By Aart van Bochove and Ute Jansen
Esteban and Magdalena are citizens of the Republic of Chile. Their daily language is Spanish. Esteban is a PHD candidate at the Constitutional and Administrative Law Department of Leiden Law School. His research in Leiden focuses on how decentralized states behave under emergency conditions, particularly the Covid-19 pandemic. He looks at which dynamics (competition, conflict, coordination or cooperation) work better in terms of achieving more effective and legitimate responses to crisis.
Esteban used to live in London some 15 years ago when he did his master’s in political science at the London School of Economics. “London is great, the centre of the empire, everyone comes to London. That is also true for Toronto, but those cities are expensive, especially if you have a family. As a young family, you have different needs. We didn’t want a big commute, that was clear to us even before the pandemic.”
Leiden seemed to be the right choice. However, when the young family arrived in 2020, the pandemic had just started. That made a tough beginning. We asked him if he felt welcome arriving in the Netherlands. “Yes and no. Yes, because Leiden is an international city and most people speak good English. No, because of the pandemic. In our first year here – 2020 – we lived in isolation. The Blaauwberg event in the summer of 2022 was a big event for us, in fact for Magdalena it was the first big activity outside her networks in the international community of Leiden.”
My wife comes originally from the North. She has a lot of experience in community work. We met in Santiago while she was working in the Energy Ministry and I was working at several Universities in Santiago. We are looking forward to returning to the North. It is a quiet region and the social cohesion is strong. I will be teaching and researching regulatory frameworks, among others for managing the relationships between companies and local communities. For example how the business community needs to comply with human rights. And I will be lecturing on constitutional law as well as regional planning. The latter exists in the Netherlands, but not so much yet in Chile.”
But it is not only the theoretical knowledge that Esteban wants to convey. He wants to make students aware of the importance of democracy and political engagement.
“I look at politics in the sense of civic development. Politics is more than the electoral process. We need to reintroduce a broader political concept. Learning to deal with people who think differently. Breaking through the bubble culture. Opening up closed communities. Learning how to achieve consensus democracy. And even if you can’t figure it out: use your right to vote.”
What will he take home from Europe? “I like the British and Dutch style of tolerant political debate. People can react openly. In the House of Commons, an open debate is invited. That doesn’t happen in Chile. I take that culture of open debate with me also from my time in Leiden. Being able to have these debates without being afraid of conflict. In Chile, we are traumatised, we are afraid of debate. However, to stay in our bubbles is not a solution. Our society is very complex. A good example is the difficult context of balancing central and decentralised power and civil institutions in South America concerning regional security.”
Esteban is deeply committed to contributing to his home country. He takes inspiration from his family, especially his grandfather. “My grandfather came to Chile from Poland in the early 1930s. He was 19 years old, the son of a modest family, with a relative in Buenos Aires. He crossed the Andes and became a writer. Although he was Jewish, he married a catholic Chilean girl, a Spanish language teacher. He never went back to Poland. His family in Poland did not survive the war. My grandfather fled, for that matter, not only because he was a Jew, but especially because he was in economic need. In Chile, we have Gabriel Mistral and Pablo Neruda as Nobel laureates. My grandfather knew both of them and wrote their biographies. He was a cultural communicator. He started as an agricultural worker. Later, he had a publishing company. Healthy to the end, he died in 2000. When Lech Walesa visited Chile in the 1990s, he gave a medal to my grandfather, also for a book he wrote on Polish history. I was 17 when he died.”
You can keep a constitution short in practical and flexible societies. However, in Chili, we come from a legalistic tradition, we follow the rules. We stand in the French-Spanish tradition, where the codes of our constitution are determining our political life. People are used to following the rules. It all has to be quite detailed. I wish we were as self-regulating as Canada, the United Kingdom or the Netherlands.
Constitutional law is very much written in books. In my view, it has to be more than that. Written laws are only part of the story. You need to know how the laws work in practice. You have to experience it.”