Chile: Constitutional Assembly Process Mired in Inequity for Indigenous Nations

Mural Brigada Ramona Parra

FROM THE EDITORS: This weekend, May 15 and 16, Chileans will return to the voting booth to elect 155 delegates that will convene to draft a new Constitution to replace the one drafted in 1980 under Pinochet’s dictatorship. Indigenous people were able to secure 17 reserved seats (escaños reservados) from those 155 delegates, and although many hold high hopes to be able to secure key changes—such as establishing plurinational sovereignty rights—the process for indigenous Nations has been mired in problems, making this exercise in democracy cumbersome and inequitable. According to an analysis by El Ciudadano, the registration period for indigenous candidacies was open for less than a month, between December 23, 2020, and January 11, 2021. That prevented territories to hold local assemblies to select candidates collectively, and some individuals linked to political parties registered as indigenous candidates without consultation, including two candidates who came directly from Sebastián Piñera’s administration.

During a panel organized on April 13 by Ficwallmapu, the Observatory of Media and Social Movements (OMMS), and the Journalism Department at the University of La Frontera in Chile, four indigenous candidates—Barbara Quenaya, candidate for the Aymara people, Luis Castro, candidate for the Chango people, Leticia Caro, candidate for the Kawéskar people, and Ana Llao, candidate for the Mapuche people—debated about these issues and problems they foresee in the voting process. To name just a few, indigenous voters were required to obtain a certificate of indigenous identity to vote and the day of voting, they need to expressly
request a green ballot of indigenous candidates. Voting access in rural areas and the pandemic will also place voting participation in a slump for the whole country. But hope remains that Chileans will be able to secure a rights-driven Constitution in the spirit of the social justice uprising that led them here.

SOURCE: Ficwallmapu at <>, English subtitles provided by Awasqa. The above is a fragment of the event.

How do you see the reserved seats as a mechanism of participation for indigenous people and what prospects do you have of the constitutional process in general?

LETICIA CARO: Well, I think it is important to start with this question because our outlook, justly so, for the communities in defense of the sea, the Kawéskar Nation, it’s bad, it’s bad. It’s a hegemonic process that has effectively placed members of the Nations in competition between each other. A process that is more of the Chilean people. We should’ve had a different process associated instead with indigenous prior consultation.

From the beginning, they said they couldn’t delay things, that they had to comply with the law and policies and agreed schedule. Instead, what was evident is that it only applied to politics and politicians. Our stance is the same as before. We’re living a process that infringes on our rights. Many have asked me if I was against it then, yes, and I am still against it. But if I hadn’t run [as candidate], I wouldn’t be here now saying this and making it visible. I believe this situation of reserved seats must end here, with the constitutional process. Indigenous prior consent shouldn’t be reduced to this process. Because this is representative politics, but what we need is to advance a different kind of politics.

Indigenous prior consent shouldn’t be reduced to this process. Because this is representative politics, but what we need is to advance a different kind of politics.

–Leticia caro

So far, by applying the 169 Convention, we’ve been using is prior consent, which has been widely violated by the state. But we had made progress in that respect. That’s why I think this is a setback in regards to indigenous participation. Today there are many who don’t understand what the process is about. There are many members who will have great difficulties voting since they haven’t seen the ballots nor have been part of processes like this before. For this reason, I believe the reserved seats must remain in the constitutional process and should not be replicated in future democratic exercises. The 169 Convention was co-opted by Executive Order 66, and we have an opportunity here of undoing that. I also think that exercising our right to prior consent has allowed for a semi-direct participation where all Nation members understand our position. That’s why we think that the current situation of reserved seats is a process that puts a cap on that, it’s a step back on what the last 10 years have meant for the participation of indigenous people on prior consent through the 169 Convention.

There aren’t high hopes for the constitutional process. In general, I think that we have to wait and see. The truth is that from our perspectives, we have limited expectations because we have seen how Chile has been divided in this situation. We’ve also observed that those constitutional candidates who don’t belong to indigenous Nations, don’t even understand what our demands are. So the discussions will most likely be centered on processes determined, as a whole, by them. Maybe that is why we also think that an indigenous constitutional assembly might’ve been more appropriate. However, we are now in this race. But to talk about prospects about this constitutional political process, I believe today is premature. We don’t know if the election will really take place on May 16 because just like the curfew has been moved around so could the elections be moved around. Meaning, as Chileans say, we can’t see a splendorous future.

Thank you, Leticia There is a lot of mistrust, skepticism, and some hope as well. Ana, what could you tell us about this issue?

