Chile: Five Years Later

September 25, 2007

September 11, 1978, marks five years since the Chilean Armed Forces overthrew Salvador Allende's Popular Unity government in one of Latin America's most brutal and violent coups. During this five-year period, the Chilean people have been recovering from the blows of the coup, coming to terms with life under the military dictatorship, and slowly and painfully building a popular resistance movement. Although the military junta led by General Augusto Pinochet continues to rule the country with an iron hand, a growing political crisis is enveloping the regime. Internal fissures within the junta, and the regime's deteriorating relations with the U.S. government are the most visible manifestations of this crisis. The ouster of the junta's Air Force representative, Gustavo Leigh, along with the resignation of 19 of the 21 generals in the Air Force who supported Leigh, has eroded the regime's base within the m ilitary and led some observers to predict that Pinochet's rule is numbered in days. The junta's relations with its principal international ally - the U.S. government - have been strained by the regime's failure to "clean-up" many of its repressive excesses and improve its image abroad. One of the most blatant atrocities committed under the dictatorship, the assassination of Chilean exile leader Orlando Letelier and his co-worker Ronni Moffitt in Washington, D.C., has had a particularly chilling effect on relations between the two countries. To understand the crisis of the junta and the problems that it faces, one must look at the three main objectives the junta has pursued during the past five years: (1) the restructuring of the Chilean economy to meet the needs of the domestic bourgeoisie and international capital in a period of economic crisis; (2) the efforts to institutionalize the counter revolutionary regime; and (3) the attempts to crush the left and the workers movement. ECONOMIC REPRESSION Perhaps the most important long-term economic goal of the junta has been to reshape the economy so that it responds to the needs of foreign capital. To achieve this, the junta has taken a number of severe measures. Chile's new Statute on Foreign Investments (Decree Law #600), issued in 1974, permits foreign companies to enjoy all the privileges of Chilean firms, while placing few restrictions on the movement of capital and profits out of the country. Because it removed virtually all barriers to foreign investment, this legislation led to Chile's expulsion from the Andean Pact, a regional common market aimed at strengthening national industry and commerce. To attract foreign capital and to assist the local monopolies, the junta has struck down many of the legal rights and guarantees that the Chilean working class had won during its long history of struggle. New labor laws have been introduced denying workers the right to organize, strike, or bargain collectively, and instead "tripartite commissions" have been set up to control labor conflicts, with the owners and the government (the military) having two votes and the workers one. The junta has adopted a series of measures known as the "economic shock policy," including massive layoffs of public workers, severe cutbacks in the state budget for social services such as health care, education and welfare, tight credit and a ceiling on cost of living adjustments which constantly falls behind inflation. All these measures have led to drastic reductions in workers' real wages (the official minimum salary in 1978 is about 2,000 Pesos - less than $100 per month, with consumer prices comparable to those in the United States), and very high unemployment - over 15 percent by official figures, probably twice that in fact. Most recently, one of the junta's chief economic planners, Roberto Kelly, has come up with a "solution" to the problem of unemployment: reduce the cost of labor (i.e., wages plus workers' benefits) even further, so that employers will voluntarily hire more workers. It's clear that any "solutions" the junta comes up with will be paid for entirely by the workers! The net result of these economic policies has been to greatly sharpen the division between "haves" and "have-nots" in Chile: the great majority of Chilean workers and peasants, including many who formerly thought of themselves as "middle-class," can barely afford - or cannot afford - the necessities of food, clothing, housing and transportation. Only the wealthy, military officers, businessmen and some professionals and foreigners can afford the many imports which now fill Chile's shops and stores, at international prices. While the junta has restructured Chile's economy, it has not succeeded in making the new model an unqualified success. The junta still desperately needs new foreign investments, which, despite a few recent major investments such as EXXON's $100 million purchase of the La Disputada copper mine, have been slow in arriving. Since the coup, Chile has received less than $300 million in new investments, a figure far below what the junta had hoped for. The severe austerity measures imposed by the junta has thrown the economy into a tailspin. Many small and medium-sized businesses in Chile have gone bankrupt, leading to the increasing concentration of domestic capital in the hands of a few national monopolies. Copper