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A divisive bestseller: copies of Chile's new constitution hit the streets

·3 min read

By Alexander Villegas

SANTIAGO, July 15 (Reuters) - In cities around Chile, bookstores and street vendors are touting a new, purple book that promises – or, depending on the reader's view, threatens – to reshape society in the Andean nation.

The book outlays the country's proposed new constitution. Its 388 articles touching on social rights, gender, politics and the environment aim to close the door on the current text, drawn up in 1980 under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

Chileans will vote to approve or reject the new constitution on Sept. 4. While they overwhelmingly backed the plan to write a new one in a referendum two years ago, opinion polls suggest the final draft may be rejected. Support has dropped on fears that some of the proposals from the assembly in charge of formulating the text are too radical.

In capital Santiago, long lines have been forming outside bookstores and street stalls of people looking to pick up the recently-finalized text - a bright purple paperback decorated with a Chilean flag. Street vendors said they were selling dozens of copies a day.

"The money's here now," said Alfredo Lopez, a vendor who normally sells fruit on Santiago's Ahumada thoroughfare.

Lopez sold masks when the pandemic hit and now has a table full of the books and a hand-made yellow sign touting the text for 3,000 pesos ($3). While Lopez hasn't read the text and doesn't plan to, the stream of customers is constant and Lopez says he's been selling 70 to 80 copies a day.

The new constitution, born from anger about stark inequality in one of the region's richest nations that burst out in fiery protests in 2019, has become a lightning rod for debate between those who want to protect Chile's market-orientated economic model that helped drive decades of growth and those seeking a more socially-inclusive ideal.

That's become more intense with rising inflation and a slowing economy, linked to global fears of a recession and the war in Ukraine driving up food and energy prices. The price of copper has plummeted and Chile's currency is at an all-time low.

"Conversations heat up quickly, people are really tense," said Isidora Varela, 25, a communications professional who bought a copy of the constitution on Tuesday, saying she felt it was her duty to read the text and inform others.

"Not everyone's going to read the constitutional text because the information is super dense," she said. Varela said she had seen a lot of misinformation and "fake news" relating to the proposed constitution circulating on social media.

Mireya Davila, a public policy professor at the University of Chile, says both sides still have time to win over voters and a deciding factor will be how effectively the approve campaign communicates what the text says.

"I think an informed vote is key, but I don't know if that's going to happen," Davila said.

Carlos Bastias, another seller, said heated arguments and fights consistently break out between customers.

"I think that in a few days I'm going to have to open up a (boxing) ring here and be a referee," Bastias said, adding that he's read about half of the new constitution but avoids giving his opinion to customers.

"This (debate) is only going to escalate," Bastias said, noting that many cite Venezuela's 1999 constitution drafted after a national referendum as a warning sign of the perils of change.

"People are worried because it could lift up a country, but you know, it's destroyed others." (Reporting by Alexander Villegas and Esteban Medel; Additional reporting by Natalia Ramos; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)