I came to Chile on a grim mission, to report on the human rights situation for Americas Watch. The friend who met me at the airport took me to have a drink at a bar on the roof of the Hotel Carrera. It was a clear January day, and in the summer heat of Santiago the snow-whitened Andes seemed very close. I looked down on Santiago’s famous Plaza de la Constitución, where citizens historically gathered to praise or protest the actions of their government. At first the expanse of grass in the plaza was pleasing, it was so green and neat. Then I remembered that it was Pinochet’s poorly paid minimum-work program for Chile’s large unemployed population that kept the parks so clean, indeed among the cleanest in the world. Pinochet had changed the layout of the plaza. More than two thirds of the traditional cobblestone public space was now subdivided into a series of well-kept elevated grassy sections. Citizens could walk along the guarded pathways but not congregate in the plaza—discouraging to protest.

Until September 1973 Chile had Latin America’s longest and strongest democratic tradition. The bloody aftermath of President Salvador Allende’s overthrow and death that month brought in a regime surprising in its persistent repression. According to National Police figures, in 1985 the police arrested 882,346 persons, or 8 percent of the Chilean population. Chile’s economic “boom,” which has been chronicled by The Wall Street Journal, has its underside. The unemployment rate in the slums, which was 6 percent in 1969, was 40 percent by 1985. In 1970, 10 percent of Chile’s families did not have sufficient income to satisfy the minimum food requirements recommended by international organizations; in 1983 the figure grew to 32 percent. The man who has headed the regime since 1973, General Augusto Pinochet, wants to hold a plebiscite this year in which his name will be the only name on the ballot, to be voted on “si” or “no.” If he wins, his term as president will last until 1997.

Although initially Pinochet’s supporters took his victory in the plebiscite for granted, and the Christian Democrats, Socialists, and Communists wanted to boycott the voting, the plebiscite is setting off an unexpected new political struggle in Chile.


I went to Chile for two purposes, which I originally thought were separate—to help report on the human rights situation for Americas Watch and, more specifically, to help draft an evaluation of the human rights implications of the upcoming presidential plebiscite. I thought I would find an improving human rights situation, which would allow Pinochet to support his claim that Chileans had entered a “transition” to constitutional democracy. Indeed, in the regime’s propaganda, the plebiscite is depicted as the logical consitutional step toward electoral, party, and congressional democracy.

On my first day I went to one of Chile’s great public and spiritual centers, the Santiago cathedral, whose annex houses Chile’s principal human rights organization, the Vicariate of Solidarity. The archdiocese of Santiago, to a greater degree than any other Catholic organization in Latin America, has protected numerous social and community activities, particularly through its work with the poor, and it has strongly supported the Vicariate of Solidarity. Ominously, the new year had started with an unprecedented attack by the government on the Church. Without any evidence, the minister of the interior denounced the Vicariate for providing terrorism with moral and material support.

The chief lawyer for the Vicariate, Alejandro González Poblete, told me that though mass arrests had decreased in 1987—from 6,965 in 1986 to about 3,295—threats to civic leaders and to people connected to unions and opposition political groups had increased substantially. The Vicariate for fourteen years has recorded statements from victims of torture, and from families whose relatives have been taken from their homes and never been seen again. Starting with this testimony, the Vicariate builds a legal case and acts as defender or prosecutor, trying to be the voice of those who have no voice.

Over the years private citizens in Chile and many international groups have sent money to support the Vicariate. Now the government is trying to subpoena its financial and employment records. The Vicariate’s chief doctor spent most of last year in jail. Nine of its professional lawyers are being prosecuted by the military courts. I asked why the government was launching these attacks. It was, Alejandro González said, because the Vicariate had become Chile’s most important refuge. “They jailed our doctor and are trying our lawyers to show that we are a dangerous place to come to,” he told me. “How can we protect you if the Church cannot protect us? That is the message they want to give.”

Outside the lawyer’s office, in the crowded but quiet corridor, I noticed that the people affected by human rights violations wore badges. Some said “D”—for “Disappeared.” On the day of my visit about twenty members of the group called “Relatives of the Disappeared” were present, all mothers. Each told me the last time she had seen her son or daughter, and showed me photographs—some no doubt in a desperate hope that a stranger might possibly help the disappeared reappear. Every mother I talked to had been arrested. One, whose daughter had been pregnant when she disappeared, had been arrested five times. I asked if she had been tortured. “No, but once I was stripped. We have been interrogated in the men’s toilet. They urinate in front of us. They want to humiliate us.”


Two weeks before, the relatives had stood outside the Vicariate carrying posters, and some tried to attach signs protesting human rights violations to lampposts. They were pushed back with water hoses. Five were arrested and the signs were immediately removed. In Argentina, every Thursday afternoon in front of the presidential residence at the Plaza de Mayo, the Mothers of the Disappeared had assembled, using a public space to assert their collective identity—to create a new and powerful civil movement. In Pinochet’s Chile, such a public space literally does not exist. Relatives of the Chilean disappeared can only meet and collectively mourn in one room of the Vicariate.

Space, both physical and psychological, is essential in organizing a democratic resistance. Pinochet’s regime had reconstructed the plaza and denied its space to Chile’s madres. The Vicariate lawyer told me that the regime has also devised new ways to intimidate people who resist. While the authoritarian regimes in neighboring Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil relaxed their terrorist practices within less than a decade of taking power, after fourteen years Pinochet’s Chile is embarking upon a new stage of more pervasive psychological terror. Why?

I was given some answers to these questions by Jaime Castillo, the founder of the Chilean Commission on Human Rights, who had served as minister of justice under the Christian Democratic government of Eduardo Frei; by its current president, Máximo Pacheco, who had been Frei’s ambassador to the Soviet Union; and by other members of the executive committee, some of whom were from the left wing of the Socialist party.

The Chilean Commission on Human Rights has a large computerized system that records and classifies human rights violations. While the commission agrees with the Vicariate that the number of mass arrests is decreasing, kidnapping and death threats have been steadily rising for the past three years. Death threats averaged thirty-five a month in 1985, seventy-nine in 1986, and ninety-five in 1987. The Chilean Commission on Human Rights takes a kidnapping case only if the victim makes a detailed statement. “Increasingly,” I was told, “the victims are leaders or potential leaders—they represent people or can organize them or can pass on information to them.” Kidnapping them is a way of intimidating opposition activity. The pattern is of finely tuned graduated threats.

For example, before a kidnapping 1) you receive a phone call at work noting with displeasure your involvement in a certain activity; 2) an unsigned letter at your home follows, using all three of your legal names;1 3) you get a short menacing phone call at home conveying information about your children; 4) in what appears to be an accident you are knocked to the ground on a crowded side-walk; 5) a decapitated animal is placed on your doorstep; 6) another phone call—if you have moved it is noted that this move has been observed; 7) you hear a shot in the air near your home; 8) you hear an explosion or more often you find an explosive nearby that has not gone off; 9) people enter your house and tell your husband or wife and children that the activity you are engaged in is dangerous to them and to you and that they should convince you to stop; 10) you are kidnapped, interrogated, and released in a day; 11) you receive a death threat.

Most people who have been kidnapped were blindfolded, beaten, driven around, interrogated about their acquaintances—but not much about themselves—and then thrown out of the car on the out-skirts of town.

I did not understand why they were not asked questions about themselves. The message, I was told, is, “Your friends are very dangerous. You are not too bad. Disconnect.” This is a key part of the “new methodology of terror” that has emerged in the last year.

The commission has documented testimony only from people who have reached their “tenth gradation” of threat. The commission members fear that many community leaders might be stopping political activity at step two or step three. How many citizens are so terrified that they remain inactive and do not dare to lead others?

Why is Pinochet’s Chile entering a new stage of attack on the Church and devising new and more pervasive forms of terror? As I pieced together the observations I heard during my first few days in Chile, it became increasingly clear that the subtle but deteriorating human rights situation and the coming presidential plebiscite were linked. I remembered that the Vicariate’s lawyer had observed that should Pinochet lose the plebiscite, the Vicariate would have the legal evidence and argument for eventual human rights trials. This explained, in the lawyer’s opinion, why the regime wants to destroy the Vicariate and discredit the Church before the plebiscite takes place.


