History of Chile

MILITARY RULE, 1973-90

The armed forces justified the coup as necessary to stamp out Marxism, avert class warfare, restore order, and salvage the economy. They enshrined the National Security Doctrine, which defined their primary task as the defeat of domestic enemies who had infiltrated national institutions, including schools, churches, political parties, unions, and the media. Although civilians filled prominent economic posts, military officers took most government positions at the national and local levels. Immediately on seizing power, the military junta--composed of the commanders in chief of the army, navy, air force, and national police--issued a barrage of decrees to restore order on its own terms.

The first phase of the dictatorship (1973-75) was mainly destructive, aimed at rapid demobilization, depoliticization, and stabilization. The armed forces treated the members of the UP as an enemy to be obliterated, not just as an errant political movement to be booted from office. The military commanders closed Congress, censored the media, purged the universities, burned books, declared political parties outlawed if Marxist or in recess otherwise, and banned union activities.

The worst human rights abuses occurred in the first four years of the junta, when thousands of civilians were murdered, jailed, tortured, brutalized, or exiled, especially those linked with the Popular Unity parties. The secret police, reporting to Pinochet through the National Intelligence Directorate (Dirección Nacional de Inteligencia--DINA), replaced in 1977 by the National Information Center (Centro Nacional de Información--CNI), kept dissidents living in fear of arrest, torture, murder, or "disappearance."

Throughout the second half of the 1970s, the Roman Catholic Church and international organizations concerned with human rights denounced the widespread violations of decency in Chile. Although officially neutral, the Roman Catholic Church became the primary sanctuary for the persecuted in Chile from 1975 to 1985 and so came into increasing conflict with the junta.

The former members of Popular Unity went underground or into exile. In the early years of the dictatorship, their main goal was simply to survive. Although the Communists suffered brutal persecution, they managed to preserve their organization fairly intact. The Socialists splintered so badly that their party nearly disappeared by the end of the 1970s. Draconian repression left the Marxists with no capacity to resist or counterattack. They did, however, manage to rally world opinion against the regime and keep it diplomatically isolated. By the end of the 1970s, most Christian Democrats, after initially cooperating with the junta, had also joined the opposition, although not in any formal coalition with any coherent strategy for restoring democracy.

Pinochet soon emerged as the dominant figure and very shortly afterward as president. After a brief flirtation with corporatist ideas, the government evolved into a one-man dictatorship, with the rest of the junta acting as a sort of legislature. In 1977 Pinochet dashed the hopes of those Chileans still dreaming of an early return to democracy when he announced his intention to institutionalize an authoritarian regime to preside over a protracted return to civilian rule in a "protected" democracy.

Pinochet established iron control over the armed forces as well as the government, although insisting that they were separate entities. He made himself not only the chief executive of the state but also the commander in chief of the military. He shuffled commands to ensure that loyalists controlled all the key posts. He appointed many new generals and had others retire, so that by the 1980s all active-duty generals owed their rank to Pinochet. He also improved the pay and benefits of the services. The isolation of the armed forces from civil society had been a virtue under the democracy, inhibiting their involvement in political disputes; now that erstwhile virtue became an impediment to redemocratization, as the military remained loyal to Pinochet and resisted politicization by civilians.

Although aid and loans from the United States increased spectacularly during the first three years of the regime, while presidents Nixon and Gerald R. Ford were in office, relations soured after Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976 on a platform promising vigorous pursuit of human rights as a major component of his foreign policy. During the Carter administration, a significant source of contention was the 1976 assassination in Washington of the former Chilean ambassador to the United States by agents of Pinochet's secret police. The victim, Orlando Letelier, had served under Allende. In response to United States criticism, General Pinochet held his first national plebiscite in 1978, calling for a yes or no vote on his defense of Chile's sovereignty and the institutionalization of his regime. The government claimed that more than 75 percent of the voters in the tightly controlled referendum endorsed Pinochet's rule.

Neoliberal Economics

By the mid-1970s, the dictatorship switched from destroying the old order to constructing its version of a new Chile. The junta not only overturned decades of democratic government but also decades of statist economic policies, which had mainly protected industrialists and organized workers. The new economic program was designed by civilian technocrats known as the "Chicago boys" because many of them had been trained or influenced by University of Chicago professors. The government instituted a dramatic conversion to free-market economics in 1975.

