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 in 1973 by violently overthrowing the socialist government of Salvador Allende Gossens, the coup itself was only the culmination of a widespread reaction to the political and economic upheavals caused by the Allende government. During the months before the coup, Chile’s annual inflation rate reached 600 percent; strikes paralyzed the copper mines, the transport system, and even food distribution. A midnight-to-dawn curfew was imposed as rival left- and right-wing extremist groups engaged in open fighting.

“You have to remember those days,” I was told by a middle-class construction foreman. “It’s not whether we were for Allende or against him, it’s just that nothing was working, everybody was on strike—you couldn’t even get to work. Somebody had to do something, and so when Pinochet did what he did, we thought things would get better.”

Politically, Allende’s Popular Unity (UP) coalition never held power by a comfortable margin. It won the election in 1970 with a thin plurality of 36.2 percent of the popular vote (as against 34.9 percent for the runner up, National party leader Jorge Alessandri).1 This narrow victory reflected the traditional division of the Chilean electorate into three roughly equal groups, defined largely along class lines. Both the Socialist and Communist parties have long had a strong following among the poorer classes. The center, dominated by the Christian Democratic and Radical parties, has been closely identified with small businessmen and middle-class entrepreneurs. And on the right, the National party and several smaller groups have represented the interests of Chile’s large landowners, military, and patrician elite who have always fiercely opposed the land reforms and other social measures advocated by the center and the left.

Allende’s coalition of left-wing parties could not put together a parliamentary majority. Instead his government depended on continued disagreement between the right-wing National party and the centrist Christian Democrats—hardly the position of strength that would have been necessary to push through his platform, which included nationalization of Chile’s principal industries, and sweeping social changes, including heavy spending for the poor.


At the same time, as former CIA director Stansfield Turner writes in his new book, the CIA’s interference in Chile “was one of the most massive campaigns in US intelligence annals.” To prevent Allende from taking office, in 1970, the CIA encouraged and then withdrew its support from a coup against him; and after Allende was installed as president in 1970 “the National Security Council authorized the CIA to expend some $7 million covertly to oppose Allende with propaganda, financial support for anti-Allende media in Chile, and funding for private organizations opposed to Allende.” The CIA “did not sponsor this coup but how much its encouragement of the 1970 coup and its continued liaison with the Chilean military encouraged the action is honestly difficult to assess.”2

What is clear is that as unrest mounted the coalition that emerged in support of a coup included not only the military and members of the National party, but also a strong majority of the Christian Democrats, led by former president Eduardo Frei, as well as other centrist groups. Most of them expected Pinochet to return the government to civilian rule after Allende was deposed. The Catholic clergy, according to subsequent opinion studies, privately favored the military’s intervention by as much as five-to-one, viewing it as the only means of avoiding all-out civil war.3 The coup was viewed favorably among much of Chile’s business and social elite, as well as the middle classes, which saw their economic position threatened by Allende’s chaotic rule.

The bloody repression that followed the coup quickly disenchanted many who had seen it as a chance for national salvation. Between 2,500 and 10,000 people were killed or “disappeared” while in official custody, and thousands more were imprisoned and tortured. Pinochet forced all political parties to go into “recess,” as he called it. It soon became clear that he wanted to dismantle the entire political system.

Police terror consolidated Pinochet’s rule. But by the mid- to late-1970s, the regime’s efforts to promote economic recovery had also begun to win it new elements of support in Chilean society. For all its ferocity, the regime’s repression was primarily concentrated on the left-wing parties and the poorer economic groups. Anyone suspected of leftist political activity was liable to arrest. The government’s economic policies, in the meantime, were working with considerable success to get the backing of Chile’s middle classes.

The economic program of the Pinochet government between 1975 and 1981 was a sharp break with the Chilean tradition of government interventionism. It followed the radical free-market policies imported by the “Chicago boys”—a group of Chilean economists trained at the University of Chicago under Milton Friedman and Arnold Harberger—in what often seemed a desperate effort to break the inflationary spiral that had been set in motion during the Allende regime. The regime’s two-part policy began with a large fiscal “shock” that included sharp spending cuts and tax increases. This was followed by an attempt to tie the Chilean economy to international markets by lowering tariffs and pegging the exchange rate of the Chilean peso to a selected group of foreign currencies. These measures were intended to help slow inflation, but they also had much more fundamental economic effects. Although the nominal exchange rate was held steady, continued domestic inflation caused the real value of the peso to appreciate against foreign currencies, setting off an unprecedented binge of buying and borrowing from abroad. After a recession in 1974 and 1975, the result was a vigorous economic upturn.

