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What Next?

Human Rights

new internationalist
issue 174 - August 1987

'Chile united will overcome'.
Photo: Peter Stalker
What next?
Where does Chile go from here? Will Pinochet live forever -
in spirit if not in body? Or will the opposition be able summon the
strength to defy him? Either way it will be a superhuman effort.

The question remains. Why has Pinochet lasted so long? Dictatorships around the world have been toppling in the last ten years. Somoza has gone from Nicaragua, Baby Doc from Haiti and Marcos from the Philippines. Yet the Chilean regime seems secure.

Every Chilean will provide a different set of explanations. But there are a number of common threads. And before I leave it is probably worth trying to weave some of them together.

First there is Pinochet's relationship with the army. He is an instinctive politician who knows where loyalty should be cultivated. The Chilean armed forces and the carabineros are now amongst the best paid in Latin America. To some extent loyalty can be bought and he has paid what is necessary.

Indeed there is a remarkably effective fighting force at his disposal. The Chilean army shows in its uniform and its goose-step the legacy of the Prussian-trained modernization it underwent in the 19th Century. Add to this the investment in arms and equipment in more recent years and you have a highly efficient fighting force. No one seems seriously to consider the possibility of a successful guerrilla uprising in the face of such opposition.

 The armed forces are united behind the regime: there does not seem to be much likelihood of a split. Partly this is because dissenting voices have been given 'early retirement'. But army loyalty is now bolstered by fear of the future. The trials of military officers in Argentina for human-rights abuses will have convinced many Chilean officers that their destinies must at all costs be kept out of the hands of a civilian government.

In addition to the support of those around him Pinochet also seems to have inner reserves of strength. He is bolstered by ideology: fervently dedicated to the cause of anti-communism. He takes pride in his claim that Chile is the only country to have overthrown a marxist government. And this fervour has carried him through the years of bloodshed. His resolve does not seem to have faltered while comparable military regimes in Brazil and Argentina have lost the stomach for the battle.

Nor has his regime been weakened by excessive greed, Somoza and Marcos and Baby Doc built huge business empires and alienated the middle classes. While the Chilean middle classes may have doubts about his economic wisdom they cannot claim that he has been excluding them from profitable activities. Pinochet is no puritan; he is much given to pomp and circumstance. And there have been scandals around his family as well as the ill-judged construction of a multi-million dollar presidential residence. But by dictatorial standards he has been modest in his requirements - he has even announced that he will leave the presidential palace with nothing more than he had when he arrived.

Many would argue that Pinochet has also been powerfully sustained by forces outside Chile; particularly the US. But if the US and the CIA were the midwives of the Chilean dictatorship, they are now less than happy with the way it has developed. Pinochet's disdain for human rights has made it difficult for even the Reagan administration to give full support - and it is clear that they would prefer Pinochet to go, to be replaced by some form of democracy that precluded any possibility of a socialist government.

The opposition parties have also played their part in keeping Pinochet in office with their tendency to split into ever-tinier factions. The US, however, has also been active here too: in blocking attempts to form coalitions. In 1986, for example, a broad grouping of political and popular movements - the 'Civilian Assembly' - looked as though it might possibly destabilize the regime through a series of strikes. The US State Department did not like the way things were going and made it clear to the Christian Democrats that they should have no relationship with the communists whatsoever if they were to hope for future support from Washington. The Christian Democrats withdrew from the Civilian Assembly.

But even if Pinochet's success in the past can be explained - or at least rationalized - what of the regime's prospects for the future? If its greatest strength has been the presence of one man it must also be its greatest weakness. Pinochet has already survived one assassination attempt but there are rumours that he is mortal and could eventually die from natural causes.

Hence the attempts to institutionalize his achievement. The Constitution of 1980 aims for a kind of 'protected democracy'. Only those parties which are not 'totalitarian' and which do not talk of class struggle will be allowed to participate. Next year - or even later this year - there will be a plebiscite in which a candidate named by the Junta will be put forward for public approval. This could well be Pinochet himself.

He is certain he would win - even though he has not declared himself as a candidate. Public opinion polls give him less than 30 per cent of the electorate at present He claims his own polls show the figure as 40 per cent and that when the time comes the Chilean people will again move decisively in his direction as they did in 1980. That year, however, people were in the midst of an artificial economic boom. Their judgement next year might be rather more realistic.

There are some signs now that the other Junta members think that it is time for Pinochet to go, to be replaced by a right-wing politician. But Pinochet does not even need to stand for election, let alone win, in order to institutionalize the regime. Any new President would govern under the influence of the armed forces - who would stand by to intervene.

So where does this leave the opposition? The parties on the left refuse to register under a law which in any case excludes most of them for ideological reasons. The right-wing parties will register. And in the centre are the Christian Democrats who have yet to make up their minds. The US has given its support to the Constitution arguing that this offers the best way forward.

It might not seem the best way to the Chilean people - a sizeable minority of whom wish to vote for the Communist Party. And still less does it suit opposition politicians in general who have once again been thrown into confusion by the regime's manoeuvres. An opposition that has not been able to co-ordinate its efforts during the roughest years of the dictatorship seems ill-equipped for unity during a period when the Government is displaying more democratic clothes.

For by Chilean standards (if not by any others) this is a time of relative tranquility. And many people put this down to Pinochet's future Presidential ambitions. He is frequently to be seen on TV handing out new houses to poor families.

Another indication of relative calm is that the press is currently operating more freely - though individual journalists are always at risk. Not only are opposition magazines like Analysis and APSI allowed to publish, this year has also seen the launch of two new daily newspapers which do not support the Government: the Christian Democrat La Epoca and the more radical broadsheet Fortin Mapocho.

