Chileans Confront Their Own 9/11
La Moneda, following the results of the plebiscite, 1988. (Claudio Perez, from the book Chile From Within)
On November 17, millions of Chileans will go to the polls to pick a new president. The election is historic; for the first time in Chile’s history—indeed, in the history of Latin America—a presidential race will be decided between two female candidates. The country that in 1970 became the first in the world to democratically elect an avowedly Marxist president, Salvador Allende, will soon set another international precedent.
But Chile’s gender-barrier-breaking election is overshadowed by the dark family histories of the two contenders, Evelyn Matthei and Michelle Bachelet. The candidate of the ultra-right-wing Independent Democratic Union party, Matthei is the daughter of retired Air Force Gen. Fernando Matthei, who served alongside Augusto Pinochet on the four-member military junta that governed Chile during the seventeen-year dictatorship. Bachelet, Chile’s Socialist Party president from 2006 to 2010, is also the daughter of a famous Air Force general, Alberto Bachelet. He was imprisoned by the junta for refusing to support Allende’s overthrow and died under torture. Eduardo Contreras, a lawyer representing a Chilean human rights group, has twice petitioned the Chilean courts to hold General Matthei, who commanded the base where General Bachelet perished, legally accountable for his death.
Forty years after the bloody military coup on September 11, 1973, Chile’s past remains ever-present in its sociopolitical life. The country that Pablo Neruda referred to as “a long petal of sea, wine and snow” continues to grapple with Pinochet’s painful legacy, even as it has emerged politically, economically and judicially from the long shadow of his murderous regime. As the fortieth anniversary of Chile’s 9/11 converges with an intense electoral campaign, Chileans are confronting their country’s historical horrors—through mass media coverage, commemorative conferences, museum exhibits, and dramatic public debate between those who participated in and supported the regime and those who suffered, and overcame, its repression. Since the coup remains a universal symbol of “anti-democracy at its best,” according to the author and filmmaker Saul Landau, the anniversary must also be remembered around the world—particularly in the United States, which played a dark, covert role in the events of forty years ago.
“I’m not leaving, no matter what,” General Pinochet told subordinates, according to declassified US intelligence reports, on the eve of the October 5, 1988, plebiscite on his continued dictatorship. The magnitude of the pro-democracy victory that night, as depicted in the Oscar-nominated film No, is all the more extraordinary because of the dictator’s secret preparations to instigate a second coup if the vote went against him. Only the overwhelming will of the people to use ballots instead of bullets to bring an end to military rule convinced the rest of the junta to overrule Pinochet’s megalomania and concede the peaceful return of Chilean democracy.
The “No” campaign, a broad political movement comprising fourteen political parties, evolved into the Concertación, a center-left coalition dominated by the Christian Democratic and Socialist parties (the Chilean Communist Party was excluded), which agreed to divide and share electoral power. But after four presidencies and a generation in power, the Concertación wore out its welcome with the Chilean people. In 2010, Chileans elected the candidate of the conservative National Renewal party, billionaire businessman Sebastián Piñera, who injected millions from his own fortune into his campaign. Piñera’s popularity reached an all-time high at the beginning of his presidency, when he oversaw the dramatic rescue of thirty-three copper miners who had been trapped a half-mile underground for more than two months. Now at the end of his tenure, he has proved to be “an inept politician,” as The Economist put it, detached from the daily realities faced by the majority of Chileans.
In many respects, Chile’s election this fall is not a referendum on the past, but on sociocultural and economic change in the future. Bachelet has come out in favor of therapeutic abortions and gay marriage—a courageous stance in this rigidly Catholic country where women still have no right to choice, and which was the last in Latin America to legalize divorce. Economically, Chile already leads the region in almost all indicators: it has one of the lowest unemployment rates (6.17 percent), and it had one of the highest GDP growth rates of 2012 (5.6 percent). Since 1990, when Pinochet was forced to relinquish power, Chile’s civilian presidents have managed to reduce the country’s poverty level from 40 percent to less than 14 percent.
But Chile also has one of the widest chasms of income inequality in the world. Evelyn Matthei, who served as labor minister in the Piñera administration, has adopted a Romneyesque trickle-down position on growth and income distribution. Bachelet has made correcting the vast disparity of wealth the centerpiece of her campaign, with proposals for higher taxes on the rich and higher state royalties on mining profits to create and fund a free and universal education system over the next six years.
The country’s highly privatized college system, a key component of Pinochet’s neoliberal restructuring of the economy after the coup under the guidance of the “Chicago Boys” (Chilean economists who had trained under Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago), remains a contentious political issue. Since Piñera was elected in 2010, Chile has garnered worldwide attention for ongoing mass student protests—the most recent took place September 5—against the bankrupting costs of college enrollment. Infuriated by Piñera’s avowal that education should be considered “a consumer good,” the student protests have been “the largest since the last days of the 17-year dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet,” Francisco Goldman reported in a New York Times Magazine profile of the student movement’s charismatic and creative leader, Camila Vallejo. The 25-year-old Vallejo is now running for Congress as part of La Nueva Mayoría, a reincarnation of the center-left coalition that, for the first time in the post-Pinochet era, formally includes the Communist Party.
“Today we are once again in the position to contribute to a great social and political alliance” that will “enable the construction and implementation of a program of social transformation,” Vallejo recently declared on her blog. That transformation will lead to the “dismantling of the neoliberal model that is principally responsible for the structural inequality suffered by our country.”
Significantly changing the neoliberal model, however, means reforming the Constitution imposed by Pinochet in 1980—a Constitution that enshrines wide latitude for the private sector while severely restricting the power of the state to intervene in the economy. “The most important legacy of the military regime in the current debate is the problem of amending the Constitution,” notes Carlos Portales, Chile’s former ambassador to the Organization of American States. In a July radio interview, Bachelet hinted that if re-elected—she’s now far ahead in the polls—she will address this vestige of the dictatorship’s control over Chile’s economic future. “I believe that it is so important to change the Constitution,” she declared, “in order to have real possibilities to advance.”