© 2024 WMRA and WEMC
WMRA : More News, Less Noise WEMC: The Valley's Home for Classical Music
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

What the U.S. can learn from the fall of democracy in Chile

Armed soldiers ride atop tanks in the streets of Santiago here on September 12th, as Army Commander General Augusto Pinochet Pinochet is sworn in as President.
Armed soldiers ride atop tanks in the streets of Santiago here on September 12th, as Army Commander General Augusto Pinochet Pinochet is sworn in as President.

On September 11th, 1973, Chile’s democracy fell during a military coup d’état.

“Many people thought, Well, this will take a year or two and then there will be a return to democracy somehow. But Pinochet had other plans,” Heraldo Muñoz says.

The military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet lasted 17 years.

“Democracy is not a natural state. Democracy is a system that is much harder to achieve and to keep than we think,” Robert Funk says.

And what led to its fall in Chile — extreme polarization, economic strife and political violence — are feeling all too similar here in the U.S.

“What happened in Chile is the same thing. We took democracy for granted,” Muñoz says.

Today, On Point: What were the warning signs? And how might the U.S. learn from them?


Robert Funk, associate professor of political science at the University of Chile. (@FunkofChile)

Peter Siavelis, politics and International Affairs Professor at Wake Forest University who’s studied Chile for more than 30 years. Author of the opinion piece Latin America’s Lessons for U.S. Democracy. (@SiavelisPeter)

Heraldo Muñoz, former minister of foreign affairs under President Michelle Bachelet. (@HeraldoMunoz)

Also Featured

Sergio Bitar, former minister of mining under President Salvador Allende in 1973. He was detained under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, imprisoned in Dawson Island, and then forced into exile until 1984. (@sergiobitar)


MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: The January 6th, 2021 attack on Congress was a massive and organized attempt to disrupt the regular transfer of power in America’s democracy. Some call it the first attempted coup in this nation’s modern history. Democracy survived, for now. And if you’re thinking that I sound too much like Chicken Little running around warning that the sky is going to fall, Well, the sky has fallen in the past.

Modern political history has gripping examples of seemingly stable democracies suddenly collapsing into dictatorship. We’d be wise to learn from those examples. This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. On September 11th, 1973, the sky fell in Chile. Just before noon that day, Chilean Armed forces, led by General Augusto Pinochet, bombed La Moneda, the President’s Palace in Santiago.

Socialist President Salvador Allende refused to resign. He had scraped together a close win in Chile’s 1970 election. And in his final message to Chileans, delivered over live radio from the president’s palace, Allende said he would not give up on democracy.

SALVADOR ALLENDE [TRANSLATION]: Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers! These are my last words, and I am certain that my sacrifice will not be in vain, I am certain that, at the very least, it will be a moral lesson that will punish felony, cowardice, and treason.

CHAKRABARTI: Allende died later that day in the presidential palace. That evening, September 11, 1973, the junta’s leader, General Augusto Pinochet, declared victory.

AUGUSTO PINOCHET [TRANSLATION]: The armed forces have acted today solely from the patriotic inspiration of saving the country from the tremendous chaos into which it was being plunged by the Marxist government of Salvador Allende. … The Junta will maintain judicial power and consultantship of the Public Accounts Control. The Chambers will remain in recess until further orders.

CHAKRABARTI: Chile had been experiencing an economy in crisis, a period of intense political polarization and social unrest prior to September 11th, 1973. Those factors played a significant role in the collapse of Chilean democracy. So did the covert actions of foreign governments, most notably the United States. Pinochet stayed in power for 17 years until March 11th, 1990. Over that time, the junta forced more than 1,300 Chileans into exile, killed more than 3,000 and tortured more than 31,000.

Well, today, Robert Funk joins us. He’s an assistant professor of political science at the University of Chile, and he’s with us from Santiago. Professor Funk, welcome.


ROBERT FUNK: I’m well.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: We’re also joined today by Peter Siavelis. He’s a politics and international affairs professor at Wake Forest University. Professor Siavelis, welcome to you.

PETER SIAVELIS: Great to be here, Meghna. Thank you.

