News | Political Parties / Election Analyses - Southern Cone “The Time Has Come to Decentralize Power in Chile”

The vice-president of Chile’s Constitutional Convention on the historic political processes happening in the country

The new vice-president of the Chilean Constitutional Convention, Gaspar Domínguez. Photo: personal collection

On 5 January, the Chilean Left reasserted its role as the driving force behind the country’s Constitutional Convention. As stipulated by Convention bylaws, elections were held that day, for the second time since July 2021, to determine the presiding body responsible for overseeing the drafting of a Constitution that would replace the one inherited from Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.

Mapuche leader Elisa Loncón and constitutional lawyer Jaime Bassa had previously served as the Convention’s first president and vice-president, respectively, both as left-wing independents. The result of the most recent elections continues the trend of left-wing independents, with dentist María Elisa Quinteros elected as president and rural surgeon Gaspar Domínguez as vice-president.

Domínguez, born in Santiago, had an early childhood that mirrors the hardships of hundreds of thousands of poor Chileans: whether it was a bicycle paid in instalments, an absentee father, or being bullied for his sexual identity, Domínguez became conscious of both neoliberalism and patriarchy from an early age. He went on to study medicine at the University of Chile, where he eventually earned a master’s degree in public health. Different from other highly skilled workers who migrate to the capital, Domínguez took his medical training from urban Santiago to Patagonia, where is a rural doctor in the town of Palena.

Born in part from his first-hand experience working with underserved communities in rural Chile, decentralization has become one of Domínguez’s flagship issues. It should be recalled that Chile is a country defined politically by a highly centralized administrative structure, and that this centralism frequently exacerbates the inequities of a population distributed sparsely across an elongated geography where remote towns like Domínguez’s Palena are the rule rather than the exception.

Over discussions of the Convention’s general bylaws, it was Domínguez who drafted the rule according to which Convention plenary sessions were to be held outside Santiago. In these localities, centralism can have a strong, even deadly impact, as Domínguez pointed out in his inaugural speech: “If the famous Patagonian winds are blowing hard enough, emergency planes won’t be able to transport supplies or patients. Centralism kills.”

Domínguez was kind enough to talk to Octavio García Soto of Jacobin Latin America about his role as vice-president and the prospects for Chile’s new constitution.

As vice-president, do you still participate in the commissions?

That is correct. The figure of the president and vice-president of the Convention is about providing leadership, directing the broader political process, as well as other responsibilities that are established in the Convention's procedural rules. But in no way do those competencies detract from the powers of elected Convention member. And just like any member the president and vice-president can still present a policy initiative, vote, deliberate and influence the discussion.

Gaspar Domínguez is the vice-president of the Chilean Constitutional Convention.

This article was published in cooperation with Jacobin Latin America. Translated by Nicolas Allen.

Isn’t it a chore to have these two tasks?

I would call it a great challenge. You have to maintain the role of a Convention member and participate in the deliberations around specific issues. For example, I am very interested in the debate around social rights, and, in fact, one of the causes that first attracted me to the Convention has to do with health and education as social rights.

You are also on the fundamental rights commission.

That’s right, I’m part of that commission precisely because I wanted to make an impact on how social rights are understood in Chile and make sure that they are constitutionally enforceable.

One of the other causes that motivates my participation has to do with decentralization. As you know, I work and live in a very isolated area, probably one of the most isolated in all of Chile.

Direct democracy and citizen participation are also issues I’m concerned with. In that sense, I am attentive to guaranteeing that we deliberate as a collective. This is connected to a second, complementary task, which is to provide political leadership and foster the conditions for democratic and transversal deliberation. It’s as if I were on duty at the ER, but every day.

The commission is just getting started.

The commissions were established on 10 October, and the first stage consisted of what were called public hearings. That is, civil society groups proposed the issues they were most interested in. We spent approximately the first two months in public hearings, establishing a work schedule and setting the tasks to be accomplished, i.e., what we are going to do each day in the commission, when we are going to discuss each topic, how much time we are going to dedicate, etc. We’ve just now started with the deliberation stage, and already we are discussing substantive matters.

One issue under discussion is to enshrine the rights nature and animals in the new constitution. How did this debate come about?