Pinochet of course could well win the plebiscite. Every regional governor, all of them military officers, and every mayor in Chile have been appointed by him. Some of the radio stations, weekly magazines, and daily newspapers are owned by Christian Democrats and others who oppose Pinochet, but he has had almost complete control of television for fourteen years. The price of copper, Chile’s major export, doubled during the past year and Pinochet, an unlikely Keynesian, is well on his way to priming the economy for a timely small boom. While one side of the plebiscitary coin is torture, the other side is populism. Using the surplus generated by the copper boom and international lending agencies, Pinochet, working closely with the mayors and the civic committees that have recently “spontaneously” sprung up in much of Chile, has been building houses for slum dwellers and making it possible for peasants from the interior valleys to take trips to the seacoast. During 1987 alone, over 48,000 housing units were made available, with much publicity, to the poor

The timing of the plebiscite is crucial but not widely understood. According to existing statutes it must be held no later than February 1989. However, on any day until then, if the commanders in chief of the army, navy, air force, and police meet and unanimously nominate a presidential candidate, a plebiscite can be held within thirty to sixty days. The day the presidential plebiscite is announced, the voting registers close. If Pinochet is able to get the other three commanders to nominate him relatively soon, he will probably win the plebiscite without recourse to Marcos-style fraud on election day, because many who oppose Pinochet, whether Christian Democrats, Socialists, or Communists, are not now registered to vote. The principal opposition political groups (except for the Communists and some other left-wing parties whose legality is virtually precluded by the 1980 constitution) only recently collected and submitted the signatures they need to even apply for legal recognition; and political parties must have been officially recognized for four months before they receive the poll-watching privileges they feel are necessary both to protect against fraud and to protect voters from feeling intimidated. Many Chileans told me that Pinochet’s constitution would have received far fewer votes in the 1980 election if the opposition had had watchers at voting places throughout the country.

I talked at length to two of the three military commanders who must unanimously nominate Pinochet. They were obviously worried about the political tensions a quickly called plebiscite could produce. In separate interviews, both implied that they would not vote for a plebiscite to be held before September. This seemed of central importance, for if the plebiscite is held before September, none of the political organizations of the traditional democratic opposition will by then have been legalized long enough to qualify for poll-watching rights, and the percentage of registered voters will be substantially lower than in Chile’s previous elections.

Why didn’t the commanders accede to Pinochet’s well-known desire to have a plebiscite before September? The head of the National Police, General Rodolfo Stange, emphasized to me that “as many people as possible” should vote in the plebiscite. He added that since the military government burned the electoral registers after the overthrow of Allende the longer that citizens had to register the better. However, he said that though he personally would prefer a December plebiscite, he would accept a September date.

General Fernando Matthei, the commander in chief of the air force, told me, “If the government’s candidate wins everyone will say it was a fraud. If he loses, everyone will say it was a fair election. So, it is more in our interest than anyone else’s to be able to show it was an absolutely fair election.” He argued that for the plebiscite to have political legitimacy, there should be close to six million registered voters, about twice the number who were registered when we spoke. He, too, said he considered September acceptable. I then asked him which would be worse for Chile and the air force: for the “no” voters to win, or for the “yes” voters to win under conditions in which large numbers of people in Chile and abroad felt the plebiscite was held under unfair conditions. He looked at me intently: “The worst outcome would be chaos. We must stand by the rules identified in the 1980 constitution.” He paused. “Look, we laid out the playing field and established the rules of the game. How can we refuse to follow them now? Yes, this is our constitution. We wrote it the way we liked. Others would have written it differently, but having written it, we must follow it.” I interpreted his words to mean that if “no” won, many within the military would reconcile themselves to the result rather than risk increased domestic violence and heightened international condemnation.