The “boom,” as it is now referred to throughout Chile, gave the Pinochet government a new aura of success and legitimacy. The gross domestic product grew at a record annual rate of 8.5 percent between 1977 and 1980. Even though the unemployment rate remained high—it never fell below 10 percent—the general sense of prosperity and optimism was widespread. Economists in the US and elsewhere began holding conferences to investigate the Chilean “miracle,” and the regime’s brutal record on human rights was temporarily overshadowed by its apparent economic wisdom.

Pinochet chose 1980, the high point of the boom, to attempt to give his government greater legitimacy. “At that point,” Edgardo Boeninger, an economist and former rector of the University of Chile, told me, “Pinochet’s position was so strong that any opposition just seemed like wishful thinking.” Pinochet presented Chilean voters with a draft resolution extending his rule and banning political activity until 1989, at which time the ruling military junta could select him for another nine-year term. Opposition leaders denounced the plebiscite as a “fraud,” but the vote was an important victory for Pinochet. Sixty-eight percent of the voters approved the new constitution, 30 percent voted against it, and 2 percent spoiled their ballots.


During this period Pinochet’s growing confidence also encouraged him to relax his tight controls on dissent. Arrests and imprisonment of political suspects declined, and Freedom House, the US human-rights monitoring organization, upgraded its classification of Chile from “not free” to “partly free.” But the same policies that fostered the boom were leading to economic disaster. “The free-market approach was pushed to the point of overkill,” Boeninger told me. After five years of record growth fed by borrowing from foreign banks and buying with an overvalued peso, the Chilean economy collapsed, declining by more than 14.6 percent in 1982 alone.4 The poorly regulated Chilean banking system, weakened by bad loans and heavy losses on speculative investments, could no longer finance Chilean businesses. The government was eventually forced to assume an estimated 85 percent of domestic banking debts. Interest rates went up to 52 percent in 1982, and bankruptcies reached an all-time high. Facing an unprecedented monetary crisis, the regime devalued the peso by almost 100 percent against the US dollar, stabilizing the immediate situation, but leaving thousands of Chileans unable to meet payments on debts owed in dollars.

The recession—which many observers have compared in its effect to the Great Depression in the United States—is unlikely to end soon. Inflation remains at 26 percent, and real wages have fallen sharply. Following new devaluations, in May the peso traded at 160 to the dollar, compared to a rate of thirty-nine to one in 1983—a crushing burden for a nation whose foreign debt now stands at more than $18 billion. Chile must now spend an estimated 57 percent of its export earnings to pay the interest and principal on its foreign debt, a figure that is expected to reach 85 percent by the end of 1985, in view of the low world prices for copper, Chile’s primary export.


In Chile today, the consequences of the economic crisis are everywhere evident. Throughout Santiago the sidewalks are lined with people selling a dismal assortment of used trinkets, baked goods, fruit—and often castoff items from local manufacturers such as plumbing fittings or wiring boxes. All those I talked to said the same thing: they used to have jobs and now this was all they could do.

Unemployment in Chile is officially estimated at between 20 and 30 percent. But this figure leaves out the additional 350,000 people—a full 10 percent of Chile’s work force—who are employed in government make-work programs paying about $30 a month for full-time work. Throughout Santiago, the visitor is struck by the obsessive tidiness of the city’s parks and public spaces. They are all cared for by legions of public laborers.

In the poblaciones—where unemployment is an estimated 50 percent—one can sense the full effect of the nation’s economic situation on its lower classes. In the slums, which border Santiago on three sides (the foothills of the Andes make up the fourth), approximately one-quarter of the city’s 3.5 million inhabitants live in row after row of small ramshackle shelters. Unlike many Latin American slums, even the worst of Santiago’s poblaciones have an atmosphere of order and cleanliness—yards and alleys are cleanly swept, and private property is well cared for. But on every street one finds groups of idle men. Rumors of work, for example the presence of a construction boss in a slum neighborhood, will at a moment’s notice draw dozens of men looking for jobs.

