Chilean Voters End Pinochet’s Military Rule Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After seventeen years of military rule under General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, Chileans peacefully resumed the democratic process by electing Patricio Aylwin Azócar to the presidency.

Summary of Event

Chileans in the 1960’s were justifiably proud of their long tradition of democratic rule supported by a military committed to upholding their nation’s constitution. In 1970, the candidate of a leftist coalition, Salvador Allende, was elected to the presidency in a three-way race that gave him only slightly more than one-third of the vote. His regime’s attempts to redistribute national wealth caused a brief spurt in growth but soon foundered as their inflationary consequences began to be felt locally and as foreign interests searched for ways to impede Allende’s success. By 1972, economic chaos reigned in Chile, yet the midterm congressional elections in 1973 did not give Allende’s opposition the two-thirds majority it needed to impeach him. At that point, the military, which had supported Allende’s taking office in 1970, plotted to depose him. On September 11, 1973, it launched a well-coordinated coup. Allende died, probably by suicide, in the national palace rather than give in to the military and thus collude in the interruption of the constitutional process. Democracy;Chile Elections;Chile [kw]Chilean Voters End Pinochet’s Military Rule (Dec. 14, 1989) [kw]Voters End Pinochet’s Military Rule, Chilean (Dec. 14, 1989) [kw]Pinochet’s Military Rule, Chilean Voters End (Dec. 14, 1989) [kw]Military Rule, Chilean Voters End Pinochet’s (Dec. 14, 1989) Chile;government Democracy;Chile Elections;Chile [g]South America;Dec. 14, 1989: Chilean Voters End Pinochet’s Military Rule[07480] [g]Chile;Dec. 14, 1989: Chilean Voters End Pinochet’s Military Rule[07480] [c]Government and politics;Dec. 14, 1989: Chilean Voters End Pinochet’s Military Rule[07480] Pinochet Ugarte, Augusto Allende, Salvador Aylwin Azócar, Patricio

A military junta then took control of governing Chile. The national police rounded up and executed Allende supporters in what would rank among the bloodiest of military coups in twentieth century Latin America. Estimates put the number of Chileans killed during and immediately after the coup somewhere between five thousand and fifteen thousand. Additional thousands escaped death by fleeing into exile.

The military at first insisted that it would hold power only as long as needed to restore order and prepare the way to a resumption of the democratic process. The commander in chief of the army, General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, began to consolidate power for himself. He created the National Intelligence Directorate National Intelligence Directorate (Chile) (Dirección Nacional de Inteligencia, or DINA) to search out dissenters. In the purges sponsored by that organization, several hundred Chileans disappeared between 1975 and 1976.

By the time Pinochet became president of Chile in 1974, he had also turned his attention to the nation’s serious economic woes. Runaway inflation and nationalization of privately owned businesses had frightened away foreign capital. Chileans themselves had little confidence that investments in their homeland would provide adequate returns. Pinochet brought together a group of economic advisers to tackle these problems and devise solutions. Because several of these advisers had completed postgraduate degrees at the University of Chicago under the tutelage of Professor Milton Friedman, Friedman, Milton an orthodox monetarist, they came to be known as the “Chicago boys.” Their policies for reducing inflation and encouraging foreign investment meant keeping tight control on workers’ wages. The resulting “economic miracle,” characterized by unprecedented growth, brought benefits to a select few while most Chileans continued to find it difficult to make ends meet on meager wages. By 1989, it was estimated that only two million out of twelve million Chileans had reaped the benefits of the boom.

In the meantime, repression by DINA mounted in order to keep discontent from surfacing. DINA did not, however, restrict its activities to Chile. On September 21, 1976, it pulled off, with the help of Cuban exiles, a car bombing in Washington, D.C., that killed Orlando Letelier, Letelier, Orlando a foreign minister under the Allende regime who was living in exile, and Letelier’s North American aide, Ronni Karpen Moffitt. The reaction this provoked in the United States led to the dismantling of DINA in 1977. At the same time, the Vicariate of Solidarity, Vicariate of Solidarity a Roman Catholic organization in Chile concerned with human rights abuses, kept careful count of those who were tortured by the Pinochet regime or who disappeared into the custody of the military.

Under the pressure of such outspoken opposition, and bolstered by the growth of the economy, Pinochet enacted a constitution in 1980 that appeared to point the way back to democracy in Chile in the distant future. One of the provisions of the 1980 constitution was that Chilean citizens would be given the opportunity to participate in a plebiscite on the Pinochet government in 1988. They would, at that time, vote yes or no on another term in office for the general.

Chile’s “economic miracle” suffered severely with the international recession of 1981-1982. Between 1973 and 1983, the number of unemployed had grown from 145,000 to more than one million. Resistance to the Pinochet government mounted not only among the working class but also in the middle and upper classes. Even in the better neighborhoods of Santiago, women demonstrated against the regime in 1983 by banging on their empty cooking pots, stressing the fact that it had become much more difficult to fill them. The outlawed political parties also began to regroup, and leaders discussed among themselves strategies for ousting Pinochet.

The military state, in retaliation, once again unleashed repression against protesters. Thousands of army troops patrolled the streets to keep order. When protests and strikes continued, Pinochet reinstated the state of siege he had lifted in 1979. Death squads also swung into action. Despite some of the largest demonstrations of the 1973-1988 period, Pinochet steadfastly refused to consider a rapid return to democracy, although the state of siege was lifted in June, 1985. Divisions surfaced within the military as well. The commanders in chief of the navy and air force began to discuss a transition of power with the civilian opposition. In September, 1986, after a leftist group unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate him, General Pinochet reimposed a state of siege. Political repression tightened.

Ruling once again with a strong hand, Pinochet had little reason to believe that Chileans would find the courage to vote against him in the 1988 plebiscite. Despite the repression, however, some of the old political parties had joined together to encourage Chileans to vote no. This sixteen-party coalition was headed by the president of the Christian Democrat Party, Christian Democratic Party (Chile) Patricio Aylwin Azócar. Aylwin had supported the military coup against Allende in 1973, believing it necessary to keep the nation from plunging into complete economic chaos. Like so many of his fellow Chileans, he had not expected the military, and especially a single general, to control power for so long.

As they mobilized to vote no in the plebiscite, Chileans feared the worst. They expected Pinochet to react harshly against any show of dissatisfaction with his regime. They were not convinced he would accept an unfavorable vote and believed the plebiscite might be annulled and repression heightened. Apparently, however, General Pinochet firmly believed he would win.

In the plebiscite, held October 5, 1988, 54.7 percent of the voters chose not to support Pinochet. Even though Pinochet did not win, 43 percent of the Chilean people did vote for his continuation in power. In the aftermath of the plebiscite, the general promised to abide by the 1980 constitution and prepare for presidential elections, in which he would not be a candidate. That constitution, however, allowed him to remain in command of the armed forces for eight more years and to appoint individuals to local offices and to the Chilean congress before he stepped down. The transition was to happen on General Pinochet’s terms.

Once the fear of repression faded following the 1988 plebiscite, Chileans flung themselves back into politics. Their long democratic tradition had not died during the Pinochet years. Realizing that many Chileans supported Pinochet’s economic policies, the opposition vowed not to dismantle the system responsible for the growth the military years had inaugurated. It would, however, attempt to distribute benefits more equitably. The coalition that had supported the vote against Pinochet in the plebiscite now supported the candidacy of a single opposition candidate: Patricio Aylwin of the Christian Democrat Party.

The collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe took some of the wind out of Pinochet’s supporters, who argued that the election of the opposition coalition’s candidate could plunge Chile back into the chaotic days of Allende’s socialist administration. Many who had supported those policies in the early 1970’s had spent the following fifteen years in Eastern Europe, learning at first hand the pitfalls of socialist economies. Some who had fled to Poland, for example, found themselves more in sympathy with Lech Wałęsa’s Solidarity movement than with the Communist Party. They claimed to have returned to Chile overwhelmingly committed to liberal democracy and to a capitalist economy.

