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Chile’s plebiscite: Optimism, yet there remains a long road ahead to achieve social reform

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Image credit: Sandra Cuffe/Al Jazeera

In a groundbreaking plebiscite held on 25 October, Chileans went to the polls to vote whether to uphold or replace the Pinochet-era constitution. An overwhelming majority of 78% voted in favor to draft a new constitution and to hold a constituent assembly to draw up this new document. Elections for the candidates who will partake in the constituent assembly will take place in April. But, why did Chileans vote so massively in favor of a new constitution? And how will these events unfold?

The Pinochet-era Constitution

To understand the importance of this vote and specifically why most Chileans voted to draft a new constitution we have to go back to 1973, when Chile suffered a US-backed military coup at the hands of General Augusto Pinochet, who then ruled the country from 1973 to 1991. Pinochet made sweeping neoliberal economic reforms kowtowing to the United States’ ultraliberal economists from the University of Chicago under leadership of Nobel prize winner Milton Friedman, dubbed the Chicago Boys. The Chicago Boys used the Southern Cone country as their neoliberal playground and the country implemented radical neoliberal reforms by imposing minimalist state intervention policies, the privatization of public goods, market liberalization and fiscal and monetary austerity measures. This fueled the fires of growing inequality as prices for privatized services such as education, pensions and healthcare skyrocketed. Consequently, the cost of living in Chile rose and wealth was concentrated in the hands of the rich elites.

More importantly, these neoliberal policies were embedded into Chilean society since Pinochet drafted a new constitution in 1980 that enshrined these philosophies. Many Chileans, however, consider this constitution fraudulent and an abomination to their civil rights.They argue that the constitution was drafted by a dictator during a repressive regime which embodied torture, extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses. Moreover, they claim that the process in which the constitution got written and implemented was unjust. First, the full political spectrum was not consulted. Opponents, mainly leftist parties, were not included in the drafting process. Second, the plebiscite itself was rigged as the state had exclusive control over the media, which it used for intense propaganda campaigns. Additionally, the state were able to manipulate the voting process through double-voting and the disappearance of registers.

After Pinochet stepped down in 1991, Chile’s faith in democratic politics was not restored. The old established political parties and the elites decided to adhere to the dictator-era constitution. The feeling of apathy crystallized when the Rettig Report (officially called the National Committee for Truth and Reconciliation Report), designed to investigate the human rights abuses under Pinochet, proved disappointing as reparation programs for victims and investigations into perpetrators were limited or dismissed entirely. Roughly 75% of Chileans believe no reconciliation about the Pinochet-era has been achieved. This is significant considering that under Pinochet’s iron rule 3,000 died or went missing, 40,000 suffered human rights abuses, and 200,000 fled the country.

A Long Overdue Response

Despite several constitutional amendments, the last of which occurred in 2017, the constitution still did not represent the political ideals important to Chileans. An undercurrent of dissatisfaction and political aversion remained present, and when President Sebastián Piñera announced the increase of the nation’s underground fare last year, protests erupted. First, the students started marching the streets of Santiago in protest, but soon after, cross-section of Chileans of sectors and classes joined in outrage over low wages, the rise in living costs and one of the highest rates of inequality in Latin America. Calls for strikes and protests moved across country and within a matter of days, half a million protestors had taken to the streets in Santiago alone.

The persistent protests coalesced in the demand for a new constitution. Citizens collectively demanded a fundamental change in their way of life to recover their dignity, by expanding economic rights, such as redistribution of wealth from the few to the many; civil liberties, such as reproductive rights; and political rights, such as having women and indigenous quotas in politics. As protests did not lose momentum, Piñera made concessions to maintain order. The concessions included, among others, the suspension of the underground fare increase, raising pensions, and most notably, a national plebiscite to vote on whether to rewrite the national constitution.

The process for rewriting the constitution began on October 25, when Chileans went to the voting booth and were asked two questions. First, they had to vote on whether they approved or rejected the drafting of a new constitution. Second, they voted on who would be responsible for drafting the constitution: either a constituent assembly comprising specially elected representatives, or through a mixed convention, consisting half of current congressional members and half of newly elected representatives. Chileans voted with an overwhelming majority of 79% for a new constitution that would be drafted by a constituent assembly of newly elected representatives.

So what happens next?

