Anyone who doubts the power of simple military intimidation might learn much from recent events in Chile. On November 28, 1984, the day of the largest protest yet called by opponents to General Augusto Pinochet’s military regime, a group of opposition leaders began to sing the Chilean national anthem in Santiago’s main square. Columns of carabineros, the nation’s civilian police, immaculately dressed in jackboots, olive dress uniforms, and peaked military caps, ran into the square with their night sticks raised. Two riot trucks with spouting water cannons charged through the crowd, sweeping pedestrians from their feet, and washing away shoeshine and souvenir stands as the owners scrambled to safety. A police helicopter swooped overhead, and bus loads of helmeted riot troops pulled into position around the square.
After dodging the water cannons, the crowd lost its cohesion and resolve, and began to scatter through gaps in the police lines, leaving only isolated demonstrators to be pushed off into side streets or hauled to waiting prison vans. Just outside Santiago in the poblaciones, or slum neighborhoods, where resistance to the regime is strongest, the scene was more violent. Government forces surrounded some of the neighborhoods and fired shotguns and tear gas indiscriminately into the streets and houses. Un-armed demonstrators built burning barricades, and late into the night, they threw stones and bottles at the soldiers and police. Yet the scale of the government reaction—which included calling out the army and the country’s military reserves—overwhelmed the regime’s opponents. Bus loads of riot police were deployed in precise military fashion at nearly every intersection in downtown Santiago for two days. Army troops patrolled approaches to the slums, and soldiers in combat gear stood guard at each subway and major highway interchange.
Opposition to Pinochet’s eleven-year-old regime, however, may now be too deeply rooted for such displays of force to stop it from growing. Visiting Chile during the recent protests, I met with US and other diplomatic officials, human rights leaders, as well as highly placed Chilean businessmen and political leaders. In interviews with them and many middle- and working-class Chileans in Santiago and the surrounding slums, I found widespread disaffection and dissent, not only among those who have historically opposed the Pinochet regime, but also among many who were once its strongest supporters.
But the opposition to the government is caused as much by economic privation as it is by government oppression. It lacks both political coherence and effective leaders. It seemed, at least to most of the Chileans I talked to, capable neither of ending Pinochet’s rule nor even of putting forth a clear alternative to it. As violent and uncoordinated resistance to the regime continues to grow, it seems likely that the best hope for an escape from Pinochet’s tyranny is the group that now serves as its principal instrument—the Chilean military itself.
Pinochet’s regime has not always been so isolated or unpopular. Although the military came to power …