"Pressing Disengagement:" Chile's Transition to Democracy After Augusto Pinochet's 1973 Military Coup

By Alexander E. Hopkins
2012, Vol. 4 No. 09 | pg. 1/3 |


Although he left office in March 1990, dictator Augusto Pinochet effectively held absolute power in Chile from 1973-1988. His September 1973 military coup proved that a charismatic individual could set the goals of the state by using hard power to affect national politics. While Chilean citizens did not want to support Pinochet, the military regime proved that open dissent was a fatal option. In 1987, due to international humanitarian pressure, Pinochet legalized outside non-Marxist political parties to add legitimacy to his regime. While Pinochet controlled the media, propagandizing capitalist development, Chileans formed the “No” media campaign against his re-election campaign in an October 1988 plebiscite.

This examines the events leading up to Pinochet’s 1987 legalization of non-Marxist outside parties, as well as the Chilean formation of the “No” campaign to stop Pinochet’s “Yes” re-election campaign during the constitutionally-mandated 1988 plebiscite. Unlike Pinochet’s “Yes” re-election campaign, the “No” campaign’s testimonial evidence of violent repression stood-out against the threat-laced status-quo of the “Yes” campaign. As history has shown, the “No” campaign proved effective, as Chile democratically-elected its first President in 1989.

This chilling testimony was not uncommon of the horrors that Chileans endured during and after Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorial regime assumed power during a military coup on September 11, 1973. Pinochet, who by then was a military leader appointed by President Salvador Allende, viewed Allende’s administration as a left-leaning government that resembled Marxism (Wyndham & Read, 32). Allende, who did not win the 1970 Presidential election with a majority, was viewed by many wealthy classes as an illegitimate government (University of Wisconsin, 2012). This coup became chilling evidence that the democratic government under Allende was not working (Navia, 302).

Although he left office in March 1990, Pinochet effectively held power from 1973-1988, The coup showed that a charismatic individual such as Pinochet could set the goals of the state by using hard power to affect the internal and external policies of the state (Byman & Pollack, 134; Nye, 257. Pinochet effectively controlled the media, which spread messages of “transnationally-dependent capitalist development” to bolster his regime (Crofts-Wiley, 671). While the people did not want to support Pinochet, the military regime proved that open dissent was a fatal option (Crofts-Wiley, 671). However, after Chile’s 1982-1983 economic crisis, the “Miracle of Chile” helped to justify Pinochet’s incumbency because the economy skyrocketed beginning in 1984 (Davis, 1360; University of Wisconsin, 2012; Navia, 304). However, this came at the cost of an even greater socio-economic gap between the rich and the poor (Navia, 298). Still, however, many of the socio-economic elites believed that he was a hero “..for having overthrown international Marxism on the 11 September 1973 and today on his sickbed and for having given us a protected Democracy” (Tanner, 395).

The events leading up to the 1988 constitutionally-mandated plebiscite were gambles both for Pinochet and the citizenry. In 1987, due to international pressure, Pinochet legalized outside non-Marxist political parties to add legitimacy to his regime (Ma, 60). As long as the citizenry could obtain 33,500 signatures, a party would be recognized by Pinochet’s government. The citizenry had to strike a balance between not raising Pinochet’s suspicion and remaining cohesively-transparent with one another (Weeks, 728). The formation of the “No” campaign against Pinochet’s “Yes” campaign helped to defeat Pinochet in the October 1988 plebiscite, which effectively called Pinochet to hold elections. In 1989, Patricio Aylwin was elected as Pinochet’s presidential successor and ultimately became the first-democratically-elected Chilean President in over 20 years.

However, given that any outside humanitarian intervention against Pinochet’s dictatorship was ineffective, the democratic regime shift had to occur from within Chile by citizenry who were repressed by Pinochet’s policies. When Pinochet legalized outside parties in 1987, Chileans formed the “No” campaign to stop Pinochet’s “Yes” campaign in the constitutionally-mandated 1988 plebiscite. Unlike Pinochet’s “Yes” re-election campaign, the “No” campaign’s testimonial evidence of violent repression stood-out against the threat-laced status-quo of the “Yes” campaign.

Imagine that you have a wound, a deep wound, pain in your body, in your soul, everywhere. Imagine that the only thing you want to do is cry, shout, protest, because you feel that what happened was infinitely unjust. Imagine that you can’t do it and while others laugh, celebrate, laugh and celebrate over and over, you have to be quiet, not cry or cry quietly, not talk, not talk. And suddenly a loved one disappears; you suspect what has happened to him, but it is dangerous to even ask, they say that, they talk in half whispers, fear, rumors, danger, death, everything is dangerous. And if they had let me cry out loud, protest, debate, dissent, criticize, think differently? How much hatred would have been avoided! (Tanner, 394).
-An anonymous survivor of Chilean Dictator Augusto Pinochet’s first year in office

By the evening of September 11, 1973, Allende laid dead, the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Pinochet immediately began on salvaging the government from the mass civilian chaos that followed. The majority of citizens in the days that followed initially-viewed Pinochet’s coup as a rescue operation from an undermined government under Allende (Davis, 1375). As such, they believed that Pinochet’s strict rule was only a transitory government until Chile could once again return to a stronger democracy (Davis, 1375). Of course, this never happened, which created a split among the citizenry between supporters of the Pinochet regime and those who opposed it. The former group, mainly consisting of the wealthy classes who viewed Allende’s regime as illegitimate, still insisted that Pinochet was restoring democracy (Novak, 296).

Pinochet used coercion to undermine the balanced-power system to work in his favor by controlling the economy, diplomacy and military of Chile—even if this came at the expense of rising suspicion from outside countries such as the United States (Schelling, 2; Jervis, 50; Mearsheimer, 34). Since any citizen group going against the entire Chilean military would be suicide, Pinochet’s regime grew at an alarmingly-quick rate because the cost-benefit ratio benefitted Pinochet (Gilpin, 94). As such, he deterred any citizenry from “undermining” his government by enforcing sun-up to sun-down curfews, declaring group gatherings of more than three people illegal and suppressing the media (Wyndham & Read, 32; Truman State University).

Of course, even if no one clashed with Pinochet’s military, many citizens and politicians were public about condemning their beliefs in the ideological-basis for Pinochet’s power. To these groups, Pinochet engaged in military operations such as the “Caravan of Death” to torture an estimated 27,000 people during his seventeen year regime (University of Wisconsin, 2012). Of this number, anywhere between 3,000-5,000 people “disappeared” or were publicly-executed in makeshift stadiums-turned-concentration camps (Davis, 1360; Wyndham & Read, 32; University of Wisconsin, 2012). Roughly half of the deaths occurred between September-December 1973 alone (Wyndham & Read, 32).

On the night after the coup, Pinochet appeared on television and addressed the Chilean citizenry: “The armed forces have acted today solely from the patriotic inspiration of saving the country from tremendous chaos into which it was being plunged by the Marxist government of [President] Salvador Allende” (Davis, 1375). Pinochet began his reign by ingratiating himself with the citizenry, a key rhetorical tactic that would characterize his seventeen year reign. He often used “We” to refer to his government and “them” to refer to the enemy (Nunn, 204). He collectively invoked nationalism—as opposed to loyalty—from the upper-echelons of society (Mansfield & Snyder, 10). As Pinochet delivered his address, wealthy citizens throughout Chile celebrated. They began to believe that they were liberated from a democratic government that sacrificed their power to lower classes.

Shortly after Pinochet assumed power, he instituted an “electoral” system that favored his regime. Political Scientist Jay Dow (1998) details this when he writes: “…the second seat goes to the candidate with the most votes on the list with the second largest combined plurality. The Pinochet regime instituted this electoral system to induce parties to form broad coalitions and to give disproportionate representation to minority parties—understood to be those of the right—in each district. The Chilean electoral system promotes Duverger behavior because the allocation of seats depends on the combined pluralities of a list. Further, parties increase the likelihood of securing a legislature more to their liking by forming a coalition with like-minded parties. Disproportionate representation for the minority list is secured because to win both seats a coalition’s plurality must be at least two-thirds. Not only is this unlikely, it is quite possible the candidate with the largest plurality on the minority list will be elected with a smaller vote share than the second candidate on the majority list. This occurred in several legislative elections” (Dow, 63).

For Pinochet, holding power was easy enough. However, the real challenge was creating the illusion of a legitimate government to disarm any outside forces that posed a threat to his regime. If he could not deceive the people, international humanitarian organizations, such as the United Nations, could use global media outlets to openly-condemn the regime. On a more national level, well-organized minority parties in Chile could form a coalition to destroy Pinochet’s regime if blatant dictatorial repression took place.

Furthermore, Pinochet’s regime would not benefit him unless he could suppress any Chilean criticisms. If anyone brought-up any grievances against the regime, Pinochet not only ensured that the law was structured in his own benefit, but likewise, interpreted in his favor as well (Collins, 68). This is where Chile’s judicial system came into play. When structuring laws, Pinochet received advice from high-ranking Chilean judges, thereby allowing him to pass laws that left little to outside interpretation because he coerced the courts to rule in his favor. Perhaps the most noteworthy example was the 1979 Antiterrorism law, which criminalized plans to attack the “social order” of Chile under Pinochet’s regime (Tolbert, 2001).

Given that Pinochet all but destroyed democracy, concerned citizenry had to start-over, create their own organizations and rally less-informed citizens towards their cause. One of the first organizations to advocate human rights in Chile—and arguably the most important during the regime’s early years—was the Santiago Branch of the Group of Families of Detained-Disappeared (GFDD). This group, composed predominantly of women, became the most prominent human rights organization through it's public acts of civil disobedience (Wyndham & Read, 33). While most political groups maintained hushed-resentment towards the atrocities committed under Pinochet’s regime, the GFDD staged several hunger strikes and demonstrations in packed local centers. The demonstrations in particular—with protestors wielding placards of missing friends and relatives—captured the hearts of a public who longed for the civilian-based democratic regime that characterized Chile for many decades.

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