“This is different from Argentina,” a Chilean human rights lawyer told us in Santiago in the week before the Pope’s dramatic visit in early April. In Argentina, he said, thousands were kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by the military dictatorship during the late 1970s. The “disappeared,” and members of their families who were denied information on their whereabouts and their fate, suffered acutely. But only a small minority of Argentines had direct experience of the repression, and many were largely oblivious of the cruel practices of the dictatorship.

In Chile the number of people murdered by the Pinochet regime between 1973 and 1977—in the military regime’s first and most unrestrained stage—was comparable to the number killed in Argentina later in the decade. What is different about Chile, the lawyer said, is the scale: in a country of about twelve million people, hundreds of thousands have been arrested in political cases, and many of them have been severely tortured during detention; scores of thousands have had their homes invaded by troops conducting house-to-house searches, and many have had their possessions destroyed in the process. Tens of thousands have spent years in exile for political reasons—that is, they didn’t just flee but they were banished from their country, or prohibited from reentering it. Untold numbers, moreover, have been shoved, kicked, bludgeoned, tear-gassed, or drenched by water cannons during street demonstrations or during aggressive patrols in city neighborhoods that are considered hostile to the regime of General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte.

In the proportion of its population that has been directly victimized, Chile resembles the ravaged nations of Central America more than it resembles Argentina. But, of course, Chile is also quite different from those countries. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua have been fighting wars during the past decade. But in the thirteen and a half years since the military coup led by General Pinochet, opposition to his rule has been largely nonviolent. It is true that a small armed group seeking the violent overthrow of the Pinochet regime emerged some three years ago; Pinochet has tried to suggest that many of his political opponents are linked to this violent movement. But the only real war in Chile has been between the armed forces and peaceful and unarmed citizens.

Of all the methods of repression practiced in Chile, perhaps none so clearly reveals the characteristics of a government at war with its own citizens as the allanamiento. An allanamiento is a raid on a poor or working-class neighborhood (a población) of Santiago or another city. Troops go from house to house (or from shack to shack in the poorer poblaciones) and pull out all the male occupants between the ages of about sixteen and sixty. Usually starting before dawn the raids are announced by the sound of low-flying helicopters overhead. Troops who take part include units from several different branches of the armed and police forces—apparently in an effort to ensure that each component of the military regime that rules the country gets its hands thoroughly dirty. Typically the men taken out of their houses are sent by bus or truck to a military base or a sports stadium, where their identities are checked against computerized lists. Most of them are released after several hours and obliged to walk home—often a distance of many miles. Some are detained, generally for periods of about five days. Even in such short-term detention, torture—by such means as electric shock to sensitive parts of the body—is commonplace.

Except in countries actually at war, where large groups are relocated in order to create free-fire zones, or to deny guerrilla forces a civilian base of support, we have not encountered anything resembling the allanamiento in any other country. What comes closest are such practices as the “removals” employed by South Africa to enforce apartheid. Of course, South Africa’s is also a government at war with its own people, or at least with most of those who are black. It has no hope of winning the support of its black population. Accordingly, its only way of dealing with them is by demonstrating superior force, conquering them, and attempting to subdue them. It is the same in Chile so far as the poor and working-class residents of the poblaciones are concerned. Many of these neighborhoods were squatters’ camps some thirty years ago and have since had a history of prosocialist sentiment. Today the residents are active in street protests, and the local priests tend to echo the antimilitary feeling in their parishes.

In neighborhoods that are less involved politically, the economic policies of the regime have been more than enough to create opposition to Pinochet. The regime has presided over a large concentration of wealth, while restricting union activity and holding down the minimum wage. Per capita consumption in Chile today is lower than it was in 1973, in spite of the famous “boom” of the late Seventies, and there is a desperate housing shortage: in the poblaciones two or three families often live in one small house. Unemployment, though officially around 12 percent, is five times higher in some poor neighborhoods. And for those with jobs, the minimum wage covers less than half of the essential food costs for a family of four, quite apart from rent, clothing, and other basic needs. Thousands of pobladores have to rely on soup kitchens that are organized with church assistance. State programs that once benefited the poorest citizens have been eliminated; health care has been made private; supplemental programs to feed children have been drastically cut; and so on. The visitor soon senses the outrage in the poblaciones. Pinochet knows they are his enemies, and he deals with them accordingly.


Through 1980, Pinochet could count on the support of a significant part of the middle and upper classes, particularly business people. The late 1970s were economic boom years in Chile, and, though social services were being slashed, those who did not depend on government programs were thriving. That changed, however, with an economic collapse in 1981. Large and small companies went bankrupt, the middle class found itself sliding into poverty, and during the last several years, discontent has been far more widespread. Except for the armed forces and their families, who make up what amounts to a separate class or even a separate caste in Chile, and some others who are closely tied to the government (particularly the owners of businesses in which the government has a share), virtually the entire population of Chile is eager that Pinochet should go.