According to traditional law, the holders of rights are always people. So, the first discussion is actually about whether or not it is even worth specifying who specific right holders are, for example, if they are elderly, children and adolescents, people with certain sexual identities, people belonging to indigenous groups, people with disabilities and women, etc. This is a discussion we have already held, and there is a fair amount of consensus — mind you, not from the conservative sectors, but from the progressive ones. We agreed that it is worth mentioning these groups specifically as rights holders, because, legally, their specific identity could eventually come into play. These are all groups that are not recognized in the language of the current Constitution.

As to your question, from Roman law until the present, nature has not been treated as a subject of law. The only exception in the world is the Ecuadoran Constitution. The preamble of the Bolivian Constitution in some ways hints at it, but not in the text itself. The idea of consecrating nature as a subject of law is a question that needs to be given more thought. The second, related question is whether in doing so will there necessarily be an improvement in environmental protection standards. Did this happen in Ecuador? Is Ecuador a “green nation” that takes care of nature? This had led to a complex set of questions that are currently under discussion.

There are other matters under discussion, such as the recognition of unpaid domestic work, the right to collective bargaining, the right of prisoners to job reinsertion. Do you think it is possible to unite the left majority around these demands?

Not only will it be possible, but I am certain that it will happen. Because it can't be otherwise — if we don’t do it, it just won’t happen. I like to give the example of buying a pizza: if you and I want to buy pizza and you want one topping and I want another, and the pizzeria closes at 24:00, we will have to come to some solution — otherwise, we will all end up without a pizza.

The same thing is happening with the Convention: the sectors of the Left, of the centre-left, even some sectors of the Right are open to making changes — we just are going to have to reach an agreement. The bylaws say that the quorum is two thirds, which is particularly high (out of 155 Convention members, the quorum would be 103 votes), and in a way, this quorum forces us to achieve broad a consensus on any matter.

As Convention members you make periodic trips to your respective districts. Do you feel that there is a kind of connection between your district and what is happening in the Convention? Are there any indications that the Convention is more than something just happening in Santiago?

Of course. In fact, I was one of the people who promoted and drafted the bylaw according to which the convention plenary must function outside Santiago. We have already held it once in Concepción, and we will do it soon in another region, probably in the north. In addition, the seven commissions have to meet outside Santiago, in different areas of the country and each convention member must spend one week of every month in their region.

There are many reasons to keep one foot outside of Santiago. One is that, the Convention cannot consist of 155 enlightened people sealing themselves off in a high-class palace in the centre of Santiago to write the future of Chile. At the same time, there are other instances of participation, such as public hearings, or the popular initiative, where people gather 15 thousand signatures to present an issue for discussion in the commission. Then there are the communal councils: in the communes, seven or more people get together, deliberate and define issues of concern and this deliberation must be uploaded to a web page to be systematized by a technical secretariat. There are also self-convened meetings, which are similar: people get together and then upload the meeting minutes.

There are also mechanisms for individual participation: a person can fill out a form, give his or her opinion on some aspects, and this too will be systematized. Finally, there will be two instances of popular participation that are awaiting government approval: one is the deliberative forums, which are citizen forums where people can give their opinion or deliberate on the laws that have been written. We actually are calling on Congress to make this day of deliberation a national holiday. We hope that Congress will authorize it.

Finally, there will be a decisive plebiscite. According to the bylaws, for any matters that have not reached consensus but have achieved a high quorum, around three fifths — that is, more than 93 votes — they can be put to a plebiscite so that the Chilean people can rule on matters that have not reached the necessary two thirds.

The right wing gained legislative strength in the last elections. Won’t that make it more difficult for Congress to collaborate with the convention?

Yes, that is a reality: beginning in March, the right wing will have more parliamentarians in Congress. But there are still people on the Right who have expressed their willingness to work to advance this process, people who at least have a democratic conviction that makes them think that this kind of deliberation is indeed positive. As for the sectors that are not willing to allow any space for participation or discussion, I would say that they are in the minority.

So I would not jump to conclude that the Convention’s more democratic aspirations will not be implemented just because the next parliament is more right-wing than the current one. The deliberative forums are going to be held, and if the Congress were to help us with the national holiday I just mentioned, there would be even more participation. In any case, we have to have the capacity to adapt to the conditions that arise.

One of the proposals from the State Formation Commission is that Chile should be comprised of autonomous regional states. There is an ongoing discussion within the Left between a more autonomist and a more centralized approach to statecraft. Do these disagreements exist in the Convention as well?

