Constitution will have an equal number of women and men. 

During the social outbreak, the occupation of public spaces—specifically of central squares—was massive. There was a unique creative outburst where new collective symbols emerged, such as the ‘eye bandages’ and the ‘feminist green bandana.’ Different forms of art such as murals, graffiti, banners, songs and street performances were used as tools of condemnation and resistance. The main targets were the police, politicians, the government, the catholic church and large corporations; all were pointed out for creating and supporting inequality and marginalization. All in all, these different expressions were a cry for a dignified life. As it was written on the walls, “hasta que la dignidad se haga costumbre” [until dignity becomes habit]. 

“Until dignity becomes habit” banner. Retrieved from:
Mural of Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957), Chilean Nobel Prize of poetry and lesbian, portrayed wearing the green feminist bandana and holding a black Chilean flag. © Chepo Sepúlveda Egaña
Eye mutilation. Illustration by Álvaro Portales used in a campaign to help victim of eye injuries.

“El futuro está en nuestra manos” [The future is in our hands] was a common message written on walls and banners, reflecting a reemerged social sense of agency. Despite the government’s initial concessions, including plans to improve healthcare, pensions, and economic packages for vulnerable families, the riots did not cease but escalated. In the wee hours of November 15th 2019, it was announced that members from all parties in Congress had reached an unprecedented agreement—without consulting the President or the Prime Minister—to hold a referendum to draft a new Constitution.  

The social outbreak catalyzed a deep realization about the civic responsibility of citizens. A sign of this was how, despite the pandemic, people turned in and voted on October 25th 2020 in historic numbers: over 7,5 million votes, the highest turnout of any election. Without any doubt the social outbreak has shaken the internal and external image of Chile.     

What’s next—An unprecedented exercise of imagination  

So, what comes now, after such a groundbreaking event? A whole society to imagine and lots of discussion—but also a whole lot of hope.

The constitutional process might have taken a crucial step—Chile will have a new constitution in a couple of years. One that is born from the popular will and its struggle towards a more just society. But from this point on, the challenge is much harder than protesting or campaigning for a referendum. It has become clear what the country wants not: rampant neoliberalism and Pinochet’s heritage—both reified in the current constitution. So what it is that those living in Chile do want for their future? The challenge now involves imagining that dignified future, with all its possibilities, and then reflecting it into the constitution. For this challenge also requires discussing and reaching a collective agreement on what it means the dignity that people have been demonstrating for so hard. 

“To erase your legacy, will be ours!” © Miguel Peña

Few things have so many different meanings as dignity does. Even more so in a small but diverse country like Chile that is now much more diverse than it has ever been. Traditional adherence to Catholicism is at a historical low, according to the Bicentennial National Survey. More women than ever are participating in the workforce; despite an average gender wage gap of 27%. Indigenous people, especially Mapuche, are increasingly demanding recognition, pushing for a pluri-ethnic state. Immigrants amount to nearly 10% of the population while in 2010 it sat around 2%, as per the National Institute of Statistics.

The atavistic approach in which political and economical power flows from the capital, Santiago, to the rest of the country, is no longer sustainable. In a country almost 4,300 kilometers long, regions are demanding further autonomy and empowerment to address their own particular, local problems. Not to mention economic inequalities masked by shiny macroeconomic figures: 85% of workers in Chile earn less than US$10,300 after taxes while GDP per capita is over US$24,000 (ppp); the top 1% of households, on the other hand, earns over US$120,000. Economic growth has definitely not trickled down as supposed.

Not to mention economic inequalities masked by shiny macroeconomic figures: 85% of workers in Chile earn less than US$10,300 after taxes while GDP per capita is over US$24,000 (ppp); the top 1% of households, on the other hand, earns over US$120,000. Economic growth has definitely not trickled down as supposed.

