Human Rights

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

This is part II of a three-part series on the 1988 plebiscite in Chile – The Uneasy Choice
Missed Part I – A New Constitution? Read it here

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.

September 11: It Happened Here

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.

Tomorrow in “From Dictatorship to Democracy – What did the ´88 referendum bring Chile?”:

Part III – The Plebiscite and the Transition to Democracy

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