Chile today faces a familiar situation: a government attempting to rule the country and implement its program with the support of only a minority of the population. But the present case is different from the country’s minority governments of 1964 and 1970, and far more serious. First, General Augusto Pinochet has much less popular support now than was enjoyed by either previous government. Second, Pinochet’s authoritarian government, armed with a monopoly of force, is seeking to extend his rule to 1997, and to ensure military control over future governments. The 1980 constitution, rejected by opponents and widely criticized by independents as undemocratic in substance and virtually unamendable, is invoked as the legal foundation and source of legitimacy of this official scheme to cripple Chilean democracy permanently.

Although the majority of Chileans originally backed the military government, Pinochet’s scheme has since provoked mass opposition, which has erupted in recent years in widespread protests, strikes and unrest throughout the country. The international isolation in which General Pinochet’s regime finds itself and the worldwide repudiation that it has had to face also have done not a little to weaken its position.

Nevertheless, the Southern Cone of Latin America is not Central America, and political change in Chile will be brought about only insofar as the domestic conditions that will make it possible are present. Recent developments in Chile, especially the conclusion of the "National Accord on Transition to Full Democracy" last August, represent an important strengthening of democratic forces. They confront daunting obstacles, however, not least of which is Pinochet’s determination to maintain power.


At the dawn of the 1960s Chile enjoyed the enviable reputation of being one of the few stable democracies in Latin America. It ranked among the most advanced countries of the region, having attained high levels of political, social and economic development. But in the course of the 1960s a combination of historical circumstances—declining growth, rising demands, political mobilization—radically metamorphosed Chilean politics, tearing it into three blocs, no two of which could govern together. In the space of a decade, a situation of a reasonable degree of consensus and regulated conflict was transformed into one of extreme polarization, culminating in the disruption of the democratic order when the military stepped in on September 11, 1973, to topple the government of Salvador Allende.

The intervention of the military has scored deep traces on the country’s evolution. It was not a neutral arbitration, a peacemaking action on a level above the conflicting parties, but rather a partisan war. The coup that overthrew Allende in 1973 followed a power struggle within the traditionally professional and apolitical armed forces. Military sectors opposing Allende emerged victorious over the "constitutionalists" loyal to him when General Carlos Prats was forced to resign as commander in chief of the army. The intervention also obviously had the blessing—to say the least—of the United States.

From the very outset, the military government interpreted its mission as a war against Marxism. It banned the Communist Party and the other leftist parties in Allende’s coalition government, and jailed and persecuted their members and suspected supporters. The population, worn out by years of sharp political conflict, had in fact become largely hostile to the government. The military assumed that it would also have the support of the parties opposed to Allende, even though it dissolved the National Congress after the coup. But its severe repression and constant violation of human rights alienated the Christian Democratic Party and the Social Democratic Party, whose attitudes rapidly switched to open criticism. The military government reacted with a markedly antipolitical and antiparty bias, declaring all parties not already banned "indefinitely recessed." It also weeded out moderate officers from the armed forces and encouraged the ascendance of the hard-line element, led by Pinochet, who was designated head of state less than a year after the coup.

The entrepreneurial sector and the political right had felt threatened by the Allende government’s policies, and so they extended unconditional support to the new government. Their most eminent figures collaborated in various official capacities as ministers (Hernán Cubillos, Márquez de la Plata, Jaime del Valle and many others) and ambassadors (such as Sergio Diez to the United Nations and Francisco Bulnes to Peru), and in advisory bodies such as the Council of State (of which former President Jorge Alessandri was appointed chairman). Given this backing and the regime’s anti-Marxist stance, it is not surprising that the military government roundly declared itself in favor of a free-market economy. It handed over the management of economic affairs to a homogeneous group of economists trained at the University of Chicago, whose political loyalty Pinochet could trust. They promised the "modernization" of the country, based on a set of simple prescriptions: the free operation of the market and a merciless reduction of state intervention in the economy.

The policies of this economic team seemed at first to work. A drastically restrictive monetary policy, backed by the ruthless exercise of dictatorial political power, brought inflation under control—it had soared above 500 percent per annum at the time of Allende’s fall. Chile gained easy access to external credit in the period of enormous international liquidity resulting from the recycling of petrodollars; this foreign borrowing paved the way for economic reactivation. Rapid growth was accompanied by an exchange rate policy that led to an overvalued peso, and thus a vast supply of imported goods such as had never before been known in Chile. These successes in the latter half of the 1970s created widespread expectations of permanently high standards of living.

The boom years gave the Pinochet regime political leeway to consolidate its position and devise a political project that would increase its own longevity. Pinochet used his powers as commander in chief of the army to transform the military regime gradually into his own personal dictatorship. In the process, he was also committing the armed forces to an institutional, governing role that they had never previously played.