ANA LLAO: Well, first of all I think that we have to analyze the space that one way or another we won thanks to these mobilizations, thanks to the historical demands that we, the Mapuche, have been fighting for. And other Nations as well, but I represent the Mapuche people. We’ve been working for spaces of participation. That’s how the New Imperial Accord of 89 was signed to achieve the 1953 Indigenous Law where the political class pledged to recognize us constitutionally and that we would have an Indigenous Ministry and political participation. The indigenous law is the only one that came to fruition in the legislative. From that point of view, we could say we have been very persistent on this issue of participation.

We have witnessed already how harmful it can be when, for example, on November 14, 2019, the political class got together but forgot completely about the indigenous people in this country. Where thanks to the efforts and perseverance of our leaders and our people, that turned around, and we came in as if custom fit for that political class. We went from not even been considered to getting to the decision of having 17 representatives during this new, this new… Even when social protests erupted on October 18, we talked about a plurinational constitutional assembly, but then they brought us this constitutional convention which, after our struggle, included 17 representatives. Obviously, there should be many more representatives based on the percentage of indigenous people.

Now, our prospects as [inaudible] or as part of our campaign, we do believe and expect to be able to draw a new plurinational constitution because these constitutions are not being drafted once every ten or fifteen years. But it is rather a process that came through mobilizations, that the people won for themselves so that there could be a new constitution. That’s why, for the very first time, the indigenous people, as well as the Chilean people, will have a minimum expression of participation. In that context, to be able to include the concept of plurinationality in the new constitution will be, I think, the process to advance not only justice but also reparations for the systematic violation of human rights that have been committed against our people. We think that that’s what we need to declare and think how our rights are collective rights, and within those collective rights, we could definitely lift up our autonomy, our self-determination, or free will or whatever we want to call it. Of course, we’d also want our territorial rights, political rights, social rights, and our cultural rights to be determined as human rights. Those are some of our expectations.

To be able to include the concept of plurinationality in the new constitution will be, I think, the process to advance not only justice but also reparations for the systematic violation of human rights that have been committed against our people.

–ana llao

Moreover, the issue of the state’s role, which should no longer be a centralist state. It needs to be decentralized, and that’s why we need to grant autonomy and self-determination. The reserved seats need to… Maybe it won’t be interpreted in the best way, but we have to demand for them to stay and become institutionalized because reserved seats need to be available to attain local, regional, and national power. What we’re talking about is municipalities, council members, mayors, governors. We’re talking about representatives and senators with those reserved seats which is a right that today is embodied and enshrined in international conventions and treaties that are already in existence. Those are our prospects summarized here.

BARBARA QUENAYA: I agree with Leticia that the reserved seats represent a setback because since the peace accord, indigenous people have been completely invisibilized. We didn’t even exist for the state. And one way out of that was this year’s reserved seats legislative proposal, which is nothing but one more way of assimilation and colonization of our own practices of representation and organization. In fact, why did we ask for an indigenous referendum about this issue? Because we are not all in agreement about participating through reserved seats.

The indigenous consultation was so that we could all decide, all our Nations and not just a few. Which is what happened with those who went to Congress asking for a reserved seat without consent of their bases, instead of something that should’ve been decided by the territories. Moreover, when the reserved seats law proposal was being debated in Congress, participation was thwarted. It was debated during the pandemic, during the highest peak of contagion in our communities. Our communities are protecting themselves, particularly where we have elderly. We are not holding assemblies. Therefore, it wasn’t possible to consult communities. If we wanted to bring up concerns, we had to go through a senator or someone in Congress. For that reason, the discussions were pretty closed off without giving us a chance to make all our viewpoints heard. So it’s a way out that doesn’t represent all of our Nations as a whole.

I think that to be incorporated to this form of participation perpetuates the assimilation of our Nations, leading us to sacrifice our values and cultural practices. In fact, I don’t think we should be participating under this logic, which is what the Chilean people are doing, participating from a Western logic of electing representatives to be able to debate on relevant issues for the people. But I also want to point out that we were already in dialogue during the social protests with Chilean social organizations. In particular, in Terapaca, here with the plurinational feminist assembly of Terapaca. We saw that these demands and criticisms were already there, born from the social protests, about how we elect our authorities. People were questioning if it was really democratic or undemocratic and whether the ways of participation were effective if done through political parties. Since the system of political parties is often seen as the root of the problem. So to be embedded in this system that we are criticizing is a great setback for us.

