Chile: Voting under the Gun

September 25, 2007

Millions of people around the world shook their heads in disbelief this January as Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet staged a nation-wide vote to determine whether or not the Chilean people support his regime's policies. The announcement of the January 4 referendum was made on December 1, one week after the United Nations' strongest condemnation yet of the Chilean dictatorship's "... constant and flagrant violations of human rights and basic freedoms." The referendum must at least be seen as an audacious move, for while attempting to overcome the Chilean Junta's international isolation, Pinochet also faces an internal atmosphere of growing opposition. Four years after the coup, the resistance movement is kept in check only through continuing repression and torture, and a nightly curfew and state of siege are still in effect. Very few have benefitted from what the Wall Street Journal has termed Chile's "buoyant" economic situation. It is true that the Junta achieved a rise of 7-9 percent in the GNP in 1977. It also lowered inflation from 1974's 400 percent rate to a "respectable" 65 percent and continued to increase Chile's non-traditional exports. For the large majority, however, the standard of living remains below that of the late 1960's, and unemployment still stands around 20 percent. Trade unions have increased their opposition to the Junta's economic policies and to the restriction on labor organizing. Despite the continuing arrests of union leaders, national labor federations are being rebuilt, both openly and in the underground. In September, copper miners at El Teniente staged a one-day walk-out while dock workers in San Antonio carried out a well-publicized work slowdown. Victims of the Junta's repression stepped up their protests, as twenty-six relatives of "disappeared" prisoners (unrecognized by the Junta) staged a hunger strike in the UN offices in Santiago last July, demanding the Junta reveal the fate of their relatives. In December, 100 more relatives of disappeared prisoners staged another hunger strike in a Santiago church, to draw more attention to the conditions which brought about the UN condemnation. Actions by the left indicateda strengthening of the people's resistance movement, with an increase of clandestine propaganda, over a dozen bombings of government and ruling-class targets, and an increase of underground "Resistance Committees" in all social sectors, especially the working class. The process of building the unity of the entire left was also advanced by an agreement signed in August between the Popular Unity (a coalition of Chilean left parties including the Socialists and the Communists) and the MIR, the Movement of the Revolutionary Left. It was against this backdrop of internal strife that Pinochet gambled to take a dramatic stand against the tide of international attacks against his regime. By doing so he may have opened a Pandora's box of contradictions. The first mass street protests since the 1973 military coup erupted as hundreds of Chileans marched through Santiago shouting "Chile yes! Junta no!," "Freedom!" and "Vote no!" All the parties of the Chilean left called on their members to vote "no" or to abstain. Several bombs exploded in Santiago during the nights preceding the vote, and on January 3, MIR members interrupted a Santiago radio program to broadcast messages of resistance. Many formerly pro-Junta forces also opposed the referendum. Ex-president Eduardo Frei, the Christian Democratic leader widely held to be Washington's choice to succeed Pinochet, stated that the referendum lacked guarantees to assure its validity, and urged a "no" vote. Chile's Catholic bishops requested that the vote be postponed or suspended, since the opposition had virtually no opportunity to campaign, given the four-year-old state of siege, the arrests of persons handing out "no" vote leaflets and the haste with which the vote was called. Even the pro-Junta newspaper El Mercurio, dean of Chilean bourgeois journalism, questioned the wisdom of holding any kind of vote under present circumstances. Fissures appeared among the ranks of the ruling Junta itself, as Air Force Commander General Gustavo Leigh and Navy Chief Admiral Merino questioned the legality of the poll and stated that its results would not be believed either at home or abroad. More significantly, they also expressed their indignation at not having been consulted by Pinochet before the announcement of the vote. The text of the resolution was carefully written to identify Pinochet's rule with nationalism, as the voters were asked to support both Pinochet's "defense of Chile's dignity" and the government's legitimacy to "...conduct ... the institutionalization of the country." Given the wording of the resolution, the military control over the voting process and the one-sided media barrage in favor of the "yes" vote, there was little suspense over the final outcome. Triumphally, Pinochet made the predictable announcement that 75 percent of the electorate had voted "Yes, for Chile." But as the other members of the Junta had predicted, very few in Chile or abroad have placed any credence in the results. The dictatorship still must deal with the international condemnations and the internal opposition and resistance which surfaced more massively than ever in the situation created by the plebiscite. Pinochet hastened to nail the lid back down by announcing there will be no elections for at least ten years and that the vote amounted to a mandate for him to decree a new constitution for "authoritarian democracy," without further ratification. He was also able to exact statements of support from the "dissident" members of the Junta, who explained that some internal dissension is "natural," and several previously critical representatives of the Chilean bourgeoisie spoke out on January 5 in praise of "Chile's victory." Once again the Christian Democratic opposition condemned the vote as a "huge fraud." The Popular Unity coalition said it was an event which in fact revealed the dictatorship's weakness. Official U.S. reaction to the dictatorship's "consultation" was sharply critical, on the one hand. State Department spokesman Tom Reston said that conditions for a fair election do not exist in Chile. But he also expressed Washington's hope that the vote may mark the beginning of a process towards a return to democracy. One reporter asked him how he could criticize the plebiscite and yet call for more of the same. The fact is that recent U.S. policy toward the Junta seems more directed at pressuring Pinochet to increase the pace of his efforts to clean up his international image - which has become a liability to the U.S. - than at pushing for any real democratic alternative.(See NACLA's July-August 1977 Report on "new" U.S. strategies in Latin America.) Multinational capital has stepped up the pace of its re-entry into Chile in the past month (with announcements of investments totaling up to $700 million from ARCO, Exxon and Goodyear), and $100 million-plus loans continue to arrive from foreign private banking consortia. U.S. policy-makers therefore feel it imperative to promote both the Junta's stability and an improvement in its image. Pinochet has for the time being reasserted his control over the armed forces, and won back the allegiance of some disaffected bourgeois sectors, demonstrating that there is still no opposition sector able to present a strong challenge to his rule. The regime is still strong enough to allow limited dissension to surface publicly. But all members of the ruling circles realize that they can ill afford either serious internal splits or the reoccurrence of a situation like that which existed during the weeks preceding the plebiscite. The Junta and its U.S. backers face the dilemma, then, of having to contain the resistance through continued repression, an imperative which makes it impossible to meet the objective of improving the Junta's international image. Adapted from an article by David Hathaway appearing in the coming issue of the Chile Newsletter (see ad).

Tags: Chile, Augusto Pinochet, referendum

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