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Mid-Life Crisis: Chilean Democracy 40 years after the Coup

On the day Americans commemorate the twelfth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center, Chileans will be contemplating four decades since the coup d’état which toppled Salvador Allende—a benchmark that falls in the middle of a presidential election campaign. Despite the forty years that have passed, the events of 1973 still resonate throughout the Chilean population—but this should not be all that surprising. Here in the United States, domestic and foreign policy remain mindful of—and in many ways conditioned by—the lessons of the Kennedy assassinations, the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, and Watergate. In Chile, this anniversary provides an opportunity to discuss the causes of the coup, the dictatorship that followed, and the kind of democracy that has been built since then.

There are at least three elements which define the conversation.

First, this is the first major anniversary since Augusto Pinochet’s death. Ten years ago, the former dictator was alive and living quietly in a Santiago suburb. Although his arrest in London 1998 and the 2004 discovery of his efforts to hide millions of dollars at Riggs Bank in Washington, DC, had already done much damage to his public profile and influence, the general’s death in December of 2006 facilitated a freer discussion of his legacy. Today, no major political party is willing to associate itself with Pinochetismo, although some on the right do defend the so-called “positive aspects” of his regime—economic modernization chief among them.

Second, the memorialization of the 1973 coup falls in the midst of a presidential campaign. And not just any campaign—the two main candidates are both women, both former ministers, and both daughters of air force generals. General Alberto Bachelet, the father of candidate and former president Michelle Bachelet, died in custody in the days immediately following the coup. Candidate Evelyn Matthei’s father, General Fernando Matthei, went on to become part of the governing junta with Pinochet.

Some have suggested that General Matthei had some knowledge of what happened to General Bachelet, as the two men were friends. Both families deny the charge. General Bachelet’s daughter was exiled, while General Matthei’s studied abroad, eventually returning to study economics at Santiago’s Catholic University. Needless to say, both of these women were shaped, albeit in different ways, by the Coup and its aftermath.

Third, the recent social mobilization has shifted the goalposts of political debate. Massive student demonstrations that began in 2011 and persist to date have brought the country’s students and education to the forefront, laying the blame for the system’s ongoing struggles on the economic and political legacy of the Pinochet regime, and to a lesser degree on the continuation of those policies during the 20 years of center-left Concertacion coalition governments.

Students and others have managed to transform what was a demand for education reform into a broader call for a new constitution—the current constitution, though much amended, is the one initially implemented by General Pinochet in 1980. Almost all of the (nine) presidential candidates, with the exception only of Matthei, offer to reform or scrap the current constitution, with some suggesting the formation of a Constituent Assembly to design a new one.

It is difficult to look ahead in the midst of an anniversary which, almost by definition, is designed to make Chileans look to the past. Since the return to democracy, Chilean society has made a conscious effort to ignore the past and concentrate instead on the country’s future. A Bachelet victory in November’s election (or the runoff in December) appears all but certain, and the policies her future government implements undoubtedly will be strongly influenced by Chile’s history. Still, she has not proved intransigent. In an effort to meet the demands of a highly motivated youth lead movement and an inherently shifting society, Bachelet has already committed to working towards a new constitution and free higher education—policies that push against the more traditional, Pinochet-enshrined political legacy of fiscal prudence, social conservativism, and a market-based education system.

However controversial and politically risky, these promises carry with them a new and important undertone: modernization. Difficult issues like the environment and gay marriage figure prominently in Bachelet’s election platform. A proposed tax reform would attempt to eliminate a Pinochet-era loophole for the wealthiest Chileans that is largely cited as pivotal in maintaining the country’s stubbornly high income inequality and sorely limited social mobility. For Bachelet, surpassing the legacy of the past, it seems, also means taking a leap towards the future.

Forty years after the breakdown of democratic rule, Chilean democracy enters its middle age: with more bravado perhaps, but also more chaos. As much as the country’s past remains a point of deep controversy and disagreement, the future seems to hold something different. Michelle Bachelet’s popularity has only been augmented as her electoral promises increasingly push the traditional envelope of Chilean politics. Is Chile’s democracy facing a mid-life crisis? Perhaps. But however chaotic, can driving the country’s progress and politics forward really be called a crisis at all?

Carl Meacham, Director, Americas Program, Center for Strategic and Int'l Studies (CSIS)

Robert Funk, Director, Center for the Study of Public Opinion, University of Chile

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