Chilean transition to democracy

Chilean transition to democracy
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The Chilean transition to democracy began when a Constitution establishing a transition itinerary was approved in a plebiscite. From March 11, 1981 to March 11, 1990, several organic constitutional laws were approved leading to the final restoration of democracy. After the 1988 plebiscite, the 1980 Constitution, still in force today, was amended to ease provisions for future amendments to the constitution, create more seats in the senate, diminish the role of the National Security Council and equalize the number of civilian and military members (four members each).

Aylwin served from 1990 to 1994 and was succeeded by another Christian Democrat, Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle (son of Frei-Montalva), leading the same coalition, for a 6-year term. Ricardo Lagos Escobar of the Socialist Party and the Party for Democracy led the Concertacion to a narrower victory in the 2000 presidential elections. His term ended on March 11, 2006, when Michelle Bachelet, of the Socialist Party, took office.[1] Center-right investor and businessman Sebastián Piñera, of the National Renewal, assumed the presidency on March 11, 2010, after Bachelet's term expired.


The 1988 plebiscite and the reform of the Constitution

Passed under tight military control in 1980, the Chilean constitution's legal dispositions were designed to lead to the convocation of all citizens to a plebiscite during which the Chilean people would ratify a candidate, proposed by the Chief of Staff of the Chilean Armed Forces and by the General Director of the Carabineros, the national police force, and who would become the President of Chile for an eight-year term. In 1980, this meant that the Chilean people were supposed to approve Augusto Pinochet's candidacy, assuring him popular legitimacy and the sanction of a vote. Should the people refuse the junta' chosen candidate, the military would relinquish political control to the civilians, convoking the following year presidential and parliamentary democratic elections, and thus putting an end to the military government. In 1987, Pinochet's government passed a law allowing the creation of political parties and another law allowing the opening of national registers of voters. If the majority of the people voted "yes" to Pinochet's plebiscite, he would have remained in power for the next eight years, but Congress would have been elected and installed on March 11, 1990, as in fact happened.

Context and causes of Pinochet's decision to follow the Constitution

Among various causes to Pinochet's decision to resume this procedure, the situation in the Soviet Union, where Mikhail Gorbachev had initiated the glasnost and the perestroika democratic reforms, which would finally lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and to the official end of the Cold War, is clearly an important factor. The Cold War had important consequences in South America, considered by the United States to be a full part of the Western Bloc, called "free world", in contrast with the Eastern Bloc, a division born with the end of World War II and the Yalta Conference. Following the 1959 Cuban Revolution and the local implementation in several countries of Che Guevara's foco theory, the US waged a war in South America against the "Communists subversives," leading to support in Chile of the right-wing, which would culminate with Pinochet's coup in 1973 in Chile. In a few years, all of South America was covered by similar military dictatorships, called juntas. In Paraguay, Alfredo Stroessner was in power since 1954; in Brazil, left-wing President João Goulart was overthrown by a military coup in 1964; in Bolivia, General Hugo Banzer overthrew leftist General Juan José Torres in 1971; in Uruguay, considered the "Switzerland" of South America, Juan María Bordaberry seized power in the June 27, 1973 coup. A "Dirty War" was waged all over the continent, culminating with Operation Condor, an agreement between security services of the Southern Cone and other South American countries to repress and assassinate political opponents. Militaries also took power in Argentina in 1976, and then supported the 1980 "Cocaine Coup" of Luis García Meza Tejada in Bolivia, before training the Contras in Nicaragua where the Sandinista National Liberation Front, headed by Daniel Ortega, had taken power in 1979, as well as militaries in Guatemala and in El Salvador. In the 1980s, however, the situation progressively evolved in the world as in South America, despite a renewal of the Cold War from 1979 to 1985, the year during which Gorbatchev replaced Konstantin Chernenko as leader of the USSR.

