How Chileans Voted Out a Dictator
The 1988 plebiscite was supposed to cement General Pinochet’s power for eight more years. Instead, he got the boot.
On September 11, 1973, the Chilean Armed Forces toppled the democratically elected government of Chile. Over the next several years, the military regime would leave three thousand dead-disappeared and 30,000 tortured; 200,000 Chileans would go into exile. And yet, after so much violent repression, on October 5, 1988, Chileans voted out the dictatorship.
How did a military regime become a democracy again? I’ve spent the past year researching Chilean history for my novel-in-progress. I’ve spoken with my parents, who are Chilean, about what they remember. Even as I’ve dug deeper into a history that feels both geographically and temporally distant, I’ve come to feel Chile’s lessons to be more and more relevant to where the United States finds itself now, in 2020.
We can no longer claim to be “shocked” that President Donald Trump has all the makings of an authoritarian dictator. I’ll memorialize one example here: the frank unwillingness to commit to a peaceful transition of power (see BBC video, September 2020):
Interviewer: Will you commit to making sure there is a peaceful transferral of power after the election?
45th President of the United States and leader of the oldest democracy in the world: We’ll have to see what happens.
How did Chileans manage to peacefully vote out a dictator? How can Americans peacefully vote out a would-be dictator?
What Happened in Chile
Prior to the coup, Chile was one of the oldest democracies in Latin America. Chileans saw themselves as participating in a constitutionalist tradition, and the Chilean Armed Forces had a policy of refusing to interfere in civilian matters. The writer Ariel Dorfman, who lived in Chile, remembers those days distinctly:
“It can’t happen here. That’s an avowal I have been hearing from Americans ever since my family and I, fleeing a dictatorship in our native Chile, finally came to settle in the United States in 1980…. I had pronounced similar words about Chile, and had also once succumbed to the illusion that democracy in the land I called my own could never be destroyed, that it ‘couldn’t happen here’.”
But “it” — the end of democracy — did happen. By 1973, political and economic forces were tearing the country apart. Socialist President Salvador Allende had been democratically elected, but his promise of reform was met with backlash and chaos. I’ll summarize the outcome since the precise history would take up many books: right-wing military forces eventually seized power. They began their 17-year regime by bombing La Moneda, the equivalent of the White House; President Allende shot himself. Thereafter followed hundreds of arbitrary arrests and executions. The junta argued that the left-wing had been planning its own bloody coup for September 18, and so they had staged a “preemptive coup” to save the country (this bullshit propaganda was called Plan Z). General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, an opportunist who had served as Allende’s head of the Army, was remarkably late to join the coup plotters. Yet he would become the junta’s leader.
My parents spent their young adult lives under his rule. In fact, they finished high school, attended college, and moved to the United States all while Pinochet held power. He didn’t step down until 1990.
Having grown up in the States, I am trying to envision what it must be like to lose your democracy. Here is a thought exercise:
Imagine if George W. Bush had not left the White House. Imagine if he had held onto power through fear and the murder of our fellow citizens. Imagine if a substantial portion of your neighbors applauded him for it. Imagine not being able to vote for any U.S. president between the beginning of the Iraq War and now. That’s 17 years. That’s how long Pinochet held power.
Chile’s junta strove to remake the political system to ensure the military would hold power for a very, very long time. The regime drafted a new constitution and made damned sure the people voted to approve it. I came across a CIA breakdown, written in 1988 and declassified in 2000, that enumerates the various ways the junta manipulated and threatened the public to ensure a favorable vote on the 1980 constitution. (See: “Chile: How Authoritarian Is Pinochet’s Constitution?”) In an op-ed in the New York Times, an exiled former judge of the Chilean Supreme Court begged for the U.S. to speak out against the 1980 referendum, warning that the regime’s constitution would effectively cement Pinochet’s rule through 1997: “According to this plan, General Pinochet will rule for a quarter of a century.”
This 1980 constitution stipulated that in 1988, the junta would field a single candidate for a nationwide plebiscite. That candidate would, presumably, be Pinochet. Chileans would have two options:
- Sí: Eight more years of Pinochet as president.
- No: This would trigger free elections in 1989.
While those living in a democracy may view voting “no” as a simple thing, it was not by any means easy in Chile.
Obstacles to Voting Out Pinochet
2020 has been a trying year for everyone — in relation to public health, climate change, racial justice, economic stability, politics… I personally have begun to function in a state of hypervigilance, which my therapist hypothesizes I’ve “inherited” from parents who lived through a dictatorship. Months into the pandemic, I still regularly add to our emergency rations and double-check our go-bag. I’ve outfitted my car with extra flashlights, flares, and reflective vests, and I make sure my gas tank never drops below half-full. I double-check the locks at night, in our utterly quiet suburban neighborhood. What do I think is going to happen? No idea. I live in uncertainty, and these safety measures are my security blanket.
