September 11, 1973

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, September 10, 2013


On September 11, 1973, dreadful images shocked the world. The bombing of the Chilean presidential palace and the suicide of president Salvador Allende remain among the most dramatic memories of a military coup anywhere in the world during the Cold War years.


Today, Chile is a very different country than it was in 1973. The Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990) left three overwhelming legacies: human rights violations, an institutional setup intended to constrain the emergence of democracy, and an economic model that has allowed for rapid economic growth with high levels of inequality.


The legacy of human rights violations that characterized the military regime continues to haunt Chileans today. Though dozens of human rights violators have been brought to justice, there has been insufficient progress in righting the wrongs of the past. Four consecutive centre-left Concertación governments (1990-2010) opted to foster the consolidation of democracy over risking stability by bringing about justice. When Pinochet was detained in London in 1998 on charges of crimes against humanity, the Concertación administration sought his release on humanitarian grounds. After the former dictator returned to Chile, he was indicted, but never condemned for human rights violations.

Since 1990, democratic institutions have emerged from within the constraints left in place by Pinochet. Chilean democracy has grown out of the institutional trap left by the dictatorship in the 1980 Constitution. After the arrest of Pinochet, and thanks to the careful steering of democratic elected governments, Chile’s democracy has consolidated more rapidly and several reforms have stripped the Constitution of most of its authoritarian and counter-democratic features. Though the dictatorship wanted to establish a limited democracy, the gradual and incremental reforms have expanded the institutional limits and have fostered a full-fledged democracy.


Many advocates of democracy reject the notion that true democracy can be built on an authoritarian institutional foundation. The present legal order cannot be disassociated from the authoritarian period. Just as a child conceived by a rape can never undo his traumatic origin, Chile has to live its democracy born out of an authoritarian Constitution designed to prevent democracy from flourishing. A more optimistic view would argue that precisely because democracy grew despite these constraints and limitations, Chile should be celebrated as an example of the resilience of people’s democratic values and will.


The third Pinochet legacy is the neoliberal economic model. The market-friendly model has been improved upon with socially-oriented reforms. Democratic governments have retained the main tenets of the neoliberal model, but have implemented aggressive poverty-reduction initiatives and have strengthened regulatory frameworks to foster competition and safeguard consumers’ rights. Poverty rates have declined from over 40% under the dictatorship to around 15% today.


All social indicators show remarkable progress. Millions have joined the middle class. The student protests that rocked the country in 2006 and 2011 reflect the demand for social and economic inclusion that has driven the political evolution in recent years. Because levels of inequality remain high and the state has limited power and ability to increase social spending, the laudable efforts to focus spending on the poor and to reduce inequality by expanding opportunities among the lowest income quintiles have barely made progress in reducing inequality.


Critics of the Chilean economic model point to persistent inequality to challenge what otherwise can be described as an overwhelming success. However, precisely because the country’s economy has expanded, policy makers can now focus on inequality and no longer have to respond to the pressing needs of widespread poverty and destitution. Chile does have economic challenges, but those are of a different order to the issues of poverty and marginalization that haunt many other Third World countries. In fact, twenty-four years after democracy was restored, Chile is on the verge of entering the select club of developed countries. Persistent levels of inequality stand out more precisely because Chile has made so much progress in economic development.


A controversial and divisive moment, the 9/11 coup seems out of place when contrasted with the vibrant democracy that Chile enjoys today. Many Chileans remain divided over their interpretations and readings of the past. Every September 11, the divisions reemerge. However, the polarization regarding the past contrasts dramatically with the overwhelming agreement over the roadmap for the future. Improving market-friendly reforms, expanding inclusion and building a more inclusive and accountable democracy is what a large majority of Chileans want for the future.


The 1973 military coup did not just end democracy and began a period of massive human rights violations. It also constituted a foundational moment for Chile. The market-friendly economic reforms implemented by the dictatorship, and improved upon by subsequent democratic governments, have made Chile a successful case of economic development. While the country correctly remembers today human rights victims and honours the noble defence of constitutional democracy led by President Salvador Allende, the economic and political system Chile has today is the legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship more than the Chilean form of Socialism that the government deposed on September 11 of 1973 aspired to build.