Voices From the Chilean Left: Toward the Recovery of Popular Sovereignty

September 25, 2007

On the 30th anniversary of the military coup that toppled the Popular Unity (UP) government of Salvador Allende, we have both a political and a moral obligation to uncover the historical origin of the great political and ethical crisis that currently convulses our country. We must transcend the collective forgetting infecting Chile so that our political space can be recovered, and so that our national identity, which ultimately defines the structure of our social organization, can also be recovered.

The politics of the UP expressed the viability of popular sovereignty—genuine self rule—that had been building in diverse ways since the 1920s. The impressive organization of Chile’s working class and the presence of a self-aware middle class—some with ties to the world of the proletariat—obligated the state to address social demands. This recognition legitimated the viability of popular sovereignty both institutionally and in the mentality of Chileans.

The social prestige of political activism—despite the constant repression of popular movements—was also increasingly incorporated into the mentality of the majority of the population until the early 1970s. Popular sovereignty emerged and thrived in places where the practice of politics was widespread; in this political context it became possible to imagine a Chilean-style transition to socialism. The UP had political space to develop and consolidate its power because it was a product of Chile’s institutional development. At the same time, of course, it attempted to take that institutional development a step further towards democratic socialism.

Following its violent overthrow of the UP government, the dictatorship destroyed republican antecedents and produced new institutions devoid of popular sovereignty. The military regime maintained itself in power through systematic repression, and produced what has been referred to as a “degraded citizenry.” Over the course of 17 years, Pinochet’s regime installed, developed and maintained a police state that systematically laid waste to the social and political fabric of the republic. Pinochet began by constructing a new institutional order, a strategy made clear in his speech in Chacarillas in 1977, and perfected in the Constitution of 1980. The Pinochet constitution—guaranteed by the armed forces—ensured the installation of an authoritarian democracy protected from popular sovereignty. This protection ensured the durability of Pinochet’s power until 1997, nearly a decade after he left the presidency.

But what is important today is that the dictatorship of Pinochet constructed Chile’s transition to democracy with the hope of giving historical permanence to the institutional structure devised by the military regime. The ruthless, experimental application of the neoliberal agenda in the context of a socially and politically repressed society allowed Pinochet to prolong his regime and guarantee the successful transition to a new form of democracy—what he described in his famous speech in Chacarillas, as “authoritarian, protective, integrative, technological and of authentic social participation.”

Even after the plebiscites of 1988 and 1989, the Chacarillas discourse realized in the Constitution of 1980 remains prominent in Chile’s institutional trajectory. Therein lies the basis of today’s moral and political crisis: the loss of sovereignty as an expression of diversity, the bankrupting of formal democratic activities and processes, and the indifference and disillusionment of the citizenry.

The dictatorship failed to gain any legitimacy in its first ten years; despite the violence and repression, mass struggle reemerged in 1983 with clear destabilizing effects culminating in the dictatorship’s crisis. The government’s project for creating a new institutionality and a new economic order failed in its first ten years. In 1983, the masses were demanding Pinochet’s resignation, a convention to write a new constitution, changes to the imposition of the neoliberal economic model, truth and justice in human rights, the interruption of Pinochet’s itinerary for transition and immediate free elections. Pinochet’s strategy for legitimization had failed; mass protest and civil disobedience left his program for transition questioned and largely rejected.

The civil disobedience and the various forms of protest calling for the end of the dictatorship convinced the Reagan administration to pressure the dictatorship and the opposition Democratic Alliance to forge a transition agreement. The eventual agreement guaranteed the political role of the armed forces, the inviolability of Pinochet, impunity under an amnesty law, the neoliberal model and the exclusion of the Communist Party from any potential governing coalition. In short, the transition to democracy brought on by the political fight of the masses disappeared from high-level political practice. In this way the dictatorship maintained the institutionality conceived in the 1970s without substantive alterations.

The course of political events between 1986 and 1989 marked a period of definitive success for the dictatorship’s legitimization and its transition project. The parties that in the end dominated the democratization process abandoned the social content of their political project and compromised with the dictatorship. In this period the dictatorship gained the cultural and political base that sustains its legacy. The concessions of the agreement assured the persistence of the military’s project: the judicial-institutional framework; the now-perfected neoliberal model; the hegemony of power at the margins of, and protected from, popular sovereignty; the national security policies and institutions enforced by the armed forces to maintain the status quo; total impunity in cases of human rights abuses; and judicial norms that stymie democratic expression and handicap the electoral regime.

In many ways, Pinochet gained decisive ground in his legitimization. First, the dictatorship succeeded in validating the idea that the UP had governed illegitimately, thus undermining the republican institutionality that had developed in Chile since the 1920’s. Second, the military coup was presented as the salvation of a country under siege by an irresponsible social order. Third, the dictatorship shed the blame for its atrocious human rights violations to the point where Chileans spoke of “co-responsibility.” So national reconciliation was based on shared responsibility between victimizers and victims and torturers and the tortured, a process that initiated the impunity that haunts us to this day.

Thirty years after the coup, the principle cause of today’s national crisis is not only the negation of history, but also the existence of a unified, standardized political class without signs of differentiation. It is no longer possible to make a distinction between the so-called “center-left” political class lumped together as the Concertación and that which—under the leadership of the Pinochetista Independent Democratic Union (UDI)—calls itself the Alliance for Chile. There is now a homogenized political spectrum that reinforces the concentration of power.