prices, on which Chile still depends for a large part of its foreign revenues, continue to fluctuate and have in general remained low over the past several years. And despite its policy against deficit spending, the junta has not succeeded in reducing Chile's overall foreign debt, which stands at around $5 billion, and the repayment of loans and interest remains the single largest item in the state budget, at around 30-40 percent, (with expenditures for the military and police a close second). CRISIS OF THE CHILEAN STATE This economic program is closely linked with another of the dictatorship's basic objectives: resolving the chronic political crisis of the state. The current power struggle within the junta is only the most recent manifestation of this crisis. The military dictatorship itself is a "last resort" of the Chilean bourgeoisie, necessary to solve a problem they could not solve through traditional means - that of keeping the lid on class struggle, and increasing the rate of profit in the face of a strong and increasingly militant workers' movement. Allende's election in 1970 was possible because the traditional bourgeois parties - the Christian Democrats and the National Party - were badly divided on how to contain the workers' movement. And the last elections under Allende in March 1973 showed the Right that it was too late to regain the initiative through traditional, democratic means; although the Christian Democrats joined the National Party in an electoral pact, the Popular Unity government gained significant support in the elections. After these elections, the Right reportedly reached a consensus on the need for a military coup. But the coup and the installation of the military junta have failed to solve the political crisis of the Chilean state. Pinochet has been able to consolidate his regime along extremely authoritarian and militaristic lines, ruling out any electoral politics for "at least a generation." But this has presented real contradictions for the regime as it has had to face domestic and international pressures to broaden its base of support and to abandon some of its more repressive measures. Furthermore, the organizations and political parties that supported the coup have not been able to reach a consensus on how to govern the country. The junta has systematically excluded the Christian Democrats from any share in power, accusing them of having "prepared the ground and opened the doors" for Allende's government. For their part, the Christian Democrats are unhappy with the junta's economic policies, which have adversely affected many of their supporters, i.e. small businessmen and sectors of the middle class. They, along with other civilian organizations and important sectors of the Catholic Church, have moved from positions of active or tacit support for the junta to critical positions and even open opposition; the junta retaliated in 1976 by declaring the Christian Democrats and all civilian political parties illegal. The United States government has tempered its support for the junta. It has come to view Pinochet and the junta as an albatross around its neck; the open terrorism and brutality of a regime so closely linked to the United States undermines the Carter administration's "human rights" rhetoric. The administration would certainly prefer a modification of the regime which, without changing its basically repressive character, would improve its(and indirectly the United States) image. This has led to the opening of debate about the process of "institutionalization" of the regime, a subject which has occupied the center stage in Chilean politics over the past year. Institutionalization can best be understood as a process of negotiation among the different bourgeois factions and the interests of U.S. imperialism in pursuit of a minimum consensus as to how power should be shared in the "new" Chilean state. The fundamental character of the regime is not at stake in this debate; all are agreed that the economic policy must remain one of subordination to the international capitalist economy, and that in order to keep Chilean workers "in their place" the regime will have to be authoritarian and repressive in nature. What is at stake is the extent of participation in the new regime by different political and economic interests, including the Christian Democrats, and to a degree, what kind of direct participation the Armed Forces as an institution will have in the administration of the new state. The Christian Democrats to date have been largely excluded from the discussions over institutionalization. However, they have taken advantage of the lack of a united Left to manipulate the gradually reawakening mass movement as a source of leverage to win them real participation in the institutionalization process. At the same time they have sought support from Washington and Europe and are trying to present themselves as a possible "viable alternative" to the military dictatorship. The Carter administration has followed a policy of gradually increasing pressures on the junta, employing both "the carrot" and "the stick" in its diplomacy aimed at remolding the dictatorship in a more presentable - and benign - image. Thus, Carter slaps Pinochet's wrist over human rights violations, while embracing him with a smile at the meeting of Latin