Turning Back the Clock in Latin America

˙ Voces

Even in more stable countries like Chile, disaffection with democracy pervades.

Democracy in Latin America is and will always be an evolving issue. In November 2018, a Latinobarometro poll showed that only 48% of Latin Americans believed in democracy as the best form of government, the lowest percentage in decades. One of the more striking statistics came from Chile, which despite only having escaped a repressive military dictatorship thirty years ago saw 23% of the population polled saying that an authoritarian regime would be preferable to the current democratic system. How is it possible that almost a quarter of a country that went through a terribly violent dictatorship would prefer a reinstitution of authoritarianism? Approaching this conundrum begs at least two questions: first, are Chileans aware of the full extent of violent repression under the Pinochet regime? If so, are conditions in the country such that such a regime would be preferable?   

Pinochet’s violent regime killed, disappeared, incarcerated, and tortured tens of thousands of people over the course of fifteen years remains controversial in Chile. Even today, there is a small but vocal contingent of Chileans that support Pinochet’s regime, mostly comprised of people over 60 who lived through the regime and the plebiscite. Even Chile’s current center-right President, Sebastian Piñera, expressed sympathy for Pinochet during his detention in the United Kingdom in the late 1990’s, barely a decade after the end of the dictatorship—though he voted “no” in the 1988 plebiscite. That said, during the past 25 years the Chilean government has initiated and maintained various projects of historical memory and education. After the plebiscite, commissions such as the “Vicaría de la Solidaridad”— in conjunction with the Catholic Church, which supported the Pinochet regime–and the “Comisión Valech”  were created to document and raise awareness of human rights violations during the dictatorship. Eventually, prosecutions were initiated and convictions handed down for human rights abuses during the dictatorship, although Pinochet himself was never held accountable.

However, despite these efforts, the resulting situation is one in which there are two narratives concerning Pinochet’s rule: one in which he was a violent, oppressive dictator, and one in which he was a leader who saved the country from socialism, took a hard hand against dissent and built the foundation for Chile’s “economic miracle.” Although nostalgia for Pinochet is undercut as more and more information becomes available about the regime’s atrocities and Chile struggles with the rampant economic inequality bequeathed by its laissez-faire policies, it survives politically. A candidate for Chile’s 2017 election, Jose Antonio Kast, openly lauded Pinochet and ran on a campaign that revived the dictator’s conservative policies and rhetoric. Kast belonged to the Independent Democratic Union (UDI), a party in Piñera’s right-wing “Chile Vamos” coalition, but resigned to run as an independent candidate. After receiving only 7.9% of the vote in the 2017 primaries, he went on to found the ultra-right “Republican Action” party in 2018 to give voice to what he claimed was a “silent majority” of ultra-conservative Chileans.

Kast might not be totally wrong. Despite garnering fewer than 8% of the vote, only 47% of the voting population went to the polls for the 2017 presidential primaries, about 3% fewer than in the 2013 elections. Only slightly more – 49% — showed up for the final election in December 2017, and the fact that fewer than 50% of Chileans participated shows a surprising disaffection with democracy in what is considered one of Latin America’s more stable and prosperous countries.

It would be mistaken to compare Chile with countries such as Brazil or the United States, where democratic disaffection ushered in ‘democratic authoritarian’ leaders that that pandered to a constituency skeptical of the political establishment, blaming voters’ woes on what they presented as the chaotic and dangerous pluralism of democracy. In Brazil, acute insecurity, rampant corruption that flourished under Workers’ Party (PT) rule, and entrenched cultural conservatism pushed voters toward Bolsonaro, despite his open admiration for Brazil’s military dictatorship. In the United States, a toxic mix of factors, including fake newsgrowing inequality, and entrenched racism and xenophobia, drove voters toward Donald Trump.

The Chilean silent majority—those who sat out the recent election—are not those that would support Kast and his invocation of Pinochet, but rather those that feel that democracy is not doing enough for them, materially. Since mandatory voting was dropped in 2012, the rate of participation in presidential elections has steadily decreased. In 2014, Chile’s economy was hit by a decline in global copper prices, and significant income inequality persists. Other factors such as increasing migration of poor Venezuelans and Haitians, various government corruption scandals, and stalled social reforms, especially of the education system, might further increase skepticism of the capacity of democracy to produce results. Authoritarianism in Chile, for some, might mean not bloody oppression, but order and economic growth.

What can be done? First of all, a system or policy to revive interest in democratic politics should be implemented. A way to achieve this goal could be mandatory civic education, which was approved by the National Education Council last February and will go into effect in 2019 according to the Ministry of Education website.

Another step is political renewal, particularly a reinvigorated Chilean left, which suffered a loss of support and fractured during and after Bachelet’s second term. Chilean political parties have had a tendency to recycle candidates for office, which makes it seem as though the democratic system, as a whole, is stagnant.

Thankfully, Chilean voters did not choose an illiberal populist in the 2017 elections. But if over half of Chilean voters do not feel represented by any of their electoral options, the risk of an authoritarian-minded alternative exists—as events elsewhere in the region and Chile’s own history amply shows.