CHILE The Right to Coup

September 25, 2007

After the results of the plebiscite
came in, the joy in the streets of San-
tiago was palpable. It was a moment
to savor. It was as if the last barrier of
terror had given way. People rushed
out en masse, jumping, dancing, em-
bracing and crying. The long, violent
storm was finally beginning to lift.
One could feel the fear melting away
as ecstatic crowds clogged the city
and the surrounding shantytowns.
NACLA's former research director
Steven S. Volk teaches Latin
American history at Oberlin College.
He recently returned from an
extended trip to Chile.
But the reality of the situation re-
asserted itself soon enough. Pinochet
quickly sent his water cannons, sol-
diers and plainclothes enforcers back
to the streets to restore the order of
the last 15 years. At least three dem-
onstrators were killed and members
of the press, both local and interna-
tional, were severely beaten. Pinochet
has lost prestige, but he has not yet
lost power.
"We were beaten but not con-
quered," Pinochet declared. "Re-
member in the history of the world
there was a plebiscite in which they
judged Christ and Barrabas." Plagued
with a dictator who likens himself to
Christ, Chile now finds itself in an
uncomfortable purgatory. According
to the 1980 constitution, having lost
the vote, the General will remain in
office until March 1990 when he will
turn over the presidency to the winner
of a national direct election to be held
on December 14, 1989. That leaves
him with 17 months of direct "consti-
tutional" power and, as one can imag-
ine, a grab bag of options.
Pinochet conceded defeat in a
speech broadcast nationwide the
night of October 6. His interior min-
ister, Sergio Fernindez, had just
stated that the government stood by
"its unbreakable decision to comply
with the constitution and the law..."
Those who take comfort from such a
statement have not read Chile's
Transition and the Constitution
Workers celebrate the "No" victory
The constitution of 1980, hand-
crafted by Pinochet and his advisers,
was intended to guide the Chilean
dictatorship into a period of institu-
tionalized rule. On an ideological
level, the national charter raises anti-
communism to the status of a state
religion. Article 8, for example, out-
laws "class conflict" and those who
believe in it, particularly the Commu-
nist Party (which has historically rep-
resented 10-20% of the Chilean elec-
torate). Politically, it consistently
places "national security" above indi-
vidual rights.
The significance of the document,
however, lies in the fact that it grants
the president a series of powers not
enjoyed by any of his predecessors,
and elevates the military, via the Na-
tional Security Council, directly into
the political sphere. The president
appoints all judges of the supreme
court and appellate courts, all inten-
dants and all governors in the prov-
inces. Indirectly, the president con-
trols the naming of six of seven mem-
bers of the Constitutional Tribunal (a
constitutional supreme court), the
comptroller general, three of five
members of the Electoral Court
(which supervises all elections) and
over 30% of the Senate (including his
own seat). Pinochet will become
REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 4The president's control reaches
deep down to the local level. Accord-
ing to the constitution, mayors are
either directly appointed by the presi-
dent or by "regional development
councils," which are made up of pre-
sidentially-appointed intendants,
governors and representatives of each
branch of the armed forces and the
carabineros (national police). This
was to be a key element in the institu-
tionalization of Pinochet's authoritar-
ian plan. It creates the appearance of
decentralization, where demands
placed on the state would be passed
down to, and generally ignored by,
local authorities, while power is actu-
ally centralized at the top via a net-
work of personally beholden mayors,
intendants, and governors.
Congress, to be elected in late
1989, will be a timid lap dog to this
president since the constitution has
stripped the legislators of their most
serious responsibilities. For example,
congress can legislate a reduction in
the presidentially-proposed state
budget, but it cannot raise expendi-
ture levels, nor can it impose taxes or
raise revenues at all. So weakened
will the congress be, that the Consti-
tutional Tribunal (controlled by the
president) can eject any legislator just
for introducing what the Tribunal
considers to be an unconstitutional
But the overwhelming presiden-
tial power written into the 1980 char-
ter raises what has to be Pinochet's
most serious problem. He never in-
tended that this power be exercised
by anyone but himself, and he most
certainly never intended his presiden-
tial sash to be draped over the shoul-
der of a centrist politician. The presi-
dent to follow Pinochet may even
have the power to dismiss the Gen-
eral's appointees. Still, the
constitution does leave Pinochet with
a way out of this uncomfortable di-
The political role of the nation's
armed forces is to be embodied in the
powerful National Security Council
(NSC), composed of the president,
the presidents of the Senate and the
Supreme Court, and the chiefs of the
three service branches and the carab-
ineros. Thus, the armed services will
maintain majority control, even
though the president, who names the
military chiefs, directly appoints six
of the NSC's seven members. One
issue has been crystal clear since late
in the government of Salvador Allen-
de: Civilian presidents cannot exer-
cise their right to appoint military
chiefs by fiat. Fifteen years of direct
military rule have reasserted the mili-
tary's prerogatives to name its own
commanders regardless of civilian
Control of the NSC is vital not be-
cause it can, along with the president,
declare a variety of "states of excep-
tion," under which constitutional
guarantees are suspended, but be-
cause it has the legal right to depose
the government in the name of na-
tional security. This is a powerful
threat to hold over any president.
