Chile’s Rear-View Mirror

Anniversaries, like New Years’ Eve, offer opportunities to look back and to look forward. As Chile observes the 50th anniversary of the coup that toppled President Salvador Allende and ushered in a brutal 17-year dictatorship, Chileans are engaged in precisely that exercise. The problem is that with respect to both perspectives, looking ahead through the windshield and behind in the rear-view mirror, Chileans do not seem to agree on what they see. 

In 2013, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary, then-president Sebastián Piñera, the political right’s first elected president since the early 1960s, asked the nation to “recognize the wounds, cure them, and allow them to heal”.  And yet here we are ten years later, with one right wing deputy, Gloria Naveillan, calling the sexual torture of the dictatorship “an urban legend”, and Luis Silva, a member of the Constitutional Council currently designing a new constitutional draft, describing Augusto Pinochet as “a statesman”. For its part, the government’s canonization of Allende has alienated a good part of the electorate whose memories of the past differ from the official version.

One might be tempted to think that these characterisations represent the political extremes, using language designed to provoke. Perhaps. But recent polls show that over a third of Chileans believe that the military was right in carrying out the coup d’état – and that this figure is higher than it has been in the past. Something deeper is going on.

The first is that there is indeed no consensus with respect to the causes of the coup. It is worth recalling that in the 1988 plebiscite that allowed for a return to democratic rule, 44% of voters, over 3 million people, voted in favour of having General Pinochet continue in power. Later, as successive democratic presidents ensured governability and economic growth, and as the dictatorship’s crimes were accredited in official reports and investigations (not to mention the general’s 1998 arrest in London) that figure dropped somewhat. For some twenty years, Chileans enjoyed the fruits of democracy, diluting the argument that authoritarianism was somehow more politically and economically effective. 

Which leads to the second dimension: Chile’s democratic success was, not surprisingly, tied to its economic accomplishments. As long as the country was growing at an average of 5% or more  (as it did between 1990 and 2009), the country was able to satisfy social demands. But after the end of the commodities super-cycle, Chile’s growth averaged 3.2%. Even if one discounts the volatility of the most recent years – from 2018 forward – the figure is only slightly better, at 3.6%. This, together with a clear exhaustion of the Chilean party system, best exemplified by the fact that that between 2006 and 2022 power alternated between two presidents, Michelle Bachelet and Sebastián Piñera, led to dissatisfaction and frustration with the existing political arrangement. When in late 2019 Chile erupted in violent protest, the only solution the political class found to extricate itself from the quagmire was a cross-party agreement on designing a new constitution. This seemed reasonable enough: if people were dissatisfied with existing institutions, one option would be to modernise the political system.

And yet, it was fairly clear back in 2019 that ‘the street’ was demanding fairer politics in the way of better social services, cheaper medicines, more accessible education and more generous pensions. The constitution appeared to be a fix-it-all to these problems, but it was never clear that such a document could actually do so, much less in the timeframe required to quell social unrest. The resulting document appeared to emphasise identity politics and third and fourth generation rights, rather than addressing the very basic demands for better pensions, housing and education. Voters resoundingly rejected it in a referendum last September. But the problems remained, magnified by the violence of the protests, the pandemic, a rise in illegal immigration, drugs and gang violence. In the face of insecurity and perceived ungovernability, Chileans began to clamour for the kind of order that a stronger state, and yes, an authoritarian kind of leadership, promised to bring.

This may explain why today, fifty years later, a second constitutional process appears to be heading towards a reactionary conclusion, with a right wing majority that is doing its best to talk up security while regressing on hard won progress on social policy. Polls show that only between 25 and 30% of Chileans would approve this second constitutional draft, and that should the proposal indeed be rejected, some 57% favour putting an end to the entire business, sticking with the devil we know.

Looking down the road, four years after millions of Chileans took to the streets, and fifty years after a bloody coup destroyed Chile’s constitutional order, the path is beginning to look a lot like what we see in the rear-view mirror: a divided electorate, an isolated progressive president whose reformist agenda has been derailed by unpopularity, an intransigent opposition, unforced errors, and a struggling economy.

And yet, Boric is not Allende. Inflation is at 5.3%, not 500%. Chile remains intimately connected to the world economy. While Chilean consumers may struggle to pay the bills, those bills are paying for goods that stream in from around the globe. Green hydrogen and lithium, if well exploited, offer the chance for a leading role in the years ahead. If only Chileans would stop looking in the rear view mirror.

Dr. Robert Funk

Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Government of the University of Chile. Political Analyst at GlobalSource Partners’ Chile. He holds a Ph.D. in government from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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