Fathoming Chile’s Continuing Crisis

Chileans are trying to awaken from a nightmare, which has been recurring for decades and retains its vivid horrors

By Juan Carlos Chirgwin

It is easier to understand the plight of small countries if we turn to history and acquire a broader, more global perspective. Looking back in history it is easy to detect a constant conflict between society’s progressive thinkers and those in power who claim exclusive right to rule, even though they represent only a small but very rich minority of the population.

Democratic systems have often been betrayed

In modern times the UK’s Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson were progressive, and D. Eisenhower’s farewell speech (*1) places him, similarly, with those concerned for the just future of mankind.

Contrary to this, we have clear examples of the sad fate of peoples lured into racism by hate speech against foreigners, their ideas and religions. Democratic systems have often been betrayed, and in Europe during the 20th century it happened to three countries in particular.


In Italy, Benito Mussolini as leader of the Nationalist Fascist Party forced his appointment as Prime Minister in 1922 and soon became a Fascist dictator; Antonio Gramsci was one of his many victims, goaled in 1926, he died in prison 1937.

Antonio Gramsci, murdered by Benito Musselini

In Germany, Adolf Hitler after his appointment as Chancellor used the burning of the Reichstag in 1933 to gain emergency powers and use them to enforce a state-wide repression of political dissidents. This led to the attempted extermination of the Jewish population and numerous minorities.

to remove a dictator often requires international intervention

In Spain, the Republican Popular Front won the national elections in 1936, but rightwing parties backed by the military staged a coup-d’état. The elected government dissolved the army and organised defence by forming people’s brigades. The UK, USA and France, amongst others, declared a non-intervention policy; but Germany, Italy and USSR took an active part in the conflict. The defeat of the Republicans was caused, to a large degree, by the lack of political cohesion, mainly between Communist party members and Anarchists. Achievements require strong unity amongst allies, but to remove a dictator often requires international intervention from powerful countries.

International interference

There was a major political crisis in Chile that exploded on 11th September 1973.

The dictatorship in Chile (1973-1990) is a tragedy resulting from a coup-d’état that was intimately connected with social processes operating worldwide. In Chile, similar events had happened once before, when president Balmaceda was brought down by a civil war (16 January 1891 to 18 September 1891), instigated and partly financed by foreign interests. Later in history, popular support for socio-economic changes steadily rose in Chile, and a political power base became quite evident with the election of Pedro Aguirre Cerda in 1938.

Jose Manuel Balmaceda who also faced a coup in 1891

From then on progressive political parties increased their share of the vote with every new election. In 1970 a broad leftist coalition (Unidad Popular/UP), led by Dr. Salvador Allende Gossens made him the first socialist president in Chile’s political system. Anti-democratic opposition was present before and after the presidential election and a local right-wing extremist supported by foreign intelligence agents (CIA) went as far as to assassinate the Commander in Chief of the Army: General René Schneider C., in an effort to stop Allende’s triumph being confirmed by Parliament.

Kissinger ordered the assassination of General René Schneider C

During Allende’s government, in spite of severe cuts to international credits and imports of spare parts and a blockade of exports from Chile, economic reforms were still continued for at least 18 to 24 months. These improvements provided exceptionally good access to goods and supplies and improved state-run social services for the common people, but economic sabotage and open interference from local armed groups who enjoyed political protection from opposition parties made it impossible to maintain a stable government.

the military, supported by the anti-government parties and the CIA, intervened with a coup-d’état and assassinated Allende.

Well connected and financially powerful national groups, with political and economic help from abroad, intensified their criminal sabotage. A truck drivers’ strike in October 1972 paralysed delivery of essential goods throughout the country, and this was followed by sabotage of electricity pylons and fuel supply lines which intensified black-market operations in the country, and political opponents using right-wing media accused the government of incompetence. It was after months of this low-intensity, covert warfare that the military, supported by the anti-government parties and the CIA, intervened with a coup-d’état and assassinated Allende.

Victor Jara, one of thousands of Chilean’s murdered by the Chilean military, they broke his hands so he could not play the guitar again.

The military dictatorship assumed total control of executive and parliamentary powers, and retained a muted judicial system obedient to its needs. A strict curfew was decreed, a state of war was declared and persecution of former political opponents led to massive arrests and indiscriminate killings; official estimates indicate 28,459 victims of torture, 2,125 killed and 1,102 disappeared victims.

The impact of such extreme neo-liberal policies was catastrophic, introducing an immediate chasm between a small and very privileged minority and a vast mass of very unfortunate people.

