Can a new constitution solve Chile's old problems?

Protesters gather in downtown Santiago on Oct. 18, 2020, as the country prepares for a landmark constitutional referendum.

(CNN)For a country at peace, Chile has seen plenty of recent turmoil. Churches were set ablaze and hundreds arrested during protests in the capital Santiago last weekend, nearly a year after at least 26 people died in fierce clashes over a transit fare hike.

The unrest has roiled a country hailed by the World Bank as "one of Latin America's fastest-growing economies" but where there is deep-seated anger over government policies seen as favoring the rich.
It's the tumultuous stage for a referendum Sunday to decide whether the country should replace its 40-year-old constitution, written during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
    Patricio Navia, a Chilean-born professor of Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University, said many Chileans find it unacceptable to be ruled by a document written during one of the darkest chapters of Chile's history.
      "It's like someone who owns a beautiful house, but they don't want it anymore because it was built by a father who was a rapist. It's not that the house is bad. It's that it was built by that father," he said.
      President General Augusto Pinochet addresses supporters in Santiago in May, 1984.
      "Writing a new constitution is an act of atonement," Navia said. "Since Chileans couldn't put Pinochet in jail for human rights violations, they now want to kill the constitution as an historical trial of sorts against him."
      Pinochet died at age 91 in 2006, not having been convicted of any crimes. However, opponents say that more than 3,000 people died as a consequence of political violence under his rule, notably during "Operation Condor," a campaign against political dissidents during the mid-1970s, including many whose bodies or fates have never been known. Many thousands more were tortured in secret detention centers or intimidated into exile.
        Why are Chileans protesting today? The World Bank noted that the country's "solid macroeconomic framework" has allowed Chile to slash the number of those living in poverty from 30% in 2000 to 3.7% in 2017. But, according to analysts who spoke to CNN, pervasive inequality has produced deep resentment among those marginalized and unable to share in the country's riches. The OECD reported in 2018 that the income inequality gap was more than 65% wider than the organization's average "with one of the highest ratios" between the average income of the wealthiest 10% and the poorest 10%.
        "Not only are they not getting a slice of the cake, they haven't even been invited to the party," Navia said. "And the demand for a new constitution is precisely that, a demand to be invited to the party."
        Creating a new constitution was espoused by the first leftist leaders after the fall of the military dictatorship in 1990. President Ricardo Lagos promoted the biggest reforms in 2005 -- and the current constitution includes more than 250 amendments -- and presidential candidates first seriously discussed the idea of a referendum in the 2009 campaign.
        "The current one has a serious legitimacy problem," said Gabriel Boric, one of the leftist legislators who pressed for a referendum. "On the one hand, we have pressing social needs like pensions, reducing salaries to legislators, increasing taxes on the rich, freezing the cost of utilities. On the other hand, there's a deeper question about leveling the playing field. What's the common framework that governs all of us?"
        More than 14.8 million Chileans are eligible to vote Sunday and several polls show that at least 70% favor drafting a new constitution. If approved, it will take more than a year to finish writing the new text.
        Chileans are not only deciding whether they get a new constitution, but who's writing it and how. If as expected creating a new constitution is approved, a constitutional assembly would be chosen in April 2021 at the same time municipal and regional elections are expected to be held.
        People demonstrate against changing the constitution in Santiago on Oct. 21.