Pinochet’s supporters chose as their presidential candidate Hernan Buchi, Buchi, Hernan the Chilean finance minister from 1985 to 1989. They claimed that Buchi would maintain Chile’s position as a rapidly developing nation. As they looked around at their Latin American neighbors, mired in economic troubles, many Chileans hoped that democracy, for them, would not mean a reversal of development.

On December 14, 1989, a majority of Chilean voters cast their ballots for Patricio Aylwin. They also elected a congress for the first time since the military coup. The transition to democracy had been peaceful, but the military remained strong and proud of its accomplishments while in power; the military leaders were determined to oppose any attempts to call them to task for human rights abuses. General Pinochet remained in command of the army, and the difficult job of governing fell to Patricio Aylwin and to the Chilean congress.


The plebiscite of October 5, 1988, followed by the presidential and congressional election fourteen months later, provided the opportunity for Chileans to resume their long democratic tradition. Exiled Chileans had been returning since 1985 and were now able to participate in the mainstream of political life. The dark days of repression had been banished to the past, but the joyous optimism of the majority of the population belied the existence of serious problems that had yet to be addressed. Revolutions and coups;Chile Chile;government

First, there was tremendous uncertainty over how to deal with the human rights abuses carried out under the Pinochet regime. Unlike Argentina, where the military left office in 1973 in disgrace over a failed economy and a war lost to Great Britain, General Pinochet relinquished power at a time when Chile’s economy was once again doing far better than the economies of most of its South American neighbors. The leaders of the military, having witnessed the humiliation of their Argentinian counterparts, made it abundantly clear that they would not suffer rebuke placidly. Pinochet remained the commander in chief of the army. It was highly unlikely that the wounds caused by repression would be healed through justice provided by courts of law.

Second, the new Chilean leaders faced the problematic transition from opposition party to government party. The coalition organized to end Pinochet’s presidency was made up of diverse parties. Many remembered the bitterness and factionalism of the last days of the Allende regime that led to the horrors accompanying the inauguration of the military dictatorship. Most were determined not to allow their differences to jeopardize democracy, but only time would tell how well the coalition members could work together once in power.

A third, and possibly the most significant, challenge facing the new regime was to find a way to assure continued economic growth while paying greater attention to social justice. Although the gross national product figures for Chile had grown impressively in the late 1980’s, most Chilean workers, earning the minimum wage, could not support families. The coalition that had formed to oust Pinochet included parties fully committed to ensuring more equitable distribution of the nation’s wealth, but how to do that without frightening investors remained a critical question. A return to democracy meant that the mistakes of the regime could no longer be blamed on a strongman; they had become the responsibility of the citizenry as a whole. Chile;government Democracy;Chile Elections;Chile

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Arriagada, Genaro. Pinochet: The Politics of Power. Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1988. Presents an excellent discussion of Pinochet’s consolidation of power in Chile after 1973. Written before the return to democracy and documents the significance of the alliance of political parties against the general as well as the position of the Roman Catholic Church in its support for human rights. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brito, Alexandra Barahona de. Human Rights and Democratization in Latin America: Uruguay and Chile. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Provides a scholarly examination of the challenges of governmental transition, comparing the Uruguayan situation to that of Chile. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Loveman, Brian. Chile: The Legacy of Hispanic Capitalism. 3d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. One of the best overviews available of Chilean history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Provides the context necessary for understanding the transitions of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Includes extensive bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Shaughnessy, Hugh. Pinochet: The Politics of Torture. New York: New York University Press, 2000. Presents a fascinating account of the most disturbing aspects of the Pinochet regime. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sigmund, Paul E. The Overthrow of Allende and the Politics of Chile, 1964-1976. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977. Provides very informative discussion of the transition from reformist policies under President Eduardo Frei Montalva to radical policies under Allende, then to repressive policies under Pinochet. Essential resource helps readers to understand why Chilean politics moved so speedily from concerns with freedom and social justice to emphasis on economic growth at any expense. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Verdugo, Patricia. Chile, Pinochet, and the Caravan of Death. Translated by Marcelo Montecino. Coral Gables, Fla.: North-South Center Press, 2001. Highly readable, well-researched account by a journalist whose father was murdered by the Pinochet regime. Focuses on the atrocities that occurred under Pinochet.

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Categories: History