During the past few years, opposition to Pinochet has been led not only by such more or less predictable sectors of the middle class as the clergy, teachers, and university students, but by people who might seem unlikely participants in a struggle against a dictatorship, such as the doctors organized in the Chilean Medical Association (Colegio Médico). As a consequence, many doctors have been detained in Chile’s prisons, including the president and secretary of the Medical Association, last year, and, currently, the director of the medical program of the Catholic Church’s human rights organization, the Vicariate of Solidarity, along with a private physician who treated patients referred to him by the Vicariate.

In Argentina, the victims of repression took heavy risks during the late 1970s to publicize the cruelties of the regime. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo—the women who marched in a circle every Thursday afternoon in the main square of Buenos Aires in front of the Casa Rosada wearing kerchiefs stitched with the names of their “disappeared” children—emerged as a symbol of resistance to the military dictatorship. In recent years no Chilean group has been comparable to the Argentine mothers, since informing other Chileans about their government’s cruelty has hardly been necessary. So many Chileans have been hurt in their government’s war against its population that the character of the government is no secret, even though censorship and control of information may limit how much they know or when they know it. Yet in Chile, where so many more have been directly hurt, where so much is known by the population about the nature of the government, and where the democratic tradition is much longer and stronger, the military dictatorship has already lasted twice as long as the dictatorship in Argentina.

In mid-1986, there seemed a good prospect that the Pinochet dictatorship would fall. What made a change seem likely was the combination of pressure from the United States for the return of democratic government and the formation of a broad-based coalition in Chile, the National Civilian Assembly, which brought together a remarkably varied group of professional, labor, student, and civic associations to demand that Pinochet go. Today the prospects seem bleak. Pinochet, at seventy-one in apparently good health, proposes to rule until 1997. Since last July, when it staged a successful two-day general strike, the National Civilian Assembly has been weakened by a sequence of events that threw the opposition into confusion. The United States took its strongest position against Pinochet last July when Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams told a congressional committee that the US would oppose loans to Chile unless there was an improvement in human rights. But the US abstained a few months later when the multilateral development banks voted on loans to Chile and allowed the loans to be made even though the human rights situation had in fact become worse.

What dimmed the hopes of last July? First, secret arsenals of arms were discovered in the north of Chile in August. Then an attempt to assassinate Pinochet took place in September. The Chilean and United States governments seized on both events to shore up Pinochet’s power. The arms arsenals and the assassination attempt were both attributed to a violent leftist group that emerged in 1984, the Manuel Rodrìguez Patriotic Front. Its ability to bring substantial quantities of arms into Chile, and its near success in the assassination attempt, made it appear a more significant force than had been previously suspected—or than it probably was. Even now the Patriotic Front does not seem to have been really formidable, and no knowledgeable independent observers have claimed that it had a broad following. Chilean officials have said that they severely damaged the front by arresting a few dozen people between August and October.


By its actions accompanying those arrests, however, the Pinochet regime demonstrated that it remains firmly in control. The torture of the accused Patriotic Front members was prolonged and extraordinarily severe, even for Chile. After the assassination attempt in September, a new “state of siege” was proclaimed, and during the next four months most opposition periodicals were forbidden to publish. Several opposition activists were murdered by death squads. The Catholic human rights organization came under heavier criticism and harassment from the government. After months of speculation that key members of the armed forces might be willing to break with Pinochet and his plan to rule until 1997, the military rallied solidly behind him.

As for the United States, it made fewer public declarations in favor of democracy and increased its efforts to improve its relations with the armed forces. In doing so, the Reagan administration was apparently trying to open up discussions that might lead to the replacement of Pinochet by a military or civilian leader chosen by or acceptable to the armed forces. A leader acceptable to the military would have to exclude Chile’s major leftist political parties—the Communists and probably also the largest faction of the Socialists—from taking part in elections as parties and therefore from forming part of any elected transition government. Such a leader would also be endorsed by the United States. For while the US is on record as favoring a return to elected civilian government, the Reagan administration would want to be sure that it is the right kind of government. The United States is not about to take a chance that another Allende will emerge, or that a coalition should be allowed to govern that might include the Socialist and Communist political forces that supported his government (including the principal unions, which have been largely suppressed but still can mobilize demonstrations and could be effective in an election).

