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 constitution. 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 Senator-for-Life. 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 bill. 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- lemma. 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 preferences. 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 constitution. 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 master. 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 sought. 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 congresses. 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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