Understandably, therefore, the first major outbreak of resistance to the regime since the mid-1970s was not a political rally, or even a protest against the regime’s brutality, but huge demonstrations, on May 11, 1983, to protest the government’s economic policies. The demonstrations were called by the labor unions, whose leaders still had popular followings and extensive ties with one another, as well as a canny sense of when popular anger might erupt. Varying widely in size and political tendency, the unions could not unite behind a clear political challenge to Pinochet, but they were able to organize impressive protests against economic conditions. That they have no centralized structure made it difficult for the government to suppress or control their activities. Plans for a general strike were scaled back when the regime moved tanks and military units outside one union headquarters. The organizers resorted instead to a traditional Chilean form of protest, urging demonstrators to bang pots and pans and honk car horns. Union officials estimate that as many as 70 percent of the population took part in the demonstrations. Parents kept their children home from school, and crowds fought police in Santiago and other large cities.

“The response was greater than we had ever expected,” I was told by one union official. “It showed how much frustration had been building up, and how much the economic situation had brought the opposition together.” The growing opposition was not limited to the poor, but included for the first time several important groups that had previously supported the regime, including many farmers and middle-level businessmen, as well as the truckers’ union and other conservative groups.

After the unions organized a second successful protest in June 1983, Pinochet declared he would send the protest leaders back “to their caves.” The leader of the copper workers, Rodolfo Seguel, and other labor officials were arrested. When union members tried to strike in protest, they were summarily fired, and two of the nation’s largest copper mines were placed under military control.

But the demonstrations gave new life and bargaining power to the nation’s existing political parties. Banned from normal political activity since the coup, the parties still existed, but largely as impotent symbols of a power that might one day be renewed. As opposition to the government began to grow, the party leaders began to hold meetings, papering over their traditional disagreements in an effort to step up the pressure on Pinochet. During the first half of 1983 two important new multi-party groups were formed. “There was a real sense of optimism,” one political leader told me. “It seemed like only a matter of time before the regime would have to give in, and everyone was maneuvering for position.”

The largest new coalition, the Democratic Alliance, attempted to build a centrist consensus by linking the Christian Democrats, the right wing of the Socialist party, and the center-right Social Democratic and Radical parties. The second group, the Popular Democratic Movement, combined the Communist party with left-wing factions of the Socialist party and other, more radical, leftist groups.

In early August 1983 Pinochet, just before the bloodiest protest of the year, reached outside his circle of technocrats and military men to appoint a conservative politician, Sergio Onofre Jarpa, as minister of the interior. Jarpa, a founder of the National party in 1966, said he would speed up the timetable for new elections. He began to hold meetings with Democratic Alliance leaders, claiming he wanted to create what he called an apertura, or “opening,” to democracy. He excluded both the left-wing Socialists and Communists from the meetings.

The meetings led nowhere, partly it seems because the civilian politicians couldn’t agree among themselves. “Everyone started looking out for himself,” a Western diplomat told me. “They weren’t thinking about democracy as a way of life, but as a way to get into power. They began to get too hungry, elbowing each other out of the way and competing to make demands that the regime could never have accepted. For the military it just confirmed everything Pinochet had been saying about civilian politicians. It’s what the military fears most—the politicians have just got to learn that the military is not going to accept a return to 1970.”

For their part, the leaders of the Democratic Alliance accuse the regime of bad faith. Jarpa, several of them told me, was used by Pinochet as a willing tool to divide and humiliate the regime’s opposition. “Jarpa’s prestige is zero,” one Christian Democrat told me. But wherever the blame lies, Pinochet was the winner. He seriously undercut the unity and bargaining power that a broad opposition group might have had. By exposing the willingness of center and right-wing leaders to negotiate a separate deal at the expense of the left, the episode heightened the mutual suspicion among the opposition, and reduced the willingness of each group—particularly the important Christian Democrats—to risk new attempts to resolve their differences.

Since the Jarpa episode, attempts to reach a political compromise between the regime and its opponents have been abandoned. In late 1984, the opposition leaders on the left returned to a strategy of directly confronting the regime through the street demonstrations and strikes. The government, in response, intensified its efforts to crush all dissent, culminating in Pinochet’s November 6 declaration of a state of siege and the regime’s overwhelming display of military force during the protests that took place on November 27 and 28.


Under the state of siege, the government has tried to silence its opponents once and for all. Declaring the political parties incapable of protecting Chile against leftist subversion, Pinochet said in a television address on November 6 that “today more than ever it is necessary to be inflexible.” The regime imposed a strict curfew, imposed harsh new censorship restrictions, and sharply restricted the right of assembly. Police raided the homes and offices of dozens of opposition politicians, arresting at least twenty-six people, and confiscating political documents and office equipment. Leaders of the leftist MDP coalition went underground to avoid arrest.

In the slums, the crackdown has been even more severe. In October and November, police units rounded up thousands of adult men in several poblaciones. They were then taken to Santiago’s soccer stadium, where hundreds were arrested and sent to detention camps in Pisagua and other remote towns. Those not arrested were left to walk back to their homes, often many miles away. In some of the neighborhoods, police and army units ordered residents out of their houses and, accompanied by local informers, conducted house-by-house searches, marking dwellings they visited with brightly colored triangular decals. These searches go on all the time. “We don’t know who the informers are until the army comes,” I was told by one woman whose husband had been arrested and house ransacked. “Then we see them with the investigaciones [Chile’s national police], carrying a list of names and pointing people out. We can’t even trust our neighbors now.”

For many Chileans, one of the most disturbing aspects of the regime’s repression is its unpredictability. Near down-town Santiago, I saw a squad of carabineros wrestling three students into a bus-like prison van. Stopping to look from a distance, I was suddenly thrown against a wall by a second group of police who questioned me at gunpoint and then forced me into the van with rifle butts. In the van were five or six other manacled prisoners including a middle-aged man who had obviously been beaten and a teen-age girl who was not injured but who was incoherent from fear. I was forced to squat at the back of the van with my hands behind my head, as a guard rested his machine-gun barrel on the bridge of my nose. After more than an hour I was allowed to produce my passport, and, after what seemed to be an argument among my guards, was thrown off the van as it was leaving with the other prisoners.

Similar unprovoked arrests, with more serious consequences, are commonplace, especially in the poblaciones, as I found when I visited La Victoria, the scene of several recent mass roundups. A middle-aged laborer told me that he and four of his family were sitting at home one afternoon in early September—they live in a small corrugated metal shelter—when two teen-age demonstrators fleeing the police jumped an adobe wall into their tiny yard. The family, which had never met the demonstrators, remained hidden inside the house, but the man and his son were nevertheless arrested by the police as accomplices, and were sent without trial to a prison south of Santiago. They were held there two months and were released only after several appeals by the Catholic Church’s Vicariate of Solidarity. Their story was typical of many I heard.

According to statistics provided to me by officials of the Chilean Human Rights Commission, a private organization run by a group of lawyers and other Chilean professionals, the total number of people arrested on political charges rose from a low of 909 in 1981 to 15,077 in 1983. The total for 1984, which includes the first two months of the state of siege, rose to 39,429. At least 1,021 people were arrested in the first two months of 1985, according to the commission.

Reports of police violence and torture have also increased dramatically. According to commission officials, at least 217 Chileans died as a result of police or government actions between March 1981 and September 1984, and another 583 suffered serious or permanent injury. These figures do not include the period since the state of siege began. In late December, eleven local officials affiliated with the commission in the northern cities of Arica and Iquique were arrested and sent to internal exile in remote parts of the country.

Of those Chileans arrested by the regime, commission officials estimate that between 10 and 20 percent are subjected to torture in the form of beatings, electric shocks, or mock executions. The Central Nacional de Informaciones, Chile’s secret police, “have begun using torture almost indiscriminately,” a lawyer told me. “It is used not only as a way of getting information, but more generally, as a way of humiliating prisoners and making them feel helpless.” According to case histories of CNI detainees compiled by Amnesty International, Americas Watch, and other groups, male prisoners are almost routinely beaten, and female prisoners are often sexually humiliated or raped.

