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Redeeming military dictatorships in Chile and Argentina: A case in comparison

Anti-Pinochet Demostrators

Protesters Demand the Jailing of Chilean Dictator General Augusto Pinochet
Protesters Demand the Jailing of Chilean Dictator General Augusto Pinochet

Truth and Reconciliation: Dealing with a Fractured Society

Having had similar backgrounds behind the toppling of two populist regimes that eventually led to brutal military dictatorships, Argentina and Chile had the fate of having both to deal with the massive human rights abuses that managed to shape the democratic, social, and economic institutions respectively, of the two South American nations. The way that Argentina and Chile transitioned to democracy, however, differs greatly in the manner that each regime decided both to leave behind authoritarianism, and finally deal with the latter implications that each according society would plea in order to achieve the demands that an ailing post-authoritarian transitional democracy asked of. However, despite Argentina's more sensibly vulnerable situation, in some ways it was able to better address in a more balanced way than Chile, society's demands for redemption. While Argentina's military dictatorship's demise came along the consequential economic and political troubles, Chile on the other hand opted for a smoother economically beneficial environment, and thus left a different political transition towards democracy, leading to understand that a deeply and thorough understanding of history, economics, and social reaction and behavior are standard benchmarks to take into account when analyzing how both countries adapted to the social realities of their time and place.

Never Ideologically Defined, Peron Admired Fascist Dictator Benito Mussolini, and was an Avowed Anti-Marxist, Despite his Strong Working Class Following

General Juan Peron, Like Many Other Latin American Leaders Throughout History, From Simon Bolivar to Fidel Castro, Alberto Fujimori, Hugo Chavez, and Alvaro Uribe, had and Continues to have a very Strong Cult of Personality
General Juan Peron, Like Many Other Latin American Leaders Throughout History, From Simon Bolivar to Fidel Castro, Alberto Fujimori, Hugo Chavez, and Alvaro Uribe, had and Continues to have a very Strong Cult of Personality

In order to understand why Argentina entered into the fate of becoming a military dictatorship, for the period known to the Argentines as the "Dirty War", and the latter social demands to redeem the pains of that era, one must consider the political and social background of the then-vulnerable south American nation. From the period of 1946 until 1973, Argentina experienced a democratically-elected populist authoritarian government of General Juan Peron, followed by that of his later wife Isabel Peron. Containing various fascists traits, Peron with the help of his charismatic first wife Eva Peron, was however able to revive a working class to become part of the popular electorate, that not only left footprints in the participatory elements of political democracy, but also on the economic and social ladders and conditions that have long remained as Peron's legacy for many working class Argentines. Following many years of instability among hard-line Peronist supporters and the constant threat of the military intervening, the long-run economic health of the country was left in the hands of Isabel Peron as consequence of General Peron's death in 1974. By this period, Argentina had suddenly ceased to have a general strongman in power, and was further hurt into political chaos and terrorism; all connected due to the dire economic conditions of the country that ultimately enabled the military to take action against the Peronist government. Sky-rocketing inflation, combined along with budget deficits, and a shrinking economy left many to wonder, whether the populism that characterized Juan and Eva Peron could endure. It was thus, that the military under the leadership of Jorge Videla managed to stage a coup in 1976 against the government of Isabel Peron that would give rise to a brutal military dictatorship that lasted until 1983.


With the Help of the C.I.A. the Presidential Palace of Chile 'La Moneda' Was Bombarded on September 11, 1973.

Although Investigations and Reports Appear to Demonstrate that President Salvador Allende Ultimately Took his Own Life on the Day of the Coup, Many Still Believe That he was Actually Murdered
Although Investigations and Reports Appear to Demonstrate that President Salvador Allende Ultimately Took his Own Life on the Day of the Coup, Many Still Believe That he was Actually Murdered

