Chile Moves On

Latin American Outlook

After several years of relative peace and quiet, Chile is back in the news. On March 11, Ricardo Lagos Escobar, a Duke University–trained economist was sworn in as that country’s president, the first Socialist to hold the office, as the foreign media tirelessly reminded us, since the late Salvador Allende. The latter, it will be recalled, was deposed after a chaotic three years by a brutal military coup in 1973. Lagos’s inauguration came within days of another, hardly less newsworthy event: the return to Chile of Allende’s successor, former dictator General Augusto Pinochet, after more than a year’s confinement in London on charges of violating the new International Convention on Torture.

The contrast between the two events could hardly have been more striking. Lagos was taking office after a hard-fought presidential campaign that required two rounds of voting to resolve, whereas the elderly Pinochet’s return to Chile was facilitated not by dismissal of the charges against him but by what the British government styled “humanitarian considerations.” (He is presumably too old and too sick to face a lengthy and complicated judicial proceedings in Spain, the country to which he would have been extradited.)

Chile is a very long way from just about everywhere, so it is probably too much to expect the world press to treat it with the nuanced sophistication that it habitually accords to, say, France, Italy, Russia, or even Japan. Even so, in the course of reporting these events it managed to gloss over (or even distort) dozens of crucial points. Perhaps the most egregious example was a column by William Pfaff of the Paris-based International Herald Tribune, who shortly after Lagos’s runoff victory in December snidely wondered aloud why, if the United States could accept a Socialist president for Chile in the year of grace 2000, it had such a problem with Salvador Allende thirty years ago.[1] Part of the answer, of course, is that Allende took office during one of the hottest periods of the cold war, and that his government was seen (and not only by Washington) as at best a dress rehearsal for Eurocommunism in Italy, France, and other countries of central importance, at worst a Cuba on the South American mainland. Pfaff seems also to have missed the important point that during Allende’s presidency Chile became a major theater of Cuban intelligence operations (including the provisioning of weapons to some of the more extreme elements in or near the governing coalition) and also a gathering point for the continent’s radical left. (As the late president Eduardo Frei Montalva [1964–1970] once recalled to me, “We were overrun by all the crazies of Latin America.”) Still another is that Allende pursued a policy of wholesale nationalization and expropriation, which violated his country’s own laws (including its own agrarian reform legislation), polarized opinion, led to a breakdown of executive-congressional relations, and pushed many people—not all of them that far right of center—to turn to the military for relief.

Then is not now, and even more important, Ricardo Lagos is not Salvador Allende—nor does he pretend to be. True, he is a Socialist, or at least he says he is, but he is also a prominent leader in the renovation of his party, which long before the fall of the Berlin Wall had rejected Leninist tactics and objectives, accepted the role of the market in generating economic growth, and embraced (bourgeois) democracy as an end as well as a means.

More notably, since the mid-1980s the Chilean Socialist Party has broken with a longstanding tradition of political and electoral alliances with the Communist Party. Since 1989 it has been a coalition partner of the Christian Democratic Party, which is Chile’s largest and the principal force in the ideological center. Many of the news stories dealing with Lagos’s election failed to note that he is presiding over the very same center-left coalition that has governed Chile since its return to democracy. That coalition has not been notably radical. Indeed, on economic policy there has been a considerable degree of continuity between the pre-and post-Pinochet years, a fact that has important political implications, as will be discussed below.

Lagos’s Vision

To stress points of continuity is not to argue that there will be no differences in policy with Lagos in the presidency. He has already said that he plans to address the huge and growing income disparity between the poorest and wealthiest classes, and that he plans to invest heavily in social infrastructure, particularly education. He is also more liberal on what might be called “social issues” in Chile, particularly film and book censorship and divorce. (Chile is the only Western country that still does not have a divorce law.)[2] For what it may be worth, he is also the first declared agnostic to be elected to the presidency in an intensely Catholic country. But his principal difference from his Christian Democratic predecessors Patricio Aylwin (1989–1994) and Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle (1994–2000) has to do with his willingness to confront head-on the legal and moral issues surrounding the “disappearance” of 1,200 persons during the early days of the Pinochet dictatorship—what in Chile is rather euphemistically called “the human rights problem.”