Pinochet denies that torture takes place and claims the arrests are justified by the threat of an international communist effort to subvert Chilean society. A violent leftist fringe exists, and its activities are featured prominently on television and in newspapers controlled by the regime. The two most prominent extremist groups are the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR) and the Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front. The MIR, which was formed in the mid-1960s, is now led by Allende’s exiled nephew, Andrés Pascal Allende. The Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front is, in effect, the armed wing of the Communist party. In two leftist attacks in late 1984, which Pinochet used to justify the state of siege, two policemen were killed when guerrillas threw hand grenades at a Santiago precinct station. Six others died when a police bus was bombed in the port city of Valparaíso. A car bomb destroyed a Citibank office in downtown Santiago in late March, and an explosion at a central electricity plant blacked out 80 percent of the country for thirty minutes on May 26. Smaller bombs—generally single sticks of dynamite attached to mailboxes or lampposts—can frequently be heard after curfew in large Chilean cities.

Leftist extremism can thus be dangerous, but the threat posed by such armed violence is plainly exaggerated. According to Western diplomats in Santiago, the MIR and Manuel Rodríguez Front together have no more than two hundred members who participate full-time in violence against the regime. The revolutionary left was decimated in the terror after the coup and is only beginning to regain its strength. Most Chileans, including the conservative politicians I talked to, doubt that it will be a serious national movement for a long time. “If you look at the real threat, it is still quite small,” an opposition leader told me. “Maybe in ten or twenty years, but not now. At this point Pinochet and the far left need each other—they give each other a reason for being.”

In late March, the suppression of the left took a more savage turn with the appearance of right-wing “death squad” killings similar to those that have characterized civil violence in El Salvador and other Latin American nations. Three Communist party members, including a union leader, were abducted by armed men in two separate raids in Santiago on March 29. Their bodies were found the following day, their throats slit, in a field near Santiago’s airport. The killings set off demonstrations on several college campuses throughout Chile on April 11. Police and army units were called out, and the protests were quickly ended. Pinochet denounced the deaths as a “crime that I repudiate,” but the government has made no arrests.

As violence and official terror have increased during the last two years, Chile’s Catholic Church has become the center of moral opposition to the regime. Relations between the Church and the junta turned sour soon after the coup, and as traditional means of political involvement have been cut off, the Church has become increasingly important as the one institution strong enough to openly oppose the regime’s abuses. “It would have been impossible for the Church to stay neutral,” one opposition leader told me. “The scale of the suffering is just too great—circumstances have obligated it to become involved.”

After the coup, the aging Cardinal Raúl Silva Henríquez encouraged the Church to become particularly active in human rights cases. The Church has replaced the country’s ineffectual legal system as the chief means of appeal for victims of government repression. Early each morning at the Church’s Vicariate of Solidarity a long line forms of Chileans hoping to enlist Church help in finding imprisoned relatives and intervening with the government to gain their release. “It is the only alternative most families have,” one Chilean lawyer said. “The poor know they can’t depend on the judicial system—in eleven years there have been about five thousand petitions for habeas corpus, and only one of them was approved. The Church’s humanitarian appeals have been more successful, because the regime can often respond to them without looking weak or seeming to back down.”

The growth of Church activism was briefly thrown in doubt in 1983, when Cardinal Silva stepped aside in favor of Archbishop Juan Francisco Fresno, a conservative who had been a strong supporter of the coup. He was made a cardinal in May 1985. Pinochet’s wife said his selection was “the answer to our prayers,” but such official hopes were soon disappointed. The friction between the regime and the Church grew still worse as government repression became more brutal. In August, Pinochet denounced the Church for interfering with his attempts to “save Chile,” and condemned the Vicariate of Solidarity as being “more communist than the Communists.”