On April 11 2021, Chileans will elect their constitutional convention consisting of 155 citizens: 75 men, 75 women and one extra man or woman. Interestingly, this will be the first constitution to have been written with gender parity as opposed to men writing the constitution. Congress is in the process of determining whether there will be a quota for indigenous people in this convention as well. Once this convention has been elected, the representatives will have nine months and a possible three-month extension to write the new constitution. After the drafting, the representatives must have a two-thirds majority approval to present the public the new constitution. If the new constitution is ready the Chilean public will vote once more by means of a mandatory plebiscite whether to ratify the new constitution or dismiss it. If a simple majority of the Chilean population votes in favor the Pinochet-era constitution will be replaced, but if they vote to reject it the old one will remain in place until a new course of action is set.

It will be interesting to see how these events unfold for several reasons. First, obtaining a two-thirds majority might be a high threshold to reach. If the representatives find themselves in an impasse, they will need to make comprises on sensitive topics to draft a constitution that has broad support. Second, the scope of the document might prove difficult to demarcate. Last year’s protests witnessed grievances over issues as wide as pensions and police brutality. People are concerned that the representatives might want to address all of these issues. This could result in a constitution that is inflexible and sets unpragmatic and unrealistic standards which will blur the line between what should be a written component of the constitution and what should be left for government to interpret and enforce. Third, the next general elections are set for November 2021. What will happen if the new constitution is not ready by then? What power will a new president have over the drafting process and how will his or her role change when the new constitution is set in place? This is supposed to be an apolitical process, but currently one of the highest polling candidates to win the next general elections is the right-wing candidate Joaquín Lavín of the Unión Democrática (Democratic Union). Despite voting in favor of a new constitution he represents a wealthy elitist district who overwhelmingly voted against the new constitution and approves of the status quo. Some politically dispirited Chileans are worried that the future president might interfere with the elections. In reality, however, this seems unlikely considering the overwhelming majority opting for a new constitution and the political backlash an interfering president will receive from the general public. Last, the scope of the constitution might have consequences for the country’s economy. For example, an increase in rights for the environment and indigenous people might put a dent in Chile’s extensive copper, lithium, and gold and silver mining projects. A decrease in mining output could seriously affect its export, trade in general, and subsequently its GDP. Will Chileans cope when subsidies shrink in the face of economic uncertainty?

These uncertain times also leave room questions about Chile’s foreign policy. What will happen with Chile’s trade alliances? Since signing the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) in 2018, Chile’s congress still has not ratified the agreement. This begs the question if new rights for the environment, indigenous people, and laborers contradict the CPTPP paving the way for a resignation from partnership? Similarly, existing and pending Free Trade Agreements might constitutionally violate the rights of Chileans. For example, in 2019, after years of protests, the Pascua-Lama gold-silver project could not get launched by Barrick Gold Corporation ruled a Chilean high court. With enshrined environmental rights and rights for indigenous people’s lands, such events might happen more frequently contradicting past trade deals. Is the new government up to the task to either renegotiate these agreements or circumvent the new constitution? Venezuela and Bolivia, both members of the Bolivarian Alliance for the peoples of Our America (ALBA), have witnessed similar but different power changes that cater to the social masses. Depending on specifics of the new constitution, Chile might align itself with this regional bloc rather than the Pacific Alliance group of which it is a current member. Moreover, Chile’s new social construct might set up the country to become a new ally for Venezuela on the regional and global stage. This could help to legitimize Maduro’s presidency and alleviate some of the immense pressures on Venezuela imposed by the western world and the regional powers.

A stunning result in the national plebiscite has provided Chileans with the opportunity to reclaim their dignity and their country. Nevertheless, the near future of Chile remains uncertain. Questions remain as to what degree the social reforms citizens so desperately seek can realistically be implemented. Furthermore, high levels of uncertainty and volatile circumstances that come with the outcome of the plebiscite compounded with the impact of coronavirus can negatively impact foreign investments, levels of trade, and consequently the entire economy of Chile. Questions about foreign alliances within Latin America are relevant too. Only time will tell how ambitious Chile’s new constitution will be, how it will operate de facto, and in which ways markets respond to the new constitution.

Moos Hulsebosch is currently pursuing a MPhil degree in Latin American Studies and has previously obtained a MA in international Security at Sciences Po Paris focusing in Diplomacy and Intelligence. He has knowledge on geopolitics, Latin American politics, China’s foreign affairs, grand strategies, and United States’ politics and foreign affairs.

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Why are some Muslims, from India to the U.S Voting against their Natural Allies

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Recent national elections in the U.S. and regional elections in India have presented an interesting conundrum. The numbers show that some Muslims, are voting in a counter-intuitive fashion. Given the rise of Islamophobia and right-wing religious nationalism, both in the U.S. and in India, one would surmise that Muslims would vote overwhelmingly to the left of center. But both, in India and in the U.S., many Muslims have however chosen to send a message to the center-left – your sympathetic rhetoric and your verbal condemnations of Islamophobia is not enough, we want to see concrete policies that improve our political and economic conditions. Neither the promises of Joe Biden, nor the fear of Hindu-nationalism is influencing their vote. These Muslims are, for sure, in a minority albeit a growing one. Politicians on the center-left may ignore them at their own peril.