There is a general perception that central power must be delegated to the regions. There are differences of opinion in terms of the scope that decentralized should have or about the details, but in general, from the Communist Party to the more right-wing parties, there is the conviction that power needs to be distributed differently — and when I speak of power I mean political power, fiscal power, economic power, as well as administrative power.

There are those who insist on the need for regional taxation and there are those who are against it; those who believe that this regional taxation should be by regional assemblies, which are a kind of small group that legislates specific matters, and there are others who have some doubts about that.

You have also mentioned the need for an “eco-Constitution”. What does that entail?

During the Convention we made an official statement, which was also endorsed by a large majority, stipulating that the Constitution is taking place in the midst of a climate emergency and should reflect that reality. That declaration has political implications, and one of them is that, as we go about writing laws that address matters like the right to the city, the organization of the city, internal migration, we must bear in mind that the climate emergency is also part of these issues.

Chile, as you may know, is a country that extracts raw materials. Chileans’ wages are paid by mining, forestry, and fishing. So, how does the new constitution address this climate crisis and the need to generate a sustainable environment? To speak of an “eco-Constitution” may be little more than a slogan, but what it intends to do is get a grip on this crisis and suggest, as far as the economic model is concerned, that there should exist rights and there should also exist a limitation on other rights — to pose the question of the social and ecological uses of the land, for example, is also to contemplate potential limits to the right to private property.

There are currently proposals to nationalize copper and lithium. At the same time, we know about what happened in the past when someone nationalized copper — Allende’s nationalization of the copper industry infuriated the Chilean bourgeoisie. Meanwhile, Chile is currently living through an extremely tense political period: in the last elections, left-wing candidate Gabriel Boric beat an outright Pinochetista candidate, who actually came close to winning the presidency. It may seem like a joke to some, but one TV celebrity called on all businessmen to boycott Boric.

However crude the example may be, it represents a real feeling in certain powerful political and economic circles. Isn’t there a fear that nationalization of industries could end up pushing a profoundly conservative elite to destabilize the country?

The initiative you’re speaking of is “Popular Initiative #10”, which as of yesterday had 18,000 signatures. That is to say, it has already reached its signature goal and will be put before the commission. As you mentioned, it calls for the nationalization of large mining, copper, lithium, and gold companies. Indeed, this initiative, like others that are coming from convention members, seek to modify the ownership and use of raw materials.

Now, your specific question is about whether a change in the environmental institutional framework, specifically concerning the extraction of raw materials, could eventually become a political problem. I believe it will, but the important thing is not only to establish or guarantee or guidelines for the provision of these rights, but rather to build an institutional framework (what some call the “organic” part of the Constitution) that allows these social transformations to be made gradually, considering a just transition. Because if we simply close all the salmon farms, thousands of people in my region will be left without work.

I believe that we must first consider the concept of a just transition towards an economically sustainable model that is respectful of the environment. Since the Convention will not be functioning beyond its limited time frame, we must create today the future conditions for a robust, democratic institutionality. That will mean that citizens can veto laws or make bill proposals so that a new economic model, a new model for state provisions and, in fact, a new model of the state itself can be progressively realized.

It’s for these reasons that I always say that the new Constitution is not going to make us shift over night to another way of living, but rather it is like a ship that turns the rudder and slowly changes direction to start moving towards a different place.

In your inaugural speech as vice-president you said that you want Chile to have a system of universal health care. How would that system you propose differ from the current one?

In Chile today there are two health systems: on the one hand, a public health system, which serves people who have no possibility of paying and tend to have more illnesses. On the other hand, there is a private health system that serves those who can pay. The private health system charges more for elderly and sicker people, so that they overwhelmingly seek treatment in the public system, while young healthy people with higher salaries are treated in the private system. It is a system created to segregate and fragment the population according to risk and ability to pay: it becomes a business for private health providers and a huge problem in terms of the financial sustainability of the public system.

What we want is that the response Chile deployed to manage the COVID-19 pandemic also be the response used to deliver all health benefits. During the pandemic, private health clinics were still managed by private entities, just as the public hospitals continued to be managed by public entities. But it was the state that defined care priorities according to those who needed it most. If someone needed a hospital bed and critical care, they were given the next bed available, regardless of whether they could pay for it.

There are Chileans who are perfectly healthy and still go to a cardiologist, because they can. Meanwhile, there are people who have been ill for years and cannot go to a cardiologist despite the fact that they desperately need one. A universal health system does not mean making everything public. The private and public systems can coexist, but the benefits should be provided in order of clinical need and not ability to pay.