CHAKRABARTI: So as I mentioned, we are using the Chilean experience of the fall of democracy, a dictatorship, and then again the rise of democracy as an example to see what we here in the United States can learn about the fragility of a system we take for granted. So let’s start actually even before September 11th, 1973. And Professor Funk, when would you first pinpoint, retrospectively, evidence of Chile’s democratic fragility?

FUNK: I guess in these cases, it always depends on where you start. And you can begin with the election of Salvador Allende in 1970, and the campaign leading up to that. But you can go back even further. You know, you can go back to the early ’60s when the Alliance for Progress, when John F. Kennedy policy of supporting democracy in Latin America basically injected millions and millions of dollars into Chile in an effort to avoid the electoral victory of Salvador Allende in the 1964 election.

And so even at that time, you know, almost a decade before, or I guess eight years before the election of Allende in the previous election, there were efforts to avoid Chile from, as it were, going communist. So, you know, these things, especially in retrospect, these things, you can sort of see them coming once you look at the warning signs going backwards.

But when you’re in the moment, and this is perhaps one of the warnings as well for the United States, when you’re in the moment, it’s very hard to identify the exact points where you say, Oh, this is the moment where we lost it, until you actually lose it.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, so, Professor Siavelis, let me turn to you. Tell me more about what you think about the 1960s in Chile. And also, as Professor Funk pointed out, there’s a global context, right? The United States, not to excuse the United States’ actions in Chile, but the United States is very overtly concerned about the spread of communism, the Cold War, therefore leading it to meddle, to put it lightly, in Chilean politics. But was there some sort of internal fragility to Chilean democracy at that time, that led actions of countries like the U.S. to be effective in destabilizing Chilean democracy?

SIAVELIS: Yeah. I think it’s important to have some context here. I mean, going even further back, I mean, the one thing that I would want to stress is that, you know, we’re not talking about when people have certain visions of Latin America, we’re not talking about some banana republic here. We’re talking about a country with almost 150 years of uninterrupted democracy. A few brief interruptions, but really a strong democracy with strong institutions, historic respect for democratic outcomes.

So in this sense, we’re not talking about an incredibly fragile system from the outset institutionally, but increasingly all of the elements that you underscore really begin to play into divisions within Chile. First of all, the ideological context of the 1960s, with increasing polarization around the world in the rise of the left. But just beyond looking at the surface of what was going on in Chile, I think it’s really important to talk about an underlying social compact that existed in the country from about the World War II on.

And that underlying social compact was that the left would respect property and institutions and the right would gradually engage in a process of reform, granting more and more rights to citizens, more and more social benefits. Now, when that underlying social pact begins to be violated by both sides, this is when Chilean democracy runs into some trouble. And I think ultimately that provides some lessons for us, because I think we’re ultimately seeing in the United States a disruption of the postwar social pact.

CHAKRABARTI: So tell me, how was that social pact violated? What was actually happening?

SIAVELIS: Well, for the first time, Chile becomes incredibly polarized. The left goes way far to the left. The right becomes very, very extreme. And the center is sort of, you know, unable to bridge that gap. And increasingly, you know, discontent with inequality in Chile, which continues today and is the source of some of the unrest that we’ve seen in just the last few years. Increasingly, dissatisfaction with this inequality leads the left to more radical positions on property.

And with the election of Allende, he begins to sort of through a process, a legal process, but one employing democratic loopholes, threats of referendums, begins to nationalize more and more of the productive capacity, the Chilean economy and ultimately the copper industry, which is the most important in Chile. The right reacts in a way that, you know, we see somewhat happening in the United States as well, you know, characterizing the left as unpatriotic, as radical. Really, when you start treating the opposition as some sort of object, then you’re really, really in big trouble.

CHAKRABARTI: So, Professor Funk, do you see those same divisions within Chile in, let’s say, the decade before Allende’s election in 1970? Do you see similar sort of patterns of polarization and divides?

FUNK: Oh, no question. I think you see polarization, increasing polarization. And I think what happens is the polarization is a little bit like inflation. You know, once you get into the cycle, it becomes sort of self-reinforcing. Because one side feels that it needs to move further to the extreme in order to combat the other side, which is also moving further to the extreme. And it keeps on going.