A number of former allies of Pinochet are also increasingly worried about chaos and polarization. When Jeane Kirkpatrick was President Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations, officials of the US embassy in Santiago were not “at home” to the Chilean democratic opposition. Now, however, the embassy has convinced many officials in the US government that if Pinochet runs a transparently fraudulent plebiscite, this will further divide Chile, discredit the democratic parties, and help to legitimize those who call for violent revolution against Pinochet. The US government is now beginning to adopt a strategy in Chile analogous to the strategy it adopted toward Marcos in late 1985. In December 1987, the US Congress, with State Department backing, appropriated a million dollars for the National Endowment for Democracy to provide information to Chilean voters. Moreover, Chile was denied eligibility for trade preferences. Most important, President Reagan and Secretary of State Shultz signed an unequivocal call for fair elections, with full access by the opposition to the press and television.

There are many authoritarian regimes in the world. But Chile, because of its special combination of a long democratic history and the well-documented efforts of the US to help bring down the democratically elected government of President Allende, is seen by some groups in Chile and the United States as an especially suitable target for a campaign for divestment or boycott of the kind mounted against South Africa. These groups are now rapidly compiling target lists of US corporations, especially those that advertise in the Pinochet-controlled press and television. Senior US embassy officials in Chile believe that a suddenly called, or fraudulent, plebiscite will almost certainly lead to a demand for stiffer sanctions from the US Congress, a demand many of the Republicans who pass through the embassy in increasing numbers might well support.

Although it is not publicly visible, a change of opinion about Pinochet has privately taken place even among some powerful Chilean business leaders. One of the most prominent told me that in the 1970s and early 1980s his friends had considered Pinochet to be indispensable. However, with a sound Chilean economy and strong anti-Marxist, antipopulist safeguards embedded in the 1980 constitution, the Chilean political and economic system can now exist, he believes, without Pinochet. “If the model lasts another twenty-five years the left will disappear.” In his judgment the only real threat to the system would be if Pinochet’s candidacy polarized the country. He hopes that Pinochet will not run but rather remain commander in chief of the army and the respected power behind the throne. He seemed to hope that Pinochet would allow a conservative civilian to run instead. He was quick to say, however, that neither he nor any of the top fifty business leaders in Chile would dare publicly to come out against Pinochet. “This is still an economy in which the government has great power.”

The commanders of the air force and the police may try to hold off the plebiscite until September; the US government may attempt to create greater international pressure in favor of a more fairly conducted plebiscite; and the Chilean business community might be willing to consider Pinochetism without Pinochet. None of this matters, however, unless a strong majority of the Chilean population is really prepared to vote “no.”

Until early this year, there was more speculation than evidence about Chilean public opinion. In January, however, the results were released of three of the most carefully conducted polls taken in Chile since Pinochet came to power.2 They reveal deep reservations about Pinochet and his regime. When asked about employment, for example, 66 percent of those polled by CERC disapproved of the government’s record and only 7 percent approved. When eight institutions were ranked for prestige, the Vicariate of Solidarity and the Catholic Church were first and second, the government last. By a ratio of 71 percent to 12 percent, the people polled said they want free elections rather than a plebiscite. If there has to be a plebiscite, only 16.3 percent want Pinochet to be the candidate. Should Pinochet be the candidate, the CIS survey indicated he would receive only 18 percent of the vote of the largely urban citizens polled. In the study by CERC that included small towns, Pinochet received 31 percent, and 40 percent said they would vote “no,” while those who were undecided or who refused to answer made up the rest. A poll produced by Gallup-Chile, which frequently does secret polls for the Pinochet government, showed 39.4 percent voting “yes,” 26.6 percent voting “no,” and 34 percent undecided; but in my judgment this poll, though undoubtedly of psychological use for Pinochet’s campaign, is based on misleading samples of opinion.3