General Pinochet exercised his prerogatives to ensure the appointment and promotion of those loyal to him; thus bolstered, he took steps to guard and further augment his control, as vividly demonstrated by his ouster of Air Force Commander General Gustavo Leigh in July 1978. Since then, there has been no effective challenge to Pinochet from within the military. The army appears to be the most loyal, but all the services have solemnly sworn to uphold the 1980 constitution, and high-ranking officers often speak out to remind the country that they will support Pinochet up to 1989. Beyond that date, continuing political loyalty to him remains, so far, an open question.

Pinochet’s personal project was to retain his dual leadership of government and military. This aim was fused with the long-term project of an authoritarian or "protected" democracy harbored by both the extreme right-wing group known as "gremialistas" (led by ideologist Jaime Guzmán) and the "nationalists"; it was fused also with the Chicago economists’ vision of a totally unrestricted market economy. The vehicle for achieving all three was the 1980 constitution, adopted via a controversial plebiscite that was devoid of the most elementary guarantees with respect to public liberties and independent control of the plebiscitary procedure.

The constitution’s articles governing the period of "transition to democracy" provide, in effect, that General Pinochet shall hold office as president of the republic for eight years (up to 1989) and confer on him during that period almost unbounded powers constituting a legal dictatorship. The articles concerning transition further establish a system of presidential succession by plebiscite designed to ensure Pinochet’s power up to 1997 and guarantee his irremovability from the office of commander in chief of the army up to 1995. In short, Pinochet has established the institutional structure to remain in power for 24 years in a country where no one before has governed for more than ten.

The constitution’s articles dealing with the post-Pinochet era are equally undemocratic. These standing articles set the seal on a model that its defenders have called a "protected democracy," based on an autocratic presidential system, an explicit power of political veto for the armed forces through the National Security Council, and such restrictive rules for reform of the constitution as to make it virtually unamendable.

The promulgation of the new constitution and the elevation of General Pinochet to the presidency by virtue of these provisions marked the zenith of the military regime and of the personal power of the dictator. But the economic boom that was the basis of the regime’s popularity proved to be short-lived.

By the end of 1981 growth had given way to a profound economic crisis, from which the country is still far from recovering. Foreign credit dried up and exports fell sharply as the international economic crisis compounded the effect of an overvalued peso. The balance of payments deteriorated severely, forcing the government to reduce imports drastically. Interest rates skyrocketed, further crippling Chilean businesses. The government was thus driven to strict recessionist policies. Unemployment soared to 30 percent, bankruptcies reached an all-time high in 1982, real wages fell and GNP dropped 13 percent in 1982.

This crisis exposed the weaknesses of the Chicago model that made it extremely vulnerable to any change in the international economy, as had been pointed out at the time, for example, by the Corporation for Economic Investigations of Latin America (CIEPLAN) under the direction of economist Alejandro Foxley. These weaknesses, which the Pinochet regime has yet to remedy, include the lack of domestic saving; the overwhelming burden of servicing a debt of over $20 billion incurred through extravagant external borrowing and squandered on imports of consumer goods; persistent unemployment of over 20 percent; the virtual collapse of the banking system; and the heavy internal debt of the production sector occasioned during the boom.

The optimism felt by vast sectors of the population in the 1970s gave way to disillusionment and frustration. Especially in the shantytown districts of the capital, unemployment, poverty and despair were rife, and their impact on youth was particularly traumatic. Chileans became aware that their current living standard was no higher than in 1969, with the aggravating circumstance that the distribution of wealth and income was much more regressive. In metropolitan Santiago, monthly consumption per family in the lowest 20-percent income bracket amounts to only ten percent of the consumption level of families in the top 20 percent. Since 1973, consumption levels of the first group have dropped 30 percent in real terms, while those of the top bracket have increased by 15 percent.

With the addition of economic failure to the violation of human rights and the lack of civil liberties, negative appraisals of the regime and demands for political change spread rapidly, repoliticizing the country. The political parties, although banned from normal activity since the coup, had managed to survive underground and gradually regained credibility and room to maneuver. The trade unions, the colleges of professionals and the university students’ associations were also revived, and most of these moved into opposition to the government.

Those who suffered the most from the collapse of the economy were the first to take to the streets in protest of the Pinochet regime, demanding economic relief. In 1983 and 1984 unions and political parties took the lead in organizing monthly mass protests, held mostly in Santiago but also in provincial cities like Valparaíso and Concepción, in which thousands of workers, students and shanty town dwellers participated. The middle class also joined the protests in significant numbers, but later began to withdraw as the combined action of political radicals, hooligans and excessive police repression led to increased violence.

At the close of four years of decline (1982-85), then, Chilean society’s change of heart was so radical that opinion polls carried out in Santiago in the second half of 1985 showed that not more than 15 percent supported the government or Pinochet himself. Roughly 80 percent expressed the wish for a return to democracy before the end of Pinochet’s current constitutional term in office, i.e., before 1989. In the recent nationwide elections of the College of Teachers, the pro-government candidates stood at the bottom with about ten percent of the votes. And when student elections were held across the country in 1985, not only did the government fail to win any of them, but there was virtually no candidate who could be defined as pro-government. Thus, most of those who once supported the government, however conditionally, have now lost all faith in it.


The political parties in Chile are practically the same as in 1973. The party system, however, is not; it is undergoing a process of evolution that, while still nascent, may be of decisive importance in facilitating the consolidation of democracy in Chile.

From 1929 to 1958, the Chilean political system was based on well-structured parties that pivoted upon the Radical Party, a moderate centrist party and the mouthpiece of a lay middle class that carried the most political weight in the country. As the principal governing party, the Radical Party was a decisive force behind the process of industrialization based on import substitution, the economic development route taken by Chile in the 1930s when the Great Depression drastically reduced its capacity to import.

By the mid-1950s this industrialization lost impetus, giving way to an economic climate of relative stagnation plus chronic inflation. It was precisely at this time that people began escalating their demands for higher living standards and a share in political power. The working class had formed trade unions independent of the state, and militant left-wing political leaders arose from this class. The perception of crisis spread to the political elite, many of whom came to the pessimistic diagnosis that the current development model and the political system were worn out. Hence, the entire spectrum of Chilean society was transformed by the conjunction of mass politicization and economic slowdown; the center, left and right reacted to the crisis with divergent programs and intransigence.

The Radical Party’s dominance of the political center ended with the entrance on the scene in 1958 of the Christian Democratic Party (DC), which espoused a new path for the country. The DC grew out of the Conservative Party but was the voice of a renovated Catholicism that, in Latin America in particular, hoisted the banner of social justice and aimed to remedy the evils of excessive inequality and poverty. Thus, the center was no longer a balancing wheel between the right and left, as it had been under the pragmatic Radical Party. The center’s new leader was an ideological party with a political project of its own, presented as an alternative both to communism and to the conservative forces on the right.

The left, for its part, moved further left in response to the climate of discontent, and in 1958 the pro-Soviet Communist Party and the Socialist Party consolidated in an alliance. The Communists were always indisputably orthodox in doctrine, although in their conduct they had respected democratic procedures. The Socialists had been radicalized under the influence of the revolutionary dreams bred of the Cuban revolution, and in 1967 also pronounced themselves "Leninist."

The evolution of left and center increasingly isolated the right. In 1965 it was reduced to a minority position in Congress as political radicalization proceeded apace. Necessity led the right, previously split among Conservatives, Liberals and nationalist splinter groups, to unite in the National Party. Lacking an alternative political project of its own, this party tried to halt the process of change.

From 1958 onward, then, political competition was waged between three exclusive blocs, each of which secured the relatively steadfast support of approximately one-third of the electorate. This resulted in minority governments: that of the right under Alessandri (1958-1964), of the Christian Democrats under Eduardo Frei (1964-1970), and of the leftist Popular Unity (UP) under Allende (1970-1973).

From the time of Frei’s presidency the governing one-third had to face the implacable opposition of the other two-thirds. The governing third never showed much inclination to form coalitions that would broaden its base of support and enable the formation of an effective government majority. Nor did the Chilean presidential system encourage the formation of political majorities; a candidate winning the popular poll by a plurality, instead effacing a second popular poll, could become president by winning a congressional runoff vote. Under these conditions, the presidents, in order to impose their respective minority programs, systematically sought to reduce the faculties of an inimical Congress and use the popular legitimacy of their office to exert pressure on their adversaries.

The "revolution in liberty," as the program of structural reforms proposed by Frei was called, antagonized the Chilean right wing, whose landed interests were especially opposed to the agrarian reform (which had the backing of the Alliance for Progress). This tension between the DC and the right has persisted—although in a milder form—to the present day. On the left, Frei’s program was dismissed as "neo-capitalist reformism" by parties influenced by the Cuban model; they were obliged to radicalize their positions in order not to lag behind the DC as "tenders of change."

The "transition to socialism" put forward in 1970-73 by Allende’s UP was indeed more radical than Frei’s policy; it ended by polarizing Chile to an extreme incompatible with the preservation of the democratic order. During its three years of government, Allende’s UP put into practice a policy of state appropriation and control of the means of production, and proclaimed the irreversibility of the changes it was seeking to institute. The rest of the political spectrum felt that the freedoms of democracy were being seriously threatened. The policies of the UP totally alienated the DC, a large section of which had initially been inclined to support a program of fundamental social change.