You know, Chile is one of the reasons that Chile had this long history of institutional stability. I’d be careful about saying, you know, 150 years of democracy because, you know, this was a very elite based democracy. … Not everybody could vote. But certainly there was institutional stability. And that’s what we lost, because the institutions were also being utilized by these two extremes.

And I think if you look at what’s happening in the United States, there’s a temptation to combat one extreme on one side by moving further to the extreme on the other side. And what happens there, and Peter mentioned this, and it’s an interesting point, is what happens to the center? What happens to the political center? Chile always had a political central. The historic breakdown of electoral politics in Chile for much of the 20th century was famously the three thirds. One third of the country voted for the left, one third of the country voted for the right, and one third voted for the center.

And during the sixties, the center, particularly the Christian Democratic Party, which had taken over from the Radical Party in the 1960s as the representative of the political center, started shifting to the left, in an effort to stop the far left from coming to power, stopping Allende. And so the Christian Democratic government of Eduardo Frei, for example, they engage in very, very needed and necessary land reform. But what that did was it outraged the right and outraged the elites. It outraged the landowning class and basically contributed to further polarization.

CHAKRABARTI: Professors, I’d like to just sort of check our thesis here a little bit. And ask you, based on what you’ve already described, regarding the divisions within Chile that [preceded] 1973, that weakening or loss of the vital center politically in Chile and the underlying social compact. Chile is its own nation, the United States is its own nation, two different cultures and histories, though somewhat intertwined. But how similar do you feel what happened in Chile before 1973 feels to what the political climate is right now in the United States? Professor Siavelis, let me turn to you on that.

SIAVELIS:  Yes. I think there’s a number of parallels to what’s happening in the United States right now, which, as a longtime observer of Chile, have been really disturbing to me to see. I think to begin with, you know, the sort of polarization. And we use that term very loosely, because actually voters in the United States are really not that polarized. When you measure where they position themselves, it’s the parties that take these very, very polarized positions.

But still, that’s important. That’s what was happening in Chile, as well. … The Christian Democrats had a sweeping victory in the parliamentary elections of 1965 in Chile, which was really the first time a party garnered a majority in parliament, which made them think that they were sort of a new majority for Chile. And they sort of stopped that process of cooperation with the left and the right. But when they lost the 1970 election, we have this polarization taking hold again, which again I see happen in the United States. We have an erosion of the political center among elites. Increasingly, our elites are farther apart and screaming at each other.

CHAKRABARTI: Just to jump in, because I’m sure a phrase that I wrote down and underscored on my notes here was when Professor Funk said in Chile, there was a period where he would describe it more as a democracy of the elite. And so I’m wondering if that has some sort of echoes to you here in the United States.

SIAVELIS: Yeah, I mean, absolutely. But the other thing I would point to that, you know, Robert sort of said well, I’d be careful about characterizing Chilean democracy as 150 years when the elite democracy. Which one wasn’t during that period. I mean, it was in the United States as well. I mean, so I think we need to be careful how we look at Latin America and see it through a different lens than we see other countries in the world. But still, yes, I mean, it is a politics of elite.

And increasingly, you know, I think that elites in the United States are very distant from voters. And, I mean, this goes deeper in the comparison that we can take a look at, because Chile has just come out of a process of trying to draft a new constitution and failing to get rid of the Pinochet era document.

But I think we need some fundamental political reforms in this country, and we’re not willing to do that in order to connect people more with the people that are supposedly representing us. So I do think we have a developing very elite democracy of the type that also existed in Chile. … And I think the other parallel is when people begin to question the rules of the game, and this certainly happened in Chile, and we all know that that’s happening right now.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Professor Funk, I want to bring in the issue of Chile’s economy prior to 1973, as well. And fold that into the picture here, because we had talked a little bit before about, you know, in the 1960s that the United States was pouring money in, for specific reasons, into the Chilean political process. But also, wasn’t the United States sort of key in squeezing the Chilean economy regarding investment, credit, etc.? And what did Salvador Allende himself do between 1970 and 1973 that further sort of weakened the economy?

