History of Chile

Longread: The “No” Plebiscite That Finished Pinochet

Thirty-one years ago, the people of Chile voted in a democratic plebiscite to end the 16-year dictatorship of Army General Augusto Pinochet. Held on October 5th, 1988, the Chilean plebiscite is one of the most astonishing examples of a non-violent return to civilian democratic rule post-dictatorship. On this auspicious day, not only did Chilean history change forever, but so did the world’s understanding of democracy itself.

Despite being under the rule of a military dictatorship and with complete uncertainty as to the validity of the plebiscite, seven million people exercised their civic right to vote for the first time in a decade and a half.

55.99% of the voters chose to say NO to the continuation of Pinochet’s rule and 44.01% voted YES. Chileans had confirmed that they were ready to transform their country. Over the last three decades, a neoteric Chile has emerged and persistently grown on an internationally relevant scale.

September 11: It Happened Here

Pinochet’s Rise to Power and the 1980 Constitution

On September 11th, 1973, Chilean armed forces seized control of the country in a violent coup d’état, deposing the democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende. That same evening, Army General Augusto Pinochet, together with an Air Force General, a Navy Admiral and the Chief of Police had created and sworn in a junta, a government formed by a military committee.

The military junta in Chile

The junta was established as Chile’s ruling body, suspending the 1925 Constitution and Congress. However, at these early stages, the junta was not intended to become a military dictatorship since it sought only to restore order before returning to civilian rule. The four members had agreed to rotate office every four years selecting Pinochet as the first leader.

Conversely, Pinochet took the opportunity of being the first to power to do away with the idea of a rotating presidency, citing it as a potential administrative nightmare. A mere six months after taking power, Pinochet stated that he had done away with any plans to return to civilian rule and declared himself the Supreme Leader of the nation.  

A new constitution

In 1980, the Pinochet government drafted a new constitution which followed in the lines of the Cold War National Security Doctrine (NSD). The NSD meant to establish a ‘protected democracy,’ one that limits political pluralism and allows for military control over civilian authorities. Pinochet saw this new constitution as a means to not only maintain, but also legitimize his rule domestically as well as internationally.

This constitution, voted through a referendum of disputed legitimacy, stated, in Article 25, that a President of the Republic could not hold office for longer than eight years. This was the necessary catalyst that allowed for the 1988 plebiscite in which the public would have the democratic right to vote.

Despite his best attempts to retain unchecked dictatorial power, Article 25 of the 1980 constitution was a testament to the mounting international pressure that could no longer be ignored. Throughout the 1970s, the United States had considered South America an invaluable battleground against the communist influence and had thus supported the right-wing groups in the 1973 military coup against a democratically elected president.   

Nonetheless, the 1980’s saw a brave new world that brought about many global changes. The Cold War was at a turning point with Mikhail Gorbachev initiating glasnost and the perestroika democratic reforms, which surmounted in the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. During his visit to Chile in April 1987, Pope John Paul II strongly criticized Pinochet’s presidency as “dictatorial,” calling for an active restoration of democracy. According to the Pope’s secretary, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the Pope went as far as confronting Pinochet and calling on him to step down and transfer power over to civilian authorities.

Internal pressure was also mounting. In 1982, Chile experienced a massive economic crisis, the worst since the 1930 Great Depression. GDP (Gross Domestic Product) fell 14.3% and unemployment was an astounding 23.7%. Massive protests ensued. Finally, the commanders-in-chief of the Air Forces, the Navy and the Police no longer wanted to support the junta and called for a return to civilian rule.

The world and the Chilean public looked to Pinochet to legitimize his presidency, leaving him with little choice other than a democratic vote, of which the result had to be respected. Consequently, on September 5th, 1987, a month before the plebiscite, the opposition’s political advertisements supporting the NO campaign were legalized.

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As outlined by the 1980 Constitution, the junta must put forward one candidate for a possible eight-year rule. Pinochet had once again put himself forward as the junta candidate. Hence, on October 5th, 1988 the Chilean public were faced with two choices in the plebiscite:

  • YES: A vote for YES is in favour of the election of Pinochet as president for another eight year rule. The junta would continue to have legislative power until a new Congress is elected in March 1990.
  • NO: A vote for NO meant that the candidate is rejected. In this case, Pinochet and the junta would stay in power for only one more year after which free and open elections for a civilian president and parliament would be held. A newly elected president and Congress would take office in March 1990.

For the Chilean public, voting NO was by no means a straightforward or obvious decision due to many factors. Some saw the end of the junta as a regression to the difficult life they faced under Allende’s rule. When the Allende government fell to the junta in September 1973, the annual inflation was a staggering 286%. Chileans often faced massive queues when looking to purchase basic household goods.

United States influence

The scarcity, however, was a result of much greater forces than simply poor economic governance. Starting in the 1960s, the United States had begun operations to reduce the influence of socialist ideas in Chile. This involvement significantly intensified during the Allende years and culminated in what has been referred to as Nixon administration’s “invisible blockade” of Chile. This blockade severely limited long-term development loans (USAAID) and short-term loans from American commercial banks, which fell from $220 million USD to a miniscule $30 million USD. 

Short and long term credit restrains forced the Allende government to dip into foreign currency reserves and severely incapacitated Chile’s ability to provide adequate quantities of essential goods. While Chile previously imported 40% of its goods from the US, that figure fell drastically to only 20% in 1972. Meanwhile, Chilean armed forces received substantial aid from the US, with the CIA funnelling $8 million USD to Chilean truckers whose strikes kept goods from reaching supermarket shelves. CIA total spending on destabilizing the Allende government is estimated at an astonishing $40 million USD 

A credit deficit, together with economic mismanagement by the government, set off a chain reaction which led up to the 1973 coup. Allende’s socialist government began expropriating assets and intervening in the economy which shrunk the productive sector and caused a decline in the GDP. Despite its socialist ideals, the Allende government failed to help the 20% of Chileans living in extreme poverty. The country was spiralling into a vicious cycle of government deficit and inflation. Industry halted and unemployment skyrocketed.

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Milton Friedman and the “miracle of Chile”

The economic situation changed drastically after the coup, so much so that previously scarce goods reappeared on the shelves with suspicious swiftness. The US had reopened the flow of credit, providing as much as $2 billion USD to the junta in 1976. The Pinochet government began instituting significant neoliberal economic reforms that led to a radical transformation of the economy.

The most substantial reform was to open trade, allowing Chilean firms, productive sectors and the institutions to grow on an international stage. Exports grew from 12% to 35%, inflation had fallen to a measly 5%, extreme poverty levels tapered off, and unemployment averaged below 6%. Pinochet government’s economic policies received not only attention, but adulation and emulation, throughout the world.

Famed economist Milton Friedman refers to these reforms as “the miracle of Chile.” Nonetheless, instead of attributing the success to Pinochet, he clarifies that “Chile is by all odds the best economic success story in Latin America today. The real miracle is that a military junta was willing to let [economists] do it” even if it spelled its own doom. Friedman believes that “free markets did work their way in bringing about a free society.”

Such positivism, some would argue, tends to leave out the massive economic crisis of 1982 and the mounting accumulation of government dept. Even so, as the idiom goes, ‘better the devil that you know than the one you don’t’ was the view of many at the time.

Reasons to vote YES

Additional reasons for those voting YES were fear and uncertainty. During its decade and a half rule, the Pinochet government had committed atrocious crimes against humanity with victims numbering over 40,000 people. Many innocent individuals were detained as political prisoners and tortured. Around 3,000 people or more were killed or forcibly disappeared.

Anyone seen to express Marxist or communist values, or to pose any threat to the dictatorship, which rightfully or not, often included youths, literary figures and artists, was simply eliminated without a trace. Countless families still mourn the loss of loved ones whose bodies had never been found. Pinochet’s rule by terror had left a lasting scar on the psyche of the Chilean people.

Implementing what the Nazis had termed as the Night and Fog decree, which stated that the family members of those detained would know nothing about their arrest, torture or disappearance, the dictatorship paralyzed the public with fear. The lack of any proof or photographic evidence of the human-rights abuses prevented the opposition from formulating more effective counter tactics – an invisible enemy is hardest to combat. Furthermore, many strongly questioned the legitimacy of the plebiscite, believing that the results would either be skewed to favor the junta, or simply disregarded all together.