In late autumn, the regime refused to allow the Spanish-born head of the Church’s Vicariate of Solidarity, Reverend Ignacio Gutiérrez, to return to Santiago after a trip to Rome. Archbishop Fresno immediately protested Gutiérrez’s expulsion, and denounced the state of siege in a letter read at Catholic masses throughout Chile, calling it “a grave reversal for understanding and peace,” and warning that “the end does not justify the means.”


By invoking all of the military strength he commands, and demonstrating the high price that he can place on dissent, Pinochet has managed to coerce the Chilean people into submission. The left, which has predictably suffered most in the regime’s crackdown, has virtually ceased to function as an organized political force. The centrist groups are little more effective. Ricardo Lagos, who heads the Democratic Alliance, and Gabriel Valdés of the Christian Democrats remain “spokesmen” for opposition views, but their influence is greater in the international press than in the streets of Santiago. After several attempts to resign in protest over the state of siege, Jarpa himself finally left office in mid-February. He is the head of a new conservative group, the Movement of National Union, that he helped found last year in anticipation of a movement toward new elections. But he also carries from office the bitter legacy of his apertura, which is likely to keep the divisions within the opposition alive for some time to come.

Pinochet has thus divided—and for now even conquered—his most immediate enemies. But the conditions that brought about the protests have not changed. With a staggering debt burden, and the prospect of low or negative growth for the next several years, the regime has found no new formula for economic recovery. After a brief retreat to economic paternalism under Finance Minister Luis Escobar, Pinochet has evidently decided to return to his earlier free-market approach. He fired Escobar and named Hernan Buchi—one of the original “Chicago boys”—to replace him. “The government has run out of resources to deal with the economic situation and the people know it,” I was told by Manuel Bustos, president of the Coordinadora Nacional Syndical, a labor coalition that includes many powerful mining unions. “In that respect, the situation is beyond Pinochet’s control—the economic crisis has become a political crisis.”

In using its military strength to put down the resulting discontent, the regime is mortgaging its own future. By suppressing its democratic opponents, it fosters the growth of more extreme contenders for power, further polarizing Chilean society. “We are passing a point of no return,” observed one human rights official. “This is the kind of path that leads to civil war.”

Although Pinochet is legally obliged to step down in 1989 under the new constitution, few of the Chileans I spoke with expect him to do so. “There will always be a new threat, a new reason for him to stay,” I was told by one National party member. “He genuinely sees himself as the savior of Chile—he will not entrust that role to anyone else.” His own safety should he leave office is also in question. “He is all too aware of what happened to Somoza, and what has happened to the military in Argentina,” I was told by a large landowner who has known Pinochet for many years. “He has considered different countries where he could go, but the list is short: Paraguay, South Africa, perhaps Taiwan. I doubt very much that he would leave without a fight.”

The prospect of such a fight is sobering not only to the regime’s opponents but perhaps most of all to those who would be expected to fight alongside Pinochet—the Chilean armed forces. Brutally efficient when circumstances require, the Chilean military is nevertheless a highly professional body, whose discipline is acknowledged even by its most bitter opponents. “Our quarrel is with Pinochet,” the Christian Democratic leader, Gabriel Valdés, told me, “not with the military as an institution.” Before the 1973 coup, the Chilean military had remained aloof from politics for nearly fifty years, acting instead as a respected symbol of the country’s strong constitutionalist tradition. “The military here is not like that in Central America, where the army is the watchdog of an elite,” a diplomat said. “It is not corrupt or politicized as it is in Argentina. It is a cohesive institution much like the Church—and it has great institutional pride.”

For such an institution, the prospect of following Pinochet into a long and increasingly bloody confrontation with its own civilian population is clearly an unattractive one—and many Chileans I spoke with think it could be divisive. “The officers know,” a prominent scholar told me, “that Pinochet is headed for the precipice, and that he is likely to take them with him. The real struggle to watch will not be between the military and civilians, but internally, within the military.”

The armed forces have done well during Pinochet’s eleven years of rule. Although they are paid average wages, subsidies and other privileges make military life quite comfortable compared to jobs in business. Pinochet himself spends a great deal of time visiting military installations and keeping up ties to his troops, pointedly reminding them of what has happened in countries such as Argentina where the military lost the upper hand to civilian politicians.