In brief, there are several different Chiles within Chile, where people live very, very differently. Therefore, it is expected that quite different futures are going to be envisioned by the different groups living in the country. Even behind the absolute majority in favor of a new constitution (80%) there is no such thing as a uniform group. The plurality of the voices and interests involved will make the debate about the new constitution a true melting pot. While this will be a challenge for sure, it will also be a unique opportunity for people in Chile to acknowledge their own plurality. Because Chile is—and always has been—a melting pot of people; despite the efforts of a local elite to portray it as one, uniform nation.  

The issue at stake will be not just acknowledging this plurality but actually listening to it in full. Otherwise the new constitution will never be the common agreement under which every person living in the country feels represented. Questions about the extent of representativeness and participation are already emerging, even before constitutional convention members are elected. Because depending on who will be able to bring their imagined future on the convention, the new constitution could go in quite different directions.

For all these reasons, thinking about the country in which people want to live in invites an unprecedented exercise of collective imagination. Common people in Chile, for the first time in the nation’s history, will have the possibility to discuss and effect change over the social contract they live by. For a country that has been trapped for 40 years under tight neoliberal, economicist grip, this is a massive opportunity—but also a massive challenge. 

How to provide decent pensions when more than half of the workers do not want to contribute to solidarity pension funds? How to equalize access to housing when nobody wants to live in peripheral areas? How to think outside the box of consumerism when things like latest model cars and mobile phones have become central pieces of social status? How to strengthen public schools’ quality and inclusion when parents enroll their children in private ones when having the means for it? In short, how can we change from the inside a deep-rooted neoliberal mindset that has shaped the understanding of the self and the others, and thus of mutual responsibility and trust? 

All these questions require an exercise of imagination indeed: to think of a collective future beyond the current circumstances without uncritically falling for slogans, imported solutions, or the mirage of the good old days. Answering what exactly means for people in Chile to live a dignified life—today and tomorrow—as well as engraving that answer as the spirit of the new constitution, is the ultimate challenge of the constitutional process. Even if the demands for social change that triggered this whole process will (regrettably) not be immediately solved, finding the answer to that question will be the key to provide future generations a better chance to live a dignified life.

Despite the magnitude of this challenge—or maybe precisely because of it—the referendum has given people a previously unseen sense of hope (word frequently heard in the wake of the referendum). This hope of change is being embodied by the different emergent expressions of arts (e.g., street art) and the progressive informal changes in the language towards gender inclusion (e.g., uses of new morphemes -e or -x), becoming thus tools that are mediating people’s imagination. This hope in a different future, where common people can finally see the conditions to make real changes possible, is giving them a rejuvenated political agency. 

Just the possibility of discussing about the country in true depth already mobilized over half million voters more than the presidential election held just three years ago. This in itself is a sign that people living in Chile want participation—and not through rusty political parties; they want direct participation. In fact, more votes were casted choosing a “constitutional convention” for drafting the new constitution than for changing the constitution itself. This ‘constitutional convention’ (local name for a national assembly) means that citizens will be directly elected to become members of this convention with no participation of the currently-sitting members of Parliament. In other words, even people who did not want to change the constitution voted to keep the constitutional process as far from politicians as possible. The huge number of independent candidates competing for a seat in districts all across the country presents this point with unparalleled clarity. On May 16th,  the results of the election confirmed that people keep taking distance for the traditional political parties, where the independent candidates obtained 48 seats of a total of 155. The hopes are now directed to the creation of real conditions of social equality.


The Chilean referendum is neither an accident nor a rushed act of populism. Quite the contrary, it is the result of a decades-long, arduous process of civil mobilization for social change. This is why drafting a new constitution is an essential step. One that for forty years seemed impossible to take but it is still not the ultimate goal. The struggle of the people in Chile—as in many other countries—is, and always has been, for better healthcare, education, housing, pensions and working conditions. Keeping these issues at the core of the new constitution will be the answer to the hopes of millions of people in Chile. It will also be the main challenge ahead.

About the Authors

David Carré is post doctoral researcher at the Department of Psychology, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. You can reach him at

Paula Cavada-Hrepich is assistant professor at the Department of Communication and Psychology, Aalborg University, Denmark. She can be reached at

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