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Pinochet's regime

Posted June 29th, 2015 at 07:30 AM by Offspring
Updated August 30th, 2017 at 02:52 PM by Offspring

The context of the 1973 coup

Sallvador Alande was the president of Chile from 1970 to 1973 and the head of the Popular Unity Coalition. He was a Marxist who obtained power thru democratic means.

He followed a policy called "the Chilean Path to Socialism" (“La vía chilena al socialism”), thru which he tried to implement socialism via democratic means. Among the measures he took were: the nationalization of the educational system and a large part of industry, the redistribution of land and the implementation of a program thru which children were given free milk.

Because he only had a 6 years mandate, he rushed to restructure the economy. This had a negative effect on it. The first strikes started in 1972 and they were supported by Nixon.

The first coup attempt was made on the 29th of June, 1973, when a tank regiment led by colonel Roberto Souper surrounded the presidential palace, but it was defeated by troops led by general Carlos Prats.

The coup

On the morning of the 11th of September, 1973, planes belonging to the Chilean Air Force bombed the presidential palace (La Moneda). The president refused to resign and killed himself. All of the Chilean military structures collaborated in this coup.

The junta installed itself at the leadership of the Chilean government. The junta consisted of general Augosto Pinochet (army), admiral José Toribio Merino (navy), general Gustavo Leigh (air force) and general César Mendoza (Carabineros – the national police). Initially, they were supposed to take turns being president, but Pinochet became the permanent leader of the junta. Gustavo Leigh was opposed to this, so he was forced into early retirement and replaced with general Fernando Matthei.

Augusto Pinochet promised the Chileans that the junta is just a transitional step towards democracy and that, after Chile develops economically and gets a stable social order, he will resign from power and permit the instauration of a democratic regime.

The beginning of the military dictatorship

Augusto José Ramón Pinochet Ugarte wanted to have a free market economy in an authoritarian state.

He banned unions, eliminated the freedom of press and of expression (only the press which supported him was allowed to exist). He burned books containing left wing messages and destroyed his opposition.

Anyone suspected of being against the regime was imprisoned or executed. From the coup to November 1973, 40000 people were held prisoners in the national stadium. 1850 of them were executed and 1300 disappeared. Initially, the arrests were made by the members of the armed forces or of the national police. Later, the secret Chilean police (DINA) was in charge with the arrests. In 1975, during the Colombo Operation, the secret police killed more than 100 left-wing activists.

Pinochet used these actions against dissidents to justify the existence of the junta: the opponents of the regime wanted to implement Marxism and the junta defended the state from this threat and offered social stability.

For the economic reforms, he was basing himself on a group of young Chilean economists called “the Chicago boys”. The majority of this group’s members studied economics at the University of Chicago and were influenced by libertarian economist Milton Friedman. They wanted to developed the Chilean economy via a “shock therapy” which was going to transition from the almost nationalized economy to a free market one.

During the time of Pinochet, Chile had two major economic crises. The regime wasn’t that responsible for the one in 1975, because Chile had a bad economy prior to 1973, but it had its share of the blame for the 1982-1983 crisis.

During Pinochet’s 17 years rule, the economic growth was of 2% per year. This didn’t affect the standard of living of the majority of the population. Unemployment reached 30% at one point and, at the end of the regime, 40% of the population lived in poverty. Pinochet was supported by the big industrialists and the middle class, which were profiting from his neo-liberal reforms. His supporters profited from the non-transparent privatizations and the systemic corruption.

By 1982, the GDP had a 14.5% drop and private consumption a 16.3% one. Investments dropped 36.8% and 30% of the population lived below poverty. In 1983, the percent of population living below poverty reached 55%. This crisis (1982-1983) represented a huge blow for the regime. Its national and international legitimacy depended on the effects of the economic reforms.

The 1980 Constitution

On the 11th of September, 1981, a plebiscite took place in order to replace the 1925 Constitution. 67,04% (4.204.897) of the votes were for and 30,19% (1.893.420) were against. There are many doubts about how correctly it was organized.