Another alleged reason of Pinochet's decision to call for elections was the April 1987 visit of Pope John Paul II to Chile, during which he visited Santiago, Viña del Mar, Valparaíso, Temuco, Punta Arenas, Puerto Montt and Antofagasta. Before the pontiff's pilgrimage to Latin America, during a meeting with reporters, he criticized Pinochet's regime as "dictatorial." In the words of the New York Times, he was "using unusually strong language" to criticize Pinochet and asserted the journalists that the Church in Chile must not only pray, but actively fight for the restoration of democracy in Chile.[2] During his 1987 Chilean visit, the Polish pope asked Chile's 31 Catholic bishops to campaign for free elections in the country.[3] According to George Weigel, he held a meeting with Pinochet during which they treated of the theme of the return to democracy. John Paul II would have allegedly pushed Pinochet to accept a democratic opening of the regime, and would even have called for his resignation.[4] During his visit to Chile, John Paul II supported the Vicariate of Solidarity, the Church-led pro-democracy, anti-Pinochet organization. John Paul II visited the Vicariate of Solidarity's offices, spoke with its workers, and "called upon them to continue their work, emphasizing that the Gospel consistently urges respect for human rights."[5] Some have erroneously accused John Paul II of affirming Pinochet's regime by appearing with the Chilean ruler in his balcony. However, Cardinal Roberto Tucci, the organizer of John Paul II's pilgrimages revealed that Pinochet tricked the pontiff by telling him he would take him to his living room, while in reality he took him to his balcony. Tucci claims that the pontiff was "furious."[6]

Whatever the case, political advertisement was legalized on September 5, 1987, and became a key element of the campaign for the "NO" to the referendum, which countered the official campaign which presaged a return to a Popular Unity government in case of a defeat of Pinochet. Finally, the "NO" to Pinochet won with 55,99% of the votes, against 44,01% of the votes. Thus presidential and legislative elections were called for the next year.

Furthermore, in July 1989, a constitutional referendum took place after long negotiations between the government and the opposition. If approved, 54 constitutional reforms were to be implemented, among which the reform of the way that the Constitution itself could be reformed, the restriction of state of emergency dispositions, the affirmation of political pluralism, the strengthening of constitutional rights as well as of the democratic principle and participation to the political life. All parties in the political spectrum supported the reforms, with the exception of the small right-wing Avanzada Nacional, and the reforms were passed with 91.25% of the vote

Aylwin administration

Representing the Concertación coalition which supported the return to democracy, gathering the Christian Democrat Party (PDC), the Socialist Party (PS), the Party for Democracy (PPD) and the Social Democrat Radical Party (PRSD), Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin won a sweeping victory in the first democratic elections, in December 1989, since the 1970 election won by Salvador Allende. Patricio Aylwin had gathered around him 3,850,023 votes (55.17%), while the center-right supermarket tycoon Francisco Javier Errázuriz Talavera, who represented the UCCP party, managed to take 15.05% of the vote, which had as main effects to lower right-wing candidate Hernán Büchi's score to 29.40% (approximately 2 millions votes, almost half than Patricio Aylwin).

The Concertación coalition would dominate Chilean politics for the next two decades, with its most recent victory being the 2006 election of Socialist candidate Michelle Bachelet. It established in February 1991 the National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, which released in February 1991 the Rettig Report on human rights violations during Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship. This report, contested by human rights NGOs and associations of political prisoners, counted 2,279 cases of "disappearances" which could be proved and registered. Of course, the very nature of "disappearances" made such investigations very difficult, while many victims were still intimidated by the authorities, and did not dare go to the local police center register themselves on lists, since the police officers were the same than during the dictatorship.

The same problem arose, several years later, for the Valech Report, released in 2004 and which counted almost 30,000 victims of torture, among testimonies from 35,000 persons. However, the Rettig Report did list important detention and torture centers, such as the Esmeralda ship, the Víctor Jara Stadium, Villa Grimaldi, etc. The registering of victims of the dictatorship, and then, in the 2000s, trials of military personnel guilty of human rights violations, would dominate the struggle for the recognition of crimes committed during the dictatorship by human rights NGOs and associations of political prisoners, whom many resided in exile.

Beside implementing the Rettig Commission, Aylwin's government established a Comisión Especial de Pueblos indígenas (Special Commission of Indigenous People), whose report provided the intellectual framework of the "Indigenous Law" (ley indígena) or law n° 19 253, promulgated on September 28, 1993 [7], which recognized in particular the Mapuche people as inherent part of the Chilean nation. Other indigenous people officially recognized included Aymaras, Atacameñas, Collas, Quechuas, Rapa-Nui, Yámanas and Kawashkars. Despite this state proclamation of indigenous rights, conflicts brought by land-occupations and Mapuche's claims led to state repression and the use of the anti-terrorist law against Mapuche activists, a law voted by the military junta.

