The long legacies of dictatorship: Chile as a beacon of hope once again?


Graffiti, Valparaiso January 2020

On 4 December 1970 Salvador Allende won a democratic election in Chile. He won on a programme that would not have raised eyebrows in any of the social-democratic welfare states of Northern Europe for example, a programme that promised to combat the great inequalities that characterised Chilean society then (as now). It included land reform and the nationalisation of some industries, as well as access to health services and education for all of Chilean citizens. The election result was close, and it was not the first time Allende had run for President, in fact he had been a presidential candidate three times before, 1952, 1958 and 1964. He lost by only a small margin in 1958, and that fact triggered sustained US support for Allende’s political adversaries: after Cuba, another socialist leaning country in Latin America had to be avoided at all cost.

Allende’s government had to pacify different factions – from a radical left to Christian-conservatives and the coalition that had elected him was never stable. But still, he was Chile’s elected President and tried under difficult circumstances to establish a more just and socialist-leaning society by democratic means. In fact, already his predecessor had started to partly nationalise for example the copper industry, Chile’s biggest export earner, a policy Allende continued and accelerated.

The country was deeply divided when Allende came to power, visible in his narrow victory, and political violence escalated, from both sides in different ways and to different degrees. Groups of the radical right eventually started a sustained campaign of terror, and as the situation escalated in various ways, Allende on 10 September 1973 offered a plebiscite to decide if he should stay on as President or not.

But important actors had no interest in such a democratic process, thus on 11 September 1973 General Pinochet led a coup d’état and started his dictatorship with the forced death of Allende and a reign of terror. To this day, most commentators including the supposedly liberal Economist defend the Pinochet dictatorship as it created order and an economic model that made Chile the darling of capitalist development. Human rights abuses were to condemn, but there is always a price to pay for capitalist progress!

The hope that Allende and his belief in social justice and equality offered seemed crushed forever, or at least for a long time. One of the most heart-breaking testimonies of the time of the coup are pictures in a documentary film of workers who just learn what has happened, and the despair and disbelief on their faces. They understood immediately what the coup meant, and how it would brutally destroy any hope for a better future.

But many vested interests in the highly unequal society of Chile did not mind a dictatorship as long as it served their interests. In the plebiscite that ended it formally in 1988, votes were close in many regions and a few regions indeed voted to keep Pinochet in power, even if the overall result was a 53% to 44% in favour of ending his rule.

Since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship, Chile has seen various governments of a conservative and more left-leaning nature, but the fundamental problems that stifle Chilean society and the hopes and aspirations of too many of its people have remained: deep seated inequalities that do not allow a life in dignity, relevant affordable education, reasonable access to health services, and a pension that secures a decent living standard for large parts of the population. Protests had erupted in the past under the leftist government of Michelle Bachelet, mainly carried by students and demanding a different system of education. Now, it was a on the face of it small increase in the metro fare that triggered a whole country to become a social movement, or at least a sizeable population. Chile Despertó, Chile Woke Up, is the slogan under which a different future is being imagined once again. While in mainstream media often vilified in similar ways Allende once was, the movement is much more than a couple of troublemakers trashing buildings and setting fire to the metro, banks, pharmacies, exclusionary health providers and other symbols of the state of affairs that has made Chile a country that works for a corrupt elite only, be they of the left or the right. A key issue is that real, fundamental chance never happened even after Pinochet. The revised constitution that was created under his dictatorship is still in place, as are the fundamental structures that determine the workings of the state in Chile, both entrenching the power of a narrow elite.

Those who now take to the streets, who sit in neighbourhood assemblies and other forums to bring their voice in, want to finally change all that – and once more Chile has become a hope for many who believe in bottom-up politics and the power of social movements to change things for the better.


Graffiti, Santiago de Chile, January 2020

Throughout the land, from Arica to Punta Arenas, political activism has been born again – and much of it relates back to the beliefs behind the ideas of Allende and his compatriots, and many of those tortured and murdered by the dictatorship, like artist Victor Jara, indirectly get a new voice.


Friday gathering in Punta Arenas, December 2019

Will the outcome be different this time? There is a big drive for a Constitutional Assembly to give everybody a voice in drawing up a new constitution. But thus far President Piñera has not stepped down, nor has anybody been prosecuted for the harsh reaction of the military and policy during the state of emergency he initially declared. Armed soldiers shot at people with pellet guns and blinded many of them or caused severe eye injuries – thus an important symbol for the movement are those tortured eyes, sprayed on many walls and showing up in numerous artworks. The symbolism could not be clearer: blind the people so they do not see what the state does to them, only they have woken up and refuse to be blinded. When talking to people a mixture of hope and sorrow becomes evident: Many fear an army-putsch could happen again – and while the Cold War is over and we live in different times, will anybody come to the rescue and stand with the Chilean people this time? It seems more likely that leaders like president Trump will pop up Piñera or another puppet for the oligarchy in his place.

So for now it is wait and see. It is weekly gatherings, protest, artistic engagement – whole galleries of new graffiti have been created that skilfully provide a rallying point for this wider movement for social justice that has engulfed Chile. But the fascists are never far away, as one is reminded too often. In broad daylight, they can enter Santiago’s Central Cemetery and spray ‘Viva Pinochet’ on Allende’s gravestone in blood red colour.

For now, hope seems stronger than the fear of defeat – let’s hope it stays that way.

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