Furthermore, the UP government undermined the right wing’s faith in democracy. This sector was faced with two political blocs that, although differing radically from each other on some issues, advocated social and economic changes absolutely contrary to the right’s interests. Failing in its endeavor to halt the process of change, the right became convinced that democracy no longer guaranteed its survival as a social group. Under these conditions, all capacity for political agreement was lost, and the break-up of the democratic system seemed inevitable. This polarization precipitated the 1973 coup; Pinochet invokes this history to buttress his claim that Chilean political parties are incapable of governing. It is this burden that the parties are now confronting in their attempts to mount a credible alternative to military rule.


Something is happening in Chilean socialism similar to a development in recent decades that has characterized the socialist parties of southern Europe: a progressive ideological moderation bringing socialists closer to the political center. If this tendency takes root, the left will divide between an orthodox wing and a new-style left, and thus bring an end to the irreconcilable thirds that made Chilean democracy so ungovernable.

At the same time a significant change has been taking place in the conduct of the DC, namely, a gradual abandonment of its historical leaning toward a "road of its own," which led it to repudiate any alliance with rightist or Marxist sectors. The party has now turned in favor of actively assuming the role of political bridge, a role it is called upon to perform by virtue of its location in the center of the Chilean spectrum.

The first concrete expression of these political mutations was the formation in mid-1983 of the Democratic Alliance (AD). The Socialist Party joined with the Christian Democratic Party and other parties of the center to form the AD. Drawing lessons from Chile’s history, leaders of these parties decided that effective opposition to Pinochet required a coalition that would confront him with a single set of demands.

The process was strengthened by the parties’ ideological moderation, an increased willingness to compromise, their joint struggle in the defense of human rights and, above all, by their agreement on the pressing need for the restoration of democracy. The AD’s leaders include Christian Democratic President Gabriel Valdés, Socialists Carlos Briones and Ricardo Lagos, Radical Party President Enrique Silva, Social Democrat René Abeliuk and Republican Hugo Zepeda. It is undoubtedly the strongest political conglomerate in the country today, representing close to 50 percent of the electorate. Though so far the parties have not committed themselves to remain united beyond the transition period, the AD is widely perceived as having the potential to become a more permanent political coalition.

The goal of the Democratic Alliance has been to achieve restoration of full democracy at the earliest possible date. Its preferred strategy is nonviolent popular mobilization in opposition to the regime to force it to step down or agree to a specific process of transition that includes restoration of public liberties, the end of Pinochet’s emergency powers, constitutional reform and a timetable leading to popular elections of president and Congress.

In the summer of 1983, the economic troubles and the government’s low credibility forced the regime for the first time to be more receptive to the demand for political change. The series of social protests finally obliged Pinochet to appoint as head of his cabinet a right-wing civilian politician—Sergio Onofre Jarpa—who initiated a dialogue with the AD.

Though successful in forcing the dialogue, the alliance overestimated its strength and underestimated the government’s. It proposed that Pinochet resign, a drastic solution for which an appreciable part of the country was not yet prepared. Many did not clearly envisage the AD as an alternative to the military regime, perceiving it as still too fragile and tentative. Furthermore, large segments of society, including all conservative elements and a significant part of the middle class, remained fearful of the uncertainties of democracy, especially recurrent swings to radical leftism. Middle-class groups pulled out of the protests, leaving the AD without the leverage it needed in its dialogue with Jarpa. Pinochet thus regained the initiative and ended the dialogue; in November 1984 he decreed a state of siege, a form of martial law.

The failure of the AD’s peaceful mobilization strategy and the intransigent character of the regime played into the hands of the Communist Party, which continues to be an important protagonist on the nation’s political stage. It is justifiably invested with the halo of the persecuted and collects the dividends of making the most frontal attacks on the dictatorship. Moreover, the continuing unemployment, poverty and despair contribute to political radicalization at the bottom of the social pyramid and in sectors particularly sensitive to such phenomena and to the lack of liberty, as are university students.

The Communist Party, as chief member of the political conglomerate known as the Popular Democratic Movement (MDP), pursues a twofold strategy. On one hand, it advocates insurrection and political violence by encouraging or leading armed terrorist groups such as the Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front; this group has claimed responsibility for a considerable number of terrorist incidents recently—causing blackouts, placing bombs in public buildings, setting fire to public transport vehicles and attacking members of the police force. On the other hand, the Communist Party preaches political unity of all anti-Pinochet forces, a proposition attractive to many who feel that an opposition unified only in its opposition to Pinochet can be effective simply by virtue of its sheer magnitude.