Frei Ruiz-Tagle administration

Preparing for the 1993 election, the Concertación held primaries in May 1993, opposing on its left-wing Ricardo Lagos (PPD) to Christian-Democrat Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, (PDC), the son of former President Eduardo Frei Montalva (1911–1982, President from 1964 to 1970). Eduardo Frei won these primaries by a large majority of 63%.

The right-wing, grouped in the Alliance for Chile, also held primaries opposing Sebastián Piñera (National Renewal, RN, the largest right-wing party at the time), who had supported the "NO" during the 1988 plebiscite on the return to civilian rule, to Arturo Alessandri Besa, former member of the National Party (PN, opposed to Eduardo Frei in the 1970 presidential election) and currently representant of the Independent Democrat Union (UDI). Alessandri won those, and thus represented the Alliance for Chile against the Concertación.

Others candidates included José Piñera, former Minister in the early 1980s who had implemented the law granting property of copper to the Chilean Armed Forces, who presented himself as an independent (6%); ecologist Manfred Max-Neef (5,55%), representative of the Left-Wing Democratic Alternative (which gathered the Communist Party (PCC), MAPU (part of the Popular Unity coalition of Allende) and the Christian Left Party); Eugenio Pizarro Poblete (less than 5%); and finally Cristián Reitze Campos of the left-wing Humanist Party (1,1%).

On 28 May 1993, the Boinazo took place, during which paratroopers surrounded the Chilean Army headquarters located close-by to the Palacio de la Moneda [8]. The motive of the military uprising was the opening of investigations concerning the "Pinocheques", or checks received by Pinochet for a total amount of $3 million in the frame of kickbacks from an arms deal [9]. But, unnoticed at the time, a few days before, Jorge Schaulsohn, President of the Chamber of Deputies, had also denounced irregularities during arms trade committed by the Chilean Army through the intermediary of the FAMAE (Factories and Arsenals of the Army of Chile) — much later connected to the Gerardo Huber case, who was assassinated the year before [9].

Frei Ruiz-Tagle finally won the election in the first turn, held in December 1993, with an absolute majority of almost 58%, and more than 4 millions votes against Arturo Allesandri who gathered around 1,700 000 votes (24.4%). Eduardo Frei took office in March 1994 and presided for a 6-year term, until 2000. During his term, it was not possible to judge any military for his role during the dictatorship, while large sectors of the Chilean society remained Pinochetista.

Arrest and trial of Pinochet and Lagos administration

Pinochet funeral.

Following an agreement between Pinochet and Andrés Zaldívar Larraín, president of the Senate, the latter voted to abolish the date of 11 September as a National Holiday which celebrated the 1973 coup. Supporters of Pinochet had blocked until then any such attempt.[10] The same year, Pinochet traveled to London for an operation. Once there, he was arrested on the orders of Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, provoking worldwide attention, not only because of the past history of Chile and South America, but also because this was one of the first arrest of a dictator based on the universal jurisdiction principle. Pinochet tried to defend himself by referring to the State Immunity Act of 1978, an argument rejected by British judicial system. However, UK Home Secretary Jack Straw took the responsibility to release him on medical grounds, and refused to extradite him to Spain. Pinochet returned to Chile in March 2000. Upon descending the plane on his wheelchair, he quickly stood up and saluted the cheering crowd of supporters, including an army band playing his favorite military march tunes, which was awaiting him at the airport in Santiago. President Ricardo Lagos, who had just been sworn in on March 11, said the retired general's televised arrival had damaged the image of Chile, while thousands demonstrated against him.[11]

Representing the Concertación coalition for democracy, Ricardo Lagos had won the election just a few months before, by a very tight score of less than 200,000 votes (51,32%) against Joaquín Lavín (less than 49%), who represented the right-wing Alliance for Chile. None of the six candidates had obtained an absolute majority on the first turn held on December 12, 1999. Lagos was sworn in March 11, 2000, for a 6-year term.

In June 2000, the Congress voted a new law which granted anonymity to members of the armed forces who provide information on the desaparecidos [12].