Business, banks and industries which had been legally transferred to the state sector during Allende’s presidency, as well as farmland which had been distributed to peasants were returned to former owners or ceded to military partisans. The national economy would now rely on private entrepreneurial initiative to provide for the nation’s needs.

Employment, education, health, pensions, and social assistance would be opened to private investment, and the state would become responsible only for parts of those sectors which were of no interest to capital investors. The impact of such extreme neo-liberal policies (*2) was catastrophic, introducing an immediate chasm between a small and very privileged minority and a vast mass of very unfortunate people. Many Chileans were left unemployed or with insecure and badly paid jobs.

The poor suffered while the IMF applauded Chile for its neo-liberal economic policies

Malnourishment, insufficient housing, a weakened health system, poor educational facilities, and inadequate retirement pensions were the new norm in the Chilean dictatorship.

The difficulty in restoring a functioning social democracy

Although the situation improved when the Coalition (Concertación) parties replaced the dictatorship in 1990, their impact was not sufficient to restore the people’s rights and living standards as enjoyed up to 1973 because the same neo-liberal economic model was maintained. The scars and trauma left on the minds and bodies of people tormented for decades with social injustice are still present. This explains why it has been so difficult for Chileans to rebel and take to the streets in order to make things right once again.

It was an uphill political struggle to fight back to heal an injured society: Chile’s situation is still unresolved after almost 50 years. People in Chile never surrendered completely to the injustices perpetrated by the dictatorship, but, at the very beginning, it was dangerous to resist at any level.

the Pinochet dictatorship was forced to begin talks

In its first five years of total power, the dictatorship became synonymous with a single man, Augusto Pinochet, Commander of the Army, as he outmaneuvered his junta partners from the navy, air force and civil guard.

Under this strongman, the first significant mass demonstrations began in 1983 as the Chilean economy failed, and demonstrators risked their lives year after year. Mainly due to lack of continued political and financial support by the US government, the Pinochet dictatorship was forced to begin talks with a centrist political party, which had been disbanded, along with leftwing political parties which were outlawed after the military coup.

Talks were set up to negotiate a transition of power. One central demand shared by these banned political parties was to overturn the Pinochet regime’s controversial 1980 constitution, which was forced on the population by means of a sham plebiscite with no electoral registry, no access to media for political advertisement, no independent control of the voting process, and constant intimidation of voters by the armed forces.

Pinochet the mass murdering dictator, darling of the US foreign policy establishment for so long.

However, politicians opposing the dictatorship focused on a referendum to question support for Pinochet as head of government, and on the 5th of October 1988 almost 55% voted to remove him from power. This favourable outcome still left numerous political issues open, including the Constitutional dilemma.

Unfortunately, the leaders of the “opposition” parties, without consulting their bases, decided to drop the demand to write a new Magna Carta, thus avoiding a major confrontation with the military and their right wing supporters, and concentrated on a number of modifications to the 1980 constitution.

Once the demand for a new constitution was dropped opposition leaders accepted the official call for another referendum which took place on 30th July 1990, gaining 91% of the vote and ratifying a number of modifications to the 1980 constitution. This constitution has retained its grip up to the present.

Once officially in power, the newly elected political leaders did nothing for a reversal of this betrayal: the preservation of the 1980 Constitution, a legacy of the dictatorship. Thus it can be said that the supporters of the dictatorship, although then fewer in number, were able to impose their vision on the vast majority of people demanding a return to participatory democracy. This perversion of democracy persists unto this day.

the supporters of the dictatorship, although then fewer in number, were able to impose their vision on the vast majority of people demanding a return to participatory democracy.

The new period of government in Chile, that began in 1990 with the Concertación, is often referred to as “Período de Transición hacia la Democracia” or post-transitional government. Chile has a semblance of democracy, but by not eliminating the 1980 Constitution an incredible shift in behaviour has become apparent in Chile’s new political class.

Elected Concertación officials now looked favourably on a further refinement of very lucrative business for the privileged few carried out in a neo-liberal environment but with only minor social improvements for the population at large.

Chile turned the clock back to the 1950’s, once again exporting mainly raw materials. Most of its previous manufacturing assets disappeared. Large corporations now benefitted from major tax concessions and capital protection benefits for their private business in mining, fisheries, retail, highways and other forms of transport.

Chile turned the clock back to the 1950’s, once again exporting mainly raw materials. Most of its previous manufacturing assets disappeared.