While Chile surely contained many of the same aspects that characterized Argentina's rise to military dictatorship, various differentiations must be observed in the manner that General Augusto Pinochet was able to lead a coup on democracy. Up to that point, Chile had almost no record of significant constitutional troubles and infringements. If there is a particular characteristic that differs the Argentine and Chilean manners in which they entered dictatorships, is that the Chilean struggle was a clash of ideologies between the first democratically elected socialist leader of Latin America, Salvador Allende (1970-1973), and that of his political and economic opponents. Allende's nationalization of key industries, in particular the mining and banking industry, along with allowing Chile to default on its debt, opened up an opportunity for those who saw free-market economics and liberalism as the norm to abide by during a critical moment of the Cold war, to execute actions against the socialist experiment. Similarly to Peron in Argentina, Chile's economy also began to falter for many of the same reasons; high inflation, the mismanagement of deficits, and some kind of social unrest. It differed however, in the ideological degree to which not only his socialist populism was able to attract Allende some enemies around society, ranging from the political right, to business elites, the military, and the Catholic church. It was thus that the Chilean military executed a coup on the Presidential Palace in September 11, of 1973 that not only led to the alleged suicide of President Allende, but opened a new door for extensively abused civil and human rights under the command of General Augusto Pinochet.

Argentines elected President Raul Alfonsin as their First Leader upon Transitioning to Democracy

The Opposing Peronist Party Lost the 1983 Presidential Elections to Raul Alfonsin of the Radical Party, After the Peronists Had Campaigned on Not Investigating or Putting on Trial the Military Generals that Ruled during the 'Dirty War'.
The Opposing Peronist Party Lost the 1983 Presidential Elections to Raul Alfonsin of the Radical Party, After the Peronists Had Campaigned on Not Investigating or Putting on Trial the Military Generals that Ruled during the 'Dirty War'.

After thousands of human rights violations, and oppression, it is nevertheless not surprising that the two countries would confront differently their regimes' top military generals upon stepping down from power, and so would the new emerging social and political institutions be setting the stage for a possible reencounter with democracy. On the one hand, Chile opted for a complete reliance on the already-existing public institutions, in particular the courts, to address the social demands for justice and reconciliation, while the new democratic governments continued to invest on accountable institution-building for Chile. This may be perhaps, part of the reason why Chileans may have a harder time dealing with the social demand for politics of reconciliation; as it took far too many years, and different presidential administrations, for justice to be summoned upon the responsible ones for the tremendous human rights abuses during the military regime, including Pinochet himself. On the other hand, while Argentina had an imperfect, and more rocky transition towards democracy, it did however, under the leadership of Raul Alfonsín and the symbolic gestures of future presidents like Nestor and Cristina Kirchner, manage to pull the necessary strings out of civil society in order to assure that those involved with the misdeeds during "El Proceso" would be brought to justice, and those victimized by it, would be redeemed.

Protesters in Argentina For Years Have Demanded Full Investigations of the Approximately 30,000 Disappeared During the Infamous 'Dirty War'

The Chilean transition to civil democracy, would thus undergo the delicate process of balancing both accepting the reality of the biggest political spheres of influence at the time, while coming forward with the leadership expectations after General Pinochet overwhelmingly lost the plebiscite that would end his tyrannical rule. In other words, while Pinochet lost his legitimacy as a political figure, his transcendent military command power and legacy would not easily leave the political and economic circles that had power over the country. It was after all, that despite the rejection of Pinochet's regime, the Chilean political elites would continue many of the same liberal market economic policies that were brought upon by the "Chicago Boys" during the Pinochet junta rule. As soon as Pinochet stepped down, and consequently the center-left coalition (known as 'Concertacion') candidate, Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin went to become Chile's new democratically elected president, the residual influence of Pinochet would prove too strong and apparent for all four of the coming Concertacion presidents to face with full accountability, while managing the more controversial issues of justice in a political and economic environment still dominated by right-wing elite-led politicians.

(From Left to Right) Patricio Aylwin, Eduardo Frei, Ricardo Lagos, and Michelle Bachelet

The Centrist Coalition in Chile known as the 'Concertacion' Ranges Ideologically From Centrist to Leftist Parties Such as the Christian Democrats (Aylwin, Frei) and the Socialist Party (Lagos, Bachelet)
The Centrist Coalition in Chile known as the 'Concertacion' Ranges Ideologically From Centrist to Leftist Parties Such as the Christian Democrats (Aylwin, Frei) and the Socialist Party (Lagos, Bachelet)

