Chile: The price of democracy

by Pablo Policzer* (Jan. 2007)

The celebrations and tears that followed Augusto Pinochet’s death obscure a little known but important fact: if Pinochet had had his way in the mid-1970s, his dictatorship would have ended only on December 10, when he died.  It ended instead in 1990 because, ironically, the very institutions that Pinochet helped create eased him from power at that time, against his will.  But in this other future – which came close to happening – Chileans would only now be contemplating democracy, after over 33 years of dictatorship.

Pinochet was a great admirer of Francisco Franco, the Spanish caudillo who died in office in 1975, after 36 years in power.  Franco was what political scientists call a “personal ruler”: mistrustful of institutions, he was the axis around which everything turned in Spain.  This was the secret to his longevity but also the Achilles’ heel of his legacy.  When Franco died, so did his dictatorship.  Without a strong institutional legacy to contend with, the transition from dictatorship to democracy in Spain was swift and comprehensive, leaving few if any remnants of franquismo. 

Early on, Pinochet made it clear that he wanted to establish a permanent, one-man dictatorship, like Franco’s.  After being appointed leader of the Junta in 1973 on what was supposed to be a rotational basis, he began to amass power to attain this goal.  In 1974 he oversaw the creation of a secret police force (the DINA) whose leader reported only to him, and he had himself appointed president in the same year.

By the mid-1970s Pinochet had become the most powerful ruler in Chilean history.  Yet a serious crisis between 1977 and 1978 propelled his regime down a very different path from Franco’s.  Other members of the Junta made it clear that they opposed Pinochet’s gambit for permanent personal rule.  Pinochet had the loyalty of the army, his own branch, but Chile’s armed forces have a long tradition of institutional rivalry.  (A civil war in 1891 pitted the navy-backed legislature against the army-backed president.  The navy won.)

The other commanders-in-chief resisted him, but Pinochet used his links with the DINA to intimidate his opponents.  Indeed, the DINA’s power extended well beyond Chile’s borders.  It operated throughout South America, as well as in Europe and – most notoriously – in the United States.  In 1976 its agents assassinated Allende’s former cabinet minister Orlando Letelier and his secretary Ronnie Moffitt, near Washington’s Dupont Circle.

The DINA was powerful, but it had to contend with an unlikely enemy that never bothered Franco: the modern human rights movement.  Soon after the coup, human rights organizations began to systematically gather data on the regime’s crimes.  The DINA tried to outflank this monitoring by “disappearing” its enemies, to allow the Junta to plausibly deny any involvement.  But the DINA’s agents were often sloppy, and it was possible to link the disappearances and acts of international terrorism back to the DINA, undermining plausible deniability and embarrassing the regime.

All these strains came to a head in 1977 and 1978, as the Carter administration pressured Chile over the Letelier case, and as the Junta members and their civilian allies used this opportunity to resist Pinochet’s power grab.  Pinochet faced arguably the biggest decision of his rule: whether to keep his alliance with the DINA, and stage an internal coup over the other members of the Junta, to stay in power for life.  He wanted to do so, but he also knew the risks: dividing the armed forces and – possibly – triggering armed conflict inside the military.

He took a different course.  He dropped his alliance with the DINA, replacing it with a more restrained organization, the CNI.  (While it continued to violate human rights, the CNI killed fewer people than the DINA, and did not carry out disappearances or significant operations beyond Chile’s borders.)  He also agreed to place institutional limits on his power, formalized in a new constitution in 1980: he retained the presidency, while the Junta became the country’s legislature.  The limits also included an agreement to hold a plebiscite in 1988, to ask Chileans whether they would prefer a further nine years of dictatorship or a transition to democracy.

Pinochet lost the plebiscite, but he did not – as his supporters claim – willingly step down.  He came close to cancelling the results, sending the troops into the streets, and staging a “self-coup” to stay in power.  He was prevented from doing so, once again, by one of the other Junta members, as well as by international pressure.

After Pinochet’s death, it is worth pondering what might have been.  If the DINA had been more proficient at covering its tracks while “disappearing” its opponents – if it had better provided the regime with plausible deniability – the criticisms against it would have been more muted, and the incentives for Pinochet to drop his alliance with it would have been reduced.  If Pinochet had done away with all limitations on his power, we might only now be celebrating the end of his dictatorship.

On the other hand, if Pinochet had tried but failed in his power grab, the dictatorship might have collapsed, much as the Argentine regime did, as a result of infighting.  Instead of celebrating the return of democracy in 1990, Chileans might have done so a decade earlier.  In that scenario, they would have easily put Pinochet and the rest of the military leadership on trial for crimes against humanity, as their neighbours did in Argentina in 1983.

Pinochet was no doubt a “bad man,” as The Economist argued in its obituary.  Yet he might have been a worse dictator had he followed more closely in Franco’s footsteps and stayed in power until his death.  The irony is that the institutions that eased him from power against his will in 1990 are the same ones that allowed his regime to project itself into the future far longer than Franco’s, and to continue to haunt Chileans to this day.  Although it has been reformed, the 1980 constitution remains in place.

Many people around the world rightly lament the fact that in death Pinochet trumped justice.  That impunity may well have been the price for ending the dictatorship and restoring democracy in 1990 rather than in 2006.


*Pablo Policzer holds the Canada Research Chair in Latin American Politics at the University of Calgary.  He was born in Chile and arrived in Canada in 1975 with his parents who were fleeing the Pinochet dictatorship.  His book, The Rise and Fall of Repression in Chile is forthcoming from the University of Notre Dame Press.

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