Civil Society

Meet the indigenous woman tasked with rewriting Chile’s constitution

Constitutional assembly president Elisa Loncon holds up a flag as assembly members gather for the first session to draft a new constitution, in Santiago

Elisa Loncon is a Santiago university professor and activist for Mapuche rights. Image: REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Aislinn Laing
Writer, Reuters
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  • Chile's constitutional body has picked a Mapuche woman to lead the rewriting of the country's constitution.
  • Elisa Loncon is a Santiago university professor and activist for Mapuche educational and linguistic rights.
  • The Mapuche are Chile's largest indigenous group, but are unacknowledged in the country's present rule book.
  • The constitutional body that voted her in, was picked by a popular vote in May.
  • Chile's new constitution will replace the previous magna carta produced during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

Delegates chose a woman on Sunday from Chile's majority indigenous Mapuche people to lead them in drafting the country's new constitution - a dramatic turnaround for a group that is unacknowledged in the country's present rule book.

Elisa Loncon, 58, a political independent, is a Santiago university professor and activist for Mapuche educational and linguistic rights. She was picked by 96 of the 155 men and women, including 17 indigenous people, who make up the constitutional body that will draft a new text to replace Chile's previous magna carta produced during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

Loncon accepted the position with fist clenched above her head, telling her colleagues to noisy celebrations: "I salute the people of Chile from the north to Patagonia, from the sea to the mountains, to the islands, all those who are watching us today," she said.

"I am grateful for the support of the different coalitions that placed their trust and their dreams in the hands of the Mapuche nation, who voted for a Mapuche person, a woman, to change the history of this country."

Her election represents a high point in a day of high drama which included the suspension of the delegates' swearing in after protests outside and inside the venue, and clashes with police forced a delay to the event.

Problems arose after marches organised by independent, left-wing and indigenous groups fielding delegates for the constitutional body, as well as other interest groups, met heavily armed police manning barricades outside Santiago's former congress building where the ceremony was being held.

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Delegates inside the event then remonstrated with the organisers over heavy-handed police tactics, banging drums and shouting over a youth classical orchestra playing the national anthem.

Amid demands by delegates for "repressive" special forces police to be withdrawn, the electoral court official presiding over the ceremony agreed to suspend the event until midday.

The fracas underscored the intense challenges for the drafting of a new magna carta against a backdrop of deep divisions that still simmer after Chile was torn apart by massive protests that started in October 2019 over inequality and elitism and were fueled by a fierce police response.

The constitutional body was picked by a popular vote in May and is dominated by independent and leftist candidates, some with roots in the protest movement, with a smaller share of more conservative candidates backed by the current centre-right government.

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The delegates have vowed to address topics including water and property rights, central bank independence and labour practices, prompting jitters among investors of potentially significant changes to the free market system of the world's top copper producer.

Before the ceremony began, Aymara and Mapuche delegates held spiritual ceremonies with song and dance in the downtown streets surrounding the body's new headquarters and on a nearby hillside.

Unrecognised in the current constitution, they are hoping a new text will afford their nations new cultural, political and social rights.

The commission has up to a year to agree a common rulebook, establish committees and draft a new text.

Leandro Lima, a Southern Cone analyst for Control Risks, said the independents brought "legitimacy" to the process given Chileans' deep mistrust in established politics but a paucity of policymaking experience and deep ideological divisions could cause critical delays to the drafting of the text itself.

Reporting by Aislinn Laing Editing by Marguerita Choy and Diane Craft

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