But not all parties, of course, consider themselves to be in opposition. The largest grouping on the right is National Renovation. But in true Chilean fashion of party-political profligacy yet another right-wing party has just been created, National Advance, which appears to have links with the military.

I thought it would be interesting to talk to National Advance but it wasn't that easy. I met Patricio Vild6sola, the Treasurer, in his law offices. And of all the political figures I spoke to he was certainly the most cautious about being quoted.

National Advance is supposed to have been formed by General Humberto Gordon, ex-director of Chile's secret police, the CNI. Membership card Number One in National Advance is held by Augusto Pinochet. And sure enough the General's portrait beams out over Vildosola's desk.

The Prussian-trained Chilean army.
Photo: Julio Etchart

But the Party Treasurer seems nervous. He says that he had a nasty experience of an interview with ABC television from the US who filmed him in his office and then produced a distorted report. So the first thing he does is to place a tape recorder on the desk so that he can have a record of precisely what was said. Fair enough. But then he says he wants me to submit a written list of questions to which he will respond later - a little impractical as I am shortly to leave the country.

'This is because,' he explains, 'we are talking here about something very serious - freedom. I believe that Chile has had two independence days. The first was in 1818 and the second the 11th of September 1973 when the people of Chile expelled from the country the communism that Señor Allende was giving us. But there have been a lot of misunderstandings about that and that is why I wish to receive the questions in writing.'

In the hope of persuading him to talk here and now I suggest that my questions are really very simple and very general. I want to discuss nationalism.

'Well, that's relatively easy, because I can read an answer out from the published principles of the party. "Nationalism is the dynamic expression of nationality. It is that which makes it possible for a country to evolve without losing its national identity."

And at a similar level of generality I ask about the 'protected' democracy which is the Government's philosophy.

He continues reading: '"Nationalism postulates the concept of the free man. Free in the sense that the nation respects absolutely in its social and judicial structures the individuality and uniqueness of each person." I am reading this out,' he adds, 'so that you as a journalist who has to translate it will be able to do so properly.'

Fortunately from this point onwards he starts to ad-lib. 'Now as far as democracy goes, you can go to any kiosk and see magazines both for and against the Government. I call that an important part of democracy.'

'Have you been to Cuba?', he asks me.

'No,' I reply.

'I think you would face many more restrictions and problems in reporting from Cuba than you would from Chile. Here you can go to any poblaci6n and talk to anyone you like.

'Have you had any difficulty in working here?' he asks.

'No I haven't.'

'My personal attitude,' he adds, 'is that we should answer questions. You have a job to do and it is worthy of respect. Interviews carried out in good faith will always be welcome in Chile. We want people to come and see us. Because if you go home now and someone says something wrong about the country you can say that you were there - and what they are saying does not ring true.

'Of course you will find people who do not agree with the Government. But you'll find that in any part of the world. The people who do not work will always disagree with those who do.

'Now, let me tell you something about communism: the person who has two chickens will never be a communist. The person who has no chickens is a communist and says that anyone who has two should hand one over to him. But once he has two chickens himself he stops being a communist. That's a light-hearted way of putting it but it illustrates what I mean.

'I am working,' he concludes, 'so that my children and my children's children can live in peace, harmony and tranquility - and above all say "this is my country and this is the flag which I am going to defend."

'I trust,' he adds, 'that you will interpret my words correctly and exactly in the form in which I have given them to you.'

I say that I will (and so I have). Before I leave he gives me a present a newly minted medallion which has the National Advance rosette on one side and on the other an engraving of General Pinochet.

Señor Vild6sola's children may indeed live in peace and harmony. But it is clear that there are many other children who do not. Villa O'Higgins is a sprawling poblaci6n to the south of Santiago and here I meet a group of secondary-school pupils. The snow-capped Andes form a massive wall behind us. Two days of rain have washed away the smog leaving the air clear for a day or so at least.

We can see the mountains because we are meeting out-of-doors on a piece of derelict land. This gives a fine view but causes the young people to look over their shoulders every time somebody walks past. I may be at liberty to talk to anyone I like in the country - but it is clear that they do not feel quite so free.

So what do Chile's younger generation think about their country? 'Well in the first place,' says 16-year-old Violeta, 'they are trying to keep us ignorant. As far as history goes you would think the country existed first in the 19th Century and then took a leap straight into 1973. Presidents Frei or Allende might as well not have lived.'

And the teachers agree to this distortion?

'Some of them do take risks and try to tell the truth,' says Victor, a student in a technical college. 'But then the pupils can report them. There are always sapos, "toads" (the general word for informers in Chile) who will complain to their parents - especially if they are the children of the carabineros or the military.'

And how many people would agree with the sapos?

'I think,' says Diana, 'that you could divide the pupils into four. A quarter would just be ignorant - they have no idea what is going on. Another quarter do know what is happening but they keep their heads down to stay out of trouble. Then there is the quarter that is right-wing and supports the Government. And finally there is a quarter that actively supports democracy.'

Among those who support democracy (which seems to include all those here) there is a low level of optimism. And a lot of this has to do with political leadership - with a group of politicians inherited from the past.

'The young people of Chile are cowards,' says Guillermo, 'afraid of the past, of the present, of the future. Really we're waiting for a strong movement or a strong leader. I'm very afraid for this country. If we did get democracy what would we do with it?

'It would be OK,' says Victor, 'if we could get new leaders. But the younger people can't get in because the old ones won't leave, there's no way of getting rid of them. I'm fed up with people who have ideas from twenty years ago. It's alright for them: they have known democracy. Then the important thing was to choose which person to elect

'But things are not like that now. Now the task is to get rid of a dictatorship. For a new society we need to start with new people - to make sure we don't make the mistakes we made 14 years ago.'

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New Internationalist issue 174 magazine cover This article is from the August 1987 issue of New Internationalist.
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