This two-pronged strategy seriously challenges the AD’s claim to hegemony of the political opposition. The call to insurrection engages the support of the most radicalized sectors, while "unity" is a powerful slogan that has been used to considerable effect in various instances, especially in university student elections. In these, young Communists and Christian Democrats have formed alliances based not on doctrinal agreement but on the impulse to join forces against the common enemy, General Pinochet. The government takes advantage of these alliances to increase the country’s conservative and middle-class fears with respect to the future of democracy. The mere unity of the opposition (MDP+AD) would not exert maximum pressure on the government because its effect would be to re-group on the side of the regime that one-third of society made up of the right wing and, generally speaking, the sectors "on the side of law and order." The AD is perfectly conscious of this phenomenon and has systematically repudiated Communist advances.

Another important trend in the civilian political arena has been the progressive disillusionment and estrangement from the regime of a substantial part of the Chilean right. Its initial, unreserved allegiance to the military government culminated in its public endorsement of the new constitution and favorable vote for it in the 1980 plebiscite. But then the economic crisis broke out and the financial system virtually collapsed (the leading private banks were brought under government control in January 1983). With the sequels of stagnation, indebtedness of the domestic production sector and balance-of-payments crisis, the conservatives’ loyalty weakened, giving way to an increasingly negative appraisal of the regime and its future potential.

As dissatisfaction, popular radicalization and social protest spread, those who had hitherto supported the regime that "had saved them from Communism" by safeguarding private property and preserving law and order began to take a different view of it. Their growing awareness of its international isolation and violation of human rights went hand in hand with incipient fears of an outburst of popular violence. In short, their eyes were opened to a regime that had no project for the future but the "empty husk" of the 1980 constitution, sustained by a merely negative anti-communism, and offering permanent war against Marxism instead of development and progress. Conservatives began to see that the prolonged retention of power by the military regime and particularly by General Pinochet increased uncertainty and the danger of an eventual leftist regression. The risks of maintaining the status quo seemed as high or higher than the risks of a return to competitive politics under democracy.

By the end of 1985 the bulk of the Chilean right had ceased to declare itself in favor of the regime; without crossing over to the opposition, it defines its attitude as independent of the government. This position has been explicitly adopted by the two political groups most representative of the right, the National Party and the National Unity Party. The only remaining avowed supporters of Pinochet are the Independent Democratic Union, espousing the "gremialismo" of ideologist Guzmán, and former Minister Jarpa’s corporative or populist right-wing movement, which he is presently attempting to create. The trend, therefore, is toward the coexistence of a democratic right on the one hand, and an authoritarian right on the other, a split similar to that appearing in the left.

In sum, by mid-1985 there were three significant changes: the new orientation of the Socialist left in a clearly democratic direction, the propensity of the DC to form alliances and act as a political bridge, and the emergence of a right wing independent of the military regime.

These developments had advanced sufficiently by spring 1985 for each bloc to respond positively to a call for national reconciliation made by Juan Francisco Cardinal Fresno, archbishop of Santiago. He was ideally suited for this role. On one hand he holds the most important position in the Chilean church and, given the leading role played by the church in the defense of human rights, this enabled him to establish a good rapport with the left. On the other hand, he is reputedly a conservative priest whose appointment as archbishop had been welcomed by the government. He is therefore trusted by the right.

In March the country was profoundly shocked by the brutal murder of three well-known Communist leaders. The verdict of special prosecutor Judge José Cánovas Robles revealed apparent official responsibility for these crimes (committed by a special unit of the Carabineros, the police force); this was the first time in 12 years that a judge had implicated the military in political murders. The furor created by this report galvanized the opposition and the independent right into signing the National Accord in August 1985, which called for a transition to full democracy. It was signed by all the parties to the AD and by the National and National Unity parties. It also gained the support of the leftist groups belonging neither to the AD nor the MDP. The only abstentions were the radical left and the sectors allied to the government.


The National Accord is the greatest forward step achieved by the democratic forces, the potential importance of which surpasses that of any political event in the past 12 years.

For the first time, oppositionists of the left and center and independents of the right are unified in a formal commitment that is neither a political alliance nor a government program but a pact on the rules of governing. In Chile the accord has come to be described as "marking out the pitch," i.e., laying down the constitutional, political and socioeconomic bases for a future democracy, as well as the immediate short-term political measures that its signatories and adherents consider necessary and pledge themselves to respect, with the common aim of securing both a peaceful transition to democracy and its subsequent consolidation. The propositions of the accord differ notably from the official program and schedule, thus throwing into relief the isolation of Pinochet, but, in order to leave the door open for persuasion and possible negotiations between the armed forces and the civilian population, the accord was not formulated in antagonistic terms.