In the U.S.

In the U.S., President-Elect Joe Biden’s campaign outreach to Muslims went far beyond that of any presidential candidate in the past. Biden’s campaign had a manifesto for American Muslims and a designated outreach person. Biden spoke at Muslim conventions and even quoted from Islamic scripture. He dropped an “inshallah” in the debates. Biden promised to end the so called ‘Muslim-Ban’ on day one and has repeatedly condemned Islamophobia. Biden spoke up for Uyghur Muslims in China and Kashmiris in India and has opposed the annexation of West Bank. He has promised to resume relations with the Palestinians and restore aid to them. Even Imran Khan, the PM of Pakistan, a self-proclaimed champion of Muslims, does not have such an impressive pro-Muslim curriculum vitae, he has repeatedly refused to speak up for the Uyghurs.

While a majority of American Muslims campaigned very aggressively for the Biden-Harris ticket and raised millions of dollars for the Democrats, the exit polls indicate that only 69% of American Muslims voted for them. On the face value that is a huge win, but if you look at in comparison to the past it is troubling. Despite the fact that Biden went far beyond any other candidate in his outreach to Muslims, and the Islamophobia of President Trump is well documented, Biden has garnered the least percentage of votes by a Democratic presidential candidate in the last four elections according to exit polls conducted by the Council on American Islamic Relations.
 A possible explanation for this relatively weak performance is that, for some Muslims his “iron-clad” support for Israel and his willingness to work with pro-Hindutva operatives in the U.S., make his opposition to Islamophobia sound less credible.  Words are not enough. If his electoral promises do not actually translate into actual policies, one can expect further decline in Muslim support for Democrats. American Muslims are a rapidly growing and politically engaged community that is over represented in swing states.

A closer reading of the exit polls suggest that things are worse than they seem. The exit polls show that while 17% American Muslims voted for Trump (up from 13% in 2016), 11% declined to reveal who they voted for. It is possible that they lean heavily towards Trump, hence the secrecy. That would mean that in spite of all his Islamophobic rhetoric, Trump may have doubled his support among American Muslims. One Trump supporter told me he voted for Trump because Trump did not invade a single Muslim country in four years unlike Biden who supported the invasion of Iraq.  

YearCandidateMuslim Vote
2008Barack Obama88%
2012Barack Obama85%
2016Hillary Clinton74%
2020Joe Biden69%

In Bihar

The recent elections in Bihar has an interesting story to tell. The state is clearly polarizing as most gains have been made by parties on the extremities. Prime minister Modi’s right-wing Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) went from winning 53 wins in the 2015 elections to winning 74 of the 243 seats in 2020. A significant swing in favor of Hindutva ideology. The Communist Party (CPI-ML) gained 9 seats, it had 3 seats in 2015 to 12 seats in 2020. The communist parties combined had a 400% increase, they went from 4 to 16 seats. The parties in decline are the so-called secular centrist parties. The Rastriya Janata Dal (RJD) which is the biggest single party in the state lost five seats (80-75) and the Indian National Congress (INC), the grand old party of India, also lost ground (27-19).

Clearly the secular center is shrinking. The biggest surprise of the elections was the performance of Asaduddin Owaisi’s All Indian MajlisIttehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), a Muslim party, which in the past five years has gone from 0-5 seats. The Majlis won in predominantly Muslim area of Seemanchal and is being accused by commentators of stealing the secular vote away from secular parties. Some are describing Majlis as BJP’s B-Team.

It is interesting that now in Indian politics, the code for Muslim vote is ‘the secular vote’. Indian Muslims are now the last line of defense for the rather rapidly shriveling secular space. The criticism of Owaisi and the Majlis for denting the prospects of secular parties in Bihar is both misplaced and inaccurate.  The question that is important is not why Owaisi’s Majlis, a party historically based in Hyderabad (South India) is contesting elections so far in the North of India. The key question is why are Muslims in Bihar voting for Majlis? A party that has no record of governance in their region.

In a speech months before the elections, Owaisi predicted a tectonic shift in Seemanchal’s politics and he said that it was coming because of the profound injustices and inequities that plague Muslims of that region. If secular parties that have governed the state for decades had delivered good governance to Muslims, Owaisi would have stayed at home.

