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How Chile Won Back Its Democracy

“There is a graveyard smell to Chile, the fumes of democracy in decomposition,” wrote Edward Korry, the U.S. ambassador to Chile, soon after the 1970 election of the Socialist President Salvador Allende. The United States government, the Brazilian military, and Chilean elites spent the next three years working to destabilize Chile’s left-wing government. Their efforts culminated in a military coup on September 11, 1973—50 years ago today—that deposed Allende and his democratically elected government, and plunged the country into dictatorship.

That history made Chile a textbook case of Cold War anti-Communist machinations, but this perspective has tended to overshadow the ways in which Chile is also a study in resistance to autocracy. In 1988, after 17 years under the iron rule of General Augusto Pinochet, the country rose to shrug off the dictatorship through nonviolent mass protests and civil-society mobilization. After a major effort to register voters and restore electoral procedures, Chile achieved a peaceful return to democracy.

In standing up to the regime, Chileans took on not only a military that had used torture and terror—establishing concentration camps for dissidents, trying opponents in military courts, and murdering more than 3,000 people (“the disappeared,” as they became known)—but also a constellation of civilian collaborators. These included right-wing tycoons such as Agustín Edwards, who owned the Pinochet-friendly newspaper El Mercurio, and Catholic-conservative ideologues such as the lawyer Jaime Guzmán, who acted as a liaison between Pinochet and Chilean business elites. Such supporters backed the regime’s imposition of ruthless neoliberal economic policies, the “shock therapy” introduced to Chile in 1975 by the University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman.

[Ariel Dorfman: How ordinary people can save their country]

Their unwavering devotion to “El Generalísimo” no doubt contributed to Pinochet’s falling into the dictator trap of believing his own propaganda of invincibility. In 1980, Chileans voted to ratify a new constitution that gave him expanded personal powers and added eight years to his term of office. Never imagining that he might lose popular support, Pinochet thus agreed to hold a referendum on his presidency in 1988. That hubris was to be his undoing: A prodemocracy movement was born—one that aimed to end the nightmare of dictatorship.

A nonviolent protest movement is most effective when it not only mobilizes grassroots participation but also enjoys a broad base of support among what prodemocracy campaigners have labeled pillars of society: businesspeople, faith leaders, labor officials, and others who represent a culture’s institutions and traditions. This type of alliance began to coalesce in Chile in the early 1980s, as the regime’s neoliberal policies created economic hardship and insecurity for all but the most affluent Chileans. By 1983, the unemployment rate was more than 20 percent. When you have a booming population of street vendors that includes out-of-work doctors and dentists, you have a large population willing to show dissent.

In May 1983, the newly formed Democratic Alliance of opposition parties held a National Day of Protest. “We have taken a very important step,” the labor leader Rodolfo Seguel told supporters—“that of losing fear.” He was jailed after the event, but one experience of public dissent led to others. In September, the crowd at a soccer match started chanting, “The military dictatorship is going to fall!” The Catholic Church, led by the archbishop of Santiago, Raúl Silva Henríquez, became involved in solidarity work, lending its moral authority to the resistance movement.

An effective electoral strategy supplied the last piece of the puzzle of how to end the dictatorship. For the election year of 1988, some nine political parties put aside their differences and joined the Concertación coalition, which campaigned on the referendum on whether Pinochet should continue in office. After coming to power, the military junta had destroyed voting registries, so a huge effort got under way to register Chileans to vote—and to give them the confidence that voting no would be safe and that their votes would be counted fairly. “We made the process something people could believe in,” the Chilean jurist Eugenio Valenzuela recalled.

On October 5, 1988, Chileans cast Pinochet out of office, voting no by 56 percent to 44 percent. The referendum result cleared the way for a free and fair presidential election the following year.

People power, organizing, and coalition-building were essential to the recovery of democracy in Chile. But it was also the story of the two faces of American power. By the mid-’80s, Pinochet had lost his American sponsorship. “Even if you thought he was terrific in 1973, by 1983, it was time for him to go,” Elliot Abrams, who had been an assistant secretary of state for Latin America in the Reagan administration, later recalled in a radio interview. Harry Barnes, who was the U.S. ambassador to Chile from 1985 to 1988, broke with precedent by meeting with the opposition. And the National Endowment for Democracy, which had been recently established by the U.S. government, funded voter education and election-worker training in Chile.  

[Read: The legacy of the Pinochet trial]

Pinochet never went to prison. His exit package let him stay on as head of the armed forces until 1998 and then become a senator for life, a position that carried immunity from prosecution. That immunity was later lifted, and multiple indictments followed, including charges of tax evasion and money laundering, as well as human-rights violations. He died in Santiago in December 2006 with hundreds of cases open against him and his reputation in tatters.

Hope may seem a flimsy thing to wield against autocracy, but it is the secret weapon of resistance and an essential lever of action. The opposition’s optimistic slogans “Joy is coming” and “Happiness is a rainbow” (the rainbow was Concertación’s symbol) helped to lessen fear and fatalism. A March for Joy, held days before the election, attracted hundreds of thousands.

The movement’s television ads, which featured soccer stars and ordinary people expressing hope for Chile’s future, were a sensation. Pinochet’s ads, in contrast, repeated the old talking points about the threat from leftists and harped on grievance and loss, picturing people fleeing armed mobs and screaming. Terror, in the end, was all the regime had. The courage of Chile’s citizens to get out the vote and the power of their positive messaging created the momentum to remove Pinochet from power.

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