Chile installs historic constitutional convention amid protests

Santiago (AFP) –


Chile on Sunday installed a new 155-member body charged with writing a new constitution meant to pry power from the hands of the elite and spread it more equitably in the South American nation.

The historic process was delayed for hours after protesters and a special police unit clashed in the streets of Santiago near where the ceremony was held.

Election official Carmen Gloria Valladares read out, one-by-one, the names of the 155 members elected in May.

They included lawyers, teachers, a housewife, scientists, social workers and journalists. Half are women, and 17 represent indigenous groups.

But after the meeting opened with the singing of the national anthem, the sound of protesters' whistles and shouts of "No more repression!" could be heard from nearby. When some demonstrators approached Valladares's table, sharply raising tensions, she temporarily suspended the session.

"We want to have a celebration of democracy, not a problem," she said.

There were also demonstrations around the Plaza Italia, the epicenter of the social-justice protests that rocked Chile in October 2019 and led ultimately to the decision to create the new body to draft a constitution to replace the one written during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990).

That earlier document, though amended in the 30 years of Chilean democracy, was widely unpopular, viewed as a source of social inequality in a country ranked as one of the most unequal among advanced economies.

Some 5,000 people gathered Sunday in the Plaza Italia.

"I greatly hope that this process will help us build a country for all," 47-year-old bank employee Carolina Vergara told AFP.

The diversity of the Constitutional Convention's 155 members -- including many left-leaning independents with no experience in public office, and with no single group holding veto power -- could make compromise and concessions unavoidable.

But this same diversity has fueled concerns in some that the group may get bogged down in endless debate and find itself unable to satisfy people's expectations.

Yet others remain hopeful.

For the first time, "The entire country is represented, and they are going to sit down to talk -- to talk about the country we want," Felipe Berrios, an influential Jesuit priest, told AFP.

The convention will have nine months -- with a single three-month extension possible -- to complete its work. The resulting document will then be submitted to ratification in a national plebiscite, with all citizens required to vote.