Amnesty International Looks Back On its Fight Against General Pinochet's Legacy

Beginning with Aylwin, the most important move begun by the newly democratic leader of Chile, and perhaps, most enduring to his legacy, is the prevalence of the 1991 Rettig report that uncovered many of the former regime's worst abuses. The report, while it helped open the door for many unanswered questions about those disappeared or killed, however failed to follow through with immediate executive actions against those found responsible. The military at various times, protested Aylwin's initial attempts at any kind of investigation from the regime's misdeeds. Thus, instead of investing political capital on the issue of justice over misdeeds, Aylwin's administration stroke a more conciliatory tone with the former regime, leaving many potential social capital unspent and at least momentarily, unattended. For Aylwin, and the coming administrations to come, it would be the Supreme Court, and international institutionalism that would play the most important roles of bringing to justice those involved with the torture, killings, and disappearances of the junta rule. It is because of so, that coming administrations would aim rather at reforming domestic public institutions, like the appointment of new judges to the Supreme Court under Eduardo Frei, with a long-run aspiration that it might eventually upset the balance of power between the ruling political and judicial institutions. Frei, Ricardo Lagos, and Michelle Bachelet would thus execute their administrations with a wide range of symbolic statements and gestures that would progressively ensure social reconciliation with the political elites. However, many of the most historically transcendent instances that would forever shape Chilean politics and history, would come with the intervention of international forces, such as the judicial activism of Spanish judge Baltazar Garzon that eventually led to the Interpol arrest of General Pinochet in 1998. International pressure and activism, would ultimately open new opportunities for a Chilean populace to feel the redemption of knowing that the vast injustices committed under a brutal regime, could be redeemable and put to the fate of justice.

While Argentina's transition to democracy lacked the internationally-recognized status of Chile under Pinochet, it would nevertheless be highly simplistic in comparison, to ignore the fact that Argentina, and particularly with Raul Alfonsín's leadership, had the fate to have to tackle both a crumbled political infrastructure, and also the crumbling economic environment that threatened any opportunity of stability in the Argentine nation. Unlike Chile, which transitioned to democracy under macro-economically prosperous times, the military junta in Argentina left Alfonsín with various social troubles that threatened any possibility of future peace and stability. Upon coming to power promising an investigation of the past, the Radical party leader, automatically chose the more controversial and difficult path to follow, amid difficult economic times. Ultimately, however, the idea that Argentine society could not act "as if nothing had happened" prevailed in the minds of many Argentines, making this case, perhaps more forcefully than in Chile, a more sensibly-led acknowledgement of the capacity of society to remember. But again, like in Chile respectively, Alfonsín was soon confronted with the political reality that surrounded even his best intentions; trying the top generals of all the three branches of the military, particularly through the military courts, only led to no tribunal having found anyone guilty. Growing tensions with the military, combined with the constant possible threat of a military confrontation, Alfonsín pragmatically chose to minimize the threats of a military coup, by making the legislative branch accountable to his human rights agenda. This initially allowed for a bipartisan consensus among both Peronist and Radical legislators, that a democratically elected government had the responsibility to act. But faced again with the reality of what was politically achievable and viable, the good intentions to try almost anyone who committed any type of violation during the Dirty War, only went on to produce an endless and slow bureaucratic maneuver. This allowed for both Alfonsín and congress to act as institutional reformers, in similar ways that Eduardo Frei and Ricardo Lagos in Chile attempted to institutionalize accountable democratic order, so would the institutional legitimization of civilian courts be brought upon a complex situation. And then, as if having to deal with the political realities didn't spend enough political capital, soon did the economic reality begin to become a problem. Faced with massive deficits, the Alfonsín administration had to walk a thin line of cutting away the military's budget while keeping the collapsing economy from illegitimating his democratic rule. Along with these troubles, there were also plenty of growing demands by society, particularly with investigating the disappearances and killing of thousands of fellow Argentines. Following the years of little-to-no action on the part of the coming Peronist administration of Carlos Menem, Argentina would come to endorse in the future more symbolic gestures on the part of both of the Kirchner administrations, such as the re-opening of some trials towards military generals, and a national day of mourning. While these moves may not create the necessary conditions for society to carry on scar-less, it does nevertheless empower the politics of memory to a level that a society like Argentina, which endured years of torture and repression, can begin to heal many social ills, and carry on to tackling other pending issues to many Argentines.