The findings of the January polls lifted the spirits of the democratic opposition. Its leaders have been worried that their exclusion from television put them at a serious disadvantage. They now believe that, at the very least, Pinochet, with complete control of television, has yet to convince most Chileans of the rightness of his candidacy. The polls deeply worried the opposition leaders, nonetheless. Among registered voters, the CIS poll indicated that Pinochet had a slight lead (61 percent of those on the “firm right” were registered, while only 32 percent of those on the “firm left” were registered). One reason for the reluctance of the opposition to register is that only 35 percent of all those polled said they believed the results of the plebiscite would actually reflect the opinion of the Chileans. The democratic opposition is now trying to get people to make their views known at public meetings and to enroll in opposition parties. But fourteen years of fear have taken their toll. In answer to the question “Do you feel free to express your opinion or is it better to keep your opinion to yourself?” respondents, by a ratio of eleven to one, said it was better to keep their opinions to themselves.

Particularly embarrassing for democratic party leaders was the fact that, in a ranking of eight national institutions, only “the government” was lower in prestige than “the opposition.” But the most alarming finding was that the percentage of people prepared to vote “no” in the plebiscite had begun to decline. Was support for the opposition wavering?

I asked Angel Flisfisch, a Chilean political scientist trained at the research survey center at the University of Michigan, why he thought his poll had shown a decline in the “no” vote. An important factor, he said, was that the opposition parties—from the Communists, who advocate violent revolution, to conservative democrats—continued to carry on the often bitter ideological and tactical disagreements that have divided Chilean political life for the last fourteen years. Even the centrist Christian Democratic party couldn’t agree on a clear position. Sometimes it demanded immediate free elections and denounced the plebiscite, and at other times it talked of mounting a campaign to vote “no.” Certainly many of the anti-Pinochet citizens’ groups I talked to were furious with the opposition party leaders. The leaders of the “Women for Life” movement told me with great bitterness how they had sent Christmas cards to all the opposition leaders saying they were ashamed to be living in a country where political leaders were so obsessed with narrow party interests that they would not cooperate to defeat Pinochet. Two young activists went on a hunger strike in protest against the divisions in the opposition parties. They stopped only when a group of student political leaders pledged they would make their case to the party elders.


Faced with protests like these, worried about their decline in the polls, the opposition leaders finally made a historic decision to act together. On February 2 of this year, the presidents of fourteen major opposition parties signed a joint manifesto pledging to work together for a victory of “no” in the plebiscite. The parties—not including the Communists—acknowledged that they wasted 1987 and they are now desperately working together to increase voter registration. Eight hundred and seventy thousand citizens registered in February and March—many more than had been predicted. By the end of April, an estimated 5.5 million will have registered.

I talked with four of the five visible leaders of the Communist party—some are still underground. One asserted that the Party’s worst possible position on the plebiscite would be to encourage “enthusiastically” a “no” vote. Popular forces, he said, can only really achieve power through mobilizing the masses, not through a plebiscite. While the Party has not dissociated itself from armed struggle and is not taking an active part in organizing the registration, Communist party leaders are publicly registering on their own.

While the Socialist party is deeply divided, its principal factions are campaigning for a “no” vote. These include the Marxist wing headed by Allende’s minister of foreign affairs, Clodomiro Almeyda, who made a dramatic return to Chile over the Andes mountains in March 1987. Almeyda presented himself to a Chilean court upon his return, and he was immediately arrested. He continues to lead the Marxist wing of the Socialist party from a Santiago jail cell. Ricardo Lagos, a socialist in his early fifties, is emerging as an effective leader of the social democratic wing, most of whose members have joined what he calls a new “instrumentalist” party, the Party for Democracy (PPD). Longstanding enemies within the PPD and the Christian Democratic party are now working together closely in campaigns for voter education and registration. By late March, both parties had collected the number of signatures required to take the first step toward getting official recognition as a party qualified to campaign in the plebiscite.

If these two parties, plus a new and already recognized party of youthful environmentalists, called the Humanists, manage to overcome the remaining bureaucratic obstacles to formal recognition, each is entitled to have an official observer at each of the 22,000 voting tables. This potential army of 66,000 poll watchers is now being recruited and trained.

An official in charge of running the elections, Ignacio García, told me and my Americas Watch colleague Stephen Rickard that he would release a notarized copy of the registration rolls. General Matthei went further, saying that not only would the registration rolls be “absolutely” available, but that giving the opposition access to the master computer disk on which all voters’ names were entered was “crucial” to a fair plebiscite. I mentioned these statements by government officials in a press conference. The following day, Ricardo Lagos appeared at the elections office with a check and unsuccessfully tried to purchase a copy of the registration rolls. The list has now been made available, and there is a growing demand that the disk be released so that the names on the list can be checked against it. Lagos argues that if the disk is not released, the government will be vulnerable to a charge of voter fraud. However, if the disk is released, he and the citizens’ free elections committees believe it could be used to verify the registration process more effectively than was possible either in the Korean presidential election or in the election called by Marcos.

The opposition parties are also designing a complex system for a rapid parallel count of the plebiscite vote as people leave the polls and a plan to assign foreign observers to eight hundred different sites. As Ricardo Lagos sees it, “It is no use for foreign observers just to parachute in on plebiscite day and stay in Santiago. They should attend an orientation meeting, then travel to their designated districts and let Chilean poll watchers and authorities feel their presence in the forty-eight hours before the vote.”

Thus, during the autumn of the southern hemisphere, the Chileans have begun one of the most important political campaigns in their country’s history. A major struggle of the opposition will be to overcome the fear of politics created by Pinochet’s selective terror techniques. I often heard politicians say, “We have to act together to overcome our fear. We have to let everyone see how many of us there are so that people bother to register and dare to vote ‘no.’ ” In January, however, it seemed that the Pinochet forces would not allow the opposition to put up posters on a single wall in Santiago. I spent a Saturday morning walking through a población (urban slum) called Los Nogales. I went to the wall where Rodrigo Rojas de Negri, a young exile living in Washington who had briefly returned to Santiago, had been set aflame and killed by soldiers, and where Carmen Gloria Quintana, whose family lives in Los Nogales, had been disfigured by the same soldiers. As I peered closely at the wall I could see five or six layers of slogans—a layer of protest, a layer of government paint, another layer of defiance, another layer of repression. In the last two layers I saw what appeared to be a very hastily scrawled message of grief, “We remember you, Carmen”—which was all but obliterated by twenty heavily stamped “Vote Yes for the Future of Chile.”

The opposition leaders told me that they will soon break the silence of Chile’s walls and streets. They may have a more difficult time getting a hearing on television. Andrés Zaldívar told me that during the eight years he was president of the Christian Democratic party he had not once heard his voice on television. A common tactic is to show trade union and party leaders on television, but to have the announcer describe what they are doing. The most frequently viewed television station in Santiago is Channel 13, which is owned by Catholic University. But since the university is under state control, the news on Channel 13 is almost indistinguishable from that on the state-owned Channel 7. More and more Catholic lay activists, however, are putting pressure on the Church hierarchy and the Pope to run the risk of destroying Catholic University itself by insisting on producing programs with political content. Preparations are being made for a ninety-minute interview with Patricio Aylwin, the president of the Christian Democratic party, to be followed by a similar interview with a conservative democratic leader.

Frequently Pinochet’s officials assert that the plebiscite is the first step in the transition to democracy. But in virtually any serious conversation I had with the regime’s leaders, they made it clear that they did not want to return to classic democracy. Their goal is “protected” democracy—“protected,” that is, by an immensely powerful military establishment. Luz Bulnes and Rafael Larraín Cruz, two lawyers who acted as official editors of the proceedings leading to the creation of the 1980 constitution, pointed out article after article in the constitution designed to protect against “democratic excess.” They noted that any eventually elected president is not allowed by the constitution to fire military commanders without the support of the military-dominated National Security Council.

In a modern state, they say, the constitution must ensure that the military is “an autonomous power” free from demagogic political demands. For the same reason the National Security Council was given the constitutional right to make declarations calling into doubt—i.e., stopping—any action with harmful consequences for “national security” taken by the executive, legislature, or judiciary.