FUNK: Right. So it sounds a bit contradictory. On the one hand, you have the United States injecting dollars. And on the other hand, squeezing. Well, one thing came first and the other thing came later. So the Alliance for Progress in the 1960s, as I said, was basically a project of the Kennedy administration, which began and actually became kind of the poster child for this policy. But once Lyndon Johnson comes in and the United States finds itself much more mired in Vietnam, Johnson’s attention basically shifts to Asia, and they kind of leave the Alliance for Progress behind.

Once it becomes apparent that Allende could win the 1970 election. We have a new president in Washington, which is Richard Nixon. And you have, I don’t remember if it’s Nixon or Kissinger who says we’re going to make the Chilean economy scream, this is before the election. This is a way of pressuring again, pressuring the country. And once Allende is elected, the United States continues this process of kind of cutting off Chile in terms of credit and trade.

And Chile is a country which even today, after many decades of pretty, pretty spectacular economic growth and success, is a country which still depends almost entirely on the rest of the world, for imports, we import basically everything, including capital. So when the United States cuts Chile off, that’s one problem. But as you mentioned, there’s also quite serious internal mistakes. And this is tied in with the politics as well, because, again, one Allende’s mistakes was to kind of over emphasize rhetorically the idea of a socialist revolution when in actual policy, he wasn’t really a revolutionary.

He was a Democrat, he had a left flank that he needed to keep happy. And he kept talking about revolution, which really annoyed the right. And he didn’t go far enough in terms of policy and that really annoyed the left. And so he was really stuck in terms of policy. But economically, he started increasing wages. Eventually, it led to severe inflation.

By 1973, we were up to about 300, 350% inflation in order to control that, he controls prices. So we have the combination of price controls and wage increases, which is a deadly combination. And that, of course, leads to black markets. And the country is, of course, importing less because the United States isn’t trading with us.

And so we’re in this kind of vicious circle, which we’ve seen in many other countries, when they try to deal with hyperinflation, they try to price controls. It doesn’t work. And that was basically the economic crisis that by 1973, what it manages to do is increase support among the middle sectors. Not just the far right, but the middle sectors who are fed up of lining up to buy milk and flour for something to be done. No one expected a 20-year dictatorship, but they wanted something done to alleviate their economic woes.

Well, the something, I mean, was pretty dramatic. It was a coup d’état. But we’ll come back to that in just a second, because I also want to just explore for another moment the challenge of governance in a politically polarized time. Because Allende won in 1970 with just a hair over 36% of the vote. And in the Chilean constitution at that time, that didn’t actually mean that he won. Because he didn’t win the majority of the vote, but rather a plurality. So the Chilean Congress essentially had to name the president. And that’s a complicated story in and of itself. But Allende was named.

But I point that out because that means that 60% of people who cast a vote in Chile in 1970 did not vote for Allende. And did he govern in a way that recognized that fact, essentially?

SIAVELIS: I think it’s important to note when we’re talking about this victory with 36% and then Congress having to name him, that has historically been the case in Chile for most of the postwar period because of the three thirds that Robert talked about. You know, no political force is really able to garner a majority. And in that case, according to the Chilean constitution, the Chamber of Deputies names, and historically what the Chamber of Deputies has done is named the president that received a plurality of the vote, and they did exactly what they were supposed to do.

But I think you’re right. I mean, more people voted against him than for him. And to make matters even worse, you know, his support in Congress was roughly parallel to the percentage of the vote he received. So what you face is a classic situation of deadlock, where Allende is unable to legislate through Congress and has to find other means and the opposition is unable to impeach him or remove him, within the context of a six-year presidential term.

And this gets back to a long discussion in the literature on Chile about whether, you know, Chile had a parliamentary system, that things would have been fundamentally different. Because this strategic error or this this mistake of Allende coming to power with just 36% of the vote would never have happened.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Professor Funk, I’ve got to let you go here in another minute or two. So let me ask you, as you had said a moment ago, no one expected a coup to last 17 years. It actually is quite shocking to the ear to hear that the expectation at that time was just a couple of weeks. But let me ask you, what is the thing that finally sort of pushed the politics over the edge in Chile and actually then precipitated that a coup would happen?

FUNK: Well, interestingly enough, there’s a temptation to say that what precipitated it was the naming of Pinochet as commander in chief of the armed forces in August of ’73, just a month before the coup. But, in fact, that’s not the case. You know, Pinochet was named, because what Allende did, was in order to try to resolve his political crisis, he named the previous commander in chief into his cabinet as interior minister.