The man who contributed the most to the writing of the new constitution was constitutional law professor Jaime Jorge Guzmán Errázuriz, who was assassinated in 1991, by the Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front.

The Constitution gave large powers to the president of the republic and legislative powers to the junta. It created new institutions like the Constitutional Court and the National Security Council.

The Constitution mentioned the fact that the political regime was going to assure the transition from the former government to a civilian government. At the end of the transitional period, a plebiscite to elect a new president was going to be organized. This plebiscite was going to have one candidate, picked by the junta.

The opposition to Pinochet’s regime

The dissatisfaction with the regime led to the creation of the Democratic Alliance. It consisted of a sector of the Christian Democrat Party and the Radical one, but also socialist factions, even tho political parties were still banned. The Alliance demanded the replacement of Pinochet’s regime with a provisional government which was going to install a constitutional democracy in 18 months. The regime remained sufficiently stable and he refused this request.

Apart from the Democratic Alliance, the rest of the opposition was divided and unable to agree on what regime should follow after the military dictatorship. This meant that the political opposition wasn’t homogenous enough to guarantee the transition from a regime to another.

Even tho unions were banned, they didn’t stop existing and they didn’t abandon their cause. At the beginning of the 80s, unions started being known for their independent position. A popular union leader, Tucapel Jimenez, was assassinated by the regime. His body was found in February 1982. In spite of the dangers they were confronted with, the unions formed the National Workers’ Command (Comando Nacional de Trabajadores).

The NWC was led by Rodolfo Seguel. He was the leader of miners working in copper mines. The NWC started a national strike on the 11th of May, 1983. The strike got a lot of popular support and was followed by 20 national strikes in the next 3 years.

The Democratic Alliance represented the privileged sectors of Chilean society. It joined the protest movement of the NWC. The Democratic People's Movement (led by Communists) organized simultaneous protests in the slums of Santiago, the capital of Chile.

On the 14th of September, 1983, the Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front (Frente Patriotico Manual Rodriguez) was formed. It was also known simply as the Patriotic Front or The Front. It was a paramilitary group responsible for terrorist attacks against the Pinochet regime. It was formed by the Chilean Communist Party.

The first important action of The Front was causing a blackout in the central area of Chile, on the 14th of December, 1983. On the 26th of July, 1985, they attacked the US consulate in Santiago, using a car bomb. One person died and two were injured.

On the 7th of September, 1986, The Front tried to kill Pinochet, by attacking the car he was in. Five bodyguards of the dictator were killed and eleven were injured, but Pinochet only suffered minor injuries. This led to a disintegration of The Front and a harsh reaction by Pinochet. The majority of The Front’s members were arrested and tortured. It had 1000-1500 members.

After this failed assassination attempt, The Front continued t have terrorist actions against the junta, but they weren’t important. The public was disgusted by its actions and it didn’t support it.

Sergio Onofre Jarpa (the former leader of the Chilean Nazi Party) led the retaliation against The Front. In 1984, Pinochet adopted an anti-terrorist law which authorized the National Informations Centre (Central Nacional de Informaciones) to retain and interrogate any person suspected of creating fear or of having subversive of revolutionary intentions. Estimations showed that, between November 1984 and January 1985, 24,000 people were retained.

These actions show that, while the regime didn’t have complete control over the country, it was capable to oppress the ones that were against the regime.

The last years of the regime

The protest movements stopped, because of the brutal repression. Even tho Pinochet didn’t manage to create economic prosperity for the Chileans, he was able to control the army and oppress his opposition.

After 15 years of leading the country, Pinochet honestly believed he was going to win the 1988 plebiscite and, thus, obtain full electoral and popular legitimacy. The junta picked Pinochet as the sole candidate for the plebiscite (in accordance with the provisions of the 1980 Constitution).

