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State Security Law: An Authoritarian Law In Democratic Times

SANTIAGO – The night of Oct. 18, President Sebastián Piñera announced that the government would be using the controversial State Security Law to prosecute individuals responsible for destruction and violence related to the social crisis. The opposition has condemned this move as irresponsible. What is the State Security Law and how did it come to be?

Ever since the first week of protests the government has been using the State Security Law to punish individuals that they deem responsible for the riots, arson, and other destruction that has accompanied the protests. More recently, such prosecutions have expanded to the student leaders who called for a boycott of the university admissions exams, PSU, with more surely to come.

Use of the law in recent months has been highly criticized by many. They argue it only helps fan the flames of social discontent, especially because of the law’s authoritarian nature—which is to be expected, as it is the product of two different laws that were created in order to suppress social protests and extend the powers of the president.

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Original State Security Law

The first State Security Law was created in 1937 during President Arturo Alessandri’s second term. That law was characterized by its strong opposition to social protests and an authoritarian view of power, as exemplified by the bloody way that social protests were handled at the time.

This first version was created with the idea of considering any alteration to the public order as a direct threat to the state. The law explicitly prevented public workers from partaking in any organization that could be considered as promoting the disturbance of the social order. It also strictly prohibited any newspaper or public figure from saying anything that could be considered slander against the president or his cabinet.

As a direct result of this law, the Communist Party was immediately deemed an illicit organization, thus preventing it from partaking in any national election. As a result, the party was forced to change its name to the National Progressive Party, which, ironically, allowed its candidate to run for and win the presidency in the 1937 election, after which use of the law was discontinued.

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The “Damned Law”

In 1948, during Gabriel González Videla’s government, conservatives decided to ban all remains of the communist party in Chile by creating the Permanent Democratic Defense Law. The point of the law was to make a bold statement of Chile’s position in the growing tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.

This new law was designed to outlaw the Communist party by limiting the rights of its members, on the grounds of protecting the democratic process and public order. The asserted justification was that if the Communists managed to come back to power they would establish a totalitarian regime. The Permanent Democratic Defense Law lasted until 1958, when it was struck down along with the original State Security Law, when the current State Security Law became effective.

Current State Security Law

Created during Carlos Ibáñez del Campo’s second government, this version of the State Security Law was focused on penalizing serious attempts at violence against the government while still basing itself on the preexisting penal code. However, it also creates a framework that facilitates authoritarian control, like the ability to shut down telecommunication if the government believes that such is enabling civil unrest.

During the Pinochet dictatorship, the law was modified and expanded numerous times, but most of those changes were undone during the transition to democracy. Because of this, the current version is closer to the original 1958 one.

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Since the return to democracy the law has been utilized on six different occasions, mostly against the leaders of the Mapuche movement in the south of Chile. The most controversial use was in 1999 against Chilean journalist Alejandra Matus, when she published “The Black Book of Chilean Justice”, a collection of stories about abuses committed by the judicial power during the dictatorship. As a result of the State Security Law, her book was confiscated by authorities, and she was forced to seek political asylum in the United States.

The current administration is pushing to prosecute by using the “crimes against public order” articles that are outlined in the law. The issue with most of these is that they tend to be very vague about what constitutes a threat. The law can be interpreted as providing that anything said against the president that prevents him from partaking in his duties could be penalized as well as anything that could be seen as disruptive against the public order, such as carrying firearms within city limits or partaking in a protest that cuts off a street.

The current State Security Law is a mix between two different authoritarian and undemocratic laws, making the newest version not much better than its predecessors. Because of this, it is a top priority for many to replace it, or at the very least modify it, so that it is not unevenly applied against those who participate in social unrest against an existing administration but not those who do the same while supporting the administration.

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