Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Chile Could Become “Plurinational.” What Does That Mean?

AQ demystifies the term and how it’s been applied elsewhere in Latin America, as a vote on Chile’s new constitution approaches.
Elisa Loncón, an Indigenous woman who was president of the Constitutional Convention, with the charter's final draft on July 4.Javier Torres/AFP/Getty
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Chile votes on a new constitution on September 4, and Indigenous issues are at the forefront of debate. The draft charter defines Chile as “plurinational” and refers to the people of Chile as being “composed of various nations.” It also contains provisions on Indigenous consultation, autonomous territories for Indigenous groups and recognition of Indigenous justice. Chile’s population is 12.8% Indigenous, according to the most recent census figures.

Representatives of the governing coalition, which supports the new constitution, recently pledged to modify some of its most controversial passages, including some on Indigenous issues. But these topics have proven an effective rallying cry for the opposition, which says the constitution will undermine the unity of the state or make Chile politically unstable like Ecuador and Bolivia—both of which have constitutionally defined themselves as plurinational.

Bolivia’s indigenous population is larger as a fraction of the overall population than Chile’s but, according to official statistics, Ecuador’s is not (though estimates vary).

Chile’s draft constitution has consistently trailed in polls since March, though the gap has narrowed since early July. The latest figures show Reject at 46% and Approve at 37%.

The debate over plurinationalism in Chile’s new constitution raises broader questions. What does it mean, what would it represent for Chilean politics, and how has plurinationalism affected politics elsewhere in the region?

A term rooted in Indigenous movements

Stated simply, plurinationalism means that several nations coexist within the boundary of a single state. But it may be best understood as an organizing framework for a set of policies and a system of rights for Indigenous groups.

The term seems to have originated in the 1980s, out of a growing Indigenous political movement in Bolivia. By 1983, the Unified Syndical Confederation of Rural Workers of Bolivia was including demands for a plurinational state in their official program.

In Ecuador and Bolivia, which became officially plurinational at the height of the “pink tide” of the 2000s, social movements and Indigenous groups hoped this formal recognition of Indigenous autonomy would guarantee their rights.

But reality has proved complex. Some of the language in the Bolivian constitution protecting Indigenous groups hasn’t been codified into statute. “Other laws that have to do with plurinationalism are being enforced only partially,” said María Teresa Zegada, a researcher at Bolivia’s Center for Social Reality Studies. But plurinationalism hasn’t contributed to political instability in Bolivia, she told AQ.

An Indigenous woman holds a Wiphala flag, representing the native peoples of the Andes, in a celebration of the Aymara New Year in Bolivia on June 21. Photo by Aizar Raldes/AFP via Getty Images.

In Ecuador, too, Indigenous people still face discrimination and exclusion. “This has been one of Ecuador’s main challenges,” said Diana Dávila Gordillo, an expert on Indigenous populations in the country. “We have this fantastic constitution, (but) it hasn’t fully trickled down into having a major impact on Indigenous populations.”

Guatemala is another country that has seen the rise of demands for a plurinational state. The Comité de Desarrollo Campesino, or CODECA, is one of the Indigenous organizations in Guatemala that puts plurinationalism at the top of its agenda.

“Those in power didn’t respond to the interest of those who have been historically excluded,” said Leiria Vay, a spokesperson for CODECA. “From there came the idea of fighting for a popular, constituent and plurinational assembly.” A plurinational state, Vay said, could be the basis to guarantee a better life for the peoples of Guatemala.

Samuel Pérez, representative of the Movimiento Semilla party in Guatemala’s legislature, said that “the Guatemalan state must cease to be actively racist and exclusive” towards Indigenous people. Plurinationalism, multinationalism, and a “plural state” had all been raised as paths forwards for Guatemala, but Pérez said he didn’t feel “a particular loyalty to a term, but rather to the problem that exists with the state.”

A contentious issue in Chile

In Chile, plurinationalism and Indigenous issues have proved some of the most sensitive matters regarding the new constitution, as debate plays out against a backdrop of a security crisis in the country’s south. Clashes over land rights are pitting Indigenous Mapuche groups against commercial and extractive interests and the force of the state.

Plurinationalism is “the opposite of the nation-state, (which is) a fiction created by 19th-century Chilean elites that artificially equates the state with a single nation,” wrote Pedro Cayuqueo, a prominent Mapuche writer in Chile, last year. “Evidently that isn’t the reality in Chile, a land inhabited by at least a dozen First Nations that predate the state by centuries.”

Others think differently. Sebastián Torrealba, a former deputy for the conservative Renovación Nacional party, wrote in El Líbero in April that plurinationalism would “atomize our society and proclaim that each individual ethnicity is above the common factor that unites us into a single nation.”

Chile, he emphasized, despite its challenges, was the country in Latin America with the best performance on several human development indexes—and that success belonged to “Chile, as the sum of its parts, and not as some irreducible combination of different nations.”

Kelly Bauer, an expert on Indigenous politics in Chile at Nebraska Wesleyan University, noted that defenders of the new constitution tend to compare its provisions on Indigenous issues to countries in the developed world, like Canada and New Zealand, while opponents emphasize the connection to Bolivia and Ecuador, suggesting that it could be dangerous for Chile or create instability.

Neither Canada nor New Zealand defines itself as plurinational, but the term is fairly unique to Latin American Indigenous movements and it doesn’t translate well into English. (My spell-checker, for example, marks it as an error.)

On August 11, parties making up the governing coalition released a document describing modifications they plan to make to the draft constitution if it’s approved, including items related to plurinationalism and Indigenous issues. Indigenous consultation would only apply for issues that directly affect Indigenous people and their consent would only be needed in their own territories, which wouldn’t be allowed to affect the “unitary” nature of the Chilean state. Indigenous justice would be “subordinated” to the general legal system and to the Supreme Court.

The document seems meant to answer complaints from opponents that the new constitution creates inequality before the law, gives Indigenous groups a veto over general matters or would threaten the integrity of the Chilean state.

These allegations have had an effect on public opinion in part because of a lack of clarity about how to interpret provisions on Indigenous consultation and other issues.

The planned modifications help to clear things up. If the constitution is approved and the planned changes made, Chile’s policy on Indigenous justice would not be very different from how Indigenous customary law is treated by the justice system in Canada.

The policy on Indigenous consultation would not represent a significant departure from Chile’s obligations under the Tribal Peoples Convention 169, an international treaty on Indigenous rights that Chile has ratified. Bringing claims under this international treaty, however, can be onerous and expensive. That could change if provisions on Indigenous consultation are incorporated into constitutional law.

How changes in Indigenous policy might affect the challenging security situation in the south—whether for better or worse—is less clear.

Will Chileans be contented with the proposed changes, sensing their biggest concerns are addressed—or will they have the opposite effect, conveying the impression that even the parties backing the new constitution can’t support it as written? That remains to be seen, as Chileans prepare to decide whether or not to make their country the third in Latin America to define itself as plurinational.


Reading Time: 5 minutesBurns is editor and social media manager at AQ.

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Tags: Chile, Chile constitution, Mapuche, plurinationalism
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