And so then he was left without a commander in chief, puts in Pinochet, who everyone considered to be very loyal. And of course, Pinochet then leads the coup, except that Pinochet didn’t lead the coup. The coup, the plans for the coup had been basically hatched by the Navy and were already well under way by the time that Pinochet takes over. And when he sees that the thing is going in that direction, he kind of gets on board and … becomes the head of the country. It’s quite extraordinary.

So I think it’s very hard to find a particular point. You know, the last year or two of the Allende government involved attempted coups. There was a coup, there was a plot basically by lower down officers, which was stopped by the armed forces themselves. There was a series of warning signs over the last year or two that was clear that things were going in that direction. And I’ve spoken to people on the Allende government who said, you know, we knew this was coming. It was just a matter of when.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Professor Funk talked about members of the Chilean government at the time that he has subsequently spoken with. Let’s recall that that coup happened on September 11th, 1973. And it was members of Salvador Allende’s cabinet that became immediate targets of Pinochet’s junta. And at the time, Sergio Bitar was the minister of mining and one of Allende’s top economic advisers. On September 11th, 1973, after learning that the presidential palace had been bombed, Bitar told us he went into hiding. Until:

SERGIO BITAR: The military started proclaiming … mentioning a list of people that has to be presented, otherwise they will be put in prison or whatever can happen to them. So I presented myself. I said to myself, I was very naive in some way, I have done nothing. My government is a democratic government. Those are the guys who are using violence. So I will face this.

CHAKRABARTI: Bitar turned himself in. He and his fellow ministers faced a punishment they had not expected.

BITAR: We were sent to an island of the south of the Magellan Strait, the closest places to Antarctica, of Chile in the southern part.

CHAKRABARTI: They were sent to Dawson’s Island, which Pinochet had turned into a concentration camp for political prisoners. They were taken by plane in the middle of the night, hands tied, no information about where they were going or why.

BITAR: They took us from the airport to the port to take us to the island. … I remember that a gun was shot within this military bank and went and hit the hand of the guy who was beside me, who was under secretary of Interior. And I felt blood. So it was a second in when I thought that they were going to kill us, to shoot us, all of us.

CHAKRABARTI: From the tank, they then boarded a ship.

BITAR: And we reached the island. It was very early in the morning, lights on us, military with the machine guns around, snow everywhere. And then they put us in the place and they said that you are prisoners of war and they started reading the Geneva Convention. How if you escape, what would happen. Blah, blah, blah. It’s absolutely crazy. Everything.

CHAKRABARTI: Bitar and other prisoners were forced into hard labor 10 to 12 hours a day, cutting down trees, sawing logs, sinking fences. Now, remember the island, Dawson’s Island, is close to Antarctica. They were given few rations and clothing, despite the frigid temperatures.

BITAR: We didn’t know what would happen to us, if we were going to be for years, if we were going to die. We didn’t know what was going on with our families.

CHAKRABARTI: Then one day the prisoners were told that they had half an hour to pack up their belongings. They were moved to another concentration camp inland, but international pressure at the same time was also mounting. So on November 14th, 1973, Bitar was released from Dawson’s Island. He left Chile, seemingly forever.

BITAR: I was taken to house arrest for a while, and then I received an invitation from the University of Harvard. And then they allowed me to leave without passport, or the passport they gave me had an L. The L meaning that I … could not come back.

CHAKRABARTI: It took ten years. More than a decade later, Sergio Bitar was finally allowed back home. In 1984, he returned to Chile and immediately involved himself in the fight to restore Chilean democracy. But it was a hard fight, he says, and one that too many have forgotten.

BITAR: Especially the young people that thinks that democracy is given, and it’s there. Nobody will break it. And what others lived, what others fought for is lost. So social memory, collective memory is a very important process. How the society keeps remembering not for vengeance, but for awareness, for consciousness. And I am afraid that we are not doing that well in terms of the processes that leads us to a better world.