If the Reagan administration should succeed in its effort to replace Pinochet, then no matter how much his successor is tied to the armed forces, the US will hail the change as the return of democracy. Some Chilean centrist political leaders see such a transition as the best they can hope for. They argue privately that the only way the armed forces will allow civilians to reestablish democratic government is, first, to install a civilian government through a process from which the left is legally excluded, as it is under the military’s 1980 constitution. Publicly, however, they are committed to the immediate restoration of a democracy in which Chileans from every political faction are allowed to choose their own government without dictation by the armed forces. None of the leaders of the main Chilean opposition groups is willing to call publicly for political exclusion of any party. On the other hand, were the military to agree to a transition based on exclusion, some centrists would be inclined to strike a deal. In private conversations some leaders of the centrist Christian Democratic party, Chile’s largest, outline a possible “transition” in which the military would agree to a democratic vote for representatives, excluding Communists, to a constitutional assembly; this would in turn revise the constitution to legalize the Communist party, which would then compete in national elections.

Until the military leaders show some visible interest in such ideas, they remain no more than speculative hopes. Meanwhile the shifting relations between the Christian Democrats and the Communists, who have taken over from the divided Socialists as the largest party of the left, have largely determined the strength of the opposition. Right-wing parties, though by no means irrelevant, have become secondary. The Christian Democrats and the Communists lead their respective coalitions, and when they can agree on tactical issues, the result can be seen in large public actions, like the days of protest called each month in 1983 and the national strikes of October 1984 and July 1986. When their fundamental differences prevent agreement, as has been the case since the events of last August and September, the opposition tends to become paralyzed.

Pinochet, who has no intention of allowing the US to engineer his replacement, has been adroit in putting the opposition on the defensive. He does so by defining the political debate as one between military order on the one hand and leftist terrorism on the other. He concentrates repressive measures on the Marxist left and the Patriotic Front, while promising some political participation to centrist and rightist parties after 1989, in order to effectively exploit the divisions between the two main parties. Chile’s opposition has rarely held the initiative; more often, it is responding to the manipulations of Pinochet. The fundamental reality is that he can keep his domestic opponents from effectively organizing against him by maintaining a state of terror. Without a cohesive internal opposition, and with the United States unwilling to exert strong pressure for fear that the succession could not be controlled sufficiently by the military, Pinochet banks on his ability to control the armed forces and keep them loyal to him. So far, his calculations have turned out to be correct.

Chile’s military regime cannot be violently overthrown except by a revolt within its own armed forces, which no one expects. The armed forces of Chile are known for their Prussian respect for hierarchy and their pride in professionalism. Pinochet has retired any potential dissidents above the rank of colonel, making the current leaders directly beholden to him, and has significantly improved the standard of living of the military as a group. The army is well paid and military families live in a relatively privileged world of their own with their own schools and hospitals. Moreover, Chile has no guerrilla tradition. Chilean geography—a narrow strip of land between the Andes and the sea—ensures that a rural guerrilla force could not elude direct combat with the Chilean army, a large, powerful, and disciplined fighting force that would easily destroy a guerrilla movement; and urban guerrillas, as the recent history of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay makes clear, can be readily crushed.

Indeed, despite its attempt to assassinate Pinochet, the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front has not claimed that it could overthrow his regime. It argues that its armed actions—most often, sabotage—are intended to support the broad movement to get rid of Pinochet. The Patriotic Front’s real political effect, however, is to provide a pretext for Pinochet to intensify his war against the generally peaceful citizens and to permit him to solidify his control by terrorizing the peaceful opposition. He does so, as we have seen, by keeping the opposition divided, and contriving to avoid significant US pressure against him. Indeed, if the Patriotic Front did not exist, it would be in Pinochet’s interest to invent it.

Although the Patriotic Front has had a disastrous effect on Chilean politics, it is not difficult to understand why some of its members act as they do. One of those implicated in the attempted assassination of Pinochet is the son of a “disappeared” labor leader, who has said he is avenging his father’s kidnapping and murder. Such a man would be hard to convince that tyrannicide is wrong morally. But in Chile it is dead wrong politically. Moreover, the violence of the Patriotic Front helps to legitimize the exclusion of the left—or at least that part of the left that does not forcefully condemn the Patriotic Front’s violence—from the political process. So far the Communist party has refused to denounce the violent actions of the Patriotic Front, arguing that “all forms of struggle” are legitimate against a dictatorship. Many of the other parties disagree, but no one, except on the far right, seriously argues that a peaceful transition can take place without obtaining the cooperation of the Communists. The persistent violent activity of the Patriotic Front, and the controversy it causes within the opposition, make the intricate task of reaching a consensus all the more difficult.

Some in Chile and elsewhere argue that the country is not ready for democratic government because its many political parties are unable to agree among themselves, and unable to unite behind a leader. This was the view of an editorial in The New York Times on April 4, which pointed out that Chile lacks a leader comparable to Raúl Alfonsín or Corazon Aquino; that is, a principled leader who both embodies commitment to democratic government and commands widespread popular support.