In 2002 Chile signed an association agreement with the European Union (comprising FTA, political and cultural agreements), in 2003, an extensive free trade agreement with the United States, and in 2004 with South Korea, expecting a boom in import and export of local produce and becoming a regional trade-hub.

Meanwhile, the trials concerning human rights violations during the dictatorship continued. Pinochet was stripped of his parliamentary immunity in August 2000 by the Supreme Court, and indicted by judge Juan Guzmán Tapia. Tapia had ordered in 1999 the arrest of five military mem, including General Pedro Espinoza Bravo of the DINA, for their role in the Caravan of Death following the 11 September coup. Arguing that the bodies of the "disappeared" were still missing, he made jurisprudence which had as effect to lift any prescription on the crimes committed by the military. Pinochet's trial continued until his death on December 10, 2006, with an alternance (badword) of indictments for specific cases, lifting of immunities by the Supreme Court or to the contrary immunity from prosecution, with his health a main argument for, or against, his prosecution. The Supreme Court affirmed in March 2005 Pinochet's immunity concerning the 1974 assassination of General Carlos Prats in Buenos Aires, which had taken place in the frame of Operation Condor. However, he was deemed fit to stand trial for Operation Colombo, during which 119 political opponents were "disappeared" in Argentina. The Chilean justice also lifted his immunity on the Villa Grimaldi case, a detention and torture center in the outskirts of Santiago. Pinochet, who still benefited from a reputation of righteousness from his supporters, lost legitimacy when he was put under house arrest on tax fraud and passport forgery, following the publication by the US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of a report concerning the Riggs Bank in July 2004. The report was a consequence of investigations on financial fundings of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US. The bank controlled between USD $4 million and $8 million of Pinochet's assets, who lived in Santiago in a modest house, dissimulating his wealth. According to the report, Riggs participated in money laundering for Pinochet, setting up offshore shell corporations (referring to Pinochet as only "a former public official"), and hiding his accounts from regulatory agencies. Related to Pinochet's and his family secret bank accounts in United States and in Caraïbs islands, this tax fraud filing for an amount of 27 million dollars shocked the conservative sectors who still supported him. Ninety percent of these funds would have been raised between 1990 and 1998, when Pinochet was chief of the Chilean armies, and would essentially have come from weapons traffic (when purchasing Belgian 'Mirage' air-fighters in 1994, Dutch 'Léopard' tanks, Swiss 'Mowag' tanks or by illegal sales of weapons to Croatia, in the middle of the Balkans war.) His wife, Lucía Hiriart, and his son, Marco Antonio Pinochet, were also sued for complicity. For the fourth time in seven years, Pinochet was indicted by the Chilean justice.[13]

The Chilean authorities took control in August 2005 of the Colonia Dignidad concentration camp, directed by ex-Nazi Paul Schäfer.

President Ricardo Lagos signed in 2005 the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership free trade agreement with Brunei, New Zealand and Singapore. This P4 agreement has entered into force in May 2006. All country members are part of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.

2005 reform of the 1980 Constitution

Over 50 reforms to Pinochet's Constitution were approved in 2005, which eliminated some of the remaining undemocratic areas of the text, such as the existence of non-elected Senators (institutional senators, or senators for life) and the inability of the President to remove the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. These reforms led the President to controversially declare Chile's transition to democracy as complete. However, the anti-terrorist measures of it remained in force, and have been used against the Mapuches. Furthermore, the military still received money from the copper industry.

Bachelet administration

In 2006, the Concertación again won the presidential election: Michelle Bachelet, Chile's first woman president, beat Sebastián Piñera (Alliance for Chile), with more than 53% of the votes. Bachelet's first political crisis occurred with massive student protests, who were demanding free bus fare and the waiving of the university admissions test (PSU) fee, while the longer term demands included: the abolition of the Organic Constitutional Law on Teaching (LOCE), the end to municipalization of subsidized education, a reform to the Full-time School Day policy (JEC) and a quality education for all. The protests peaked on May 30, 2006 when 790,000 students adhered to strikes and marches throughout the country, becoming Chile's largest student demonstration of the past three decades, a sure sign of the progress of the Chilean transition to democracy.[14].

The 2006–2007 Chilean corruption scandals are a series of events in which the Chilean governing Concertación has been under investigations of corruption.