American dictators in Washington during the signing of the Panama Canal treaties. After a year-long delay, the Carter administration applies multiple pressures to the junta to force its "cooperation" in the investigation of the assassination of Orlando Letelier. And recently, Washington warmly welcomed the new Chilean ambassador to Washington while a desperate and heroic hunger strike by relatives of the Chilean disappeared was taking place in Santiago. The Carter administration's "flirting" contacts with the Christian Democrats can be seen in this same light - every- one knows the Christian Democrats have no real future without U.S. backing, so they are a useful option the United States can hold over the heads of the junta in bringing still greater pressures to bear. The institutionalization process has revealed some startling contradictions; from a position of adamant opposition to all political activity and elections, Pinochet suddenly called for a national "referendum" in January of this year - a referendum which, over the heads of the other members of the junta, he sought to turn into a "vote of confidence" in his own personal rule, and a rejection of U.N. "interference" in Chile's affairs. While defending "necessary" repressive measures, Pinochet was forced to declare a limited amnesty that freed some political prisoners. Pinochet also put an end to the State of Siege (replacing it with a "state of emergency"), and officially dissolved DINA, the secret police (only to resurrect them immediately as the innocuous sounding "National Information Center," CNI). Most recently, Pinochet has been forced to announce another "referendum" for early 1979 on the proposed new Constitution (a referendum which has already been postponed once since it was announced), and has restructured his cabinet to include a majority of civilians for the first time since the coup - but civilian "loyalists," collaborators with the regime. RESURGENCE OF THE POPULAR MOVEMENT In this process of jockeying for power, another crucial force is making its presence known: the mass movement of Chilean workers, peasants, and urban poor. Although the coup represented a serious defeat for the Chilean popular movement, and continuing heavy repression has cost the Left repeated losses, neither the Left nor the Chilean workers' movement have been crushed by the dictatorship. The parties of the Left have reorganized underground, and the past two years have seen the beginning of a reactivation of the mass movement and specifically of trade union activity on a national scale. The failure of the junta to decisively crush the Left and the workers' movement is significant as it substantially limits the regime's ability to carry out its economic programs. During this past year there have been important strikes, work slow-downs and other forms of labor protest against the junta among copper miners, longshoremen, railroad workers and others. Even the so-called "yellow" trade union leaders tolerated by the junta, many of them trained by the CIA- financed American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), have been forced by rank-and-file pressures into positions critical of the junta's reactionary labor policies. Commenting on the junta's new plan to "solve" unemployment, one pro-U.S. leader said, "asking [economic adviser] Roberto Kelly to solve the problem of unemployment is like asking a wolf to guard the sheep!".Despite the fact that the junta has outlawed Chile's Central Trade Union Confederation (or CUT which included the great majority of Chile's organized workers), several groupings of unions with leftist and Christian Democratic tendencies have begun to work together nationally to raise economic demands for their workers. While much of the public protest over the past two years has been spontaneous in nature, or originated by Christian Democratic groups, the Left and the popular resistance movement have increasingly been taking a leading role in carrying these actions beyond their initial goals, in giving them a more directly political content. The recent hunger strike in May by relatives of the disappeared, which spread throughout Chile and won broad support from trade unions, peasant associations and some churches was initiated by the Left, and is an example of the new forms of struggle the people of Chile have had to develop under the dictatorship. THE RESISTANCE STRATEGY But the Left is still seriously divided over strategy for the popular movement. Important sectors of the Popular Unity coalition, including the Communist Party, continue to seek an alliance with the Christian Democrats as the keystone of their strategy. Other sectors of the Left, including the MIR and some parties in the Popular Unity such as MAPU, are convinced that, important as it is to take advantage of every opportunity for struggle, the political space available to them through the legal and semi-legal forms of organization possible under the junta are so limited that it is absolutely necessary to continue organizing an underground popular resistance movement. Although the strategy of building a clandestine resistance is not supported by all the parties of the Left, its mass support is growing. Individuals from many of the Left parties, as well as independents, are increasingly active in the underground Resistance