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23 January 2010

Democracy in Chile

Tag(s): Chile, History, Politics & Economics


For many people I suspect the headline to this Blog is something of an oxymoron. But actually Chile has a good democratic record since it declared independence from Spain 200 years ago this year.

First let us consider some of the comparators. In the United Kingdom we are fortunate to have an excellent record free from interruption to constitutional government. Since the turmoil of the 17th century there has in fact been no interruption to constitutional government, just one assassination of a prime minister, Spencer Perceval, and the transfer of power from party to party without incident. However, this record is very unusual.

The United States of America will put itself forward as an exemplar democracy. It declared independence in 1776, won it after a hard fought war in 1783 when Britain also gave it diplomatic recognition, established its constitution in 1788 and has an unbroken record in elected Presidents since that date. However, it then consisted of the thirteen former British colonies on the Eastern seaboard, now states. What we now recognise as the US was then divided between these colonies, French dominions, Spanish territories, Russian domains and land still held by the indigenous peoples. The process of acquiring all of these territories whether by diplomatic or violent means took another 110 years and was not completed until 1898 when Hawaii was annexed. Further the constitution had been a difficult birth because of the question of slavery. In essence the constitution was founded on slavery and the resolution of this was one of the bloodiest civil wars in history from 1861-5. Only then was slavery abolished although Chile had abolished it in 1823, one of the earliest of the newly independent former colonies to do so. No less than 4 of the 44 Presidents of the United States have been assassinated and assassination attempts have been made against nearly every President since Franklin Roosevelt.

France is another which led the world in throwing off the yokes of former tyranny in her case with a very bloody and terrible revolution starting in 1789. However, after a few years of the First Republic the tyranny of the Bourbons was replaced with that of the Bonapartes. The Empire was thrown over by Allied military response led by Britain and the monarchy was restored. That was replaced after another revolution by a Second Republic and then another Bonaparte Empire was founded after another revolution. Again a more lasting Republic, the Third Republic was established in 1870.

In World War II France was conquered by Nazi Germany within two months. The Third Republic was dismantled, and most of the country was controlled directly by the Axis Powers, while the south was controlled by the collaborationist Vichy regime.  Following liberation, a Fourth Republic was established; this was succeeded by the Fifth Republic in 1958, the country's current government. I make that eight interruptions to constitutional government since 1789.

What about Germany? Well, there was no single German state until a German Empire was created in 1871 under the leadership of Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. The Reichstag, or elected parliament, had only a limited role in the imperial government. Unification was followed by an industrial revolution. By 1900, Germany's economy was by far the largest in Europe (and second only to the U.S. in the world). It then mounted a massive arms race and tried to make up for lost time in establishing an empire to rival those of Great Britain, France, Austria-Hungary, Russia and Turkey. The result was the devastation of the First World War (1914-18). Germany faced territorial losses and war reparations. Emperor Wilhelm II abdicated and democracy was introduced under the Weimar Republic.

In 1933, the Nazis under Adolf Hitler gained power. The Nazis imposed a totalitarian regime and followed an expansionist foreign policy that led to World War II (1939-45). After Nazi Germany’s defeat, the country was divided into democratic West Germany and communist East Germany. In 1990, East Germany was reunited with West Germany.

Let’s look at Italy. After the disintegration of the Roman Empire the lands of Italy were divided into small city states often under foreign influence or control. Only in 1861 to 1870 was the process of reunification completed. The first government fell in 1877 and there was then a reasonable period of stability though with great poverty. After the First World War in which Italy fought on both sides Mussolini seized power in 1922 and imposed his own brand of totalitarianism until his overthrow in 1943. The First Republic was established in 1946 and that lasted until 1992 though with frequent changes of government. It finally became so corrupted with Mafia influence that it was replaced in 1992 by the Second Republic.

Chile first declared independence in 1810 and then like the USA had to win it militarily. There was then like the USA a prolonged struggle until it was consolidated in 1833. Like the USA, Chile then set out to consolidate its borders winning land in the north in wars with Bolivia and Peru and settling the borders with Argentina in the south. Like the USA it repressed the indigenous people, the Mapuche in the south. Then like the USA there was a civil war in 1891 though the Chilean one was small and quickly resolved. Peace then prevailed until 1925 when for the first time the military interfered. Once democracy was restored in 1932 it prevailed until 1973. So the coup in 1973 was just the second interruption in constitutional democracy in the twentieth century. In neighbouring Argentina despite greater wealth there were at least 6 coups d’état between 1930 and 1976. Chile’s other neighbours have been even more volatile. Peru experienced 7 coups d’état between 1914 and 1992 while Bolivia had no less than 14 between 1899 and 1992.

To understand what happened in Chile in the 1970’s you need to understand that this was a front in the cold war. President Salvador Allende, a Marxist had been elected with only 36.6% of the popular vote in a narrow three way election. Both the CIA and the KGB had been active in the election and so continued afterwards. Allende had a KGB adviser alongside him as did Fidel Castro from the beginning and Allende unwisely embarked on a radical program of Marxist reform. This produced economic chaos assisted no doubt by the CIA.  Castro ran guns to Chile disguised in sugar shipments. Finally after taunting by middle class housewives the military engineered a coup d’état and Allende committed suicide. General Pinochet then instituted brutal repression and 3,000 are estimated to have died and another 30,000 went into exile.

The role of the CIA came out in the Church hearings in the USA in 1975; the role of the KGB much later after the fall of the Soviet Union. We now know that the KGB and the Cuban Intelligence Directorate launched a propaganda campaign in the western media. For instance, in 1976, the New York Times published 66 articles on alleged human rights abuses in Chile and only 4 on Cambodia, where the communist Khmer Rouge killed some 1.5 million people of 7.5 million people in the country.

Chile's constitution was approved in a national plebiscite held in September 1980. It came into force in March 1981. (I was living there at the time and by then Chile was peaceful with economic fortunes partially restored. I met General Pinochet and found him singularly lacking in charisma.) The constitution established that in 1988 there would be another plebiscite in which the voters would accept or reject a single candidate proposed by the Military Junta. Pinochet was, as expected, the candidate proposed, and he was denied a second 8 year term by 54.5% of the vote. Pinochet accepted the verdict of the people, stepped down from the Presidency and took his place in the Senate.

Since 1989 Chile has returned peacefully to democracy helped by the fact that in each election all registered voters are required by law to vote and the President must receive a clear majority of the votes thus avoiding another debacle like Allende.

Last week Chile held its General Election and the right wing candidate Sebastian Piñera won 52% of the votes. His opponent, former President Frei, a Christian Democrat who represented the centre-left coalition that has governed Chile for 20 years, conceded and power transferred peacefully. This good news was of course scarcely reported in western media.

Copyright David C Pearson 2010 All rights reserved

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