Politics in Chile: Confronting the Enduring Legacy of Dictatorship

Emily Achtenberg Feb 26, 2014

Editor’s note: Mass protest movements have erupted throughout the world in the past three years as ordinary people take to the streets to demand fundamental change from unresponsive political systems. In many cases these movements have been repressed, ignored, co-opted or defeated electorally. One of the exceptions has been Chile, where a massive student movement has transformed the political debate and helped bring to power a new president who has promised to move the country significantly to the left.

On Election Day in Chile, students occupied and hung a banner outside presidential front-runner Michelle Bachelet’s campaign headquarters, proclaiming: “Change is not in the Presidential Palace, but in the ‘wide avenues.’” It was a powerful reminder of how student mobilizations have transformed Chile’s political agenda during this election year, at once invoking the past (through the final words of martyred socialist President Salvador Allende), and laying down the gauntlet for an anticipated future when the country might finally move beyond its 20-plus year “transition to democracy.”

Who Was Salvador Allende?

Salvador Allende was a doctor-turned-politician elected president of Chile in 1970. Allende’s ascent marked the first time in history that a Marxist was democratically elected to power in the Western Hemisphere. Allende’s government nationalized key industries, expanded social welfare programs and carried out a land reform program that broke up large rural estates on behalf of formerly landless peasants.

Richard Nixon, who worried that other Latin American nations might try to imitate Chile’s democratic revolution, famously told his national security team to “make the economy scream” in Chile. After a three-year destabilization campaign orchestrated by the CIA, Gen. Augusto Pinochet led a military coup that toppled the Allende government on September 11, 1973.

In the coup’s aftermath, upwards of 3,000 Allende supporters were rounded up and killed. Many more were jailed and tortured or fled into exile.

The new military regime proceeded to carry out a program of mass privatizations. This was done under the guidance of economists trained at the University of Chicago by free-market guru Milton Friedman. The neoliberal economic system instituted during the Pinochet era exists to this day in Chile, though it is being increasingly challenged by a younger generation that did not experience the trauma of military rule.

As for Allende, he died during the coup while defending the presidential palace as it was bombarded by his Air Force. In his final broadcast shortly before he was killed, Allende vowed that “much sooner than later, the wide avenues will open up so that a free people can build a better society.”

It took almost four decades, but Chile’s streets have filled again in recent years with demands for change. How much of a better society Michelle Bachelet’s government delivers is likely to depend on the push she receives from students and other newly empowered social movements that helped bring her to power.

— John Tarleton

Bachelet takes office March 11. The promise of structural reforms to address the deep divide between rich and poor in Chilean society propelled Bachelet and her center-left New Majority coalition to a landslide victory in December over Evelyn Matthei, candidate of the center-right Alliance. While Chile has the highest rate of economic growth among 34 developed countries, it is also the most unequal. Bachelet campaigned on a radical platform of educational, tax and constitutional reform to redress the injustices of a political and economic system inherited from the dictatorship era and largely favoring the wealthy.

After failing to gain a majority on the first ballot in November (in a field of nine candidates, including seven to the left of center), Bachelet handily won the run-off election with 62 percent of the vote, the biggest presidential victory in eight decades. Despite this seemingly broad mandate, she now faces formidable obstacles in seeking to deliver on her campaign promises, as Chile’s undemocratic institutions and alienated electorate — both enduring legacies of dictatorship — conspire to discourage change.

Electoral Context

Most of Chile’s contemporary problems have their origin in the anti-democratic structures established by the 17-year dictatorship of Augosto Pinochet and left largely intact by successive democratic governments of the center-left and center-right since Chile’s “return to democracy” in 1990. These include a constitution (imposed after a fraudulent referendum conducted under a state of siege) and a set of laws that enshrine the power of conservative elite minorities, an electoral system that perpetuates their disproportionate representation and a deregulated economy affording wide latitude and subsidies to the private sector.

As the intense electoral campaign converged this past fall with the 40th anniversary of the military coup that overthrew Allende, the election seemed to be as much a referendum on Chile’s tormented past as on its future direction. The dramatically contrasting but intertwined family histories of the two presidential candidates — Bachelet’s father, an Allende loyalist general, died under torture in a military school run by Matthei’s father, a member of Pinochet’s junta — kept the past front and center despite the candidates’ efforts to refocus on the future.

In the run-up to the 40th anniversary, Chileans were bombarded with graphic images of the coup, repression and resistance though previously unseen documentary footage, dramatizations and debates widely broadcast through the mainstream media. The avalanche appears to have captured the popular imagination, especially among the 60 percent of Chileans born after the coup (and others who “saw but did not see”). Polls show that only 16 percent of Chileans now think the coup was justified, down from 36 percent a decade ago.