Indeed, one of my biggest challenges has been managing this year emotionally. I swing wildly between hope and despair, and frequently feel helpless. I often wish I could go to bed and wake up in 2021. I feel small and not in control of my own life.
In his 1995 essay “Three Lessons from October 5,” Genaro Arriagada, director of the 1988 NO campaign, reflects that no one needed to convince the Chilean people of the military regime’s abuses. “If we believe the surveys, the military regime certainly wasn’t popular,” he writes (English translation by me). Many already believed the opposition’s platform. They just needed to be moved to act.
Arriagada frames some of the emotional obstacles the NO campaign had to overcome. I can’t help seeing a mirror of my personal challenges:
People felt powerless.
“We had believed so many times in the weakness and eventual destruction of the regime, that it didn’t seem possible to believe in that again,” Arriagada writes. The junta had manipulated the vote in 1978 and 1980 to solidify its power. It quashed major protests in 1983. Pinochet had even survived an assassination attempt in 1986. The regime appeared invincible. “One could hardly trust in those dreamers who proposed taking down the military regime with a vote” (20).
People were afraid.
For 15 years, Chileans had been unable to participate in politics. Now, many were afraid to go to the polls. “For some, that fear was associated with political repression; for vast politicized sectors, their main source [of fear] was being exposed to open political conflict; for everyone, there was the fear of socio-economic instability,” Arriagada writes (21). Note that, for many in Chile, the stability of their day-to-day lives trumped concerns over past human rights abuses. After all, the regime itself took power amidst socio-economic instability in the early 1970s, and Chile again saw a severe economic crisis in 1982.
People had lost their dignity.
Arriagada writes: “[A]ll of society who lives under an authoritarian regime is marked by humiliation, which is felt particularly sharply among adults. They had suffered — or had seen suffered — prolonged situations of injustice, political abuse, the loss of rights, the banning and dismantling of unions, the raiding of their neighborhoods, and they had suffered prolonged periods during which unemployment, both open and disguised, had reached over 20 percent. There were many, among those close to the Concertación [the coalition of opposition parties], who had lived that feeling of not being respected, had been objects of suspicion, had no one to turn to, had fallen silent as they were taken advantage of. Obviously, this humiliation deteriorates the political self-esteem of people, and with that, their ability to act” (21).
“We determined that the Campaign for NO was not, in the main, a campaign to win over the logical minds of the people, but rather to recuperate their dignity, their political self-esteem; and only as they were able to recuperate that dignity and self-esteem, then and only then, would they have the strength and decisiveness to fight with the conviction that they could change the world…” (21).
The “No” campaign had to inspire and motivate an oppressed population. The campaign had to convince them that they would be able to vote safely and that their vote would be counted.
Among its many strategies, the “No” campaign registered 7.5 million Chileans — ninety-two percent of eligible voters. In the days leading up to the plebiscite, special 15-minute television ads for the “no” side (and “sí” side) aired, delivering a message of hope. The campaign also sent poll watchers out to ensure that the voting process wasn’t compromised. (Note: We also shouldn’t discount the tremendous international pressure on the regime to adhere to the plebiscite’s outcome.)
Was all of this effort an overreaction? Not at all. Up until the last moment, Pinochet was considering fraud and violence to disrupt the vote, according to documents shared by the National Security Archive. A Defense Intelligence Agency summary reads:
“The [contingency] plans call for government security forces to intervene forcefully and, citing damage to the electoral process and balloting facilities, to declare a state of emergency. At that point, the elections would be suspended, declared invalid, and postponed indefinitely.”
When the results showed he had lost, Pinochet asked the junta members to grant him extraordinary powers to subvert the plebiscite. He did not get their support.
Here is the final breakdown:
- Sí: 44%
- No: 56%
Although the “No” side had a twelve percent lead, I find the numbers startling close. Nearly half of voters wanted eight more years of the dictatorship.
When I Look at America…
I see that 43 percent of eligible voters did not vote in 2016. As Christopher Ingraham at the Washington Post notes, “To look at it another way, the people who could have voted but chose not to vastly outnumbered those who cast a vote for Clinton, Trump or a third-party candidate.”
In 2020, many people are disillusioned with both presidential options, as reported by the BBC. Even so, organizations across the country are working to register voters and restore faith in the electoral process, as President Trump and the GOP try their hardest to undermine it. Many others — on the right and left — are building networks to preserve democracy in case of a coup.
No matter how the election goes, I want to share a lesson I’ve learned from Chilean history:
Democracy In and Of Itself Is Not a Cure-All
In the 2001 documentary “I Love Pinochet,” the filmmaker Marcela Said interviews Pinochet supporters who, more than a decade after he stepped down, see him as a father figure and even a saint. In one scene, the filmmaker visits the offices of El Mercurio, Chile’s largest newspaper, to ask some critical questions about the state of democracy.