CHAKRABARTI: Today, we are taking a look at the modern history of Chile, particularly what led to the 1973 military coup in Chile that collapsed Chilean democracy. And then what happened later in 1990 to rebuild Chilean democracy and what lessons the United States can learn?

I’d like to bring into the conversation now Heraldo Muñoz. He’s with us from Santiago, Chile. He’s former minister of foreign affairs under President Michelle Bachelet and was an active participant in the dissident movement against General Augusto Pinochet.

HERALDO MUÑOZ: Hello, how are you? Nice to join you …

CHAKRABARTI: I’m very glad that you could be with us today. We’ve been talking about the fragility of Chilean democracy in the 1960s and early ’70s at a very high level, at the level of governance and macroeconomic policy. But oftentimes, I wonder how that was experienced, or the Pinochet era was experienced, on the ground at a micro level. In the homes of average Chileans far from Santiago.

And the reason why I ask that is I think that a lot of the times in the United States, we hear in the media, we talk about democratic fragility, we talk about deadlock in Washington, non-representative government. And to much of the nation, to much of the United States, Washington feels very far away. So the concept of losing democracy doesn’t really feel significant or real in the day to day lives of some Americans. So what was it like in Chile when the democracy collapsed after 1973?

MUÑOZ: Well, after the 1973 coup, our lives changed. We had been accustomed to democracy in Chile and the rule of law. Chile was one of the countries in the region that was distinguished by its democracy. So our lives changed. Because it was not only a bloody coup, but the repression that followed was among the most brutal in the world. … People were afraid of voicing opinions.

If you were on a bus, you wouldn’t comment to your friend or your partner anything critical of the dictatorship, because there would be a fear of being denounced to the secret police. So what followed was political disappearances, executions, exile, torture, the elimination of Congress, the elimination of all political parties, and basically the elimination of rule of law. What the dictator decided was what was the rule in the country.

So it was a very sad period. 17.5 years I had studied in the U.S. I had returned to Chile when I was elected, and I could have returned to the U.S. to live safely. And I did for a couple of years. But then I decided to join the resistance or dissident movement because losing democracy is one of the most the saddest things that can happen to a country.

CHAKRABARTI: So in 1973 you were, what, 22 at the time. And in fact, Allende’s forces tried to arrest you, if I understand that correctly. But they went to a neighbor’s door and that allowed you to flee. But then, as you said, you came back in 1978. So still, what? Not even 30. Maybe 27 or 28 years old at the time. But when you say that essentially it was the rule of law that was eliminated, because the dictator’s will is what happened. Did that loss of the rule of law, do you feel like it touched every Chilean, no matter where they were or who they were in the country?

MUÑOZ: Oh, absolutely. Without a doubt. Even those that were in favor of the military government could be a victim of the authoritarianism of the regime. This was systematic repression of all opinions, of all political parties. Not only the left wing political parties were eliminated, also the centrists and the right wing, the Christian Democrats, the Christian Democratic Party had been the centrist party. And that was sort of the pragmatic center, became ideological and joined the right’s position to remove president Allende, they were also repressed.

Even though they not all, but most of the party had supported the coup. But then they were the object of repression, as well. So nobody was safe. The idea of being vulnerable was for all Chileans. And that began changing only after the massive mobilizations in the 1980s, where we came out into the open to oppose the regime. But even then, the repression continued. There were assassinations in the 1980s. All throughout the dictatorship, the sense of insecurity, the sense of vulnerability affected just about every Chilean.

CHAKRABARTI: We’re going to talk about the process, the long process to regain Chile’s democracy in just a minute. But Professor Siavelis, let me turn back to you, because there’s two things that have been emerging over the past ten or 15 minutes of conversation. And first of all, I know right now there are listeners hearing this program who are scoffing and saying, you know, the door-to-door raids, the torture, the total loss of rule of law, that can’t happen here. We might have a fragile democracy, but the extremes, the terrible extremes that we saw in Chile that the Chilean people had to live through, not going to happen in the United States. What would you say to folks who think that?

SIAVELIS: What I would say is in country after country, during the last decades of history, people have said that cannot happen here. That will never happen here and that can happen here. I think there’s two things. First of all, people don’t quite understand that for the vast majority of human history, people have lived under authoritarian regimes. The vast majority of people, the vast majority of years, under non-democratic regimes. Democracy is difficult. Democracy is hard to run.