Reasons to vote NO

Dispelling fears and reassuring the public was a tall order for the opposition. First and foremost, the seventeen opposition parties had to stop feuding by putting aside their ideological differences and conflicting post-Pinochet fantasies in order to agree that the main priority was to reinstate a civilian government.

Once united, the NO campaign was in a precarious situation of carrying out a two-fold agenda. Firstly, they had to reassure citizens that they could dream of a different Chile without being silenced. And secondly, they had to reassure Pinochet supporters, meaning the upper class and the business community, that they would not be jailed or exiled, allowing them to have a sense of security and belonging in a post-Pinochet world. The message had to be inclusion, not revenge.

The YES campaign – Hello, President

Both the YES and the NO campaigns were allotted fifteen minutes of airtime in the late night and early morning to promote their cause. The YES campaign was undoubtedly better funded and more elaborate. It was created by an Argentinian advertising agency and had the assistance and support of the Chilean Armed Forces.

The two main objectives of the YES campaign were to create fear among voters by reminding them of the difficult conditions they had lived through in 1973 leading up to the coup d’état, and to change the perceptions of Augusto Pinochet from an authoritarian leader to a more palpable president in civilian garb. The early spots depicted the economic successes of the Pinochet years to the sounds of Rapa Nui folk songs such as “Iorana, Presidente” (Hello, President). When this failed to appeal to the public, the campaign switched focus to directly attack the NO advertisements, which had been seen as more successful.

The NO Campaign – Joy is on its way

The NO campaign, created by a coalition of opposition parties and supported by American admen, used the rainbow as its main symbol to denote the coming together of diverse views and hope for a more prosperous, happier and freer Chile. Reassuring the public that voting out Pinochet did not mean a return to the socialist economic failures of President Salvador Allende, the ads even featured right-wing leaders that supported a return to democracy.

In addition to the optimistic views of a democratic future, the campaign also included testimonies of the victims of torture and the relatives of those disappeared or killed during Pinochet rule to remind the public of the hardships endured over the previous 15 years. The NO jingle was created with the main slogan of the campaign, “Chile, la alegría ya viene” (Chile, joy is on its way) and the spots often featured Chilean and international celebrities from Carlos Caszely, a top Chilean footballer, to Sting and Jane Fonda.

The NO campaign was superior to that of the YES camp, however, it was only one of vital factors that led to the victory of the opposition. The truly amazing feat was mobilizing the public to vote and streamlining the registration process. The NO coalition led an immense grassroots campaign that included students, human rights groups, common citizens and organized political parties, to register an impressive 92% of the electorate.

This was no easy feat as, while both sides organized massive rallies, those run by the NO side were suppressed by the police, attacked by armed YES supporters and received little media attention. Overall, the win of the NO side despite limited funds and constrained television access can be attributed to their ingenuity, ability to mobilize the public and volunteers, and most importantly to working together on a platform of democracy and dignity to show Chile that the future could truly be different.

Voting started early on that fateful day. Many advanced measures were put into place to validate the accuracy of the votes. A computerized system was designed to keep track of the votes and an attorney was present at every table to keep accurate count. The opposition had also developed their own statistical methods to verify the final result. The Pinochet regime officials had approved these measures for no other reason than they were convinced that they would win.

A fraud-free election would allow Pinochet to finally have the legitimatization he so desperately sought. What they failed to grasp was that the partisan politics, that the junta had been so preoccupied with removing during its rule, were incredibly deep-rooted, withstanding social and economic reforms. Additionally, while benefiting the upper classes, the touted economic reforms side-stepped many poor and middle-class families. Finally, many Chileans held a deep resentment for the long years of repression under military rule.

A result that couldn´t be ignored

Throughout the day, the public had come out in record numbers – an astonishing 90% of the eligible voters participated in the plebiscite. Voting had come to an end but it wasn’t until midnight that government officials realized that they had been defeated. Fuming Pinochet’s initial reaction was to either suspend the vote count, provoking the opposition to burst out in violent protest or to once again turn violence themselves.

