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Chileans didn't 'revive' Pinochet in 2022. They rejected what helped trigger him in 1973

JACOBINS AND JACKBOOTS Chilean Army Gen. Augusto Pinochet (left) and then Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973 before the coup that would kill Allende and begin Pinochet's 17-year-long dictatorship.
Enrique Aracena
JACOBINS AND JACKBOOTS Chilean Army Gen. Augusto Pinochet (left) and then Chilean President Salvador Allende before the coup that began Pinochet's 17-year-long dictatorship.

COMMENTARY The vote to retain Chile's Pinochet-era constitution wasn't a vote to retain Pinochet. It was a vote to block the leftist overreach Pinochet exploited.

If you’re still trying to figure out why Chileans resoundingly rejected their new, liberal constitution last Sunday, I’d suggest for a moment you set aside politics for poetry.

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Two years ago — when eight out of 10 Chilean voters were howling for a more progressive constitution to replace the 1980 charter written under Augusto Pinochet’s vicious military dictatorship — it brought to my mind a stanza by Chile’s late Nobel laureate, Gabriela Mistral:

Una en mí maté: yo no la amaba.

I killed one of me, one I did not love.

I concluded Chileans had finally decided to “kill” that “one” of them who’d haunted their national soul for half a century: Pinochet, the late fascist tyrant whose 17-year-long regime murdered or “disappeared” more than 3,000 people before he left power in 1990.

READ MORE: Why Chileans rejected their new constitution — even after they'd hollered for one

Granted, the Pinochet-era constitution has been tweaked and liberalized as Chile’s democracy has taken deeper root. But for many Chileans it still bears the Pinochet-era stench of laissez-faire capitalism and raw socio-economic inequality. So even though Chile is Latin America’s most prosperous country, cauldrons of fed-up anger boiled over in massive street protests a few years ago.

That led to Chileans’ resolve to ditch the Pinochet constitution — and "kill" Pinochet once and for all.

But it turns out that wasn’t the “one” of them Chileans spurned on Sunday. Instead, the "one" of them that they ended up ditching in this instance was the "one" that they remember helped open the door to Pinochet's monstrous right-wing reign in the first place: overweening left-wing overreach.

And there lies the point that anyone who’s trying to understand Chile’s constitutional referendum result — and the effect it could and should have on Latin America — has to get.

The Jacobin intolerance of the Allende years gave jackbooted generals like Pinochet the pretext they sought to establish their monstrous right-wing dictatorship in Chile.

As the years go by — especially the past few in Chile, where the left has been so ascendant the country now has a 36-year-old, socialist-leaning president, Gabriel Boric — memory tends to fade of what led up to Pinochet’s 1973 coup. Namely, Salvador Allende’s socialist presidency and all the militant, profligate excess that came with it.

I’m not disparaging Allende’s desire to make Chile a more democratic and equitable society. And I’m certainly not rationalizing Pinochet’s barbaric putsch — or Allende’s suicide as it happened.


But Allende’s economy-busting social spending, and the thuggery of ideological enforcers like the Revolutionary Left Movement, or MIR, reflected an arrogant climate where “Chile’s tradition of political give-and-take was dismissed by the left as a bourgeois anachronism,” Pamela Constable and Arturo Valenzuela write in their acclaimed book A Nation of Enemies: Chile Under Pinochet.

And that Jacobin intolerance gave jackbooted generals like Pinochet the pretext they sought to take over Chile (and, lest we forget, the pretext the U.S. sought to help them do it).

THUMBS DOWN An opponent of Chile's new draft constitution listens in Santiago for vote results during Sunday's referendum.
Cristobal Escobar
An opponent of Chile's new draft constitution listens in Santiago for vote results during Sunday's referendum.

Fast forward 49 years — and it’s not a stretch to suggest many saw in the draft constitution they were voting on last Sunday echoes of the reckless left-wing utopianism that preceded Chile’s merciless right-wing dystopianism. No matter how liberal they might have been feeling last year when they elected an assembly to write the new charter — more than two-thirds of its members hailed from the left — the final document likely elicited more sensations of déjà vu than democracy.

Its 388 articles, 178 pages and 54,000 words — 12 times the verbiage of the U.S. Constitution — were crammed with more high-handed social progressivism than a late-night poli sci debate in a freshman dorm.

It wasn’t so much the substance of the provisions — indigenous empowerment, abortion rights and eco-friendly mining restrictions aren’t exactly revolutionary ideas in 2022 — but rather their radical form that made voters balk. The lavish rights and restrictions it decreed, from free healthcare to the nationalization of water; the populist reforms and restructuring it laid out, from enlarging the state to designating Chile a “plurinational” country, reminded Chileans of the rash socio-economic hyper-equality Allende and company once tried to engineer.

It also reminded them of the dark backlash that ensued.

Which is why the rest of Latin America’s high-flying left needs to think twice now about its own overreach. Colombia’s new president, former leftist guerrilla Gustavo Petro, cluelessly tweeted after the Chilean plebiscite that “Pinochet is revived.” Nope. Chileans simply opted to reject what helped bring Pinochet’s evil to life 49 years ago.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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