Muslim Disillusionment

Muslims are increasingly disillusioned by secular and left politicians. Islamophobia was on the rise even before Trump became President and 37% of American Muslims, pre-covid pandemic, were found hovering near the poverty line. There is much discontent. I think just as 17-25% American Muslims voted for Trump rejecting the centrist politics of Democrats – many Muslims in Bihar too are frustrated by the failure of secular parties to improve their material condition. The region of Bihar where Owaisi’s party won five seats is the poorest and infrastructurally the least developed area of the state. Voting for secular parties for decades did not help them much. They have been voting without hope. They too are tired of the lip service.

Muslims of Bihar are fortunate that they have an alternative in Majlis and they are able to reject both Indian secularists and Hindu nationalists unlike some American Muslims who feel that they are stuck between Republicans who are Islamophobic and Democrats who promise much but deliver little. The minority of Muslims who appear to be voting counter intuitively, seemingly against their own interests, either for Donald Trump in the U.S. or the Majlis in Bihar, are clearly sending a signal to secular politicians – do not take our vote for granted, you need to earn our vote.

The center-left may be a natural ally of Muslims, but if it does not deliver for Muslims, they may lose their vote in ever increasing numbers.

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Which Coronavirus Policies Succeed, And Which Fail: N.Y. Times Analysis Confirms Mine

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According to an analysis by and in the New York Times on November 18th, which is headlined “States That Imposed Few Restrictions Now Have the Worst Outbreaks”, “Coronavirus cases are rising in almost every U.S. state. But the surge is worst now in places where leaders neglected to keep up forceful virus containment efforts or failed to implement basic measures like mask mandates in the first place, according to a New York Times analysis of data from the University of Oxford.”

At Strategic Culture, on May 21, I had published my own analysis, which was based upon tracking the data globally and within countries, and within the various states of the United States, which analysis concluded that countries (and states) which apply the least-stringent regulations in order to keep as low as possible the spread of the virus are failing the most to contain or limit that spread. I labelled those the “libertarian” countries, and I noted that what I called the “socialist” countries — the nations which were the most strictly imposing scientifically confirmed regulations in order to keep those numbers down — were having the best success at limiting the spread of this virus. My study was global, and its headline was “Ideology and Coronavirus”. Unlike the Times article, I was forthright about the ideological implications of the coronavirus data — because those implications are vastly important. (The handling of this pandemic is providing reams of data that test the effectiveness of the various locales’ predominant ideology at dealing with a global life-or-death years-long public-health emergency in regions throughout the world. This is like a global laboratory experiment testing the two opposite ideologies: libertarianism, which is against government regulation, versus socialism, which applies government regulation. No government is purely one or the other, but those are the two poles.)

The analysis in the Times article shows a chart, and represents on it almost all of the states, as dots that indicate both the amount of regulation which has been applied, and the lowness of the infection-rate which has resulted; and, at the upper left corner on it, are the two Dakotas, as “Weak recent containment measures and many cases,” while at the bottom rightmost corner is Hawaii as “Strict measures and fewer cases.”

The Times chart is showing, only locally within the United States, during just the past few weeks, what my analyses had shown, regarding not only the international and longer-term data, but also within the United States itself and recently, not only longer-term and internationally. One of my articles, on November 1st and titled “The Highest Covid-Infection-Rate States”, showed the infection-rate for all 50 states, and noted that, “In 2016, the top 17 [the states with the highest rates of this infection in 2020] voted for Trump, and the bottom 5 voted for Clinton. All but 3 of the top 24 voted for Trump, but from numbers 25 to 45, there was a political mixture. The highest infection-rate state, North Dakota, has a Covid-19 infection-rate that is 14.6 times higher than the lowest Covid-19 infection-rate state, Vermont.” Of course, the Republican Party (Trump’s Party) is the more libertarian Party, and the Democratic Party (Clinton’s Party) is the more socialist (though actually just as totalitarian) of the two Parties. (Both Parties represent only their billionaires, who also own and control the media; and this is the way that America’s aristocracy controls the Government. For example, the very pro-Democratic-Party website PoliticalWire quoted from and linked to the NYT’s article, but always fails to include any of mine, because I am critical against both Parties. Truly independent news-media are almost non-existent in the United States.)

