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Chile May Have a Future After All – Mary Anastasia O’Grady/WSJ

  • Republican Party founder J.A. Kast is optimistic about a new constitution.
Jose Antonio Kast speaks in Santiago, Chile, May 7.  (Cristobal Olivares/ Bloomberg)
Jose Antonio Kast speaks in Santiago, Chile, May 7.  (Cristobal Olivares/ Bloomberg)

By Mary Anastasia O’Grady

Santiago, Chile

When terrorists unleashed a well-planned wave of violence here in October 2019, it caught the government of then-President Sebastian Piñera off guard. Vandals blew up subway cars and torched churches and businesses. Law enforcement was at a loss to stop them.

The images of destruction and chaos rocked the region. Far more disturbing were the million-plus middle-class Chileans who peacefully went to the streets of this city the following week in what seemed like support for the hoodlums who were wrecking the country.

Conventional wisdom read the outpouring of protest against Mr. Piñera’s center-right government as the end of the free-market model that made Chile the envy of the developing world.

“They thought the traditional right was dead,” says José Antonio Kast, founder of Chile’s Republican Party, which was established that same year. “We didn’t believe it,” the 57-year-old former congressman and presidential candidate told me in an interview at the offices of the party’s think tank here on Rapallo Street.

Mr. Kast and his Republican cohorts instead read the protests as an expression of widespread frustration caused by the stagnation of economic growth and wages over a decade, crony capitalism, and impunity for political elites. With that in mind the Republican Party, consisting of many disappointed refugees from other center-right parties, went to work at the grass roots. Their goal was to revive political support for the economic liberalism that had been ditched by Socialist President Michelle Bachelet and that Mr. Piñera failed to defend.

Chileans have come to expect mobility and opportunity, Mr. Kast says. But to get there they need choice in education, pensions and healthcare; flexible labor markets; property rights; and a smaller and more accountable state.

In the almost four years since the uprising, most of the country has returned to normal, though parts of the south continue to be plagued by violence, and street crime is higher than it used to be.

The other festering wound is the promised rewrite of the 1980 constitution. It has been amended numerous times by center-left democratic governments since 1990. But because the original was promulgated and ratified during the authoritarian rule of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, it’s on the chopping block. The trouble is that there is so far no agreement on what will replace it.

A process for a new constitution was approved in an October 2020 referendum. When a May 2021 election for the assembly that would write the new document gave left-wing representatives a qualified majority, the hard left thought it had a mandate for remaking the country along the lines of Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia. But its draft, presented in a national referendum in September 2022, was repudiated by a vote of 62% to 38%.

Rejection was supposed to be the end of the project, Mr. Kast maintains. But he lost that battle and another constituent assembly, charged with trying again, was elected in May. This time Chileans are sending different signals.

Mr. Kast says that his diagnosis of 2019 proved correct when the center-right came away from the November 2021 Senate elections with about half the seats. That was six months after the left won control of the first constituent assembly. The counter to his argument came in December 2021, when Chile elected leftist President Gabriel Boric in a runoff against Mr. Kast.

Not to be deterred, Republicans bounced back last month, winning a plurality in the new constituent assembly, in which center-right parties now enjoy a supermajority. This time assembly representatives are working off a draft by a group of experts in constitutional law and other fields—from both sides of the aisle. The final version is due in August, and in December voters will be asked in a referendum to approve or reject it.

Mr. Kast acknowledges that the proposed constitution will need wide appeal if it is to avoid the fate of the first draft.

He calls the experts’ document “a good start.” With “a few—but important—modifications,” he thinks he could sell it to Chileans who today oppose it. In that case, he thinks, the “yes” vote could win a strong referendum majority.

“It’s better to resolve the matter, because if we don’t, it could drag on for a long time,” he says. But he quickly adds that he isn’t interested in “closing it just to close it, to get agreement for the sake of agreement.” The draft must be improved: “It has to define what is public and what is private. It has to provide for judges that follow the law, not that interpret the law.”

“I’m an optimist,” the mild-mannered Mr. Kast tells me with a smile. Chile succeeded for many years with left-of-center governments because its solid institutions provided stability. That, he says, is among the highest objectives for the new constitution.

Write to O’Grady@wsj.com.

____________________________________________________

Mary Anastasia O’Grady is an Opinion Columnist, writes “The Americas,” a weekly column on politics, economics and business in Latin America and Canada that appears every Monday in the Journal. Ms. O’Grady joined the paper in August 1995 and became a senior editorial page writer in December 1999. She was appointed an editorial board member in November 2005. She is also a member of the board of directors of the Indianapolis­-based Liberty Fund. Energiesnet.com does not necessarily share these views.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally on the WSJ in the June 25, 2023, print edition as ‘That’s Smoke, Not Climate Change’. All comments posted and published on EnergiesNet or Petroleumworld, do not reflect either for or against the opinion expressed in the comment as an endorsement of EnergiesNet or Petroleumworld.

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