Understanding the Chilean Elections: Part II, Pinochet’s Worthy Successors

Chile, ¡la alegría ya viene!

Chile, the joy is coming!
– NO Vote campaign jingle

Nos prometieron que llegaría la alegría
pero mintieron, gobiernan pa una minoría.
Nos oprimieron con injusticias cada día,
pero siguieron naciendo hijos de la rebeldía.

They promised us that the joy was coming,
but they lied – they govern for a minority.
They oppressed us with injustices every day,
but the children of rebellions kept being born.

Vamos, Conspirazión

In the official narrative, Pinochet’s handover of his office to Patricio Aylwin (himself an unabashed supporter of the Pinochet coup), is known as the retorno a la democracia (‚return to democracy‘). Painted on walls throughout Chile, however, we find the words Aún vivimos en dictadura (‚We’re still living in a dictatorship‘).

In the book discussed in Part I, Chilean social historian Gabriel Salazar explains:


Los partidos políticos, golpeados como estaban, flotaron agarrados al vértigo de nuestro movimiento (aunque algunos pretenden convencernos de lo contrario) hasta que llegamos a 1990. Y fue allí entonces, en 1990, cuando, olvidando nuestra laboriosa autonomía y nuestra fuerza, depositamos de nuevo nuestra confianza en la clase política civil…Como si ‚ella‘ hubiera sido la ‚gran‘ vencedora en la retirada de Pinochet.

Y hemos estado más de 20 años esperando que ‚ella‘ mostrara su declamada vena democrática, su supuesta lealtad a la voluntad soberana del pueblo. O por lo menos su profesión de fe nacionalista.

The political parties, beaten as they were, were dragged along by the current of our movement (although some would have us believe otherwise) until we reached 1990. And it was then, in 1990, that, forgetting our hard-fought autonomy and our strength, we once again put our trust in the civilian political class…As if they had been the great victors in Pinochet’s departure.

And we have been waiting for more than 20 years now for them to show their oft-proclaimed democratic credentials, their alleged loyalty to the sovereign will of the people. Or at least their profession of nationalist faith.

(ellipses and emphasis in original)

As Salazar and so many others over the past two years of mobilisations have pointed out, the rising of the 1980s was not just about regaining the right to have regular elections. Those who risked – and lost – their lives to put Pinochet on the back foot were fighting to get rid of Pinochet’s entire rancid legacy of privatised, overpriced health care, privatised pensions that only guarantee a livable income to the bankers who manage the funds (to add insult to injury, military pensions remain state-guaranteed to this day), privatised, unaffordable education, and savage wealth inequality. In 1990, they thought they’d won.

They hadn’t.

The 1989 plebiscite was preceded by negotiations in Spain between the dictatorship and the Socialist Party (PS) leadership. Although the content of the agreements they reached remains secret even today, we have 20 years of evidence of what sort of deal was made.

Pinochet’s constitution, and the worst of his repressive legislation (such as the Ley Antiterrorista, the ‚Anti-Terrorism‘ Act) remained in force. Not only were Pinochet and his enforcers not prosecuted for treason and crimes against humanity, they were allowed to participate in the political system as alleged ‚democrats‘. The Senate was packed with Senators-for-Life (including Pinochet himself) and designated senators, and a certain number of seats in the Senate were set aside for senior military officers.

The new ‚democratic‘ government began almost immediately to deploy the full repressive force of the state (which, after 17 years of Pinochet, was a great deal of repressive force indeed) against those who had fought for years to unseat the dictatorship.

Far from consigning Pinochet’s rule to the rubbish tip of history in line with popular demands, successive Concertación governments not only faithfully administered Pinochet’s legacy – they expanded on it. The ‚centre-left‘ governments of Aylwin, Frei, Lagos, and Bachelet privatised things that Pinochet hadn’t dared touch: motorways, telephone systems, the power grid, and even the water. Chile’s massive copper reserves – accounting for a 25 % share of the global market – had escaped privatisation under Pinochet, who was a bit gunshy after the re-privatisation of the financial system and the privatisation of (civilian) pensions had driven the economy into full meltdown. Indeed, Pinochet’s 1980 constitution explicitly made Chile’s vast mineral wealth exempt from privatisation in the most emphatic terms possible. He did, however, give the military a guaranteed 10 % cut of the profits from mining.

After the ‚return to democracy‘, the Concertación did not only let the military keep their 10 % cut – under Bachelet, most of the mining industry was privatised de facto under a system of ‚concessions‘ that maintained legal state ownership whilst ceding control of the copper and the profits from it to foreign (largely Canadian) corporations.

In Chile, where the anniversary of Allende’s nationalisation of the copper reserves is still widely commemorated as Día de la Dignidad Nacional (National Dignity Day), this could only be seen as a show of absolute contempt.

