Government and Politics

Chile Table of Contents

WITH THE REESTABLISHMENT of democratic government in March 1990, Chile was once again thrust into the international limelight. In the early 1970s, the long, narrow country on the west coast of South America had drawn widespread attention by electing a Marxist president, Salvador Allende Gossens (1970-73), who was intent on forging a new path to socialism. Following Allende's overthrow on September 11, 1973, Chile under military rule became notorious for some of the worst excesses of modern-day authoritarianism.

Headed by General of the Army Augusto Pinochet Ugarte (1973- 90), the dictatorship was widely reviled for ending Chile's tradition of democratic politics and committing numerous violations of human rights. Although isolated politically, Chile's military government earned international acclaim for far-reaching economic and social reforms that transformed the country's state-oriented economy into one of the most open economic systems in the developing world. The economic reforms of the late 1970s and 1980s set the foundation for extraordinary investment and growth in the early 1990s. Economic progress, combined with the return of democratic politics largely devoid of the confrontation and polarization of the past, positioned Chile to enter the twentyfirst century with increased prosperity in a climate of peace and freedom.

Chile's favorable situation developed because the military government's success at implementing an economic revolution was not duplicated in the political arena. From the outset, Pinochet and his colleagues had sought to displace the parties, politicians, and institutions of the past so that they might create a nation of pliant and patriotic citizens, devoted to their private pursuits under the tutelage of a strong and benevolent state with merely a fašade of representative government.

However, the military commanders badly underestimated the strength of the nation's traditional political parties and failed to understand the degree to which democratic practices and institutions had become a fundamental part of Chile's national character. Indeed, Pinochet was forced to abandon his plan for virtual life-long rule after a humiliating personal defeat in a 1988 plebiscite at the hands of the very civilian leaders whom he had reviled and persecuted. Their resilience made possible the transition to democracy in March 1990 and the success of Chile's first civilian government after seventeen years of authoritarian rule.

Chile's transition back to democracy encountered serious challenges. Although opposition groups had vehemently rejected the Pinochet government's constitution of 1980 as illegitimate and undemocratic, they were forced to accept the political rules and playing field as defined by the military government in order to challenge its very authority. To a greater degree than most other transitions to democracy in Latin America, Chile's was accomplished within the framework of an institutional order conceived by an authoritarian regime, one that continued to define the political game long after the return to representative government. Pinochet was unable to destroy his adversaries or project his own presidential leadership into the future, but he succeeded in imposing an institutional legacy that Chile's civilian elites would have to modify substantially if Chile were to become fully democratic.


For more information about the government, see Facts about Chile.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress