Cold Reality Dawns in Chile : Democratization Must Be Negotiated With Pinochet’s Camp

<i> Heraldo Munoz, a Chilean political scientist, is a member of the executive committee of the No Command and a leading member of the Party for Democracy</i>

Gen. Augusto Pinochet has been defeated by the people of Chile; his intention to stay in power for eight more years was rejected by a solid majority--55%--who voted “no” in the plebiscite on Oct. 5. However, the authoritarian ruler still has an anti-democratic constitutional framework that allows him to remain in power until March, 1990, after which he can stay on as commander-in-chief for several more years. Also, he will practically control almost one-third of the Senate, and will himself become senator for life, as well as member of the National Security Council, to be activated when the new elected government takes office.

The opposition will seek, as it stated before the plebiscite, to negotiate the changes in the constitution necessary for a real process of transition to democracy at the earliest possible date. This negotiation will be with the ruling armed forces; it is not an easy task.

After recovering from the initial shock of defeat, Pinochet, dressed in his army uniform, gave a stern speech reaffirming the constitution as it stands. Interior Minister Sergio Fernandez went even further to insist that nothing would change. Noting that it took the efforts of 16 political parties to win a 55% “no” vote, he argued that Pinochet remains the undisputable leader of Chile for the future. This suggested that Pinochet (who will be 73 years old next month) might be a candidate in the presidential election of December, 1989.


Pinochet has opted for the hard line. However, even his customary supporters are taking their distance from authoritarian rule. The National Renovation Party, the largest supporting Pinochet, has openly criticized Interior Minister Fernandez and has insinuated that he would manipulate the constitution. The UDI, an extreme right-wing group closely linked to the government, has stated that the constitution does not allow Pinochet to be a candidate for 1989 and that, instead, he should contribute to the designation and election of his successor. More important, Gen. Fernando Matthei, head of the air force, and Gen. Rodolfo Stange, head of the national police, have expressed that, at some point, constitutional reforms should be negotiated.

In fact, the mood of the country favors negotiation and agreement. Pinochet is the obstacle. The opposition will have to engage in political operations to isolate him from those sectors in the government, in the armed forces and in political circles, that are in favor of introducing changes in the constitution in order to open the door to a full transition to democracy.

However, it is highly unlikely that Pinochet will allow the armed forces to actually sit down with the opposition at a bargaining table. In other words, in Chile there will not be the type of “naval club negotiations” that took place in Uruguay after the military government was defeated in a similar plebiscite. This does not mean that one should rule out the possibility of constitutional reform. Such changes may be introduced at the government’s initiative because of an accumulation of inside pressures from rightist parties and outside pressures from the opposition.

If Pinochet continues on the hard line, he will need a scenario of violence and confrontation to block attempts at negotiating constitutional reform. In creating the image that he is the sole alternative to chaos and disorder, he would strengthen his control over the armed forces. It should be remembered that until March, 1990, Pinochet has a vast legal machinery to justify repression of the opposition.

To be credible, such a scenario would require a Communist Party out in the streets advocating violent struggle against the dictatorship. However, all of the opposition, including the Communists, understand that now is the time for rational behavior--that they must avoid any action that would play into Pinochet’s hands.

The opposition parties are now emphasizing pragmatism and consensus-building. For instance, there is agreement to continue with the coordination of the 16 parties that worked for the “no” vote until democratic changes to the constitution are achieved. Also, the opposition has begun discussing the creation of a coalition for the 1989 presidential election that would be sufficiently broad as to represent the wide spectrum assembled under the umbrella of the No compaign, and to choose a centrist candidate to lead it.

On Oct. 5 Chileans not only voted against Pinochet; they voted for change, for political and social economic transformation. Pinochet has created two Chiles--one prosperous and modern, characterized by an export boom of chilies, grapes, wood and seafood products; the other, stagnated and poor. The economic model has benefited only about 20% of the Chilean people; the rest have not experienced the fruits of progress and have actually seen their economic situation worsen. The best expression of this socioeconomic apartheid was the fact that Pinochet lost in “boom cities” like Copiapo and Curico, which were considered to be government strongholds.

If the opposition does not provide strong and clear leadership for the following months, the people will feel frustrated; if things continue about the same as before the plebiscite, the hopes for a vigorous opposition in the presidential election will weaken.

This is why several opposition parties are now actively pressing for democratization of neighborhood associations, to fuel popular participation at the local level. On a different plane, the opposition will have to pressure the television networks to modify their strongly biased pro-government postures to reflect the new situation that emerged from the plebiscite. Before the referendum, the opposition had 15 minutes daily of TV time; after winning the plebiscite, it has none.

Democracy certainly has not arrived in Chile yet, but the progress of transition to democracy seems now uncontainable.