In June 2007, General Raúl Iturriaga, the former deputy director of the DINA, condemned to a five year sentence for the abduction of Luis Dagoberto San Martin in 1974, rebelled from the Chilean justice and entered clandestinity. He was finally caught and detained in August 2007 [15].

The CUT trade-union federation called for demonstrations in August 2007. These went on during the night, and at least 670 people were arrested (including journalists and a mayor [16], and 33 carabineros injured [17]. The protest were aimed against Bachelet's government free market policies. The Socialist Senator Alejandro Navarro was injured by the police during the demonstrations [18], although it later emerged that he had hit and kicked police and is currently under investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee [19]. Senators from the opposition have requested that Navarro and other congressmen which participated in the protest be removed from Congress for violating the constitutional article which bans congressmen from participating demonstrations which "violate the peace" [20].

According to the correspondent of the BBC, Horacio Brum, about three million workers, roughly half the workforce, earn the minimum wage of $260 (£130) a month [18]. Arturo Martínez , general secretary of the CUT, requested explanations from the government, and accused it of having stirred up the tension [21]. Politicians from the center-right Alianza and even from the governing center-left Concertación have in turn criticized the CUT for the violence of the protest.

The protests of September 11, 2007, were even more violent. One policeman and father of two, Cristián Vera, was shot and killed by one of the protesters. Both the center-right Alianza and the governing center-left Concertación decried the violence and the government introduced new measures to combact street gangs which it accused of exacerbating the violence. Then potential presidential candidate, now president, Sebastián Piñera criticized the participants of both protests for their use of guns and molotov cocktails, calling their actions "almost terrorist" [22].


  1. ^ "Background note". Department of State. 
  2. ^ Pope, on Latin Trip, Attacks Pinochet Regime New York Times, April 1, 1987
  3. ^ Pope Tells Chile's Bishops To Press for Free Elections; Pontiff Joins Pinochet on Palace Balcony The Washington Post, April 3, 1987
  4. ^ George Weigel, Biografía de Juan Pablo II - Testigo de Esperanza, Editorial Plaza & Janés (2003), ISBN 8401013046
  5. ^ Timmerman, Jacobo Chile: Death in the South, p. 114, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1987 ISBN 978-0517029022
  6. ^ Dlaczego Jan Paweł II wyszedł z Pinochetem na balkon Gazeta Wyborcza, December 24, 2009
  7. ^ LEY Nº 19.253 - LEY INDÍGENA (Spanish)
  8. ^ Chile: Illicit Croatia Arms Sale Case in Final Stage, The Santiago Times, 4 September 2007 (English)
  9. ^ a b El verdadero objetivo del "boinazo" de Pinochet, Diario Siete, 25 September 2005 (Spanish)
  10. ^ Chile abolishes coup holiday, BBC News, August 20, 1998
  11. ^ Thousands march against Pinochet, BBC, March 4, 2000
  12. ^ Soldier confirms Chile stadium killings, BBC, 27 June 2000 (English)
  13. ^ U.S. sends back Pinochet daughter, CNN, January 28, 2006
  14. ^ Manuel Riesco, "Is Pinochet dead?", New Left Review n°47, September–October 2007 (English and Spanish)
  15. ^ Claudia Lagos and Patrick J. McDonneln Pinochet-era general is caught, Los Angeles Times, August 3, 2007 (English)
  16. ^ Affrontements violents lors des manifestations anti-Bachelet, RFI, 30 August 2007 (French)
  17. ^ "Ultimo balance cifra en 670 los detenidos en jornada de protesta", Radio Cooperativa, 30 August 2007 (Spanish)
  18. ^ a b Clashes erupt at Chilean protests, BBC, 30 August 2007 (English)
  19. ^ R. Vergara and P. Lazaeta, "Navarro admite que golpeó dos veces "la mano" del carabinero", El Mercurio, 5 Septiember 2007
  20. ^ Hernán Cisternas, "Alianza analiza pedir inhabilidad de Navarro, Aguiló y Enríquez-Ominami", El Mercurio 31 August 2007
  21. ^ "Arturo Martínez acusó al Gobierno de generar clima de violencia", Radio Cooperativa, 30 August 2007 (Spanish)
  22. ^ Sebastián Piñera, "Entre la violencia y el sueño del bicentenario", El Mercurio 16 September 2007

See also

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