The inviolability of the 1980 Constitution and the subsequent pacts of 1989 have effectively eliminated expressions of popular sovereignty from the political stage. Television sets have replaced the street, the parliament, the commons and other public political stages. When dissatisfaction is expressed and these spaces are occupied, demonstrators are quickly swept away by the efficient, automated, repressive organisms of the state.

In the republican past, formal democracy allowed the election of deputies, senators and other officials. Today, positions of popular representation are essentially designated by political groups that benefit from the two-party system. Electoral districts are specially drawn up to this effect by the authors of the perfected institutionality. Elections are widely perceived as a lost cause and the electorate is increasingly marginalized. But the discourse of the political elite denies a crisis of democracy and initiates fabricated debates about the virtues or defects of the transition to democracy and whether we are amid or beyond that transition. The media—controlled by those in power—remains silent on the political crisis, demonstrating what common Chileans with common sense already know: Freedom of information does not exist in Chile.

The institutionality protected from expressed popular will denies citizens a role in directing or controlling the management of the state and public issues. Chile is a society with marked class differences that denies the representation of diverse interests in social struggles. The state has shed its assigned responsibility for defending and protecting the so-called “common good.” This has precipitated the “judicialization” of politics. Judicial power and the courts are increasingly administrating these processes with the detrimental consequence of inequality before the law.

National officials pride themselves on good looking macroeconomic balances and Chile’s low “country risk” rating at the same time that statistics from international and national organisms show that economic and social inequity in Chile is the greatest in Latin America. Social indicators are worrisome: increasing illiteracy, malnutrition and abandonment of the elderly; large numbers of Chileans suffering from mental disorders.

The signing of a Free Trade Agreement with the United States benefits the export industry, but common Chileans understand that they will finance the agreement through higher taxes and their diminished capacity for consumption. The neoliberal economic model has been transformed into an infallible myth. Economic policy decisions are carried out as if under the direction of an indisputable manual that describes a series of uniform technical steps and procedures.

The political elite are unanimously and quickly privatizing the state not only in terms of public patrimony, but also in terms of its administration. The new modern government will strip itself of its regulatory role of controlling the economy and social issues by nimbly providing greater facility to corporations. Supervisory authority, previously the autonomy of the public sector, will be ceded to the greater participation of the private sector.

The condition of public universities is emblematic of the privatization of the state. State universities are condemned to self-financing, leading to significant cutbacks or even to their eventual disappearance. This is a direct consequence of the state’s inability to implement a national project; it implies the abandonment of any recovery or strengthening of our national cultural identity. But the political discourse expresses an image of never ending progress based on the ideas of governability, stability and peace. The country and its success depend on foreign investment and seducing this investment means compromising official policies.

The Concertación’s pact with the dictatorship left it lacking any fundamental ethical substance to later imagine any real project for a true transition to democracy distinct from that imagined by Pinochet. The current political crisis of the Concertación is profound. The crisis stems from the Concertación’s abandonment of its original project as an effective democratizing force. It failed to substantially modify the social-economic model imposed by the dictatorship. Today it is clear that abandoning its original democratizing role was the price the Concertación had to pay to the forces sustaining the dictatorship so it could come to power.

As Chile contemplates the 30th anniversary of the military coup, it does so with political institutions designed and achieved by the dictatorship, institutions that current President Ricardo Lagos claims “are working.” The major problem is that the fight for democracy of the 1980s always had as its objective the dismantling and transformation of the institutions generated by the dictatorship. The situation seems to indicate that Pinochet’s institutions have been maintained, developed and they “work.”

The unmasking of widespread corruption in recent months should be understood as an inevitable byproduct of the rules of the game imposed by the institutional model of the dictatorship—developed and perfected in the last 13 years. So far, ex-ministers of state, congressmen and high public officials have been implicated in massive bribery and fraud scandals. One fears the recent discoveries are only the tip of the iceberg.

The historic triumph of the institutions of the military dictatorship—obtained between 1987 and 1990—guaranteed impunity surrounding human rights violations. It even formalized the final protection of Pinochet and others primarily responsible for the brutalities of the dictatorship. Citizens have lost control of the right to demand truth and justice in human rights. The collective forgetting of our history means we must once again begin to recover our historical memory—base of our national identity. The political class in power has forgotten the promises made in the agreements regarding reparations to victims of abuses to the point that the UDI is leading an initiative to close that chapter forever. The right, with the UDI at the helm, is preparing to take formal control of the presidency by the very avenues opened by its own transition.

Chileans are beginning to understand that the only transition that occurred was the one envisioned and achieved by the dictatorship. It is the responsibility of the nation to create an authentic democratic response that is a true alternative to the present order.

The situation demands the construction of a new transition. To do so it is essential to empower ourselves with our historical memory, understand the continuity of our history, recover our republican traditions and reconstruct our lost national identity.

Carlos A. Molina Bustos is a doctor and surgeon at the University of Chile. He was vice-minister of public health for the Allende government, political exile in Mexico (1974-83) and founding member of the Broad Party of the Socialist Left (PAIS). Translated from Spanish by NACLA.

Tags: Chile, leftist politics, protest, Salvador Allende, legacy, memory

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