In Chile, Pinochet’s Admirers Are Celebrating the No Vote on the New Constitution

For Chileans who resisted Augusto Pinochet’s regime, the election of left-wing president Gabriel Boric offered hope. Yet the rejection of a proposed new constitution threatens to hobble his government and reverse the democratic breakthrough of recent years.

Those who supported the rejection of Chile's new constitution to replace the Pinochet-era one protest against President Gabriel Boric a day after the constitutional referendum, Santiago, Chile, September 5, 2022. (JAVIER TORRES/AFP via Getty Images)

Last December, between the two rounds of Chile’s presidential election, I had dinner with some friends from the Latin American country, each of them 1970s-era exiles and dissidents.

Violetta, an old friend of my mother’s, a warm, chaotic, and sharp woman, was passing through Paris, visiting Europe to see her daughter who had fallen in love with a political-prisoner-turned-exile now living in Norway. We were joined by Pablo and Victor, two exiles who had settled in France.

All three had been active in or around the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR), the revolutionary organization formed in 1965 to prepare for the armed struggle in the case of a coup. After the overthrow of the democratically elected president, Salvador Allende, and the takeover of the state by General Augusto Pinochet in 1973, its members were systematically hunted down and murdered by the Chilean military.

Pablo, an excitable and passionate man of small size and soft features, had been rounded up and imprisoned in Valdivia, where he was working as a university lecturer. He had managed to get out of Chile on account of a French passport his mother had been able to procure him because of her dual nationality.

He was one of those leftists who were being released from prison to present international organizations with evidence of proper judicial process. However, in order to leave the country, Pablo needed to declare himself a French national at the local police station. Many never returned from such mandatory post-release appointments. The “proper judicial process” that these cases were supposed to evidence usually belied the systematic para-judicial murders that concluded them. In Pablo’s case, the normal conclusion of this process was prevented by the French consul personally accompanying him to the police station.

He recounted with relish his final act of defiance before leaving Chile. On the plane, when offered a newspaper by the flight staff, he replied by asking for the French Communist daily: “Have you got L’Humanité?” Feathers ruffled. Request refused. We laughed about the pettiness.

Victor had served in the MIR bodyguard unit assigned to protect Allende, and at the time of the coup, was the head of the organization’s communications. A reserved and softly spoken man with a cloudy left eye, a large smile, and a cool demeanor, he had been less lucky than the likes of Pablo.

In the aftermath of the coup, like so many others, he had been detained and tortured in the infamous Santiago stadium. He then passed through a number of prisons and was finally interned in a concentration camp before gaining exile in 1977. No evidence of his membership of the MIR was ever found. He was from a mining village in the Atacama Desert that no longer existed; decades of political violence and neoliberalism had literally struck his home from the map.

A People United?

Our conversation soon turned to Chile’s current political situation. The far-right José Antonio Kast — son of a Nazi officer, brother of one of Pinochet’s ministers, a dictatorship nostalgist and consummate son of the Chilean bourgeoisie — was running in the second round of the presidential election against Gabriel Boric. A young left-wing politician and veteran of the student movements, Boric was surfing the wave of popular pressure and discontent with the economic conditions instituted during the dictatorship, which had remained largely accepted by the established parties of the following era, known as the Concertación period. The uprising crystallized into the process of writing a new constitution. The polls had Boric ahead, but Violetta remained worried.

As in many cases across the globe, the momentum gained by the popular movements since 2019 had been interrupted by the arrival of the pandemic. Frustration and discontent were vacillating between the conditions that had produced the uprising and the immediate insecurities under COVID-19. The movements’ ability to set the agenda had been stalled and the frames of public discourse risked shifting to terrains more favorable to the Right. Would the Constituent process become yet another frustration to be discarded? Had Pinochet definitively destroyed popular consciousness in Chile? Would this all just be a blip?

Violetta remained sorrowfully skeptical of a Boric victory.

Pablo was incensed that she could underestimate the Chilean people so. Even if Kast were elected, he claimed, the second he tried to dismantle the constituting process (a core campaign promise of his), the Chilean people would rise up to stop him and he would reach an impasse. Simple as that: El pueblo unido jamas será vencido. Victor agreed, adding a point of order: to overestimate ruling-class power was to play directly into its hands.

I was moved by their faith, but it brought me to a strange feeling of sadness. All of us there knew el pueblo unido had been defeated, in 1973, by sheer brutal violence and the systematic liquidation of the organized elements of the Chilean people. This fact lingered in the air around us, heavy and painful, saturating the silence.

Violetta confessed that if Kast were to win, she would not be able to stay in Chile — Ya no puedo más con la violencia. This — from a woman who lived out the dictatorship in clandestine resistance as comrades disappeared all around her — made Pablo and Victor think twice.

The truth is, if Kast had won, it would have been a massacre. He would have shut down the constituting process and this would, of course, have triggered mass protests. The country would have been plunged into political crisis once more, producing a situation of fatigue and frustration with no exit route. These conditions would have led to the unleashing of a dirty war against the opposition movements and leftists without public profiles would have been hunted down and put in holes in the desert next to their forebears.

Before such a terrifying possibility could sink in, Violetta reminded us that, so far, we’d only been talking about what happens if Kast wins: “The real question is what happens if Boric wins!”

Memories of the last coup turned to discussion about the prospect of another.

Boric’s Frente amplio is undeniably weaker, less organized, and less rooted in Chilean society at large than was Allende’s Unidad popular, and the historically decisive international situation is not the same.

Although, as Victor said, “a coup is always possible; it will always be an option for them” — reflecting how all Chilean leftists feel, deep in their bones — this was, for now, an unlikely scenario. In a sense, Pablo was right: without help from cold warriors in the US State Department, as had come in 1973, even the radicalized Chilean bourgeoisie that chose Kast as its presidential candidate was not powerful enough to overthrow a government by force.

The weight of international capital, combined with political destabilization at home, was a more likely weapon of choice.

Right-Wing Counterpower

Domestically, the Right remains very powerful. The vast majority of Chile’s media is owned by only two media groups, both owned by two of the richest men in the country, and both with historic links to the Pinochet regime and the Chilean right.

The pressure on the newly elected President Boric is enormous.

Long-term problems do not go away just because a new left-wing government has come to power. The rise in crime and insecurity is an authentic concern for many people in Chile, not just the rich. The relations between the Mapuche indigenous struggle and the Chilean state will need a generation to be remedied; in the meantime, tensions continue, and violence erupts.

Furthermore, the threat posed by the current sequence of social uprisings has radicalized the Chilean right in a way not seen since the time of Pinochet. They have been backed into a corner. For Violetta, this process of radicalization is just the beginning. “The fascist paramilitary organizations are coming,” she told me, with the absolute certainty of someone who has seen this all before.

Meanwhile, because of the weaknesses of the Left in parliament, Boric’s government is dominated by the parties of the Concertación, pulling its center of gravity away from the social movements and under the influence of forces hostile to his reform project.

On the one hand, the threat of the far right makes the maintenance of a majoritarian bloc in parliament — articulating the center and the left together — all the more important.

No doubt Boric also knows his history. Already in the 1940s, it was the unsteadiness of such a bloc that caused the fall of the popular front government. In the 1970s, it was the retraction of support for Allende’s government by Eduardo Frei’s Christian Democrats that provided the opportunity for the Right to launch a coup. These are outcomes that, understandably, the new president wishes to avoid at all costs.

On the other hand, the influence of the Concertación parties risks compromising the true shift underway in Chilean politics: the form of the new constitution.

The finalized text, published in July this year, reflects the parties’ influence on the process of its preparation. Though very radical — the document constitutionalizes public services, among other things — commitments to the nationalization of resources were diluted to minimize the coercive legal power of the text — raising the question of how such services would have been funded.

The recent rejection (rechazo) of the new constitutional text, on September 4, has sent shockwaves through Chile and will determine the rest of the Boric presidency. It will be interpreted in one of two ways: as the consequence of the dilution of the text’s radicalism or as proof of the need for more moderation. The battle over the interpretation of the result will determine the form that the new constitution will eventually take.

The momentum and popular legitimacy of the Left has suffered a hard blow — and the triumphal popular upsurge which began in 2019 has now been definitively concluded.

In the new conjuncture, the constituent process will be thrust back into the parliamentary arena, one where the Left is weak. The profile of the new convention and the parameters of the new text are more likely to reflect the balance of powers between the established parties. Those forces that have sought to undermine the constituent process and destabilize Boric’s reform agenda are now in a strong position and will seek to take control over the process.

Boric will have to find a way to preside over this.

The alternative possibility — a repeat of the twin crises of social uprising and parliamentary impasse — would not bode well for a context in which the Left no longer holds the initiative. The popular pressure that the movements have so far exerted will now need to be articulated more institutionally if they are to prove effective. Without doubt, the waters have now been muddied.

After the Defeat

Violetta, Victor, and Pablo had not known each other at the time of the coup; they met once all the exiles started to openly return home, after the end of the dictatorship.

They were brought together by the work that many Chilean dissidents and exiles have dedicated themselves to since 1973: campaigning for the release of political prisoners. All three spent the entirety of the dictatorship working with clandestine groups in Chile to put international pressure on the Pinochet regime.

Violetta, the only non-exile of the trio, operated as a mirror between MIR cells in Santiago until she was given leave, under the cover of a European NGO, to go and campaign for her partner’s release in Argentina. After successfully getting him freed, and still under the cover of an international organization, she reintegrated the clandestine resistance in Chile and evaded detection or capture throughout the period.

Victor’s release from the camps was the result of people like him doing the work that he is doing now. Today, that work continues with a new generation of political prisoners from the 2019 Chilean uprising, who, he reminds me, “Boric has done nothing to facilitate the release of” — an utterly intolerable fact for him and others like him.

Victor and Pablo both live on housing estates on the outskirts of Paris. Victor’s was built by France’s Popular Front government in the 1930s: a nice, spacious, almost art deco building. They both have French children and grandchildren and have made their lives here as a result.

Pablo is an activist in La France Insoumise and is heavily invested in the new Nouvelle Union Populaire écologique et sociale (NUPES) coalition. Victor, less electorally inclined, has done a lot of work on police violence against the gilets jaunes and, in particular, the detention and imprisonment of protestors by the French state.

When asked where their hope lies for the future of Chile, these three will rarely say Boric. This is not to say they don’t recognize the advance his government represents. Their hope, however, like all good true revolutionaries, lies with the people.

Although the institutional infrastructure of popular power in Chile has been whittled down to virtually nil since 1973, such institutions have begun to reemerge: from trade unions and political parties to the more idiosyncratically Chilean cabildos (popular councils). Violetta is active in her local cabildo in Santiago, where she still lives today.

For them, hope lies in the capacity of Chileans to rebuild such institutions of popular power. For without them, social transformation is simply not possible — no matter who’s in government.

Discreet Giants

It is often said that we stand on the shoulders of giants. But most of these giants are historically discreet creatures, modest and inconspicuous. We do not know their names, there are no busts of them, and they have rarely written tomes of reference.

People like Violetta, Victor, Pablo, and many, many more have held the torch in the darkest night and known the heat of the brightest day. They are people who have lived through social revolution, clandestine resistance, death squads, and exile. All have lost dear comrades to the struggle. Tortured. Murdered. Disappeared. They have witnessed their movement crushed under the boots of soldiers and scattered to the winds.

And yet they persevered.

Their sense of hope in the future is both dogmatic and profoundly lucid, seemingly transcending even the most cataclysmic defeats of the socialist movement — let alone its (few) electoral victories. They are but three of history’s many discreet giants. Their hope, which survived along with their bodies, belongs to an immovable truth: that the struggle for an idea will always continue. And so it does.