Redeeming military dictatorships in Chile and Argentina: A case in comparison
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
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.
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
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
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?
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.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2014 Juan A. Misle