The ballot had two options. “Yes” meant Pinochet was going to be president for the next 8 years (starting with the 11th of march, 1989) and parliamentary elections would be held 9 months after the vote; the junta would continue to exercise legislative power until the new Congress would start operating, on the 11th of March 1990. “No” meant Pinochet and the junta continued to be in power for another year; the presidential and parliamentary elections would be held 3 months after his mandate expired; the new Congress and the President would start their mandates on the 11th of March, 1990. Whatever the people decided, Pinochet was still going to remain in power. In case the people didn’t choose him, he would have remained in power for another 17 months, time in which he was able to prepare for the next presidential elections.

Surprisingly, before the vote, from the 5th of September to the 1st of October, 1988, there were TV ads both for “yes” and for “no”.

On the 5th of October, 1988, the plebiscite was organized. 55.98% (3,967,569) votes were “no” and 44.01% (3,119,110) were “yes”. The turnout was 97.52%

On the 14th of December, 1989, Patricio Aylwin Azócar won the presidential elections. Augusto Pinochet remained the supreme commander of the army until the 11th of March, 1998, then he became a senator for life, according to the 1980 Constitution.


Pinochet managed to stop his country from going towards Marxism, but he was unable to achieve his objectives of economic growth and social stability. His regime was marked by oppression, corruption and poverty.


  • Pamela Constable and Arturo Velenzuela - „A Nation of Enemies: Chile under Pinochet”
  • Genaro Arriagada – „Pinochet: The Politics of Power
  • Pamela Constable and Arturo Valenzuela – „The Chilean Plebiscite: Defeat of a Dictator”
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  1. Old Comment
    Valens's Avatar
    Clearly and concisely written information about the Pinochet regime. I expect more entries, especially about certain European topics. Keep up the good work.
    Posted July 1st, 2015 at 12:01 PM by Valens Valens is offline
  2. Old Comment
    Offspring's Avatar
    Thank you!
    Posted July 1st, 2015 at 12:59 PM by Offspring Offspring is offline
  3. Old Comment
    Very interesting! Talking about the coup d`etat in 1973 without even mentioning the role of the CIA and the US-American interests behind this US-sponsored System change!
    Posted July 3rd, 2015 at 09:16 AM by gglaubitz gglaubitz is offline
  4. Old Comment
    Offspring's Avatar
    Thank you, for you feedback!

    In that essay:

    - did I mention Allende going to the USSR and getting two million in aid?
    - did I mention the Cold War at all?
    - did I mention anything related to Chile's foreign policy under Pinochet?

    After seeing that the answer to all of those questions is "no", what do you think is more likely?

    1) I was unaware the Cold War existed and I thought Chile had no foreign policy and no international relations for 17 years.
    2) It's just a coincidence that I didn't mention them.
    3) I was doing a cover up (a bad one, since I'm not praising the regime).
    4) I was interested in presenting the domestic politics of the regime, particularly the oppression, opposition and the economic effects, in a concise manner. I wasn't interested in presenting its foreign policy, nor put it in the context of the Cold War, as I wanted to present Chile, not a pawn. Every reader, considering this is a history forum, is probably aware the Cold War existed and can figure out the US liked a coup against a Marxist regime. There are thousands of works which deal with the regime in that way. Mine isn't one of them. All of this is pretty self-evident from the presentation. This clearly wasn't meant to be exhaustive, unless you think such a task can be accomplished in so few words.

    I said nothing about the culture of Chile during the regime. That doesn't mean I think there was none, nor does it mean I think it's irrelevant.

    The fact that I didn't mention stuff like that doesn't vitiate my presentation, since I have a clearly observable framework.
    Posted July 3rd, 2015 at 10:49 AM by Offspring Offspring is offline
    Updated July 3rd, 2015 at 04:39 PM by Offspring
  5. Old Comment
    Offspring's Avatar
    An excellent film about the advertising campaign of the "no" camp during the 1988 plebiscite: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_(2012_film)
    Posted August 23rd, 2017 at 04:08 PM by Offspring Offspring is offline
  6. Old Comment
    Decembrist's Avatar
    Nice article. I wonder, how is he viewed by Chileans nowadays?
    Posted May 23rd, 2018 at 05:43 PM by Decembrist Decembrist is offline

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