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The President of the Chilean Constitutional Convention on her motivation, mission, and next steps for the country

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María Elisa Quinteros was elected the new president of the Constitutional Convention in Chile on 5 January 2022. A constituent for District 17, Quinteros originally hails from the city of Talca, in the south of the country, and as an independent leftist is affiliated with the Asamblea Popular por la Dignidad, a feminist and environmentalist group formed after the popular revolt of October 2019. She is also a dentist and environmental epidemiologist.

As an environmentalist, one of Quinteros’s flagship Convention issues is to make nature a subject of rights. However, since assuming the presidency, she has had to navigate difficult waters, with little government backing or administrative support for the Convention, as well as mounting attacks from the largely right-wing mainstream media.

María Elisa spoke with Octavio García of Jacobin Latin America about her motivations for becoming a member of the Constituent Assembly and about the tasks she faces as president.

Every day you do a live feed on your Instagram. It sounds simple, but it has helped me a lot to know more about you and the Convention. Why did you choose to do this?

During the first week of my term I was talking with one of my fellow social movement members, Janis Meneses, and she was doing a video every day. I found the idea very good and I said “I’m going to do this until we finish the Convention, even if nobody sees it”, and I copied it. It is like a way of giving back to the people who voted for me.

María Elisa Quinteros a professor of epidemiology and currently serves as the president of the Chilean Constitutional Convention. 

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

My campaign as an independent was basically through social networks. Because I was always working, I was left just with weekends and evenings to make in-person appearances. I do think all politicians should be physically present in their constituencies, and I would hope I could see them here in my neighbourhood and talk to them.

Speaking of your constituents, why do you think they voted for you? What is the issue that you bring to the Convention?

As members of Asamblea Popular por la Dignidad, we developed a programme with a set of minimum points in common. One of the points was that nature be considered a subject of rights. This was on top of the other points that were agreed upon by consensus in the plaza where our constituents gathered to participate: pensions, health, education, labour rights, and so on.

Science is also a very important issue for me personally, so I included it. By science, I mean not only the hegemonic form science, but also ancestral, popular knowledge. I believe that these forms of knowledge need to begin to be recognized as part of knowledge proper and incorporated into different institutional settings.

Also, because I am a vegetarian and I care very much about the issue of animal suffering, I felt that the rights of animals should be considered in the Constitution.

How was the Asamblea Popular por la Dignidad formed?

It started after the 2019 uprising in Chile, through marches taking place in the areas outside the capital. At the beginning we didn’t even know what we were really marching for, because there was no leader. But we felt compelled to march all the same. Now, as time goes by, I understand that what was motivating me was the constituent power that we are now seeing: the need to change everything — and to guarantee the preservation of everything that is good about Chilean society.

When we were met with police repression during those marches, some of that hope turned into fear. My city, Talca, is normally very peaceful. But, suddenly I found myself bolting away from a zorrillo [a teargas-launching car]. Those are things that are supposed to only happen in Santiago.

Then, after so many days of marching, we began to recognize the same faces. Afterwards, people continued to gather in the square to talk, and there were town meetings. That is how the Asamblea was created. It was born as a form of spontaneous popular movement.

We are not an electoral assembly, we are a social assembly that seeks to strengthen solidarity. For example, not long ago we held a fundraiser event to raise money for families of political prisoners. That, rather than electoral work, is the kind of thing we do.

At a certain point a decision was made: are we going to be part of the constitutional process or not? Deciding in favour of participating, the process also wore us out a lot as an assembly, because everything turned towards the electoral arena, where we are more inexperienced and lack resources. We all tend to complain about centralism: that everything happens in Santiago, that nothing happens in the regions — but this same centralism happens in the regions, where everything happens in the regional capital and not in the smaller cities.

That is why we started to look for people in other cities to put together the list for the Constitutional Convention. Then we put out an open call in a square in Talca for anyone who wanted to be a constituent candidate to come.

One theory is that the social movements were the driving force behind the Constitutional process, the idea being that, thanks to their discipline, a spontaneous revolution was ultimately channelled and organized into a project for a new Constitution. What’s your opinion?

It makes sense to me. I come from a fairly rural area, and the Chile of the 1980s was marked by great social cohesion, at least according to what my family transmitted to me and the stories that were always told. Chileans are actually a very united people — maybe not so much organizationally, but at the level of the neighbourhood, where people knew each other, they would all help each other.