But it could be pointed out that neither Alfonsín nor Aquino was widely regarded as such a leader before elections took place in their countries. In Chile, political parties have not been able to function freely since 1973. An election for president is not scheduled to take place until 1997—a plebiscite is expected in 1989, but it will consist only of a yes or no vote on a single candidate designated by the armed forces. Since democratic rights have been completely denied, how could a unifying democratic leader have emerged? If those rights are restored, Chilean political party spokesmen—on both the left and the right—contend that the problem of leadership will resolve itself through the process of selecting candidates and through the public’s choice of one of them to govern. There is no shortage of volunteers for the position, particularly among Christian Democrats, who appear the most likely party to provide plausible presidential candidates. Prominent Christian Democrats like Gabriel Valdés, the party’s president, and two somewhat more conservative leaders, Sergio Molina and Andrés Zaldívar, are often talked of as possibilities. The US State Department seems to prefer the right wing of the party, whose most prominent leader is Juan Hamilton. But it is still early to predict who would emerge. Too much depends on what the armed forces do, and on the amount of pressure the opposition can bring to bear.

Meanwhile, Pinochet is “running” for president. He has hired an image consultant. He and his close advisers speak of “consolidation” in the second term. He has announced an extensive program of low-cost housing, evidently a campaign gesture. While the opposition calls for free elections and agrees on little else, Pinochet’s military and well-to-do supporters are registering to vote in the plebiscite, expected in March 1989.

The Christian Democrats find themselves in a new quandary with regard to the plebiscite. With a potential voting population of eight million people and no electoral rolls—the military destroyed the old ones in 1973—registration is a cumbersome process. Moreover, and perhaps most important, the entire opposition, not only the excluded Marxists, considers the plebiscite an illegitimate exercise. Christian Democratic party leaders are urging centrist voters to register nonetheless, but are having little success because much of the public believes that the system is rigged to ensure Pinochet’s triumph, by fraud if necessary. In addition to this widespread lack of confidence in the secrecy, fairness, or legitimacy of the process, Chileans balk at registration because the regime has made it complicated, optional, and, for many Chileans, prohibitively expensive. The opposition’s final tactic could be to call for a vote of “no” in the plebiscite; but with so few dissident voters registering, Pinochet might be able to carry the registered electorate even without fraud. This would become more likely if he were to move the plebiscite date forward, leaving the opposition less time to mount a registration drive or a coherent campaign of any kind. Some analysts, including prominent conservatives, are already speaking of a possible early plebiscite, and on a recent visit to Santiago, General John R. Galvin, commander of US military forces in Latin America, made headlines by speaking of a plebiscite in 1988.

The Pope’s recent visit concentrated world attention on Chile for several days, and made clear the extent of the desire within the country that the Pinochet dictatorship should come to an end. The Pope left no doubt that the Church regards the regime as unacceptably brutal. But his visit did not break the chain of interlocking forces that has thus far frustrated all efforts to bring about democratic change. The problem remains that the armed forces enjoy a veto over when and how to manage a succession to Pinochet. Only the United States, by virtue of its economic power, can influence the exercise of that veto, and both the armed forces and the United States fear that an uncontrolled democratic process would produce a government that they would find unacceptable. The insistence by the armed forces and the United States on controlling the political process makes it difficult for the political parties to unite in their efforts to end the dictatorship; and the difficulty in achieving unity is exacerbated by the violence of the Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front. For some, the attraction of political violence, especially among the young, has increased as other tactics for getting rid of Pinochet have failed, and as the number of those directly harmed by his regime grows larger.

It is not clear how and where this vicious circle is to be broken. It may lie within the power of the United States to apply such pressure as is needed—by withholding credits, for example—to bring about genuinely democratic elections; and notwithstanding the fears of the Reagan administration, the probable outcome of such elections would be a government that is acceptable to the United States. But it is increasingly clear that Washington will not run the risk. However difficult it may be, the Chileans themselves will have to find a way to break the impasse, not only without help from Washington, but also by surmounting obstacles that the United States will place in the path of any process that US officials suspect they cannot control.

To the visitor to Chile today, it may seem impossible to imagine that the Pinochet regime can sustain itself in the face of such enormous popular hostility—and equally impossible to imagine that Chileans will find a way to shake off the dictatorship. The only thing that seems clear is that an ever larger number of Chileans will experience the agony of living under government terror. Already some of the victims will be from the generation that was not even born when Pinochet took power. These children are just now reaching the age when they will join in protests against him.

This Issue

June 25, 1987