Chile's Return to Democracy

Courtesy Reuters

Chile once boasted a longer history of stable democratic rule than most of its neighbors and much of Western Europe. Now it is the last major country on the South American continent to return to civilian government after a wave of authoritarianism. In December Chileans will have elected a new president after 16 years in the formidable grip of General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. That election should set U.S.-Chilean relations, plagued by a history of intervention and mistrust, on a more constructive, cooperative course.

Chile's transition to civilian rule has been remarkably smooth, despite several anxious moments. In a plebiscite on October 5, 1988, the people rejected Pinochet's bid to remain in power through 1997. The dictator conceded his defeat, opening the way for presidential and congressional elections, rather than clinging to power by force. Slowly the nation's tradition of democratic politics has reemerged, turning back the regime's attempt to uproot the system of partisan politics forever.

What explains this success? The credit goes not so much to Pinochet, who had become as addicted to power as Noriega or Duvalier, and had every intention of remaining in office for a quarter-century. But his ambitions were thwarted by two elements. First, Chile's deeply rooted democratic and law-abiding political culture has survived 16 years of repression. During the transition, government opponents across the spectrum have proven themselves capable of uniting for a common purpose and have resisted radical behavior that might jeopardize the return to civilian control.

Second, the armed forces have remained highly disciplined, professional and uncorrupted despite unprecedented proximity to power. Sworn to uphold the transition formula envisioned in their own 1980 constitution, they vetoed any suggestion of illegal or forceful intervention to retain political control when their own commander in chief was defeated at the polls last October.

Of equal importance to assuring a smooth transition is Chile's current economic stability. While first-term civilian leaders in Peru, Brazil and Argentina inherited severe economic and political problems, the Pinochet government's macroeconomic policies have placed the country

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