Chile and Colombia

I often cite articles from the Conversation, which publishes topical analysis by academic experts. You’ll find lots of interesting material there, but sometimes it has to be treated with care. A prime example is an article this week by Ana Estefanía Carballo and Erin Fitz-Henry on Chile’s proposed new constitution.

Chileans go to the polls on Sunday in a referendum on whether or not to accept the new constitution. It was drafted by a constitutional convention elected last year, in which assorted left-wing groups had a large majority – a sign of the swing to the left that in December elected the radical left’s Gabriel Boric as president.

The draft is therefore a somewhat left-wing document (Spanish-readers can check out the full text here), although most of it is pretty standard fare. Carballo and Fitz-Henry, however, are enthusiastic, describing it as aiming “to rapidly pivot Chile toward ecological democracy” and calling it “one of the most progressive and environmentally conscious legal texts on the planet.”

You can form your own view about the particular issues they focus on; my view is that anyone who thinks government control is better for ecological stewardship than private ownership has to be blind to an awful lot of historical experience. But what Carballo and Fitz-Henry breathe not a word of is the fact that indications point to the referendum being defeated.

As the table at Spanish-language Wikipedia reveals, every opinion poll for nearly five months – and there have been dozens of them – has shown a majority against the draft constitution, often in double digits. Since this sort of referendum usually sees undecided voters opting for “no” (voting is compulsory, so the uncertain can’t just stay home), it would be a major upset if the draft were to be approved.

But unlike, say, the otherwise sympathetic report in the Guardian, Carballo and Fitz-Henry completely fail to inform the reader of this: a particularly odd way to treat what they call an example of “bold, just, and democratic action.”

While on the subject of the Latin American left, don’t miss a story from two weeks ago in the Washington Post on Colombia. It too has just elected a president from the radical left, Gustavo Petro, and, as Samantha Schmidt and Diana Durán report, he has a bold agenda when it comes to the cocaine trade that has devastated the country in the past.

It won’t surprise anyone who’s familiar with the actual evidence on the subject, but Petro’s view, expressed in his inaugural address, is that “It is time for a new international convention that accepts that the war on drugs has failed.” The article quotes his drug policy chief, Felipe Tascón, who explains how illegality simply fuels the crime syndicates and says that “The government’s program doesn’t talk about the problem of drugs. It talks about the problems generated by the prohibition of drugs.”

With the left in power across much of the region, this is a wonderful opportunity for real progress on decriminalisation. Even the United States seems likely to offer less resistance than in the past; a spokesman for the Biden administration expressed disapproval of the plan, but also remarked that “Colombia is a sovereign country. It will make its own decisions.”

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