An open door policy to free-trade agreements permitted the surrender of national sovereignty, and what had not been privatised during the dictatorship has now been ceded: drinking water, fishing and sea resources. Unlike the policies of Salvador Allende, there is scant consideration of human needs and sources of employment.

One of the electoral promises of Michelle Bachelet in 2014, for a second presidential period was calling for a new constitution to be written in order to replace the 1980 constitution. In 2016 citizens were called to participate in Constitutional Assemblies within the country and even abroad for Chileans who had emigrated.

President Michelle Bachelet who tried to introduce changes into the Chilean constitution

By January 2017 a complete proposal based on citizens’ contributions was compiled into an official document. However, Jorge Burgos, an influential member of the centrist Christian Democrat Party, prevented the negotiation of a referendum to submit the proposal for a new constitution. This shows the lack of integrity and political commitment by senior officials in government and how such a serious breach of solidarity could happen within the Concertación coalition.

Recent events in Chile’s struggle to restore democracy

During the transition period following the 1990 elections, popular demonstrations against the government took place, but these faced less brutal repression by the police than during the dictatorship.

The most important demonstration was staged by secondary students in 2006 and is referred to as the “Revuelta de los Pinguinos” or The Penguin Revolt (referring to the student’s uniforms).

Since that date students have often taken to the streets, notably in 2011, to pressure governments for a better public education, but they have also supported other social causes: better employment terms for workers, improved pensions, greater health benefits, and lower public transport fares.

In October 2019 Sebastián Piñera led a second presidential government, which was brought in by a right wing coalition. His mismanagement of social problems led to a major student protest in response to an unwarranted hike of transport fares. This confrontation finally led to a social explosion as ordinary citizens reacted to many longstanding, unsolved social issues affecting them for several decades: poor wages; lack of adequate employment; bad health services; a forced private pension system with inadequate pay for the contributor and very high profits for administrators; scant support for state sponsored education; and very expensive fees for private education and health services.

Piñera’s government … caused deaths and severe injuries, including hundreds of people permanently blinded by rubber bullets.

Like the military justification for its 1973 coup d’état, Piñera’s government declared the country at war against a very dangerous enemy. Its brutal repression, reminiscent of the dictatorship’s street tactics, caused deaths and severe injuries, including hundreds of people permanently blinded by rubber bullets.

Protestors were detained, leading to sexual assault and torture. These prisoners remained locked up without trial. Most of the state violence occurred in the capital, but similar incidents took place in many other cities. These crimes continue today and the authorities still turn a blind eye.

The social revolt in Chile (Estallido social) burst on October 18, 2019. Since then older citizens and young people began gathering to discuss the current events: how could they organise to spell their demands, how to devise action plans, and how to carry them out?

One critical issue reappeared in most people’s minds: “A new constitution should be written – discarding the illegitimate 1980 constitution – and this should be done by organising citizens in a popular Constituent Assembly”.

One critical issue reappeared in most people’s minds: “A new constitution should be written

The population throughout the country formed such discussion groups, and these led to larger gatherings or asambleas and cabildos. This popular mobilization found ways to define what should become part of the new Chilean constitution.

Politicians of all ideological backgrounds were stunned by this popular initiative that displaced their perceived exclusive right to legislate. The 1980 constitution was a crucial legal document which had provided rightwing and past Concertación members for protection and personal benefits.

The political class quickly reassembled and tried to win back political authority, which for the moment was in the hands of many different groups of citizens. Government and parliamentarians tried to discredit and weaken the persistent popular demonstrations but were unsuccessful.

Then elected officials came up in November 2019 with an astute plan: to offer a national referendum prepared under their legal aegis in which two questions were put to the electorate:

  1. Do you want a new constitution? Approve or Reject.

2. What mechanism should be used to write it?

a. All convention members to be elected.

b. A “mixed” convention, with only half of members elected with the other half composed of parliamentarians in government.

These two questions really represented the “carrot”, because the political class could resort to other legislative tactics if the proposal fell out of their control.

Left wingers voted to change the constitution, the right opposed them.

Of these possible tactics to derail the changes in the constitution, three stand out:

1. Proposals for articles in the new constitution have to be approved by 2/3 of the votes. All articles not reaching this approval would remain void (a blank page) and would be revised under the new constitution once it was approved. Then the approval of the postponed proposal would be by simple majority.