Like Leticia said, since 2009 we’ve been holding indigenous consultations that the state, despite the shortcomings of these consultations, had to abide by, by our territorial ways of participation. Because it is not enough to have reserved seats for senators or representatives. What we’re really looking for is respect for our ways of participation and representation and those are territorial, that is, where our territories can be represented through demands before the state. That’s is aside from spokespeople and representatives who carry the final demands of one territory. That shouldn’t prevent territories from engaging in dialog. That also happens with the Chilean people. Chilean people elect a representative so that he/she goes to dialogue before the state without an assembly nor consensus, without assembly proposals. We’ve been thrown into this Western way of doing things, when we’ve been instead working with indigenous prior consultations for the past 10 years to uplift territorial demands. But now the element of dialogue and communal decisions have been taken away from us. For that reason, I agree with Leticia that it’s a setback.

The Chilean people were educated based on a history that made our Nations invisible, ignorant of indigenous cultures, forged through exogenous elements to elevate their culture. Therefore, we will have to face a really difficult process under conditions of large-scale inequality… Can 17 people this?

–barbara quenaya

Indigenous prior consultation is such a strong tool that the state tried to get rid of it. It did so by talking about “bad practices” of the indigenous prior consultation, that it didn’t meet all the standards, but although it hasn’t reached all the standards it has worked better than this political scene in which we were all dumped into with the reserved seats. Today we are in a state of inequity where we have 17 representatives for indigenous people versus 138 for the Chilean people. We are 17 people from 10 different Nations who will have to do a lot of spelling out during this process, because we have to educate the Chilean people that we still exist. The Chilean people were educated based on a history that made our Nations invisible, ignorant of indigenous cultures, forged through exogenous elements to elevate their culture. Therefore, we will have to face a really difficult process under conditions of large-scale inequality. Because we’ll have to reexplain, reeducate, and return to these elements and changes that are not only political but are also about cultural conscience. Can 17 people do this? The outlook is difficult.

How do you foresee the electoral participation of your indigenous Nation? If you could speak specifically about what you know, more than anyone else, about your indigenous electoral base. How do you think they’ll be able to carry on?

LUIS CASTRO: Well, I’ll be talking from the perspective of our people, who were recognized not long ago and are just starting their political participation. Although many folks already have some political knowledge. What is happening is that we have witnessed a deceitful process related to voter registrations at SERVEL [Electoral Services of Chile]. Some of our members have not been able to register and won’t be able exercise their vote freely for the existing candidates. We are committed and have a mandate to inform and educate our people so they can exercise their right to vote. Right now we have merely 1,854 Changos registered because that’s what could be accomplished during the time period offered. Because like I mentioned, it has been very very difficult and tedious. The state did not offer any guarantees.

Logically, there is a set of rights that belongs to indigenous people, and that we know very well the state is not respecting. Therefore, there are difficulties. Many folks were left out of the polls, don’t know how to vote. We are just starting a process to show people how to vote, to teach them what to do and how to go to a ballot box, ask for a green ballot that belongs to our Nations, and that very process is already difficult. They have to leave their strongholds and travel all along Chile. We didn’t know, nor our people knew, they can vote where they are located in the continent’s second or fifth region. For us, participation is, like I said, very complicated around voting, but we expect them to exercise their right to vote and take a constitutional representative to the National Council with my candidacy and my partner Brenda Gutiérrez de Taltal. That is, in order to exercise the right to defend the Chango Nation and be present in the new constitution.

Many folks were left out of the polls, don’t know how to vote. We are just starting a process to show people how to vote, to teach them what to do and how to go to a ballot box, ask for a green ballot that belongs to our Nations, and that very process is already difficult.


We can’t cry over spilt milk because things are already a given, and we know that the state has not respected our people for many years. Nor any Nation that exists under the 169 Convention and UN rights. We need to review that multifold set of issues to build the new constitution with a focus on defending the rights of indigenous people and in particular, the Chango Nation. What I would like to bring forward is that the folks have a desire and will to have their rights respected and find a legitimate representation for a new constitution, so their rights of equality, equity, and plurality are respected by the Chilean state. We are hopeful, as I mentioned before, that we can reflect what we saw in the social protests in the new constitution. Thus, we invite our people to vote or else we won’t be able to accomplish it. We have to win two thirds of the vote. We have to agree and find consensus among all of us indigenous to move this task forward. I don’t see another possibility.

LETICIA: Well, like I said at the beginning there are members of Nations who don’t understand the system. There are people who don’t know how to read and write. For this reason, I asked SERVEL via email what was the purpose of the logo [they asked for], and they said that they wanted to place it beside the candidate’s name for people who had trouble reading or writing or some other visual impairment. However, the logo never made it on the ballot. We started educating folks about the vote and when SERVEL presented the official ballot, the logo was nowhere to be seen.

Another difficulty for our community members, the elderly in particular, is how far they live from the voting centers. There are communities that are remote, and communities that don’t have internet. In the case of Rio Primero, for example, they don’t even understand the processes because they don’t know where to get that information. From that perspective, the electoral participation might be low. One also has to take into account the current health issue since no one will want to expose their elderly to a possible contagion at the voting booths. The scene then becomes a bit turbulent and strange and also difficult to understand… How will voting take place for our Nation’s members? Because it is very difficult for many people to understand the process, even for younger people who live in remote places. They don’t understand. They have asked me multiple times, “How can I vote for you?” And I tell them, explain to them in detail and then they ask about the voting date… That is, if they lack information about when and how it’s happening, that is a clear reflection of what’s going on for many community members, specifically, for the Kawésqar people. For that reason, our prospects are really… uncertain. We can’t guess the outcome. What I’m really interested in is that the candidates who do make it agree with the rest of the members of other Nations. We should be able to reach agreements at least between the members of different Nations. That is very important.

BARBARA: Well, in regards to this issue what we observe is that even before and during the process of candidacy registrations, there were several difficulties with the databases, since they were based on the electoral lists which leaves much to be desired. In fact, many people tried to get their certificates of indigenous identity through the online platform, and we couldn’t find people who had obtained their certificate a long time ago. That is, the same system did not allow them to get their certificates. I’m talking about my own colleague who is an alternative candidate, Alexis Condori, knowing well that he got his certificate years ago, but the system wouldn’t recognize his indigenous identification and that’s how we realized that several folks had the same problem.

We also know for certain that anyone who asks CONADI [National Corporation for Indigenous Development] for access to their database knows that their data is outdated. New members have been joining indigenous communities, and that’s where the data is being pulled from, but the registration of new members to CONADI is not immediate. Is not an organized system. Therefore, the voter registry is terribly doubtful, which will become a complication for our communities.

It’s true that there wasn’t an equitable process that considered the cultural needs of our communities to stay informed adequately about this process. That is, not long ago, and even today, some communities are still asking what a reserved seat is. And this happens because we need to realize that information does not flow at the same pace in the cities and rural areas. That’s something to consider. For example, the points Leticia makes about some places lacking internet access and in our case, our community doesn’t even have electricity. We depend on a communal generator that runs three hours per day. That is, the process doesn’t consider accessibility as a way of participation for people who don’t have the technical means nor basic needs like electricity or who are technologically illiterate. They still don’t know how to access these platforms. That shows the state has its head in the clouds and can’t set a foot on the ground. That it doesn’t not know us, our indigenous people. That is also reflected in the way it has handled the pandemic nationally. It is not able to draw solutions and is totally unaware of the needs of our communities, of our people.

In that context, our communities nowadays must confront such an important process of participation with a complete lack of information and the impossibility to meet. Because if it weren’t for the pandemic, we know that the conscience of social awakening would’ve continued in the streets today. Our streets have been hijacked because the demand of the constitutional assembly is something that is not clearly established. That is, the state gave us a half-way solution, fit for a few, that has made us compete between each other. While in our communities and in our neighborhoods people were having discussions, entering into dialogue, debating, building, and coordinating. Instead, the state with this peace accord took the struggle out of context, making us compete to elect a few people. That is, it’s totally unaware of the reality of our communities.

In our communities and in our neighborhoods people were having discussions, entering into dialogue, debating, building, and coordinating. Instead, the state with this peace accord took the struggle out of context, making us compete to elect a few people.

–BARbara quenaya

Our communities are going to go vote with a lack of information in a process that we consider is going to be greatly deficient. What is going to happen, for example, with communities, with people who have not being able to get their certificate of indigenous identity because they have never needed it? The law says clearly that our last names are enough and that we don’t need any certificate of indigenous identity to say that we belong to a Nation. However, this new law says we need an indigenous certification to be able to participate in this process, and many communities couldn’t access the registry to see if indeed they were registered or not. Therefore, it is going to be a very complex process. In fact, we know there are 75,700 Aymaras noted in the voter registry, yet, there are 156,000 according to the census. That is, only half of us are included in the voter registry. Together with the lack of information, we need to consider that maybe there could be, as Leticia already mentioned, a low participation in this process.

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