SANTIAGO, Chile – Led at the elbow by her husband, Fabiola Campillai slowly walked up the ramp to the voting booths. Campillai lost both her eyes and her sense of smell and taste after she was hit by a tear gas canister shot by police. Now she’s become a symbol of the movement to reform Chile.
On Sunday, voters took a huge step towards that, and overwhelmingly threw their support behind creating a new constitution, marking the end of an era overshadowed by the country’s dictatorial past.
“I want to see a change in our education system, in the laws, in our police, who have turned crazy and shoot without provocation,” said Campillai, who was standing at a bus stop on her way to work when she was hit.
In the city center, tens of thousands of Chileans gathered to celebrate the vote. They chanted slogans like “Chile woke up,” and burned effigies of former dictator Augusto Pinochet, the 1980 constitution written under his command, and current President Sebastián Piñera. The mood was overwhelmingly joyous, with revelers singing, waving flags and shooting off fireworks.
“The constitution was created under Pinochet’s military dictatorship. I wasn’t alive during that time period, but my mom was and fought against it. I don’t want to live under that constitution. I don’t want to continue under a neoliberal regime that doesn’t represent me,” said Jennifer Barranco.
It was a stark change from only two nights earlier, when police fired tear gas and soaked protesters with water laced with irritants. But the remnants of the last year remain; graffiti calling for “death to cops” and “all cops are bastards” cover the buildings surrounding Plaza Baquedano, which has been ground zero for massive protests demanding everything from a new constitution to universal education and healthcare.
Initially sparked by a hike in subway fare, the protests drew tens of thousands of Chileans to the streets. They became an expression of mounting frustration with spiking inequality, despite Chile’s reputation as one of the most modern, stable and well-off countries in South America.
The vote is both a book-ender to those protests and the beginning of a years-long process to write and approve a new constitution. Voters approved the new constitution by nearly 80 percent, and rejected a vote that would have given half of sitting legislators a hand in writing it.
Instead, they will return to the polls next year to elect a new body of representatives to write the constitution, replacing the current one, which was written in 1980 under Pinochet’s rule. By mandate, half of the representatives have to be women.
“In this country many human rights crimes are committed, assassinations by state agents, even police forces, so we need help to serve justice in this context,” said Campillai from her working-class home in Santiago, where she lives with her husband and young son. Every house on her block has signs that say “Strength, Fabiola” along with a flag of the Mapuche indigenous people.
Campillai’s last memories of normalcy are waking up late, buying bread for her kids, and walking with her sister to the bus station to go to work at a food processing plant. Then it goes dark. Weeks later, she regained consciousness in the intensive care unit of a hospital.
A police officer has been arrested in her case, but Campillai said she thinks she will see justice faster under a new constitution.
“The officer who shot didn’t give warning or say anything, he shot me and caused me so much damage,” Campillai said. The police shot her while she was waiting at the bus station; they were responding to a protest nearby.
Her case became a symbol of police brutality and violent crackdowns against mostly peaceful protesters. Some people set fire to subway stations and kiosks, bringing parts of the city to a standstill.
Armed forces killed at least 6 people and over 300 people lost an eye because of rubber bullets the police shot at protesters. In an effort to address growing fury, President Piñera called a referendum on whether to draft a new constitution.
Many people said it was long overdue.
“The current constitution is a lock to maintain things as they were when the dictatorship ended, and it was designed for that purpose,” said Claudia Heiss, a political scientist at the University of Chile. “It has prevented change from occurring through elections and through political parties. Many things that people want to change are declared unconstitutional.”
For example, the constitution gives individuals the right to own water — and the power to buy and sell it like other types of private property.
“The provisions we're living under were created by force, by a dictatorship imposed on by the people. And now to change them, we need the heirs of that political project to give their vote,” Heiss said.
But skeptics point out that the current constitution has been amended dozens of times. “I believe that this is a Constitution that we have been patching over, fixing small little problems, and that has caused it to lose coherence as a whole,” said Gonzalo Müller, a political scientist and professor.
He said there is a lot of opposition to creating a new constitution. “The violent origins of this vote have generated a lot of resistance to the process.”
But for most Chileans, the desire for change outweighed the risks involved in creating a new constitution.
“Many people are afraid, but the idea is to make a change by and for the people so we can choose Chile’s future,” said 24-year-old Javiera Carrasco.