Pinochet's Options
When Pinochet pledges that he
will "comply with the constitution,"
he's really promising to maintain his
dictatorship. According to some con-
stitutional authorities, Pinochet can
offer himself as a candidate in the
December 1989 elections. A shatter-
ing of the opposition coalition would
not automatically help his chances at
the polls, since the constitution re-
quires a two-candidate run-off elec-
tion if no majority winner emerges.
But he could take advantage of a frac-
tious electoral campaign to reempha-
size the "chaos" inherent in civilian
politics. We cannot be certain how
the General would fare in a free and
open election-the plebiscite cam-
paign alloted 15 minutes of TV air
time to the opposition for every 23
hours and 45 minutes to the govem-
ment-but the fact that he won 43%
of the vote is an indication that he is
supported by more than those who
have profited directly from his rule.
If the direct electoral option
proves untenable, he could appoint a
successor and pressure the conserva-
tive coalition to accept that person as
its candidate. Finally, he could use
the power given him and the NSC by
the constitution to cancel elections al-
together or to remove the incoming
civilian administration under the pre-
text of internal subversion, turmoil,
external threat, or, what is more
likely, a perceived threat to his
Questions for the Opposition
The opposition did not succeed in
disarming Pinochet, but it certainly
bruised his ego. While many have
argued that the plebiscite turned the
opposition's attention away from the
real task of dismantling pinochet-
ismo, most would probably claim that
Chile is arguably closer to that goal
now than before October 5. One of
the startling results of the plebiscite,
at least for the government, is that 15
years of military rule has failed to
destroy the basic divisions of Chilean
politics which remain Right, center
and Left of roughly equal propor-
tions. The Pinochet dictatorship's
ideological mission was to eliminate
politics altogether. Yet its propa-
ganda machine in the media and the
schools has evidently failed to de-
stroy Chileans' political identities. In
1989, as in 1973, the main question
on an electoral level is whether a cen-
ter-Left coalition will prove stronger
than one of the center-Right.
The debate could emerge over
several questions, including the le-
galization of the Communist Party
and whether or not the Christian
Democrats (the strongest centrist
party) will accept Pinochet's eco-
nomic model. There is also the issue
of whether the fractured Socialist
Party will reassert its historic alliance
with the Communist Party or prolong
its successful concord with the Chris-
tian Democrats.
Underlying these issues, of
course, are differences over political-
economic models which are likely to
divide the opposition into at least two
broad camps. One will seek to dis-
mantle Pinochet's repressive political
structure while maintaining his eco-
nomic framework and the controls on
labor. The other will attempt to re-
place his authoritarian models in both
the political and economic spheres.
U.S. journalists are already "spin-
ning" this as a choice between start-
ing afresh versus returning to the
policies of the Allende government,
but this misrepresents the options.
The real question to be debated by the
Chilean opposition is whether the
SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 1988 5Pinochet dictatorship will disappear
when the General does or outlive its
The Military Beyond Pinochet
One cannot but be struck by the
43% of the vote which went to Pino-
chet. Even if we discard some part of
that vote as fraudulent, the product of
a closed campaign or a still fearful
electorate, it is significant that a con-
siderable portion of Chilean voters
would seek to project Pinochet's
military rule into the future.*
The question goes beyond Pino-
chet himself to whether or not the
Chilean military will establish an alli-
ance with a civilian party. Pinochet's
rule was a depoliticizing one. He nei-
ther sought to create his own social
and political base of support among
the civilians, nor to politicize the
military (i.e., to turn it from merely a
coercive prop into a political founda-
tion). But it is plausible that the mili-
tary-technocratic corps which took
root under him will find a home in the
National Renovation Party of Sergio
Onofre Jarpa. If this happens, it will
signal an important historical change
for Chile. While conservative sectors
did call on the military to back their
rule a number of times before 1973,
the military's presence in the political
world was quite subdued. A military
conservative party, carrying with it
the thinly veiled threat of another
military intervention, could convince
the centrist parties to abandon the
Left and provide the center-Right
with the elusive majority it has long
The plebiscite could also provide
the armed forces, and the army in par-
ticular, with the strength to displace
Pinochet from his throne. Most in the
military probably recognize that they
need to put some distance between
the dictator and themselves. Air
Force Gen. Matthei has been the
clearest about the need to unyoke the
military from Pinochet's legacy.
