Elisa Loncon, President of the Constitutional Convention: “Chile Will Never Go Back to the Way it Was”

Meritxell Freixas

For the last two months, the Mapuche Elisa Loncon, 58 years old, has presided over the constituent assembly in charge of writing the new Magna Carta that will replace the current text, drafted in 1980, under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990). She was elected with 96 of the 155 votes of the body’s members and carries on her shoulders the responsibility of leading the construction of a new nation, in which the native peoples will have a prominent role.

Originally from the Mapuche community of Lefweluan, in the heart of Araucanía in southern Chile, she is the daughter of a housewife and a furniture maker; the fourth of seven siblings. With a PhD in Linguistics and an expert in intercultural bilingual education, she has studied in Holland, Bolivia, Canada and Mexico, and until her arrival at the constitutional body she worked as a teacher.

The president faces a key moment for the Constituent Assembly, one of the most advanced in the world in terms of gender parity and the presence of indigenous representatives: the challenge is to put an end to the legacy of Pinochettism in Chile. On the one hand, together with the rest of the members of the Bureau, she must manage the scandal caused by Assemblyman Rodrigo Rojas, who lied to the public when he pretended to suffer from a cancer he never had, while he raised his voice in defense of those affected by this disease. On the other hand, this Thursday will begin the debate on the regulations that will define the rules of the Convention. After its approval, the substantive discussion will begin, which will define the new constitutional framework of the country.

In an interview with Público, made hours before the falsehood about the constituent was revealed, Loncon takes stock of his two months of leadership and talks about the threats and challenges faced by the Convention:

“We lack a conceptual, political and ideological framework that protects the rights of diversities and minorities, and that is what we are addressing as the leadership of the Convention”.

What is your assessment of the two months of operation of the Convention?

We have overcome the problems we had during the installation of the Convention related to its administration and management. We needed the space, the minimum conditions such as Internet connections, the technical operation to give the floor and vote. That implied resorting to public services because we did not have enough support from the Government, which was focused on maintaining the status quo of the old Constitution, inherited from the dictatorship. The government coalition voted against the change of the Constitution and several of its elected convention members were neither committed nor to contribute. During the first month, we also implemented a covid-19 protocol and expanded the table from two to nine members to integrate the different sectors: from the most traditional -left, right and center- to independents, dissidents and indigenous peoples. This entailed a great deal of work to reach an agreement. In addition, the body that monitors the use of the allocations [salaries and remunerations] and the resources available to the Convention was set up. In the second month, we worked on the development of eight transitory commissions that provided input for the preparation of the Convention’s Rules of Procedure. This is an autonomous body that has no links with the constituted power and it is necessary to give it its own institutions and regulations. We are going to vote the regulations during this month of September and at the same time the definitive working commissions will be installed.

Will the formula that has been applied to elaborate the regulations, through commissions and sub-commissions, be the one that will be applied for the regular functioning of the Convention?

We have three bodies to work on the regulations: the sub-commissions, the commissions and the plenary. The regulations have to be voted on by the plenary, then indications and adjustments can be made and, finally, the final proposal is voted on. We have guaranteed the right of all groups represented in the Convention to express themselves. Voting on the rules of procedure will be by majority, and when it comes to Convention rules, it will have to be by a two-thirds majority.

We have recently witnessed a sort of media campaign against the Convention. In fact, it has been reported that there are about 8,000 social media profiles for coordinated attacks on the Convention. As president, you have received racist and discriminatory attacks from some constituents. What threats does the Convention face today?

There is a communications threat, to present a reality that is not the truth, based on slander and the imposition of lies that are spread in the community. One of the first things said was that we are lazy, that we do not work. Then it was said that we exercise authoritarianism, that we misuse resources and that we would raise our salaries. This comes from the sector that does not agree with changing the Constitution. This is dangerous because lies and unethical positions are installed in an attempt to have people despise us. The racist opinions denigrate the indigenous condition of the Convention members, with very low profile comments and with the intention of delegitimizing the authority installed in the Convention. They get upset when we express ourselves in our indigenous languages because they think that linguistic rights are privileges and not rights. We lack a conceptual, political and ideological framework that protects the rights of diversities and minorities, which is what we do from the direction of the Convention.

The Mapuche people (and also the rest of the native peoples) have taken a leading role in the Convention. What effect can this have to improve the coexistence between the native peoples and the rest of Chileans?

We are committed to incorporating the rights of the native nations into the new Constitution because there are human rights violations that have not been redressed. Since the State of Chile was installed in the Mapuche territory, human rights have been violated because the State sought the disappearance of the indigenous peoples with the argument that we were opposed to development and progress. This discourse was used to occupy the territories and remained within Chilean institutions. Later, an educational system was implemented that speaks of primitive peoples, which is not conducive to a discussion of our rights. It is a historical burden that the Chilean State has in its different constitutions, which were not built with the participation of the people. However, the Constitutional Convention was installed from a social outburst that was an act of self-determination of the different peoples of Chile: the people said ‘enough’ and rose up. And they did so with the Mapuche flag, recognizing a crisis of political representation. Chileans now understand that the Mapuche are a people in resistance, fighting for their rights and dignity.

When you took office as president on July 4, you gave a speech in Mapudungún (Mapuche language), which most did not understand. Is Chile ready to become a plurinational state?

The Constitution is one of the paths to plurinationality, then comes the institutional framework and the laws that will emanate from that Constitution; and, finally, comes the cultural change to become a plurilingual, intercultural and dialoguing country. Today, Chile is not prepared because we come from a monolingual and monocultural tradition. However, Chile knows that it cannot continue oppressing minorities, to whom the country has a historical debt, a lack of reparation for the violation of rights exercised by the State. In Chile there is a special sensitivity towards human rights because the violations committed during the dictatorship have not been redressed either, violations that were repeated in the context of the social uprising: there are more than 400 mutilated eyes, there are dead and there are prisoners whose cases have not been investigated.

Is a new constitutional text a guarantee to be able to put an end to all of the above, if the same judges, the same business lobbies or the same names in politics are maintained?

The constitutional text cannot be a decalogue of rights, it has to provide guarantees for the exercise of rights; and the constituent process brought changes by which Chile will no longer be as it was before. For example, the parity [that was achieved in the Convention] has to be assumed in the next government, as well as the seats reserved for the native nations. The presence and rights of social dissidence are elements demanded by the people. The administrative and legal changes will be subsequent to the new constitutional text, however, Chilean society is no longer the same as it was before the social uprising of 2019 and the government will have to respond to these demands.

Meritxell Freixas: Journalist and Social Educator

Translation by Internationalist 360°