After curbing inflation and returning a significant amount of property to its former owners, the administration embarked on a radical program of liberalization and privatization, slashing tariffs as well as government welfare programs and deficits. As a result, the economy grew rapidly from 1976 to 1981, a feat heralded as the "Chilean miracle." That growth was fueled by the influx of private foreign loans until the debt crisis of the early 1980s. Financial conglomerates became the major beneficiaries of the open economy and the flood of foreign bank loans. Exports of nontraditional commodities, especially fruit, timber, and fish products, also grew impressively; the value of new exportables came to equal that of copper sales. Despite high growth in the late 1970s, income distribution became more regressive and unemployment stayed in double digits. The underemployed informal sector also mushroomed in size. The regime responded with a "minimum employment" public works program.

In conjunction with the liberalization of the economy, the junta implemented a series of social reforms to reduce the role of the central government in social security, labor disputes, health care, and education. These reforms fit with the desire to shrink the central government, decentralize administration, and privatize previous state functions. Critics charged that the welfare state was being dismantled to leave citizens at the mercy of the marketplace. The regime retorted that it was focusing its social assistance on the poorest of the poor to meet basic needs, and it pointed with pride to improvement in such indicators as infant mortality.

The most important of the government's so-called modernizations in social policy was the 1979 Labor Plan. The regime had already outlawed the CUTCh, Marxist union leaders, several Marxist unions, union elections, strikes, and collective bargaining. Nevertheless, after bearing the brunt of repression in 1973-74, unions gradually revived in the late 1970s. Little by little, cooperation increased between Marxist and Christian Democrat union leaders, the latter making gains because the former were outlawed. Although a few unions supported the government, most firmly opposed the regime and its economic program. The Labor Plan sought to codify the dictatorship's antilabor policies. It placed stringent limits on collective bargaining, strikes, and other union activities, especially any participation in politics. Almost all labor unions rejected the Labor Plan and aligned with the opposition.

The 1980 Constitution

At the height of the economic boom, the regime moved to legitimize and regularize its reforms and its tenure. Its new "constitution of liberty" was approved in a controlled plebiscite in 1980, in which the government claimed to have received 67 percent of the vote. Both leftists and Christian Democrats had called for a no vote. Because there were no safeguards for the opposition or for the balloting, most analysts expressed doubts about the government's percentage and assumed that the constitution may have won by a lesser margin. According to the new constitution, Pinochet would remain president through 1989; a plebiscite in 1988 would determine if he would have an additional eight years in office. The document provided for military domination of the government both before and after the 1988 plebiscite.

The constitution's approval marked the institutionalization of Pinochet's political system. In the eyes of the military, a dictatorship had now been transformed into an authoritarian regime, rule by exception having been replaced by the rule of law. When the new charter took effect in 1981, the dictatorship was at the peak of its powers, politically untouchable and economically successful. At that moment, few would have predicted that the dispirited and fragmented opposition would take power by the end of the decade.

The imposition of the authoritarian constitution cast further gloom on the divided and dejected opposition. The PCCh now made a historic reversal, claiming that all forms of struggle, including armed insurrection, were justified against the dictatorship. Most political parties on the left or in the center, however, continued searching for a peaceful path to redemocratization.

The Crisis of 1982 and the Erosion of Military Rule

From 1982 to 1990, Chile underwent a prolonged journey back to democracy. During that process, the country experienced five crucial changes. First, the economic collapse in 1982 provoked some adjustments to the neoliberal model and sparked widespread protests against the regime. That recession was compounded by the international debt crisis.

Second, although most of the regime's supporters in the business community and the armed forces held fast, the 1980s witnessed a weakening of their attachment to authoritarianism and a few defections from their ranks. Third, civil society became emboldened. A series of demonstrations against Pinochet during 1983-85 spread from organized labor to the middle class and finally ended up concentrated among the residents of the urban shantytowns. Fourth, the previously repressed and dormant political parties came back to life. They took charge during the 1988 plebiscite that effectively ended the Pinochet regime and the subsequent 1989 elections for president and Congress. Fifth, after being surrounded by like-minded dictators in South America, Pinochet became isolated as a tide of democratization swept the continent, and the United States and Europe began applying pressure for Chile to join the trend.

In sum, from its apogee in the 1980 plebiscite to its exit in 1990, the authoritarian regime lost support and saw its opponents gain momentum and eventually power. During its first decade, however, the dictatorship had brought about profound and seemingly durable changes. Politically, it had pulverized the revolutionary Marxist left. Economically, it had moved Chile's focus from the state to the market. Socially, it had fostered a new emphasis on individualism and consumerism, widening the gap between rich and poor, even while helping some of the most destitute. What it had failed to do was to extirpate the preference of most Chileans for democracy.

Chile History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress