Chile: Old soldiers never die

‘Civil-military relations are delicate right now’ admitted the out-going Chilean Defence Minister Edmundo Pérez Yoma in January. Indeed, as the thirty four Presidents and Heads of State of the hemisphere assemble in Santiago for the second Summit of the Americas, seasoned observers of Chilean affairs may well ask ‘when was it any different?’ Whilst, as host, President Eduardo Frei will try to project an image of Chile as a stable democracy eager to take its place alongside other Western nations, the long shadow of the armed forces continues to darken the genuine democratic achievements made since General Augusto Pinochet moved aside in 1990.

The World Today
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Although General Pinochet stepped down as head of the army in March, the 82 year old former dictator who ruled Chile between 1973 and 1990, shows no sign of settling down to the life of a loveable grandfather with a healthy military pension. Indeed, Pinochet is seen by many to have reneged on a behind-the-scenes deal to move aside made in January with the Frei government. At that time it was assumed that he would take up his seat in the Senate but he later dismissed the idea saying that January was a time for holidays and not the swearing in of Senators. Pinochet’s delay can be seen as the latest in a long line of public gestures reminding the civilian government of the continued influence of the military, if reminder were needed.

This specific show of strength was a reaction to the Constitutional Accusation brought against him by five Christian Democrat Representatives in the Chamber of Deputies. Christian Democrats of the ruling Centre-Left Concertación coalition called a special session of the Chamber. Opponents accused the General of damaging the country ’s honour since the transition of power in 1990. With scuffles and verbal abuse between supporters and opponents, the police expelled both from the public gallery and the opposition National Renovation and Independent Democratic Union abandoned the session.

In the same week the General Secretary of the Communist Party, Gladys Marín, filed a judicial accusation of genocide against Pinochet, the first such charge to be examined in Chile. An investigation along the same lines is continuing in Spain.

None of these moves stand much chance of landing the General in jail. His elevation to the Senate guarantees immunity from criminal prosecution in Chile. The Spanish investigation has been dismissed by the Foreign Ministry saying ‘Chile does not recognise the competence of courts of other countries to judge events that took place in our territory.’ While the Communist’s case could drag on for years.

The Constitutional Accusation has angered President Frei, who views it as deliberately provocative at a particularly sensitive time. Even if it passes through the Chamber of Deputies it will no doubt be shot down in the Senate where Pinochet has many supporters. Yet it is important that these accusations have been aired.

Reminders of influence

There have been regular reminders of Pinochet’s continued influence in supposedly civilian affairs. In 1993, whilst the then President Patricio Aylwin was out of the country, Pinochet called his troops to their barracks and held emergency meetings with generals in an episode that became known as ‘Boinazo’. There was a real fear that the military might take control again, a fear that persists in the minds of many Chileans.

Stand off

In June 1995, the Chilean army spirited General Manuel Contreras, the former secret police chief, past police guards, away from his farm in southern Chile and into a naval hospital. They were angry at the seven year sentence he had received for ordering the 1976 murder in Washington of Orlando Letelier, the Foreign Minister in the Allende government that was deposed by Pinochet in 1973. In a televised address President Frei called on all Chileans to respect the law and democratic institutions.

After a tense stand-off lasting several weeks the General was handed over to civilian authorities. But not before Frei had to promise a military pay rise and a cut-off date for any remaining military trials. ‘Imagine a country in western Europe where the views of the head of the armed forces are constantly sought on any subject whatsoever. The army’s desire to be society’s referee speaks volumes’3 said a senior member of the ruling coalition at the time.

The continued power of the military is also apparent in other areas. Chile has often been held up as an example of how the problem of a growing welfare bill should be dealt with. Indeed, Frank Field, now British Minister of State in the Department of Social Security, visited the country in 1996 as the head of a House of Commons select committee looking into the Chilean pension reforms of the early 1980s. He hoped to pick up some pointers on switching from a public to a private pension system. However, the military excluded itself from any such change on the grounds of national security. As a consequence armed forces members can retire after 20 years of service with a pension thirty per cent higher than that of equivalent civilians.

Yet there have been reverses for the military. In November last year, President Frei refused to allow the promotion to General of Brigadier Jaime Enrique Lepe Orellana, despite the fact that the then Defence Minister had already rubber stamped it. Lepe was a member of the dreaded secret police, DINA, during the dictatorship and had been implicated in the 1976 murder of Spanish UN official Carmelo Soria, who was working for the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America (CEPAL). It was explained that such promotion would damage the supposedly ‘harmonious relations’ between the general public and the armed forces.

Reform required

There can be no real reduction in the military’s influence without in-depth constitutional reforms. This will not be easy as Pinochet himself wrote the current 1980 constitution which was approved in a much disputed referendum. It allows any president who has served for 6 years the right to be a Senator for life. However, opponents dispute his right to a Senate seat, saying that while Pinochet was Head of State, he was never President.

Nine senators are appointed for an 8 year term, 3 by the Supreme Court, 2 by the president and 4 by the National Security Council. Even with the appointees of the president and the Supreme Court being less hard line, the remainder will almost certainly be drawn from the various wings of the armed forces and the police.

The presence in the Senate of such military men does point to an institutionalisation of the armed forces in the political life of the country. The army continues to define the terms of Chilean democracy. This in a country once proud, and not a little superior, about the fact that whilst other Latin American nations seemed to be ruled by a succession of Generals it was not.

While the arithmetic will be close, it seems that this Senate block will be enough to stifle reform. Currently the ruling Concertación has 20 of the 38 elective Senate seats, but the 9 non elected appointees should be enough for Pinochet’s supporters to maintain control. Previous attempts at reforms, most recently in June 1997, have failed. Without reform in the Senate the likelihood of change in other sectors, such as the labour and divorce laws, is nil.

The idea of Pinochet as a Senator has caused much concern. ‘It is unbelievable that Pinochet, who was never elected democratically, could occupy a seat in the Senate’ said Aníbal Pérez of the coalition member Party for Democracy. Yet observers should be aware of the large support that the General still commands. Whilst many see him as an ex-dictator desperately clinging to some form of power, others believe that he saved the nation from Communism and brought order and stability.

Sergio Onofre Jarpa, former Interior Minister under Pinochet and now an opposition leader, who is against constitutional reform, sees Pinochet and his non-elected Senate colleagues as an important counter balance ‘because each day it appears more probable that a socialist government will be elected in the year 2000.’

Jarpa’s warning seems rather premature. In congressional elections last December the Concertación saw its vote fall by 5% to 50.5%. Within the Concertación coalition the vote of its largest component, the Christian Democrats was down from 27% to 23%. The main winner was the right wing Independent Democratic Union which became the second biggest party in the Senate.


However, there is a general disenchantment with party politics in Chile – somewhat disturbing in such a recently revived democracy. One adult in six did not bother to vote. It is unlikely that General Pinochet’s continued antics will do much to get these lost voters back.

An opinion poll in October by the Centre for the Study of Contemporary Life showed that 67% of Chileans think that Pinochet will be remembered as a dictator and 53% believe he is a stumbling block to democracy. Even Juan Antonio Coloma of the right wing Independent Democratic Union has his doubts, ‘He is history. The voters aren’t interested in the past. They want solutions to their everyday problems.’

But to dismiss Pinochet as just ‘history’ is simplistic. In the Senate he will have a continuing effect on the lives of many millions of Chileans. Perhaps more importantly for trade and investment, is the message to the outside world that Chile has been unable to shake off the influence of the military. As Alfonso Toledo, a Santiago based radio commentator notes, ‘there was always hope that there would be changes when Pinochet stepped down as commander in chief. But by becoming a senator he is laughing in the face of Chile, and the rest of the world.’