Whereas the Times’s chart of “Avg. new cases per 100,000” failed to include Vermont, Vermont is the state that has, for the longest time, been among the best three on not only cases per million but also deaths per million, from this virus, and substantially better even than Hawaii, and both states are among the two or three that in recent decades have been the strongest for Democratic candidates, and the weakest for Republican candidates. However, Vermont especially is politically independent, and, so, it has a Republican Governor, Phil Scott, whose record on containing this virus has been the best in the nation; and he was just re-elected in a landslide, 69% of the votes (largely because of this terrific record). Right now, however, the number of daily new cases has shot up suddenly about fivefold in just the past week; so, Phil Scott’s record is in jeopardy. If that surge quickly ends, then he could become the strongest Republican to run against Kamala Harris or Joe Biden in 2024. He would not only receive almost all Republican votes (since that’s his Party), but also at least a third of Democratic votes, and almost all independent votes. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that he would be the likeliest to win the Republican nomination, because (just as is true about the Democratic Party) that Party’s billionaires will be making that choice. (It was blatantly true also with regard to Biden and Harris.) This epidemic will be a major political challenge both in 2022 and in 2024. Anyone who wants to see Governor Scott’s press conferences regarding this crisis, so as to know precisely what his coronavirus-policies have been, can see them here. His November 20th press conference is here. He and his governing team receive and answer there many intelligent questions, so that the policies which have led to the best results in America are amply explained there.

On November 16th in South Dakota (and then repeated nationally on National Public Radio on November 20th), reporter Seth Tupper headlined “Two States, Different Paths: Vermont Keeps Virus Low While Rivaling SD’s Economy” and provided a thorough report, including graphs of infection-rates over time, comparing two states, South Dakota, which has the nation’s second-highest infection-rate (after only North Dakota’s 9%) of 7.8%, versus Vermont, which has the nation’s lowest infection-rate, of only 0.5% — one-fifteenth as high. Tupper explained the different policies that the Governors of those two states had applied, and how those policies produced vastly different results for the infection-rates and the death-rates in their states’ populations, but only moderately higher increase in unemployment in Vermont than in South Dakota, which at the peak in April had reached 16% unemployment in Vermont, versus only 10% peak in South Dakota; and, by the time of August, both states had nearly identical low unemployment-rates. Whereas the death-rates from the disease soared around a thousand fold, between April and November, in South Dakota, the death-rate remained virtually flat, almost no increase, in Vermont, throughout that entire period. However, both states were now experiencing soaring infection-rates during the current, second, wave of the epidemic.

Author’s note: first posted at Strategic Culture

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Trump’s Election Shenanigans Pale Before The Threats From Melting Polar Glaciers

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Despite Joe Biden exceeding the magic number of 270 that guarantees a majority in the electoral college, President Donald Trump has not conceded.  Does he have a plan to overturn the wishes of the electorate? 

According to Trump he did not lose, he was cheated out of a legitimate win by voter fraud and ballot stuffing.  Accordingly, he has filed lawsuits in those critical states with narrow margins of victory for Biden — so far without tangible success — to block certification of the vote and persuade Republican legislatures to overturn the state vote as fraudulent and award the electoral votes to him. 

Trump’s window of action is narrowing.  A major target state was Michigan with 20 electoral votes.  However, Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer has now certified Biden’s victory meaning he should get its electoral votes. 

While Trump’s shenanigans continue, the world faces a real danger of melting ice sheets and glaciers.  A long term denier of global warming, Mr. Trump now accepts it but believes the earth will right itself without any effort by humans. 

Scientists meanwhile are particularly concerned with the Florida-sized Thwaites glacier in the Antarctic.  Its collapse they fear could destabilize surrounding glaciers eventually causing catastrophic global sea level rises measured not in inches but feet. 

The glacier rises 60 to 75 feet above water across its 75 mile face.  Remembering that 90 percent of it is under gives some notion of the quantity of ice.  The Nathaniel B. Palmer research vessel is conducting a survey this winter for the first time as part of a five-year international research program to learn just how fast the glacier is melting and how much it might be adding to rising seas. 

The problem is the shape of the glacier under the water and the warming waters eating away that core while the ice on top gets thicker and thicker as the glacier retreats inland.  At some point the glacier is likely to collapse of its own weight into the ocean.  Scientists who have modeled the scenario fear the process is unstoppable once it starts.  Worse it puts much of the West Antarctic ice sheet at risk of following it into the sea.  Any wonder then that Thwaites is also known as the Doomsday glacier. 

At the other pole the Greenland ice sheet had a record-breaking 2019, shedding the most ice since 1948 — an estimated 532 billion tons.  It of course increases coastal flooding along the eastern seaboard particularly the Carolinas and Florida.  Fortunately for the residents, the 2020 melt from Greenland, while well above the 1981 to 2010 average, was lower than recent years particularly 2019.

Donald Trump does not believe he lost the election and he does not believe in global warming.  Christmas is just around the corner and it’s reassuring to know he believes in Santa Claus . . . and the tooth fairy.

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