The National Accord proposes minimum indispensable constitutional reforms: changing the procedure for constitutional amendments and altering the system of presidential succession. It gives guarantees in the socioeconomic field (private ownership and workers’ rights); also included are matters of concern to the armed forces (support for combating terrorism, condemnation of anti-democratic coups and repudiation of every form of collective justice in cases of violation of human rights). This last is particularly salient in light of the ongoing trials of the Argentine military. Finally, the accord calls for specific, immediate measures to restore public liberties and permit a process of transition.

The National Accord had an enormous impact on public opinion and also, apparently, a considerable effect within the armed forces, as suggested by the favorable comments of Air Force Commander in Chief Fernando Matthei. The accord cannot be expected to create open conflict within the armed forces, but if it gathers momentum, it will help the more moderate elements favoring an effective return to democracy in 1989 to prevail over hard-liners bent on reelecting Pinochet. In the population at large it awakened for the first time a sense that in Chile democracy is viable and not a leap into the void, that it is a real alternative and not merely an aspiration that remains a mirage.

These optimistic signs should not give rise to the contrary illusion that the whole thing is a fait accompli and that a peaceful return to democracy is already assured. The National Accord, important though it is, represents only a first step and suffers from serious weaknesses. The signatories have not agreed on a strategy concerning deadlines and methods. The right-wing "independent" sectors consider that Pinochet should complete his term in office, meaning that the political change would occur in 1989. The "oppositionists" (the AD parties) on the other hand want the return to democracy to be effected as soon as possible, since both morally and emotionally they reject the idea of Pinochet’s continuance in power until then, even if in private they recognize it as a possibility.

The right-wing sectors favor negotiation as the sole instrument, since they are afraid of the violence to which social mobilization may lead and with which the armed forces may respond. They also fear and repudiate the Communist Party’s leading role in social agitation. On the contrary, the AD parties—and on this issue they agree with the radical left—insist that only the persistent pressure of the entire Chilean people, a supreme demonstration of force and the will to change, would compel Pinochet to renounce the idea of remaining indefinitely in power, and would thus bring the armed forces to the negotiating table. The Democratic Alliance understands that as long as Pinochet stays in power, mobilization of the masses is inevitable. They say that if it is not channeled and guided by the moderate sectors, it will be headed by the Communist Party and its allies, which would lead to an unavoidable confrontation and even to civil war, making a democratic denouement impossible.

The government’s reaction to the National Accord was prompt. It roundly and categorically rejected the accord, with the clear intention of destroying it even at the cost of increasing its confrontation with the church. The regime attempted to exacerbate the existing contradictions between the parties to the accord and to accentuate what mutual mistrust remains among those so long entrenched on opposite sides of the political battlefield. To this end, Pinochet has denounced the alliance between "democrats" (meaning the right and the DC) and "Marxists" (meaning socialists and the rest of the left) as a spurious political deal. Further, the regime has accused the accord signatories of being vague on matters such as guaranteeing property rights, outlawing anti-democratic forces and dealing with human rights abuses, thereby attempting to exacerbate the fear of conservative sectors and of the military.

Above all, Pinochet has adroitly managed to focus public debate on those issues on which the accord signatories disagree (social mobilization versus negotiation, the timetable for transition), thus creating considerable friction among the signatories. Finally, the government has denounced joint participation by Christian Democrats and Communists in social protests and student elections as proving the ambiguity and unreliability of the DC, an issue to which the right is extremely sensitive.

Thus, by the end of 1985 the National Accord had weakened Pinochet but had also been weakened itself. The government has lost credibility, but neither the Democratic Alliance, as the most likely moderate electoral coalition, nor the National Accord seems to possess as yet sufficient cohesion to enforce a political change in the immediate future, or to persuade the armed forces to hand over power in 1989 or before. To resolve their disagreements and thereby enhance their credibility and their ability to exert maximum pressure on the regime is the task facing Chile’s political elites in the immediate future.


Any assessment of future possibilities entails, in the first place, recognition of the numerous uncertainties. That there is a chance of a peaceful transition to democracy is indisputable. But there are also formidable risks of greater polarization and even of a confrontation that might have catastrophic consequences for the nation.

The next two years will be decisive. The worst course would be a political standoff that would exacerbate the conflict between General Pinochet, representing a government determined to remain in power—even beyond 1989—and an opposition equally determined to overthrow him at the earliest possible date. There is clear evidence of Pinochet’s absolute intransigence. He will not give up power unless he is forced to do so. This fact obliges the population—independents and oppositionists alike—to overcome the false choice between political negotiations or social mobilization. Without negotiation there can be no democratic outcome, but there will be no negotiation with the armed forces—the government—without sufficiently broad, resolute and persistent social pressure. Consequently, the challenge for the Chilean political elite is to generate peaceful social pressure under the leadership of moderate sectors, so as to unite the will of the working and middle classes around the demand for democracy.