Most important, the constitution allows for the exclusion for ten years of citizens convicted of ideological offenses from holding political offices and posts in education and in the press and television, and indeed from ever being elected leaders of civic organizations. Bulnes and Larraín also explained that the constitution was designed to be extremely difficult to change. To amend any of the articles I have mentioned would require a two-thirds majority, of both chambers, of two separately elected parliaments. For good measure they noted the clause by which 28 percent of the senators are not directly elected.

Such statements by lawyers of the Pinochet government made it clear what is really at stake. If one takes the 1980 constitution seriously, the plebiscite is not a step in the “transition to democracy” in any sense; the campaign to have Chileans vote “yes” is an effort to institutionalize a new type of authoritarian regime that has not been seen in a Western country like Chile since the 1930s.

Ricardo Lagos and the Christian Democrat Genaro Arriagada pointed out to me that the Philippine opposition was fortunate in that the election of Cory Aquino combined three historical acts: a vote against a dictator, a vote for a democratic successor, and a vote against the authoritarian regime. In Chile, they argue, it might take the opposition three big electoral victories, during a five-year period, to accomplish what was done in the Philippines in a month. Although the victory of the “no” voters would be an electoral defeat of the dictator, if the defeated candidate is Pinochet, he will still remain president and commander in chief of the army for a year while direct elections are held for president and Congress. Under Pinochet’s timetable, even if there is an overwhelming victory of the democratic opposition in this presidential and congressional election, it will take at least four more years to amend the authoritarian constitution. Of course, most members of the opposition do not accept Pinochet’s timetable as immutable. But Lagos argues, “First we have to change the balance of political and military force. The day after the victory for those who vote ‘no,’ Chileans will have to mobilize to defend their victory and accelerate the transition to democracy.”

The plebiscite process in Chile, too, is beginning to acquire an unexpected dynamism. Renovación Nacional, a new party whose members include many from the traditional Chilean political right, is in the midst of a bitter public fight over whether it should uncritically support Pinochet’s candidacy or take positions independent of him. In late April, one of Pinochet’s strongest supporters in Renovación Nacional, Jaime Guzmán, was expelled from the party. On the other hand, the democratic opposition is now more united than seemed possible in December. Despite censorship, continued arrests, military trials, and terror, the organizers of clean vote committees are ahead of their schedule in setting up local chapters.

In fact, if the opposition leaders are reasonably successful in accomplishing the tasks they have set for themselves, they have a chance to win a September plebiscite. Three months after his poll was published showing a decline of support for “no,” Angel Flisfisch estimates that the odds for the “no” winning have improved to 60 percent. Arturo Valenzuela, the Georgetown political scientist who is one of the most distinguished analysts of Chilean politics, has made the same estimate. One analyst who had been skeptical about the “no” campaign said that today “a wave of electoral mobilization and participation is rolling through the country.” In late April some polls showed that for the first time a majority of Chileans believed Pinochet will lose the plebiscite. One of Chile’s most prominent political scientists surprised me in early April by predicting, “Pinochet will leave the presidency before Reagan does.”

For the United States the stakes in Chile are growing higher. If Pinochet suddenly calls a plebiscite, commits wide-spread electoral fraud, or imposes a new coup that prohibits any sort of vote, Chile will take an even sharper turn toward state terror and revolutionary violence. Calls for greater economic sanctions will be heard in the US. Actions such as the US vote last November to abstain on a $250 million World Bank loan will no longer be acceptable inside or outside Congress. If the Chilean military is convinced that Pinochet will lose the plebiscite, there will be growing pressure on him to allow the name of another candidate to be put forward.

The US embassy would clearly support such a move. However, it is important to remember that not only Pinochet’s rule but the constitution itself is fundamentally authoritarian. The US should be prepared to accept the necessity of a long struggle for a genuine transition to democratic institutions that goes well beyond the plebiscite itself. Getting rid of Pinochet may still leave an authoritarian, military-backed regime opposed by a coalition of democratic political groups. The Reagan administration’s record in Haiti and Central America does not offer much hope that it will give strong support to the democratic forces in Chile.

This Issue

June 2, 1988