Which country did a better job at addressing the ills of their respective society upon transitioning to democracy?

  • Argentina
  • Chile
See results without voting

While the politics of truth and reconciliation do have a vastly significantly enduring legacy in the part of Argentina and Chile, it was ultimately the empowerment of democratic institutions in both cases, that was able to redeem two ailing societies to transition to a more promising, and democratic future. In all, Argentina was able to better inspire deliberation to its populace, despite its more turbulent environment, and its lack of international attention (at least in comparison with Chile). Certainly, however, these cases show us the importance and role of external actors and non-direct players in the democratic game have a more important role to play when it comes down to making justice immune from two brutal regimes. These countries' transitional legacies would for future generations, exemplify the costs and benefits of attempting at redeeming the unredeemable, or its closest proximity.

© 2014 Juan A. Misle

3 comments

Kaylynn 22 months ago

If intaimofron were soccer, this would be a goooooal!


Yuli 22 months ago

Middleclass cunt? Never been called that beofre, but I guess there`s first for everything... I do register that my advarseries is not able to put forward arguments, but on the contrary gets into the game of "labeling" and "namedropping". I am not very interested in joining that game however, there are a couple of thing I want to make clear. As I mentioned earlier, I do not support, quite the opposite, I strongly oppose Pinochets methods and think it is a tragedy that he will not stand trial and made accountable for his violation of human rights. Not anything in relation to Chiles economic miracle change the fact that Pinochet was brutal, and my staunch view has always been that the end never justify the means. Nevertheless, it is a fact that Chile has the most well functioning democracy and strongest economy in all of Latin America, due to Pinochets market reforms. Furthermore the alternative being Allendes marxism, would, given all that we know about communism (Cuba anyone) been a much worse consequence for Chile. Again that is not the same as defending Pinochets methods, or even say that Pinochet, despite his excellent economic record in itself was an advantage for Chile. In relation to the term "room for improvement", I do actually mean that the CIA could do better on a number of areas, starting with intelligence. The CIAs Iraq effort was nothing else than flawed. So, yes the clearly are room for improvement...


FreeeYou profile image

FreeeYou 22 months ago from Houston, Texas Author

Dear Yuli,

Not sure who you're talking to, I only have two comments in this post, one being your rant against whoever disrespected you, and the other one is saying a soccer reference that I'm not exactly sure what its referring to. In any case, I do want want to make a few points: first, I disagree with the false dichotomy of left vs right or in this case Allende's Marxism to Pinochet's market reforms (whether Allende actually implemented Marxism or anything but a state capitalist economy is very debatable), those are neither the only two choices nor is one the alternative to the other. One can point Chile perhaps along with Uruguay to be in the long-run the South American to-be equivalents of Scandinavian countries of the likes of Denmark or Finland, which contrary to American idiosyncrasy, are not 'socialist' but rather well-run social democracies with efficient market economies. Secondly, Chile's democratic stability has little to-nothing to do with Pinochet's market reforms but instead with civil society's efforts to oppose the dictatorship more efficiently than other countries have with their respective dictatorships (for instance the 'NO' campaign against Pinochet). Positive social gains are always created and sustained in the long run when emerging elements of society demand more and better rights and freedoms, and to that case I would point to you the student protests seen in Chile's main cities demanding free education, which pushed its political establishment to act upon it. Perhaps you are referring to more to Chile's macroeconomic stability, which do undoubtedly have its positive effects, such as not reducing the country to rentier-state status, a more diversified economy, and one of the lowest poverty rates in the region. However, Chile remains to this day one of the most unequal countries in the region, and certainly could use more and better social investments, which brings me to my final point. When one claims an economy to be successful, or as you say "Pinochet's excellent economic record", one has to ask oneself: who benefits? In what sectors or areas of society is money mostly concentrated in? Who is that "excellent economy" characteristic to? Judging by GDP alone, the US is the richest country in the world, but its society is and has been increasingly poor and unequal since the 1980s on forward. This is a rich country/poor society case that we see so often across the western hemisphere, though I would argue that on that regard Chile is doing a lot better than many if not most countries. Thanks for commenting!

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