At the same time, one important ingredient of this social pressure should be a constant endeavor by the signatories of the National Accord to establish some sort of negotiations with the regime. Only perseverance may persuade and ultimately compel those who today shun negotiations to sit down and talk. A prerequisite for achieving this will be to spell out the National Accord in greater detail, with the object of overcoming the mistrust still prevailing between the right and the AD.

One source of mistrust is the future role of the Marxist MDP forces. Formulas must be found for their future incorporation into the political process, on the condition that they pledge themselves to respect the rules of democracy. History has shown repeatedly that it is impossible to exclude significant sectors of the population from the right to political participation—and the Chilean Communist Party alone has the support of perhaps 15 percent of the electorate. Witness the instability and lack of democracy in Argentina while Peronism was proscribed. Perhaps a solution acceptable to the armed forces could be achieved by a commitment from the AD to give up any idea of future political alliances with the Communist Party, combined with mechanisms for social participation in collective decision-making (like a European-style Economic and Social Council) that would ensure a plural voice in public affairs and thus induce the radical left to act in accordance with the rules of the democratic game, as it has done throughout most of Chile’s history.

If the political process is projected up to 1989, the following alternative scenarios might present themselves.

Continuance of the regime under Pinochet. It seems unlikely— unless the worst possibilities sketched above materialize—that General Pinochet will manage to stay in the saddle beyond 1989. Both the armed forces and their civilian adherents seem to have realized that a plebiscite will not be a viable way to ratify Pinochet as president in 1989, because if the people are called upon simply to vote yes or no in relation to him, their verdict will be overwhelmingly negative.

Nor are the conditions any longer present for manipulating the plebiscite in such a way as to produce a fraudulent approval. The Constitutional Court, whose members are right-wing jurists, has decreed that the Court of Electoral Control (with independent membership provided for in the constitution) should be empowered to supervise this referendum, in contradiction of the government’s interpretation. Furthermore, strong international pressure and the presence of a host of foreign observers would render an attempt at fraud difficult and certainly provocative. The downfall of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines is a vivid example; no one would expect fraud to be easier to get away with in Chile.

The alternative suggested by the right-wing adherents of the government is amending the 1980 constitution to hold open elections in 1989, with Pinochet as a candidate. This scenario too is highly improbable. Pinochet is not Marcos, an old hand at politics and accustomed to electoral contests, but a soldier used to imposing his dictatorial will. Moreover—and this is decisive—it is hardly conceivable that in an open election the commander in chief of the army could present himself as a candidate for the presidency, because, under the constitution in force, anyone holding office in a union or other organization cannot even run for parliament. In other words, Pinochet would have to resign as commander in chief, losing the basis of his power and his only real guarantee of personal safety, and thus risk turning such an election—which he would not have much chance of winning, either—into a neck-or-nothing gamble.

Indirect continuance of the regime. The continuance of the regime under another army officer is also a possibility. But the high degree of personalization of power in Pinochet has prevented the emergence of another military figure of sufficient political stature to replace him. The best bet for Pinochet and the official establishment would be the election by plebiscite or direct voting of a civilian who would give sufficient guarantees of continuity of the regime and who, presumably, would pledge to retain Pinochet as commander in chief of the army. Former Minister Jarpa best personifies this alternative of a "protected democracy," a continuance of the regime in civilian guise under which the constitution would not be amended.

Such a candidate could conceivably gain enough votes from the right if the other political forces split more sharply. This could occur if the MDP tenaciously pursues the path of insurrection, and the Democratic Alliance wavers between opposite strategies of overthrow and negotiation, driving the independent right to regard the Jarpa solution as the lesser evil. Given his militant anti-communism, Jarpa could also expect to be looked upon kindly by the United States.

Although at first glance it does not seem so obvious, the consequences of this scenario would not be essentially different from those of the first scenario. Both would produce highly dangerous outcomes. It is very unlikely that a Jarpa-type arrangement or Pinochet’s continuation in power would be accepted by the MDP or the AD. The positions of the AD and the MDP would draw nearer together, and the consequent radicalization would tend to reunify the left, pulling the leftist parties, especially the Socialists, out of the AD. On the other side, the independent right, currently a signatory of the National Accord, would be driven by fears of extremism to close ranks with the military regime as the lesser of two evils. This would inevitably lead to a future of polarization and confrontation, which would intensify the risks of "Central Americanization" of the Chilean process. The eventual denouement is unpredictable but hardly likely to be democratic.