And the United States is not invincible. This is another tendency of Americans, that’s to think that somehow the United States is completely immune from political processes that have happened in other parts of the world, and that our Constitution is somehow a divinely inspired document that’s going to keep us from Democratic failure. And that supposition is just downright wrong.

CHAKRABARTI: And then the other thing that I’ve heard a couple of times is that there was a sense of surprise among those who allied themselves behind Pinochet, that the dictatorship lasted as long as it did. I heard a little earlier, Professor Funk saying, Well, you know, a lot of people thought it was just going to be a couple of weeks and then things would normalize and it would be fine.

I don’t know if this is a stretch here, but in my mind that brought up some of the Republican elite in 2016 aligning themselves behind then candidate Donald Trump, regardless of what he said, because they thought they could, you know, quote-unquote, control him. I mean, is that too far afield? My analogy?

SIAVELIS: I wouldn’t think so. I mean, I think, you know, you make commitments and sometimes have unexpected outcomes. In Chile, immediately following the coup, the Catholic Church, even though the Catholic Church became a fierce opponent of the Pinochet regime, eventually at first supported it, at first supported the coup before it realized that it was going to last 17 years. We can say something very similar about parties for the center. So in this sense, we really need to be careful because you often don’t get what you ask for. You get something fundamentally different.

CHAKRABARTI: So, Heraldo Muñoz, you worked for years when you returned to Chile in 1978 to restore democracy. [In] the early ’80s, you had mentioned that the opposition became more visible then. Why?

MUÑOZ: Well, let me pick up on your previous question before tackling this one. Because, I mean, we sense a crushing loss of innocence in Chile because we felt it couldn’t happen in our country. We have such a long tradition of democratic rule in Chile, could not turn into a dictatorship. And turning to the most brutal dictatorship the hemisphere has seen, and that we could implement structural changes through the ballot and have won in a democratic election. So it can happen anywhere. If it happened in Chile, it can happen anywhere.

Given the circumstances, of course, Chile at that time was in the context of Cold War. The U.S. role in promoting the coup and then initially supported the Pinochet dictatorship was very important. And the polarization that took place in our country, political parties were unable to form majority rule coalitions and democratic consensus broke down. But let me go into your question. Why did it happen in the 1980s?

At first, we tried to survive, to reconstruct the political party structures, to keep them alive. I was a member of the Socialist Party, and that’s what we try to do. And by the way, I sat in jail in 1979 after I had come back from the U.S., I had done my Ph.D.

But my Ph.D. did not protect me from falling to jail and being beaten up quite strongly by the police. But in 1982, there was a particular moment, the economic model, the extreme neoliberal monetarist model inspired in the Chicago School of Economics model came crashing down, and a lot of companies went broke, banks went broke.

The dollar had been fixed with the peso and they had to devalue. And that meant huge unemployment and economic havoc. And in that context, we began mobilizing. Because many voices began to be heard about the errors of the dictatorship. And that allowed us to go out in the street and begin protesting for the first time. And massive protest picked up enormously. I mean, we were surprised how strong the protest nationwide were. Once we came out and tried to rally not only the dissidents, the majority of the Chileans.

CHAKRABARTI: We’re unfortunately running out of time here. I want to get a sense, though, those many voices. It took work to sort of unify them as voices for restoration of democracy and in opposition to the dictatorship. I mean, you had to build bridges, including with people who had supported Pinochet.

MUÑOZ: That’s a fundamental point, because we allied with the Christian Democrats, the traditional centrist party who had ended up supporting the coup. And then became the object of repression, as well as the left. So basically, making an alliance with the other side, we saw the Christian Democrats as the adversary of the past, thereby they became the allies of the recuperation of democracy with a view to the future.

And at the same time, we also began talking to right wingers who were liberal right wingers who actually, you know, respected democracy and became opponents of Pinochet. So we established a wide alliance of political parties and independence, which led the operation of democracy.

Related Reading

EL Universal:Latin America’s Lessons for U.S. Democracy” — “What happened on January 6, 2021 in the United States has once and for all put an end to the idea that the North American country is exceptional.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.