But it is the highly mobilized Chilean student movement that has genuinely challenged Pinochet’s legacy by catalyzing popular demands for institutional reform. Through massive protests and school takeovers beginning in 2011 and continuing to this day (with widespread public support), students have highlighted the inequities of a dictatorship-era educational system that features private sector subsidization, vast discrepancies in the quality of municipally-controlled primary and secondary schools based on social class and the highest university student cost burden of any developed country. Joined by trade unions and other popular sectors, they have articulated transformative demands that governing political elites (including Bachelet herself, in her first term) have not dared to address during 20 years of democratic transition. These include a return to universal, free, high-quality public education (which students had under Allende), a revival of the public pension and health care systems, progressive tax reform to finance social spending and a refounding of the Chilean state through a new constitutional assembly.

While the student organizations did not endorse a presidential candidate, Bachelet sought and won the support of several prominent ex-student leaders running for Congress on the Communist Party and other splinter left tickets, including popular activist Camila Vallejo. In exchange, the New Majority partially incorporated the students’ demands in its platform, pushing the electoral agenda substantially to the left. For the first time since the return to democracy, the Communist Party joined the center-left political coalition, giving Bachelet the opportunity for a sufficient congressional mandate to push through her promised reforms.

Electoral Outcomes

The campaign raised high expectations for systemic change, as well as the political cost of failing to deliver. In the end, the New Majority picked up slim majorities in both houses — 55 percent in the senate and 56 percent in the house — thanks in part to the election of Vallejo and other student and activist candidates. But the coalition did not achieve the super-majorities required by Pinochet-era laws to reform the educational system (57 percent), the electoral system (60 percent) or the constitution (67 percent).

One reason is the binomial electoral system itself, which awards the losing coalition half the seats in each congressional district unless the winning one secures more than two-thirds of the votes. A record-low voter turnout by a politically alienated electorate, in the first presidential election since a 2012 rule change made voting voluntary, also likely worked against the New Majority’s congressional aspirations.

With this mixed electoral outcome, New Majority initiatives such as tax, pension and health care reform, which require only a majority vote, should be achievable. Radical educational reform may also be within reach, if independent delegates can provide the critical swing votes. But political and constitutional reforms, if attainable at all, will require bargaining, negotiation and compromise with more conservative factions, at the risk of alienating progressive popular constituencies.

In a sense, this represents a political victory for the center-right Alliance, which has succeeded in preventing the institutional left from carrying out its proposed reform program unobstructed. The low voter turnout, used by conservatives to question the legitimacy of Bachelet’s reform mandate, may make these issues even more contested.

Within the New Majority coalition itself, there are diverse party factions ranging from Christian Democrats (many of whom originally supported Pinochet) to Communists, with significantly different visions, strategies and timetables for reform. Internal conflicts are intensified by continuing pressure from the social movements. In the area of education, Bachelet (a member of the Socialist Party) has promised to institute tuition-free public higher education and end state subsidies to for-profit institutions within six years. But students and their elected representatives want to abolish private schools completely, and are impatient for quick results.

A Constitutional Assembly?

A key split has also arisen over the issue of how constitutional reform might be accomplished. While the Christian Democrats and Bachelet support the institutional strategy of “change from within,” relying on the undemocratically elected Congress to produce a new constitution, students and other popular sectors, supported by the Communist Party, are calling for a constitutional assembly to be convoked by referendum. This strategy has been successfully implemented by leftist governments in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador at the behest of popular movements, and is currently a key demand of the left opposition in Honduras.

Under a grassroots initiative called “Mark Your Vote,” more than 10 percent of Chilean voters in the December election indicated their support for a constitutional assembly by marking their ballots “AC” in the December election. In a recent national opinion poll, 45 percent of those surveyed endorsed the concept.

As a strategy that offers the possibility of re-engaging a civil society that is profoundly alienated from the consensus model of post-dictatorship duopoly politics, the constitutional assembly is an intriguing option. It could provide an opportunity for Chileans to reconnect with their own deeply democratic traditions, illustrated by the unprecedented levels of political and social awareness and participation achieved through poder popular (popular power), the touchstone of Allende’s Popular Unity government.

Despite the new discourse of remorse evidenced during the 40-year coup anniversary, many Chileans feel that this aspect of their past has been largely excised from official historical memory. Even in the otherwise outstanding Museum of Memory and Human Rights developed by Bachelet in her first term, there is little reference to the participatory institutions of the Allende era (such as workers’ councils and collective neighborhood organizations) that Pinochet systematically destroyed. A revival of this deeply democratic tradition through the constitutional assembly could be an important step in genuinely challenging the legacy of dictatorship.

Emily Achtenberg is an urban planner and the author of NACLA’s Rebel Currents blog. She observed the 40-year coup anniversary in Chile with a School of Americas Watch solidarity delegation. An earlier version of this article appeared on NACLA’s Rebel Currents blog at

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