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While Chile prepares for a presidential election, a new constitution is being drafted

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The future of Chile is in the balance. This weekend, voters will elect their new president. They face a stark choice between a far-right candidate and a young leftist. At the same time, an elected assembly is busy reinventing the country by drafting a new constitution. NPR's Philip Reeves went to see its members at work.

(CROSSTALK)

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Here are the people chosen to rewrite Chile's rulebook. They pose for a group photo under a blazing sun.

(CHEERING)

REEVES: They're in a cheerful mood.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Spanish).

REEVES: Yet everyone knows a tough road lies ahead. This is making Chilean history, says Javier Fuchslocher, a high school teacher who's part of this group.

JAVIER FUCHSLOCHER: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "Citizens drafting a new constitution." Chile's politics are dominated by a male elite.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Spanish).

REEVES: This happy group is different - only two are wearing ties, half are women. We're in the city of Concepcion midway along Chile's vast coastline. The assembly has been here all week listening to people in public squares and trying to find out what kind of country they want Chile to be.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Now its members gather in a nearby hall to share what they've learned.

BEATRIZ SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "People lack water," says Beatriz Sanchez, one of the delegates. "They want constitutionally guaranteed health care. They want women to be protected from abuse, much better internet connections and more besides," she reports.

SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

(APPLAUSE)

REEVES: This constituent assembly owes its existence to the mass protests over inequality that engulfed Chile in 2019. Mainstream political parties sought to end that uprising by agreeing to a referendum. The referendum asked Chileans if they wished to replace their current constitution imposed during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Their answer was a resounding yes. Most of the 154 assembly members elected to do the job are independents.

GIOVANNA GRANDON: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Among them is Giovanna Grandon, a grandmother who struggled for years against poverty. She thinks that experience helps her connect with millions of Chileans in a way many politicians can't.

GRANDON: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "Inequality is huge in Chile," she says. "We can't go on like this." Grandon used to drive a school bus.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

REEVES: That was before she went to a mass protest dressed as Pikachu, the "Pokemon" character.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Baila, Pikachu (laughter).

REEVES: This video of her dancing in her bright yellow costume and falling over went viral, and she became a celebrity. Yet when Grandon ran for Chile's constituent assembly and was elected, she was being serious.

GRANDON: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "We want opportunities for our children," she says. "Opportunities we never had." Getting elected changed her life.

GRANDON: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Grandon is upset because she no longer has quality time with her family, but she says they understand I'm working for a better future.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMBIENT STREET NOISE)

REEVES: Out on Concepcion's bustling streets, many seem more focused on surviving the present.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in Spanish).

REEVES: There are buskers...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: ...And preachers. Louis Montesinos is selling art equipment from a stall.

LOUIS MONTESINOS: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: He says there are a lot more vendors on the sidewalks trying to survive in a pandemic economy. Montesinos is delighted the assembly has come to town to listen to people like him.

MONTESINOS: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "We're from the streets," he says. "That's where the problems are."

ANGELICA REYES: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: One block away, Angelica Reyes is serving pineapple juice and a favorite Chilean dessert, mote con huesillo. She's been working these streets long enough for everyone here to call her auntie.

REYES: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "It's fantastic the assembly's visiting," she says. Reyes is Mapuche, Chile's largest Indigenous group. Mapuches have a painful history of conflict with the state over land and Indigenous rights. There are 17 Indigenous people on the assembly, including the president. Reyes approves of that because, for her, this is personal. Reyes says her brother disappeared 40 years ago during the Pinochet dictatorship.

REYES: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "The military snatched him off the streets," she says. Reyes believes her brother was thrown from an aircraft into the sea, becoming one of thousands murdered by that regime. Anything that helps bury Pinochet's legacy, including a new constitution, is fine by her. As for what she wants now...

REYES: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "Give back the Mapuche lands," she says. Yet Chile is entering uncharted territory. The assembly only has until July to finish its work. Its draft constitution then goes to a mandatory popular vote. No one knows if Chileans will approve. It may not even get that far. The rightist candidate in Sunday's presidential election, Jose Antonio Kast, is against a new charter. If elected, he could prove obstructive. Back at the people's assembly, that is causing a lot of concern.

FUCHSLOCHER: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "We're worried," says Javier Fuchslocher, the high school teacher. "This process began because Chile was polarized and mass protests erupted," he explains.

FUCHSLOCHER: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "We can't go back to that." Philip Reeves, NPR News, Concepcion, Chile.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "BLACK SANDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.