Neither of these were a viable possibility considering that the voting was well-regulated and perfectly calm, and that the opposition and the voters had displayed immense civic maturity and patience. Furthermore, the upper class and the business community were no longer willing to lift a finger to keep an unpopular dictator in power, and neither were the Army nor the other junta members.

The Chilean Army, although loyal to Pinochet as their commander-in-chief was a professional organization that respected constitutional law and thus would not go against the 1980 constitution to intervene with the democratic vote. The other members of the junta, being the commanders-in-chief of the Navy, Air Forces and Police, saw the result solely as Pinochet’s personal defeat and were committed to respecting the vote.

Finally, the international community was paying close attention to the plebiscite and would not accept any foul play. Fifteen years had passed since the CIA aided Pinochet in his rise to power and the Reagan administration began to see him as an undesirable dictator who no longer suited their interests. Therefore, this time around, US consortiums were on hand to support the opposition and prevent Pinochet from altering the results.

Results counted

After all the votes had been counted the official result stood at 56% for NO and 44% for YES. The public first got wind of the results when Air Force General Fernando Matthei, hastily commented to a reporter that Pinochet had lost. An hour later, the official results were announced by Pinochet’s spokesperson, suggesting that Pinochet’s pride, rage or resentment prevented him from doing so himself.

Pinochet, with his proverbial hands tied behind his back, had no choice but to respect the outcome and to concede his defeat, allowing for presidential and congressional elections. In an attempt to retain dignity, Pinochet later stated, using the expression misión cumplida (mission accomplished), that he was content that his long rule had produced a sustainable political system and economic stability. He continued to serve as the commander-in-chief of the Army until March 1998. In line with the 1980 constitution, Pinochet was sworn in as a senator-for-life and granted immunity from prosecution.

Transition to Democracy

Following the plebiscite, Pinochet and the opposition had revised the 1980 constitution with fifty four new amendments. Presidential and parliamentary elections took place on December 14, 1989. Patricio Aylwin, NO campaign leader, former senator and Christian Democrat, had won the presidential elections with 55% of the vote. Chile was often cited for its exemplary free market economic policies and it was on the new government to demonstrate that these could be maintained without authoritarian control.

Indeed, Chile’s transition to democracy can be considered largely a successful one. Thirty years after the plebiscite, the country is politically stable with little corruption, especially in comparison to its neighbors. Chile is a regional leader with Latin America’s fastest-growing economy and considered to be a high-income country by the World Bank. It is a proud member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an elite intergovernmental organization with only 36 member countries.

The Shadow of Pinochet

Nevertheless, despite its progress, Chile still hasn’t fully stepped out of the shadow of the Pinochet era.  Despite being one of the richest South American countries, it is also highly unequal, with the widest inequality gap of any OECD nation. To the average Chilean this means that living expenses are high while wages and pensions are low, and public services such as health and education are of poor quality.

Private education and healthcare are superior but expensive and inaccessible to many.  Although the majority of Chileans are much better off than forty or thirty years ago, the poverty rate is still not low enough. Labour laws are flimsy with minimum wage set at a messily $417 USD monthly, which by no means reflects the cost of living. Only 10% of workers belong to a union, meaning that many don’t have negotiating power.

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Chile is also faced with many lingering societal issues such as elitism and restriction of social rights, in particularly those of women. Matters such as abortion, same-sex marriage and public access to better services is still in contention. The Catholic doctrine still prevails over many leftist ideals when it comes to these topics, resulting in frequent civic protests. As a result, Chilean society still remains highly polarized despite the many years of democracy.

All of the above is by no means to state that the progress made has been minor, or irrelevant. On the contrary, Chile can be seen as exemplary in many facets of its growth. As a rapidly developing country and a member of the OECD, Chile is committed to reducing socioeconomic equality and earning international respect. Conclusively, the real lesson to be learned from Chile’s history on and after October 5, 1988, is that progressive restructuring does not happen overnight with a popular vote or even after several decades of democracy, but instead requires a deep-rooted ideological shift that can take considerably longer to cultivate.  

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