As if that weren’t enough, the military and Carabineros (the national police, technically a military organisation themselves) remained under the command of officers who had made their careers repressing dissent under Pinochet. No attempt has been made to make the institutional culture even remotely compatible with democratic principles.

Opposition activists – mostly indigenous Mapuche struggling against colonisation – continue to be murdered, albeit at a slower pace than under Pinochet. The government of Michelle Bachelet, who holds a PhD in ‚National Security‘ from the élite US military academy at West Point, was particularly prolific in this regard, and holds the dubious distinction of being the first post-Pinochet government with a detenido desaparecido – a ‚disappeared‘ prisoner – to its name, in the person of Mapuche teenager José Huenante, who was nicked by Carabineros in 2006 and never seen or heard from again, alive or otherwise.

Because Pinochet designed a truly voter-proof electoral system (el binominal), which guarantees that the openly dictatorial right is represented in Congress in far greater numbers than their (negligible) popular support would warrant, and that political alternatives to the left of the élite neoliberal consensus scarcely have a chance of gaining a single seat, the electoral route that once brought Allende to power is effectively closed. Eliminating the binominal system is a longstanding popular demand, but, since the parties that dominate Chilean politics would struggle to gain a foothold if they ever faced real competition, the political class has not shown much interest in electoral reform.

The farther one gets from Santiago, the more one hears the complaint that ‚the government only remembers we’re part of Chile when there are natural resources to exploit‘. Under Chile’s hypercentralist system, local control is limited to the most trivial matters. Regional governors, Intendentes, are chosen by the central government without regard to the wishes of the people there.

Owing in large part to the fact that the indigenous Mapuche people of southern Chile (their traditional lands, Wallmapu, extend from ocean to ocean) never surrendered to European colonisation, there is a substantial, well-organised indigenous population, and no account of modern Chile would be complete without a discussion of their struggles.

Chile has one of the worst records on indigenous rights in the world. The constitution and laws do not offer even perfunctory acknowledgement that the indigenous population exists, and the fact that Chile’s first post-independence ruler, Bernardo O’Higgins (whose acquaintance we made in Part I), explicitly recognised the Wallmapu as an independent state has been banished to the memory hole. Chile has yet to sign even the basic treaties on indigenous rights. There is no official recognition of their language or culture, and the native forests of their traditional lands are clear-cut with wild abandon. When they protest or resist, no matter how peacefully, they are subjected to Pinochet’s ‚Anti-Terrorist‘ Act, which denies them fair trials, allows them to be held without charge for extensive periods of time, and provides for penalties up to three times more severe than non-Mapuche defendants receive for the same alleged offences.

At any given time, there are at least a few Mapuche political prisoners on hunger strike to demand a fair trial and respect for their human rights. Last year, even Chile’s branch of UNICEF was occupied by Mapuche activists to demand that the UN children’s rights organisation ast last break its silence on the police abuse and torture of Mapuche children in Chile.

It is a bitter irony, not lost on many, that, whilst hundreds of Mapuche endure brutal conditions of pretrial imprisonment on trumped-up charges, the officers who coordinated the mass-murders of the Pinochet years (at least those unlucky enough to be put on trial) live in the ‚resort‘ prison of Punta Peuco, in a degree of comfort most working-class Chileans can only dream of. Recently, one of Pinochet’s convicted thugs was even granted temporary ‚compassionate release‘ so that he could go on a trip to Europe.

Chile’s privatised educational system, defended with brute force by Bachelet, has ensured that the country remains profoundly segregated. Primary and secondary education are financed at the municipal level, leading to a two-tier educational system where the working class goes to crumbling schools with underpaid teachers and scarce instructional resources, whilst the tiny and deeply incestuous ruling class send their children to schools where any Etonian would feel at home. Privatised schools operating on state subsidies (colegios particulares subvencionados) abound. Although, by law, they are required to be non-profit, in reality, their politically connected ’sustainers‘ pocket much of the tax money that is meant to pay for a decent education. This is flagrantly illegal, of course, but no one in a position to do anything about it cares, because many of them (no matter what party they’re in) are in on the scam.

Higher education has been made into a cash cow for the banks. Since the tuition is prohibitively expensive for all but the super-rich, most of those who even make it to university end up saddled with lifelong debt thanks to the Crédito con Aval del Estado (CAE), state-guaranteed loans originated from public funds, which are lent at 0 % interest to the banks, who, in turn, lend the money to students at usurious rates. Chilean students commonly end up paying for at least three more courses of study than the one they actually studied because of the interest alone.

‚They tell us the NO vote won in 1988‘, an acquaintance of mine once remarked, ‚but we’ve got the YES constitution, the YES Labour Relations Code, the YES abortion ban, and the YES educational system. What the fuck did we win?‘

By 2011, that question was being asked with greater urgency than ever before in Chile’s 20-year ‚return to democracy.