Committees and Factory Commissions. In the years of dictatorship they have developed many new combative tactics, including: brief, sudden strikes and work slowdowns; sabotage, including "constructive sabotage" (packing extra food or other goods inpackages to help consumers at the expense of the bosses); actions of harassment of the military (for example, arranging that at a certain hour when the military patrol passes through a shanty-town everyone simultaneously slams their doors); propaganda actions (such as wall paintings and the distribution of leaflets or underground publications, often undertaken with armed support in case of confrontation with the police or military); and "warning bombs" (designed to destroy property or frighten supporters of the regime, but not to kill). These acts of resistance, although still limited and often far from spectacular, are vitally important in rebuilding the confidence of the Chilean working class and people in their capacity to fight the dictatorship. At the present time, the platform which the resistance movement puts forward is one of basically democratic demands - demands in the interests of all the poor and working people of Chile. They are primarily defensive demands, aimed at regaining the rights and guarantees won by the Chilean people over many years of struggle. But the platform of the resistance also calls for the overthrow of the dictatorship and its replacement by a popular, democratic and revolutionary government, to be constituted by all those forces which play an active role in struggle against the dictatorship. The platform contains other important political demands, such as the full clarification of the whereabouts and conditions of the disappeared, and the punishments of all torturers and agents of the dictatorship's terror. These demands, which grow out of the pain and anger of the entire people, play a very important role in building broader unity and advancing from a stage of defensive economic demands toward a more advanced stage in the resistance struggle. _____________________________________ How You Can Help We in the United States have a particularly important role to play in support of the Chilean and Latin American resistance movements. We can put an end to all forms of U.S. political, military and economic intervention, help support Latin American political prisoners and refugees, and support the grass-roots survival programs - soup kitchens, child care centers, and associations of the unemployed which have emerged in Chile and throughout the continent. And we can help build support for the resistance movements themselves, which have consciously and voluntarily assumed the enormous responsibility of leading the dual fight against their own ruling classes and the power of U.S. imperialism. For more information about ways we can help the Chilean and Latin American people in their fight against dictatorship, write Non-intervention in Chile (NICH), P.O. Box 800, Berkeley, CA 94704. _____________________________________ WHAT IS TO BE LEARNED Today, five years after the coup, the Chilean military junta faces its most severe crisis, as forces inside the country clamor for their share of power, while the Carter administration uses the Letelier assassination case to bring increasing pressure to bear directly on Pinochet by demanding the extradition of ex-General Manuel Contreras, former head of the DINA (Chile's secret police), and an intimate confidant of Pinochet. At the same time, the Chilean people are building a popular movement which can challenge the power of the dictatorship, resist its most repressive blows, and avoid becoming a pawn in the maneuvers of the bourgeois opposition. Here in the United States we have more to learn from Chile than the negative example of the coup and the multiple forms of U.S. intervention which have been so amply documented. To fully learn the lessons of Chile we must recognize the common interests uniting working people in Chile and in the United States. The resemblance between the junta's "economic shock policy" and the consequences of California's notorious Jarvis- Gann initiative (Proposition 13) are more than accidental. The main architects of the junta's economic policies are a group of former students of right-wing economist Milton Friedman, who are known in Chile as "Los Chicago boys," after their mentor's alma mater. Friedman himself, who has also served as an advisor to the junta, was a strong supporter of Proposition 13, and the basic economic logic behind the proposition, as behind the junta's policies are the same: to make working people rather than corporations bear the economic burdens that arise from the international crisis of capitalism. The Chilean resistance, like its sister movements in other countries of the continent, is still on the defensive, and needs support and solidarity from the people of the world. Working people in the United States are under attack from the same big business and corporate interests which are the enemies of Chile's people. By joining ranks with the Chilean people, by making internationalism a real and permanent part of our own movement, we will strengthen our common cause against a common enemy.

Tags: Chile, Augusto Pinochet, economic repression, neoliberalism, resistance

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