Chile, 11 September 1973: death and birth of a nation

The military coup of forty years ago inaugurated a long period of dictatorship and human-rights violation. But its profound legacy also includes long-term economic and political effects, says Patricio Navia.

Patricio Navia
10 September 2013

On 11 September 1973, dreadful images shocked the world. The bombing of the Chilean presidential palace and the suicide of President Salvador Allende, the first Marxist president to be democratically elected in the world, remain among the most dramatic experiences even of the cold-war years with its many military coups across the globe. Chile was not the only country to see its democratic government overthrown in this era, and its military had been far from the most notorious violator of human rights even in Latin America; but the violence perpetrated by Chile's armed forces in deposing a democratically elected government and imposing its rule made Chile a symbolic case of democratic breakdown.

Today, forty years on, Chile is a very different country. The dictatorship of the coup leader Augusto Pinochet, which lasted from 1973-90, left three overwhelming legacies: human-rights violations, an institutional set-up intended to constrain the emergence of democracy, and an economic model that has allowed for rapid economic growth with high levels of inequality.

A triple inheritance

The first legacy, the human-rights violations that characterised the Pinochet regime, continues to haunt Chileans today. The almost 4,000 Chileans killed by the military dictatorship will never be forgotten. The remains of several hundred have yet to be found. Many thousands more who suffered torture are a living reminder of the suffering caused by atrocious acts sanctioned at the highest level. Though significant progress has been made in finding out the truth about the atrocities committed, and dozens of violators have been brought to justice, there has been insufficient progress in righting the wrongs of the past. 

Four consecutive centre-left governments under the Concertación - comprised of political parties prosecuted by the dictatorship - governed Chile from 1990-2010. They opted to prioritise the consolidation of democracy over bringing justice to those who had suffered, which they calculated - perhaps without sufficient reason - would risk stability. When Pinochet was detained in London in 1998 to face extradition proceedings for a case brought against him in Spain on charges of crimes against humanity, the Concertación administration went out of its way to seek his release on humanitarian grounds. After the British government released Pinochet in 2000, the former dictator returned to Chile. He was indicted, but never prosecuted for the human-rights violations that occurred under his rule. With fitting symbolism, he died on 10 December 2006, international human-rights day.
Overall, Chile has done more than many other countries to bring human-rights violators to justice, but the post-1990 democratic governments were too timid in their efforts, fearing (again, with uncertain justification) that trying military officers involved in human-rights abuses would put democracy in danger.

This is the second legacy of the 1973 coup and the years that followed. After the dictatorship ended in 1990, democratic institutions emerged from within the constraints left in place by Pinochet. Modern Chilean democracy grew out of the institutional trap left in place by the dictatorship in the constitution of 1980. Because the transition to democracy was a pact - with Pinochet and the military retaining significant power and several authoritarian enclaves - democratic elected governments were significantly constrained during the 1990s. But after Pinochet's arrest in London, and thanks to the careful steering of democratic elected governments, Chile’s democracy consolidated more rapidly. A series of constitutional reforms stripped the Pinochet constitution of most of its authoritarian and counter-democratic features. Against the dictatorship's original intention to establish a permanently limited democracy, these gradual and incremental reforms expanded the institutional limits and fostered the strengthening of a full-fledged democracy.

Many advocates of democracy in Chile continue to reject the notion that true democracy can be built on authoritarian institutional foundations. Even though Pinochet’s name was removed from the constitution in 2005, the present legal order cannot be disassociated from the authoritarian period. After all, Chile's democracy was born out of an authoritarian constitution designed to prevent democracy from flourishing, and can thus be seen as resembling a child conceived by rape and unable ever to undo her traumatic origin. A more optimistic view, though, would see the traumatic origin in a different light: precisely because democracy grew despite the constraints and limitations, Chile should be celebrated as an example of the resilience of people’s democratic values and will.

The third legacy of 1973-90 is the neo-liberal economic model put in place by Pinochet. This market-friendly model has been qualified and improved upon with socially-oriented reforms. Democratic governments have retained its main tenets, but have implemented aggressive poverty-reduction initiatives and have strengthened regulatory frameworks to encourage competition and safeguard consumers’ rights. Chile is now a vibrant economy. Poverty rates have declined from over 40% under the dictatorship to around 15% today. All social indicators show remarkable progress. Millions have joined the middle class. The student protests that rocked the country in 2006 and 2011 reflect the demand for social and economic inclusion that has driven political evolution in recent years. Yet against continuing high levels of inequality, and the state's limited powers and ability to increase social spending, the laudable efforts to focus spending on the poor and to reduce inequality by expanding opportunities among the lowest income quintiles have barely made progress.

Indeed, critics of the Chilean economic model point to persistent inequality to challenge what otherwise can be described as an overwhelming success. However, it is the very expansion of the country’s economy that allows policymakers to focus on inequality  rather than to have to respond to the pressing needs of widespread poverty and destitution.  Chile does have economic challenges, but those are of a different order than the issues of poverty and marginalisation that haunt many other countries in the global south.

In fact, twenty-four years after democracy was restored, Chile is on the verge of entering the select club of developed countries. Its persistent levels of inequality stand out more clearly because of the great developmental progress Chile has made. Though high levels of inequality are an undeniable threat to any democracy, the fact that leftwing and rightwing presidential candidates for the November 2013 election are campaigning on promises to reduce inequality is a good sign. Today, most policies are also designed to provide more social inclusion. Chile is a patient fully aware of its potentially deadly condition, but it is doing what it is necessary to achieve good health.

The next Chilean road

In light of this subsequent history, the controversial and divisive moment of the 9/11 coup seems out of place when contrasted with the vibrant democracy that Chile enjoys today.  Many Chileans remain divided over their interpretations and readings of the past. Every 11 September, the divisions reemerge. However, their polarisation over the past is in dramatic contrast with their overwhelming agreement over the roadmap ahead. Improving market-friendly reforms, expanding inclusion and building a more accommodating and accountable democracy is what a large majority of Chileans want for the future.

 The 1973 military coup remains the most important political event in Chile in the last fifty years. The coup did not just end democracy and begin a period of massive human-rights violations. It also constituted a foundational moment for Chile. The market-based economic reforms implemented by the Pinochet dictatorship, and improved upon by subsequent democratic governments, have made Chile the most successful case of economic development in Latin America in recent decades. On 11 September 2013, the country rightly remembers all human-rights victims and honours the noble defence of constitutional democracy led by President Salvador Allende.At the same time, the economic and political system Chile has today is the legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship more than the Chilean form of socialism that the government deposed on 11 September 1973 aspired to build.

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