2. If the result of the Convención’s “finalisation plebiscite” (plebiscito de salida) to approve the new constitution did not reach the 2/3 of votes, then the 1980 Constitution would remain valid. This shows that politicians never intended to allow a new constitution, only modifications of it.

3. Any legal issue arising during the Convención sessions would be a matter to be dealt with by the Corte Suprema de Justicia, Chile’s Supreme Court.

This detailed and complicated account demonstrates how the Chilean political class has cunningly devised a scheme which serves them and gives them an advantage, because, once again, it is the “official institution” in charge.

This institution of government, in which elected officials are divorced from public wishes, dictates the rules and has the final word in setting the boundaries of discussion.

There are many other issues where parliamentarians are against the will of the people. These may be rules on how to elect the members of the Convención to ensure adequate representation of minorities. Parliamentarians may also attempt to block proposals to call for an open convention, which digitally interacts with groups, assemblies, and cabildos, thus incorporating them into a richer discussion together with the “elected Convención” (4, read about constitutional change in Iceland).

The epidemic also lent justification to the government’s banning of public demonstrations and cover-up repressive crowd control.

The CoVid-19 pandemic reached Chile in early March 2020 and by the 31st of March there were 2,738 confirmed infected persons. The number of infected kept climbing rapidly and allowed the government to postpone the scheduled April referendum until October 25.

The epidemic also lent justification to the government’s banning of public demonstrations and cover-up repressive crowd control.

Nevertheless, the results of the “entrance plebiscite” of October 25, 2020, show that “citizen’s preferences” were highly favoured: 78.3% for: Apruebo / Yes and 79% for: Convención constitucional. These results go against the “official institutional” preferences, and now much attention has to be paid so that participants in the convention can properly do their work. Their tasks will include ensuring that “citizen’s preferences” reach the necessary 2/3 approval on every issue under discussion and successfully parry every tactical blow attempted by the highly trained partisans of the 1980 constitution. The 2/3 approval is a very difficult target to reach, and the seasoned politicians supporting the status quo know this well.

The challenge that faces Chile now

Chileans now have a crucial struggle and opportunity to recover an authentically democratic constitution and to achieve direct participation in creation of this essential socio-political document. Unfortunately, until now, the official institutional apparatus known as elected government has been able to to protect a clearly undemocratic document prepared and approved during a period of bloody dictatorship. Anything is possible, but ordinary citizens continue facing unfair political conditions as they try to defend their rights, and have no other option than to face these odds and keep on fighting.

It might be appropriate to finish this presentation by making use of a metaphor. Chileans are trying to awaken from a nightmare, which has been recurrent for decades and retains its vivid horrors.

Each time we wake we feel unsure because the terror of the nightmare lingers on, although we know that we are awake. We hope we are safe, and yet today’s reality and apparent tranquility do not convince us that past horrors have been forever banished.

Today we must face both reality and our subconscious, sharing our feelings and dreams with our compatriots, as well as with friends from abroad

Today we must face both reality and our subconscious, sharing our feelings and dreams with our compatriots, as well as with friends from abroad, so that united we may build a better world to live in and share with others.

Further reading material.
*1.- Eisenhower’s farewell address
*2.- Susan George: A Short History of Neoliberalism https://www.tni.org/en/article/short-history-neoliberalism
*3.- Ariel Dorfman: Notes from a revolt. https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2020/03/13/chile-notes-from-a-revolt/
*4.- Thorvaldur Gylfason: Democracy on ice: A post-mortem of the Icelandic constitution https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/can-europe-make-it/democracy-on-ice-post-mortem-of-icelandic-constitution/

Juan Carlos Chirgwin Boos

Juan Carlos Germán Chirgwin Boos was born in La Serena, Chile, in 1938. He graduated from the University of Santiago as an agricultural engineer and then did a postgraduate at Edinburgh University where he ended up specialising in breeding and genetics.

Juan Carlos and his family emigrated to Canada in September 1974 due to the unacceptable conditions imposed on the population by the military dictatorship. In June 1975 he joined a FAO development project in Tunisia, and lived there with his family up to 1978. During 1979 he and his family were sent to another development project in Ecuador, and from July 1980 they arrived in Port-au-Prince, Haiti where, under a new project, they remained up to July 1983.

After that assignment the family separated temporarily for the sake of the children’s schooling; Juan Carlos continued his professional life with FAO, while his wife and children returned to Canada, where eventually both boys graduated as medical doctors from McGill University.

The most rewarding aspect of his experience, as a professional has been participating in daily work to help local partners and young staff members develop their skills and know how.

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