Still, Pinochet has spent 15 years
shuffling commands, displacing or
* Manuel Barrera of the Center for Social
Studies in Santiago reports that there was at
least 4% fraud.
even killing his rivals within the
army. And since the army continues
to hold the balance of power in the
military, Pinochet may be able to rely
on it should an internal crisis erupt.
Working Class Politics
Although Pinochet has failed in
his attempt to eradicate the historic
Left in Chile, the links between the
working class and the parties of the
Left have been severely disrupted.
The most vivid impression I came
away with on a recent trip was that
the "Old Left" had little presence in
the poverty stricken poblaciones that
radiate out of Santiago. Politicking
on a national level has become the
Left's principal arena of activity.
At the height of the Pinochet
years, the Left was confronted with
the immediate problem of physical
survival. The transition years will
challenge the Left with the problem
of relevance. Pinochet's destruction
of Allende's social welfare legisla-
tion forced the poor majority to build
their own system of self-help com-
munity groups. The Left has made
few links with this movement, which
is dominated by women. In the com-
ing months this gap may become
more apparent as the Left tries to re-
gain some ground.
United States Influence
One of the more misguided com-
ments on the plebiscite came from
U.S. reporters who gave credit to U.S.
Ambassador Harry G. Barnes for
keeping Pinochet from cancelling the
plebiscite. This is misleading not be-
cause Barnes didn't make his opposi-
tion clear, but because Pinochet is not
a pliant U.S. puppet. When Jimmy
Carter tried to cut off the dictatorship,
he was undercut by the banks which
poured some $14 billion in credits
into Chile during his administration.
The Reagan Administration undid
most of Carter's measures, but since
late 1984, it too has publicly ex-
pressed its displeasure with the Pino-
chet government, albeit mildly. In
neither case did Pinochet move to
modify even the style, let alone the
substance, of his rule. The United
States may have put the General in,
but he has grown quite independent
and defiant of his original patrons.
And since the United States is far
more committed to marginalizing the
Chilean Left than it is to getting rid of
Pinochet, any criticisms from Wash-
ington are easily sloughed off by the
General as hypocritical.
Amending the constitution
Some criticism from Washington
could help the opposition in its fight
to amend the constitution. Now that
Pinochet has lost the plebiscite, what
is regarded as the "respectable oppo-
sition" by U.S. officials-the centrist
parties-may have more pull in Con-
gress and the State Department in
their campaign to weaken the dic-
tatorship's hold over the country's
political life.
The constitution itself makes the
amendment process virtually impos-
sible. For example, no amendment
weakening presidential powers can be
introduced unless the sitting presi-
dent endorses such changes. And,
even then, amendments require large
majorities to pass, and proposed
changes in most controversial issues
must be approved by two successive
Pinochet has drawn a line in the
sand: No amendments to the
constitution will be allowed. The op-
position has made its position known:
The constitution must be changed.
Such an early standoff might reflect a
natural testing of the waters on both
sides. But whether the opposition can
negotiate any alterations in the char-
ter before a new congress is elected
will depend on the military, particu-
larly the army. Will they remain loyal
to Pinochet in his attempt to control a
new period marked by greater politi-
cal space? Or will they abandon the
General and seek a rapprochement
with conservative civilians? Pinochet
or pinochetismo?
For the poor however, this is an
arcane question. The plebiscite
showed that Pinochet is not omnipo-
tent, but thousands remain outside the
political process. Celebrations not-
withstanding, come Pinochet or pino-
chetismo, the poor of Chile will still
need their independent, beleaguered
system of self-help more than ever.

Tags: Chile, Augusto Pinochet, plebiscite, Constitution, democratic transition

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