The Pinochet dictatorship clearly hit Chilean society very hard, as did neoliberalism, by placing the individual above the collective. But I also agree that the social uprising was not a spontaneous thing: it came about through the work of many organizations that, at the end of the dictatorship and the beginning of democracy, were able to organize themselves and pick up on the struggles that come before.

In other words, Chilean songwriter Jorge González already sang about everything we are discussing here in the 1980s. It is not something new — the social and feminist movements have been marching all this time, as well as the human rights organizations, which have always been fighting for justice and reparations, not to mention the struggle of the unions. There was nothing spontaneous about it, in that sense.

Chile narrowly escaped having a far-right president, but that political tendency continues to exist in the Chamber of Deputies and even in the Convention. Given that, it seems important that denialist speech — i.e., the act of denying or even justifying state-sponsored crimes during the dictatorship or amid the social uprising — has been prohibited. Do you think this prohibition should be codified in the new Constitution?

I was the coordinator of the transitional ethics commission, and although the prohibition that was passed in the plenary was not perfect, it was well justified [Note: the sanction on denialism was later eliminated in the name of “free speech”]. I have also been told by organizations of relatives of disappeared detainees that it is a step forward. Here we face the legal academic world, where they always oppose us with the argument that there are only two countries in the world that have constitutionally recognized denialism, and that even there, implementation has been poor. One being Germany and another, I think, is Spain.

I think that it is the only opportunity we have to write laws that make sense for society, whether it is academically correct or not — it is the opportunity to do something that represents a general mood in Chile. So it makes all the sense in the world to me that we should reference denialism, because we cannot tolerate intolerance. I think it’s not putting a limit on expression, just a little bit of empathy and respect for the dignity of other people.

I’m in Berlin, and here in Germany it sometimes seems difficult to prevent the spread of the ultra-right. But the fact that denialism is condemned does appear to hinder it: it makes it more difficult to effectively organize far-right forces.

I was really talking about denialism and less about the far-right, as such. While it’s true that a high percentage of Chileans voted for the ultra-conservative José Antonio Kast, I think it does not really reflect the political position of most of them. I have friends who supported him, and it is not that they were convinced by his person, ideals or programme. It was just that the other option seemed worse to them.

I think that this speaks to the need for all figures, regardless of where they are on the spectrum, to represent the people better. The level of general political disaffection is quite high in the country. This recent presidential election was really a battle between fear and hope, and that is basically how a lot of people saw it. But it is not as if there was a range of political representatives that really worked to earn the support of the people.

Parts of the centre-right ended up opting for Kast, who they considered the lesser evil. Do you think that the centre-right will be more willing to dialogue in the Convention, or do you think they will bloc with the ultra-right?

A the beginning of the convention I was expecting them to form a bloc, but now they are divided. I see people from the centre-right who are open to dialogue: people, for example, from my own district, such as Bárbara Rebolledo, with whom I have always been able to talk and reach a consensus. I see an openness to dialogue and we have to think that not all those who are in those blocs are hard-core militants — there are independents who, of course, are more embedded in that world.

I believe that there are many people who are here to deliberate on the laws of the Constitution and are perhaps open to being surprised. Then there are others who really come with their own preformed idea, which is also respectable. It is the mix of all that we build as a society.

You recently reached an agreement with the Chilean Broadcasters Association and the National Television Association. What role do the media play in the constitutional process?

As soon as we were elected to lead the Convention with Gaspar, the vice-president, we said: “We need to be on TV.” We were clear that we needed to communicate with the public, and at the same time we grasped that the media has its own editorial line and policies. As people like to say, they respond to those who finance them.

Whether we like it or not, the easiest way to reach people in this country is still through television — there are important digital disparities in the country, which increase according to the socioeconomic level. So we couldn’t rely exclusively on social media and the like.

We want to get the facts out on television. Of course, each channel will have its editorial line and will have its own spin on the facts, but the facts themselves about what happens in the Convention must be communicated. This is crucial because we do not have particularly good financial backing — this is an extremely austere Convention, so we need all the help we can get.

You are a professor of epidemiology. I’m sure these last few years must have been tremendously challenging for you.

My medical colleagues made a name for ourselves — my unit has become very famous. We were always responsible for “poverty medicine” in terms of public health. Now we have become very important! We even achieved prominence in the Chilean Society of Epidemiology, where it was always the groups that had to do with medical specialties that were the most popular.