Lagos is a man of remarkable courage—he was the only major political figure to confront Pinochet directly on national television during the late days of the dictatorship—but it is also true that he benefits from a greatly changed political context. In effect, General Pinochet’s detention in London undoubtedly has pushed the human rights imperative to the forefront in Chilean politics. The official position of the Frei government for many months was that, without taking any specific stand on the merits or demerits of Spain’s claim for extradition,[3] the proper place for such issues to be resolved was in Chilean courts. That position had the advantage of both satisfying the minimal demands of the Chilean military (who held the government responsible for securing Pinochet’s release from confinement in Great Britain) and any country’s need for sovereignty and self-respect. Indeed, even many Chilean government officials who had strongly opposed Pinochet during his years of power were offended by the condescending notion that only European courts had the sufficient judicial independence to properly try their former dictator. Now that the British government has cynically released Pinochet on the (possibly specious) grounds of ill-health, almost any Chilean administration would feel obliged to follow through with judicial proceedings. Even right-wing presidential candidate Joaquín Lavín, whom Lagos defeated by a narrow margin in the December run-off, had stated during the campaign last year that “Pinochet ought to be brought to justice.”[4]

Paradoxically, Lagos’s hand in that regard has been strengthened by the very moderation (some would say, conservatism) of the Chilean democratic governments of the last ten years. For many years the official line of the Pinochet dictatorship was that all of the natural tendencies of Chilean politics lead, if not directly to communism, at least to anarchy. (During the 1988 plebiscite to determine whether the dictator would remain in power for another eight years, the television ads for the government were full of grainy films evoking the unrest of the Allende years.) In practice, however, two successive center-left administrations (presided over, admittedly, by Christian Democrats) have pretty well established that the country and its major political forces, including the Socialists, have learned moderation and good sense. Lagos’s own sober, responsible performances as minister of education and then of public works in the Aylwin and Frei administrations merely underscore the point. To the extent that civilians are seen to be capable administrators and responsible politicians, the Chilean armed forces lose their most powerful argument for a continuation of their present, rather unusual status as guarantors of a semiauthoritarian constitution ratified in the 1980 plebiscite. Indeed, one might well ask—as many Chileans do, particularly younger ones—why does Chile need a charter with so many authoritarian enclaves at all?

Those enclaves include senators appointed by Pinochet himself, a lifetime senatorial seat for every former president (including Pinochet), a “National Security Council” dominated by the military, and the unusual prerogative of the armed forces to name their own flag officers, whom the president is powerless to remove. (Prior to 1973, in Chile, as in the United States, such functionaries were nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.) Some of these devices are bound to disappear over time; for instance, the appointed senators serve out nine-year terms, so that eventually all of them would be named by democratically elected presidents. As it is, with the accession of the recently retired president Eduardo Frei, the government has finally gained a narrow majority in the upper house. But other authoritarian features require a major change—particularly what is called the “immobility” or “irremovability” of service chiefs. President Lagos has already said that he plans to hold a plebiscite on the subject.

The Right Regroups

Chile’s two major conservative parties (UDI and National Renewal), have in the past been extremely reluctant to agree to changes in the 1980 constitution. In that, they have been at one with the armed forces, whose civilian political representatives they continue to be. However, the Pinochet case and Lagos’s determination to investigate human rights violations during the military rule—at least, to the point of identifying the final resting place of many individuals murdered during the coup—has forced a reconsideration.

Now they accept the possibility of a revision of the 1980 charter, at least in the matter of appointed senators, with other matters to be negotiated out. In exchange, however, they demand a “dignified retirement from public life” of General Pinochet and a “final resolution” of the human rights problem. The first refers to the need for the former dictator to retain parliamentary immunity from prosecution if he retires from his lifetime senate seat;[5] the second has to do with the need to put a terminal date to investigations of and prosecutions for political murders during and after the coup.