But differences of policy within the military have persisted, especially among the three branches of the armed forces. The navy and air force are thought to have argued strongly on behalf of Jarpa’s apertura as a way of broadening the regime’s political base. I was told that some high officers wanted to speed up the timetable for legalizing political parties. The first strong sign of such a demand came in July 1978, when Air Force Commander in Chief Gustavo Leigh, a founding member of Pinochet’s junta, was forced to resign after openly calling for a return to democracy. Leigh, who ordered his pilots to bomb the presidential palace during Allende’s suicidal last stand in 1973, has since become a consistent critic of what he has termed Pinochet’s “Hitlerite” policies.

Another glimpse of dissent was offered in July 1983, when the new air force commander in chief, General Fernando Matthei, publicly questioned the regime’s tactics after a bloody street demonstration in which twenty people died. Matthei, a member of the junta, claimed that the air force had no part in the killings, and said bluntly that “it is time for Chile to open a political debate.” The army is more directly dominated by Pinochet, but some of the Western diplomats I talked to believe that it, too, may be a breeding ground for revolt. “At the general officer level, anything can happen,” one noted. “It is a small group of men who all feel vulnerable at this point.”

A military coup, if it were to occur, is hardly likely to end Chile’s agony. The economic causes underlying the current unrest make it nearly impossible for any government, democratic or otherwise, to return the nation to prosperity in the near future. But if Pinochet were removed the military might well support a new accommodation with the political opposition, presumably a modified version of the Jarpa formula providing for new elections with some limitations on participation by the left. Such an outcome, while far from being a restoration of democracy, is likely to be the only one capable of halting the tragic polarization of Chilean society, and the continued growth of violence both by the regime and against it.


For Washington, whose part in the 1970 elections and 1973 coup is much talked about in Chile, direct involvement in promoting a second coup does not seem likely. After the strained US–Chilean relations of the Carter administration, the Reagan administration made a point of reestablishing close ties with Pinochet. Although the White House has expressed “disappointment” over the growth of Chilean unrest, the President has shown no interest in applying pressure to mitigate the harshness of Pinochet’s regime. The closed nature of Chilean military politics, moreover, would make manipulation from the outside difficult in any case. Even if the United States were to try to engineer or to assist a coup against Pinochet, such effort would likely provoke a strongly nationalist, anti-American backlash in the country, even among those Chileans who oppose the regime.

The possibility of a coup, however, presents the US with a strong chance to gain diplomatic leverage over the direction of Chilean events. Long an expert in dealing with challenges from the left, Pinochet has never before confronted the prospect of serious defections from his own base of power, his frente interno. The current situation thus offers Washington an opportunity to sharpen the choices Pinochet now faces, forcing him to choose between reform and a potential coup, and pushing him, at a minimum, toward a more humane approach. This opportunity is made all the more acute by Chile’s economic crisis. More than at any other time in his regime’s history, Pinochet needs external credits to survive—to stave off renewed popular unrest, and to keep his military apparatus intact. More than $600 million in such credits—all subject to US veto power—are now pending from the World Bank and other international institutions. With elementary human rights and political freedom at stake, that vulnerability should be a clear invitation to US pressure.

There is, however, no indication that the Reagan administration is prepared even to consider limited economic pressure on what it perceives to be a friendly regime. While the administration abstained on two recent multilateral loans to Chile in order to express its displeasure over Pinochet’s imposing a state of siege, those abstentions did not prevent the loans from being approved. And they were overshadowed by more direct expressions of approval delivered by administration officials on visits to the country. Returning from Santiago in February—only days after Pinochet renewed the state of siege for another ninety-day period—Langhorne Motley, then assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs, pointedly avoided even the mildest criticism of the Chilean regime, emphasizing the US interest in “regional stability,” and expressing his view that the country’s future “is in Chilean hands—in good hands.”

But the true threat to “regional stability” lies not in the prospect of Chile without Pinochet but of a Chile that is torn apart by civil conflict and official terror. By refusing to acknowledge the breadth of the opposition that Pinochet now faces, and by failing to act decisively to force a reconciliation between the Chilean government and its people, Washington is inviting the very instability it most fears.

This Issue

June 27, 1985