History of Chile Human Rights

PART III: From Dictatorship to Democracy – What did the ´88 referendum bring Chile?

This is the final part of a three-part series on the 1988 plebiscite in Chile – The Plebiscite & The Transition
Missed Part II – The Uneasy Choice? Read it here

Exactly thirty years ago today, the people of Chile voted in a democratic plebiscite to end the 16 year dictatorship of 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. 

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.

´Around 200.000 Chileans live in extreme poverty´

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.

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.  

This was the final part of “From Dictatorship to Democracy – What did the ´88 referendum bring Chile?”.


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