international analysis and commentary

Chile’s political past still weighing on its present

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Chile remains divided 50 years after the military coup that ousted the democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende from office on September 11, 1973. More than 40,000 victims, including more than 3,200 dead and missing, according to figures from the various truth commissions over the years, was not enough. The dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, which ended in March 1990 and trampled human rights, was insufficient. Chile is still split in two in search of a historical truth that, over the years, is coming out with difficulty, thanks in part to documents declassified by the US government. The polls reflect a clear division among the people, . Only 42% of Chileans now believe that Pinochet’s coup destroyed democracy, a decrease from 63% in 2013. Some 36% say that Pinochet liberated Chile from Marxism, compared to 18% in 2013. According to a recent poll by Pulso Ciudadano, 56.5% of respondents expressed little or no interest in commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1973 coup.

Augusto Pinochet (left) and Salvador Allende (right) months before the 1973 coup.

 

Peter Kornbluh, Director of the “Chile Documentation Project” at the National Security Archive, a research center based in Washington, is interested in uncovering the historical truth of the Pinochet coup. He has been advocating for years for the US government to release all official documents, which are still classified due to state secrecy. The recently released Spanish-language version of his famous book “Pinochet Declassified” reveals unsettling information regarding the involvement of Washington, not only in the 1973 coup, but also before the 1970 democratic elections that were won by Allende and his political coalition “Unidad Popular”. Kornbluh also cites the case of Bernardo Leighton, a member of the Christian Democratic Party of Chile, who was wounded in Rome, where he was living in exile, in an assassination attempt on October 6, 1975. The assassination attempt had been organized by DINA, Pinochet’s Chilean secret police, and US secret agent Michael Townley. Other attacks were organized in Buenos Aires, where General Carlos Pratz was assassinated in 1974, and in Washington with the death of Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier in 1976.

“Nothing more is known about Townley today; he probably lives covered by a protection program, but he was a real criminal,” details Kornbluh, according to whom declassification of the documents is crucial for Chile’s future. Of a different opinion is Michael Reid, who, in The Economist, closes his piece by emphasizing instead the importance of beginning to look to the future, “It would be better for Chile if Allende and Pinochet became purely historical figures rather than sources of political inspiration, allowing Chile to look forward. Clearly, it is difficult.” For Marcela Rios, former Minister of Justice and Human Rights in Gabriel Boric’s government and daughter of political activists forced into exile, however, “today the most complicated thing is that the progress made in previous decades is being challenged by sectors of politics that relativize the violation of human rights. I think the great lesson of Chile is to show that the pain that causes the loss of democracy is infinite. The destruction of democracy is a path of no return.”

Today, under Boric’s leadership (as President since March 2022), Chile is a fully democratic country. However, it is also the offspring of the social unrest that erupted in 2019, marked by both peaceful protests and vandalism. To calm the streets, the conservative government of former President Sebastián Piñera agreed to establish a constituent assembly to write a  Constitution, and in the wake of those protests, Boric won the 2021 elections. Since then, however, he has not had it easy. Chileans rejected an initial attempt to reform the Constitution.

 

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Now Boric is trying again, but “I’m worried,” he has repeated several times in recent days – partly because the Constitutional Council carrying out the current Constitution reform process has a majority from the right-wing Republican Party. The leftwing president, Gabriel Boric, was handed the new draft on November 7th at a ceremony in Santiago, where he formally called a plebiscite for 17 December in which all Chileans must vote on the proposal.

Polls more than two months before the vote foretell another rejection. According to the Plaza Pública study conducted by Cadem, only 24% of Chileans would vote in favor of the new Constitution, while 54% would reject it. If approved, it would be a victory for the right, which holds a majority in the Constitutional Council, rather than the left. It is no coincidence that Jose Antonio Kast, Chairman of the Republican Party and defeated in the 2021 presidential election by Boric, is determined to get the proposed new Constitution approved. “On December 17th, we have a great opportunity to change the future of Chile, and I am convinced that if we managed to turn things around in four months (referring to the first constitutional process rejected by Chileans, NDA), we could do it in two months. We are going up slowly but steadily, while others are going down. The increase will continue as long as we communicate the good things about the new Constitution,” Kast said.

However, another problem for Boric that is undoubtedly of great concern to Chileans is the economy. In late September, the President released the 2024 budget, announcing a public spending growth of 3.5% percent over 2023, well above the Central Bank’s average estimated GDP growth of 1.75%. According to the latest public finance report, to reach a balanced budget in 2026, Boric’s stated goal, public spending in 2025 and 2026 will have to grow by 1.6% and 0.1%, respectively – which is unthinkable considering the boom in public spending over the past two decades. Furthermore, in 2024, Chile’s public debt will reach its highest level since 1991.

The short term challenges the country is facing are significant, yet addressing them requires a collective effort to metabolize a difficult past and heal its wounds.