SANTIAGO – Chileans dissatisfied with the government’s response to socio-economic issues are finding a voice and power within themselves. To leverage their collective strength they are forming cabildos, or citizen lobbies, throughout the country. But what is a citizen lobby, and could it be the key to resolving today’s crisis?
A citizen lobby – or cabildo – allows voters to discuss issues of concern and gather common opinions, demands, and plans. The purpose is to make a democratic stand about a problem affecting the community. It helps the community organize and act on from its standpoints and, if the authorities are listening, it helps the authorities better understand and serve the community.
As explained in Cooperativa, citizen lobbies can be an effective way to fight the current lack of trust in both “official information” from authorities and that disseminated by mass media.
On Oct. 26, President Sebastián Piñera made a call on Twitter for citizen lobbies, in an attempt to transform the ongoing political crisis into “a new and demanding Social Agenda.” Thereafter, different assemblies and lobbies were held throughout the country, expressing concerns from local standpoints.
Comenzamos una nueva etapa. Estamos impulsando una #NuevaAgendaSocial. Levantaremos Estados Excepción este domingo. Convocamos a un diálogo honesto y humano a representantes sociales, políticos y de la sociedad civil, para escuchar su voz y aporte a nueva y exigente Agenda Social
— Sebastian Piñera (@sebastianpinera) October 26, 2019
How Does a Citizen Lobby Work?
The Unidad Social web suggests a standard methodology for all Chilean citizen lobbies or cabildos to follow. The essential goals are to (1) define a conflict and its origin, (2) establish collective points of view, (3) identify current or previous work done to address the problem, and eventually, (4) suggest a new plan of action for the community itself and other social organizations.
A citizen lobby also usually records the date, location, information about the attendees, and the points of discussion. With the help of such information, the voice of the citizens nationwide becomes consistent in numbers, priorities, and specific demands and solutions.
In the Cooperativa article above, sociologist Claudia Dides explains what happens after a citizen lobby: “A summary will be made, which will be part of the petitions … so that the spokespersons of the organizations can use it both at the communal, regional and national levels.“
Another type of citizen lobby is one held by municipalities, that gather people’s demands and present them to higher authorities for possible further action.
Citizen lobbies are, of course, now harnessing the internet. For example, unidadsocial.cl is currently working as a publishing platform for all citizen lobby summaries. It is open until Nov. 7 for all communities to upload their citizen lobby minutes.
The Historical Role of Cabildos
In “Local governments and education in Chile in the XIX century: a historical approach,” Moyra Castro notes that citizen lobbies go far back in Chilean history, and have their origin in Spain in the 700s, during the Muslim conquest—a time when Spain needed to secure its frontiers. The essential principles of a citizen lobby were born when the Spanish monarchy gave organized group of citizens a relative authority over territories and matters, giving them power of local decision and suggestion, still under the king’s authority.
A thousand years later and an ocean away,, after the Spanish conquest in the Americas, Chile adopted citizen lobbies as a fundamental part of their political structure. These cabildos were decision-making local points were the main authorities—mayors and other representatives—had the power to guide their own systems, still under the approval of the monarchy.
With Spain’s political grip long gone, Chile has its own political system, with its own institutions and issues to tackle, but citizen lobbies still represent a tool for citizen participation in democracy. In fact, they find a certain measure of protection and promotion under Law 20500, which establishes the people’s right to meet and associate freely.
According to the Interior Ministry, this law says the government acknowledges the people’s right to participate actively in the planning of governmental actions and programs, in formal ways of discussion like assemblies or citizen forums.
Citizen Lobbies in Chile Today
Available figures indicate that, currently, some 10,000 people are participating in 200 different citizen lobbies throughout the country, as reported by Cooperative in the article above.
The most discussed topics were the expected constituent assembly and new Constitution, retirement pensions, environmental problems, education and health system changes, and the recent, alleged human rights violations by authorities in response to the protests and social unrest.
Dides encourages Chileans to organize and attend citizen lobbies, as well as record and publish registers of each meeting. “There are citizen lobbies with 1,000 attendees and others with 10. What’s important here is to give all instances the same [validity],” she told BioBioChile.
In El Ciudadano, Valparaíso’s planning director, Tania Madriaga, emphasized the civic organization in her comuna: “We believe transformation is possible only when the people’s interests are put above particular political groups’. A local government needs to serve as a tool of common and democratic interest.”
Camila Huecho is a journalism student at Universidad de La Frontera in Temuco, currently interning at Chile Today. As a freelance illustrator and Fellow at the Melton Foundation, she works to bring information and cultures together through communications and art.