Negotiated agreement. If the political forces that signed the National Accord were to succeed in strengthening and broadening their areas of agreement, while leading persistent and peaceful social pressures, the most probable outcome would be some sort of arrangement between civilians and the armed forces—against the wishes of Pinochet—that would find expression in a candidate acceptable to everyone as well as in agreement on a body of constitutional reforms. The political transition would be brought about by direct election or even (although it seems more difficult) in accordance with the plebiscitary procedure currently in force. In the first alternative, the candidate put forward by consensus would be almost certain of election because of the magnitude of the support pledged, even though he might have to face one or more rivals from the extreme right and/or the extreme left.

Triumph of the Democratic Alliance. If the AD manages to gain enough strength to impose its hegemony over the civilian spectrum by controlling social mobilization and annulling the revolutionary strategies of the radical left, the armed forces might accept an open election that an AD candidate would have the best chances of winning. This formula is not impossible, but it too would undoubtedly be difficult, since it implies a political strategy in which the AD both does without the right and succeeds in relegating the MDP to a minor role in order to forestall a veto by the armed forces. This would mean that MDP either abstains from participation in the election, unconditionally supports the AD candidate or fields a "non-contender" candidate of its own.

Overthrow of the regime by popular rebellion. This is the main strategy of the Communist Party, because it opens up revolutionary prospects after the Nicaraguan fashion and is the counterpart of the scenarios assuming direct or indirect continuance of the regime. Its likelihood would undoubtedly increase if Pinochet succeeded in holding on beyond 1989, since in that event every other moderate alternative would have fallen into utter discredit.

Of the scenarios expounded, only the third and the fourth are conducive to democracy. In the other cases the results are uncertain, but the polarization they would bring about is hardly compatible with a democratic outcome.


No mention has been made of the role in the Chilean democratization process that has been and may be played by the democratic nations of the West and especially the United States. This does not imply any disparagement of the contribution that can be made to this process by other countries. The fundamental and long-term requirement for democracy in Chile is the resolution of domestic divisions; the continuation of this project, now under way, depends primarily on Chileans. However, the United States in particular can further it in important ways:

First, by transmitting clear messages to the effect that the United States is awaiting a return to full democracy in Chile and has confidence in the Chileans’ capacity to consolidate a stable form of democratic coexistence. Such messages, which have gained appreciably in clarity since the arrival of Ambassador Harry Barnes in Chile, have a significant impact on the perceptions and behavior of those actors most sensitive to U.S. positions, such as the political right, the entrepreneurial sector and the armed forces themselves. Naturally the United States will be all the more disposed to issue such messages, the more assurance it feels that the country will opt for a moderate way out. Also, it is essential that U.S. policy find similar expression at the various levels on which formal relationships with Chilean counterparts exist, particularly between the U.S. military and their Chilean colleagues.

Second, by exerting effective pressure, certainly short of intervention, for a full guarantee of respect for human rights and restoration of the public liberties in Chile. Only if these conditions are met will Chileans be able to determine their own destiny. Otherwise, the problem will be resolved by force, whether through military imposition of the system of "protected democracy" or through an insurrection led by the radical left in the name of "people’s liberation."

Third, by using persistent persuasion to convince the Chilean government that fair and free elections are the only way to avoid an indefinite future of strife and confrontation.

In my opinion the depth of the crisis, the magnitude of the economic challenges and the demands of reestablishing harmonious coexistence among Chileans justify, in a first phase of democracy, the formation of a broad coalition with the participation of forces from the center, the democratic left and the democratic right. Its task would be to re-launch democracy, with the joint effort of all Chileans. Under such a program the guarantees of private ownership and of free enterprise required by the right would have to be made compatible with a pact for social justice, that is, a commitment to solving the problems of extreme poverty, marginality and gross inequality that plague Chilean society. This concept, sponsored today by the Socialists, is shared by the DC and the other parties to the Democratic Alliance, and is one that a renovated and modern right should also adopt.

Creating a grand alliance would require maximum cooperation among the political elites. Is such a coalition too complex for present-day Chile to achieve, or, on the contrary, does it oversimplify the issues we must face as a nation? Time will tell, but Chile is certainly a case in which an effective "agreement on fundamentals" is a basic requirement for democratic stability. In turn, in Chile, such agreements can only last if sustained economic growth goes hand in hand with a more equitable distribution of opportunities and rewards.

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  • Edgardo Boeninger was National Budget Director of Chile from 1964 to 1969 and Rector of the University of Chile from 1969 to 1973. He is now Director of the Center for Development Studies in Santiago.
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