While that is still far from the view of the new Chilean government, it is a considerable retreat from the positions of UDI and National Renewal in the days and hours immediately following Pinochet’s return to Chile. In their initial euphoria, they rather tactlessly demanded that he return to full participation in Chile’s political life. But Pinochet’s demeanor at the airport—where the former dictator, though released on humanitarian grounds because he was supposedly near death, all but danced out of his wheelchair—created an enormous popular backlash and revealed to the military and its civilian supporters just how isolated and weak they now are when it comes to the specific issue of human rights and judicial independence. Since then, Pinochet’s supporters have bruited it about that the general is not well after all (supposedly suffering two minor strokes since his return), and even his youngest son Marco Antonio has told the press that his father needs a “long rest.”

Paradoxically, the right in Chile overreached itself at the very time it had just scored its best performance at the polls in living memory. Joaquín Lavín, the former mayor of Las Condes, an affluent suburb of Santiago, actually came in first in the initial round of voting, and he was defeated by Lagos in the runoff by a mere three percentage points. Lavín no doubt made the most of an enormous campaign budget—perhaps as much as fifty million dollars—but, in an ironic and unexpected way, he also turned out to be a beneficiary of the Pinochet case. The general’s confinement in England amounted to civic death, permitting Lavín to run as the first truly “post-Pinochet” conservative politician in Chilean history. This was an advantage he was not slow to exploit, even dismissing the former dictator—as well as his Socialist opponent, Lagos—as “men of the past.”

The right-wing parties are now gearing up for municipal elections in October, which they hope will give them a second wind in the continuing struggle for power. To win, they need to appear as flexible and centrist as they did in the presidential race, where they managed to lure a fair number of normally Christian Democratic voters. Hence, in recent weeks they have extended the olive branch to the government, even inviting the new Interior Minister, José Miguel Insulza, to address their annual gathering. For his part, UDI president Pablo Longueira, one of the hardest-liners of the far right, has even met with President Lagos to express the concerns of his party. While the positions of government and opposition are still very far apart, they are at least talking to each other in a respectful and civilized manner.

Addressing the Pinochet Years

To be sure, no amount of conversation is likely to supersede the actions of Chilean justice, which is moving rapidly to compile dossiers on the activities of the military during the Pinochet years. Several days ago an investigating judge witnessed the exhumation of fifty unidentified corpses in the General Cemetery of the southern city of Concepción, formerly a hotbed of the revolutionary left. Several bore marks of gunshot wounds or beatings.[6] At the same time, some of the officers currently serving time for their part in political murders are beginning to complain that they are being made the sacrificial lambs for superiors who gave the orders (read Pinochet). On March 23 the Washington Post reported new evidence that General Pinochet was the intellectual author of the murder of Orlando Letelier, former Chilean ambassador to the United States, and his American assistant, at Sheridan Circle in Washington, D.C., nearly a quarter-century ago, and that the U.S. Department of Justice is reopening the case with a view to demanding the general’s extradition to this country.

As a result, even if it wished to, the new Chilean government could not sweep those matters under the rug. As it happens, it does not wish to, and in that it is supported by the vast majority of Chileans. No doubt that provokes considerable unhappiness in the high command of the military, and also in the ranks of the right-wing parties. But the balance of forces in Chile has changed, thanks partly to a new generation with no memory of the Allende years, partly to the conservative stewardship of the center-left governments of the last decade, and partly, too, to the international exposure given to the Pinochet case. The country also has a president unafraid to use plebiscites to make profound changes in its basic political rules, changes likely to restore to Chile the democratic institutionality that for so long made it one of the prouder members of the Latin American community.


1. “After the Pinochet Years, Chile Has a Socialist President,” January 20, 2000.

2. This is not to say that people do not legally separate. As a compromise with the Catholic Church, Chilean law allows annulment, typically justified by the fiction that there was some clerical irregularity in the original marriage documents. Thus we have the situation of men and women with grown children (and sometimes grandchildren) pretending that they were never married in the first place.

3. The Spanish claim was based on alleged murder, torture, or disappearances of Spanish citizens in Chile during the antileft dragnet following Allende’s fall.

4. Quoted in La Tercera (Santiago), March 20, 2000.

5. As this Outlook goes to press it is reported (in the Nuevo Herald [Miami], March 27, 2000) that the Chilean congress has passed a law that would allow precisely this. President Lagos has already said that he would veto such legislation, so its ultimate fate remains uncertain.

6. La Tercera, March 22, 2000.

Mark Falcoff is a resident scholar at AEI.

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