Some background for readers outside Chile: El Mercurio is notoriously conservative. In fact, Agustín Edwards, the paper’s founder, traveled to Washington, DC, to request U.S. intervention — a military coup — when President Allende was elected. During the Allende years, the CIA funneled millions to keep the paper solvent, finding it a useful propaganda tool. Under Pinochet, the paper served as a government mouthpiece.
When the documentary was filmed, El Mercurio had recently published an article discussing Chileans’ diminished faith in democracy. Why, Said asks the paper’s editors, are Chileans disillusioned?
In answer to Said’s question, one editor suggests that the opposition made democracy sound like a panacea that would magically solve all the nation’s problems. That has not been the case. There’s a lot of partisan bickering now. His colleague adds, “Democracy is a very reasonable system. As everyone says, there has been no better system discovered. But when someone sees how it functions, he asks is it true — and this is the judgment that any child of this century makes — ‘Is this what they said was the best? It seems like it’s not the best.’ And that’s the problem.” (Timestamp: 45:00)
When Chile said goodbye to the dictator, the people saw again, firsthand, that democracy is messy. It requires constant participation, engagement, negotiation, and compromise. In the specific case of Chile, plenty of work had to happen to rebuild democracy and come to terms with the crimes of the regime. As a result, some Chileans found themselves nostalgic for the status quo of authoritarianism. Back then, they didn’t have to engage with democracy’s foibles — because they could not.
The moral of the story, that I take away as a U.S. citizen, is that the November 2020 vote must only be the beginning of my renewed investment in our democracy. I am guilty of sleeping soundly during the Obama years, and thinking that progress was inevitable, that democracy was unassailable. It isn’t. Praying for someone to save us is useless. As Dorfman wrote in his Guardian piece:
“Salvation can’t be outsourced to some sort of heroic figure who will ride to the rescue. The only real saviours are the people themselves.”
Democracy is a system worth saving, but in order for it to work, we have to do the work — every single time.
Finding Hope At Last
Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín’s 2012 film “No,” starring Mexican actor Gael García Bernal, shows how a catchy jingle and a feel-good ad campaign convinced the Chilean people to vote “no” in 1988. While that jingle was real, the film didn’t do justice to the many, many years of effort that went into finally unseating Pinochet.
“The film is a gross oversimplification that has nothing to do with reality,” Arriagada told the New York Times in 2013. “The idea that, after 15 years of dictatorship in a politically sophisticated country with strong union and student movements, solid political parties and an active human rights movement, all of a sudden this Mexican advertising guy arrives on his skateboard and says, ‘Gentlemen, this is what you have to do,’ that is a caricature.”
Even so, amid all the heartbreak and struggle that has been 2020, I do find it heartening to hear the “No” jingle: Chile, la alegría ya viene. This translates to “Chile, joy is on its way.” It was so catchy that, allegedly, even members of the “Sí” side sang it under their breath.
Sergio Bravo, a documentarian, penned the lyrics. At first, he had trouble striking the right tone. As he told La Tercera in 2012 (quoted in CNN Chile),
“I began writing from pain. The most basic inspiration for this theme was suffering. But when Eugenio García [creative director of the campaign] gave me the foundational phrase ‘Chile, joy is on its way,’ I started working on another idea and I realized that was truly the spirit I wanted to express. I began to write out of a desire for change, out of what I wanted to happen.”
I take heart in Bravo’s words, and in the very fact that Chileans did embrace the opportunity to vote. They did vote out Pinochet.
When I go to fill out my ballot, I have to keep in mind the future I want to see for myself and for my children. That is where I will find the strength to act.
I’ve taken the liberty of translating the lyrics below:
Chile, la alegría ya viene
Because no matter what they say, I am free to think
Because I feel it’s time to win our liberty
Enough of these abuses. It’s time to change!
Enough of misery, I’m going to say “no.”
Because the rainbow rises after the tempest —
Because I want a thousand ways of thinking to flourish —
Because without the dictatorship, joy will arrive —
Because I think about the future, I’m going to say “no.”
We’re going to say “no.”
With the strength of my voice
We’re going to say “no”
I sing it without fear
We’re going to say “no.”
All of us united toward victory
We’re going to say “no.”
For life and for peace.
Let’s end the dying. This is our chance
to defeat violence with the weapons of peace.
Because I think my fatherland needs dignity —
For a Chile for all, we’re going to say “no.”
Check out Ariel Dorfman’s latest op-ed in The Atlantic. Dorfman spent much of his childhood and adult years in Chile, where he worked for Allende’s government for a brief period. Many of his friends and colleagues were killed after the coup, and Dorfman saw his own books burned in the streets. He and his family fled into exile: