Democratisation and State-Civil Society Relations in Chile, 1983-2000: From Effervescence to Deactivation

Article excerpt


The 1973 military coup in Chile did not only put an end to the Socialist experiment led by Salvador Allende. it also destroyed one of the oldest democracies of Latin America. For more than seventeen years, a military regime led by General Augusto Pinochet ruled the country in an extremely repressive manner. Political parties and leaders were persecuted, tortured and assassinated, while all kind of social organizations and associations came under state surveillance or were outlawed. In this way, the nature of the traditional state-civil society relations in Chile, based in the existence of a complex and good organized civil society which was connected to the state through the active mediation of strong and representative political parties, abruptly came to an end.

During the 1980s, however, Chile experienced a peculiar process of democratic liberalization, which was eventually facilitated by the 1980 Constitution imposed by Pinochet himself. This process culminated with the full restoration of democratic rule in March 1990. Since then, Chile has experienced a relatively successful process of democratic consolidation in which for a long time government and opposition reached a high degree of consensus in several areas of policy-making, while the country's economic performance has been among the best within the developing world. Nevertheless, a series of 'authoritarian enclaves' remain within Chile's institutional and legal system, as a heritage of the former regime. In addition, even today the influence of General Pinochet has continued to put the country's political stability under permanent strain.

The Chilean nation has not yet found the way to adequately deal with its recent political past, as both the Allende and Pinochet years continue to exert a very strong influence on current political events. For instance, questions such as the responsibility of the Right and the Left (concepts which are still very alive in this country) in the destruction of the former democratic system, and particularly the human rights violations committed by the Pinochet regime, still keep Chilean society divided in two almost irreconcilable camps. On the one hand, there are many Chileans who enthusiastically supported the former military regime and now forcefully defend the 'oeuvre' of General Pinochet and his person. On the other hand, there is another part of Chilean society which decisively opposed the military government and now demands justice and punishment for those involved in the human rights violations committed by the military in the period 1973-1989. The existence of these two Chiles became clear for international public opinion when Pinochet was detained in London in October 1998. A part of Chile euphorically celebrated this historical event, while the rest of the country frenetically defended the old General and demanded his immediate release.

In this paper, I explore the role Chilean civil society has played in national affairs both during the military government and the current democratic period inaugurated in 1990. I attempt to analyze one of the key paradoxes of the process of democratic transition in Chile: the fact that Chile's civil society has become extremely deactivated following the democratic restoration, while during the military government, particularly in its final stage, civil society was very active in national affairs. How can one explain the relative apathy and demobilization one can find in present day Chilean civil society? As I will argue here, we are dealing with an extremely complex phenomenon representing the result of the combination of a series of historical, political, social, cultural and institutional factors. Among these factors one can mention the traumatic experience of Chile's recent political history and the fears for populism, the pacted nature of the democratic transition, and the moderate and reconciliatory character of the new democratic authorities. …