Your browser (Internet Explorer 7 or lower) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.


Chile’s 1988 Plebiscite and the End of Pinochet’s Dictatorship

The 1970s and 1980s were a long, dark time for Chile. The September 11, 1973 coup against Socialist president Salvador Allende led to the brutal dictatorship under Commander-in-Chief Augusto Pinochet, who immediately began to round up thousands of opponents in stadiums and elsewhere and have them killed. In 1980, a new constitution was approved, which mandated a single-candidate presidential referendum in 1988, where a candidate nominated by the Junta would be approved or rejected for another 8-year period. That would provide democratic forces a glimmer of hope.

A national referendum was held on October 5, 1988 to determine whether the Junta, and its leader Pinochet, should stay in power for another eight years. The “no” vote won with nearly 56%, thus ending the Junta’s 16 years in power. Presidential and parliamentary elections took place as scheduled on December 14, 1989; Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin won and took office on the following March.

Pinochet continued to serve as Commander-in-Chief of the Chilean Army until March 1998, when he retired and became a senator-for-life in accordance with his 1980 Constitution. However, Pinochet was arrested under an international arrest warrant on a visit to London in October 1998 in connection with numerous human rights allegations. Following a legal battle he was released on grounds of ill health, and returned to Chile in March 2000. In 2004, a Chilean judge placed him under house arrest. By the time of his death on December 10, 2006, about 300 criminal charges were still pending against him in Chile for numerous human rights violations and embezzlement during and after his rule.

Charlotte Roe served as a Political Officer in the U.S. Embassy in Santiago during that time. In an interview conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in January 2005, she shares her impressions and conclusions on the political climate before and after the plebiscite, the economic advice from Milton Friedman and the “Chicago Boys,” and how the Letelier assassination proved to be the last straw for support in Washington. Harry Barnes served as Ambassador to Chile and recounts the efforts the U.S. made to establish contact with the democratic opposition and to ensure the plebiscite would be free and fair.  He was interviewed by Kennedy beginning in April 2001.

You can also read about the failed coup, El Tanquetazo, as well as about Argentina’s transition to democracy.


The new U.S. approach emboldens the opposition

ROE:  In July 1985, I took an assignment as a political officer in Chile. When my human rights contacts heard I was considering Santiago, they said, “Oh you don’t want to do that. It’s very dark there.” I said, “There must be some rays of light or else people couldn’t cope.”…

It was gloomy, conflicted. Though Bolivia was also in turmoil, by comparison this felt like stepping into a cauldron. Augusto Pinochet had been in power since the coup he led as Army commander on September 11, 1973. President Salvador Allende committed suicide that day in La Moneda palace.

Pinochet ruled with an iron fist. He outlawed the political parties. Tens of thousands were tortured, disappeared, killed or exiled during his campaign against the pro-Allende communists and socialists. The military government planned to implement a provision of the 1976 constitution to recognize certain political parties in a formal process, but few Chileans believed this would take place or lead to positive change. The 1980 constitution imposed by Pinochet further concentrated his powers. It promised an eventual return to electoral “democracy,” beginning with a plebiscite in 1988 in which voters could say “yes” or “no” to the junta’s sole candidate.

The opposition to Pinochet made itself felt through massive street demonstrations. Some mainstream political parties joined in, but those in charge were mostly the trade union vanguard, students and the radical left. The police would douse the protesters with water canons, spray tear gas, and start shooting with little provocation. The middle class was unhappy about the repression but also weary of these futile confrontations. Chileans felt frustrated and depressed. Beggars held out their hands at every street corner. The crisis over foreign exchange triggered a sharp recession.

Q: We were deep into the Reagan period. Jeane Kirkpatrick as our Ambassador to the UN also sat in on the Cabinet and was stating that we should work closely with the military leaders in Latin America, because they were closer to our ideals and all. How stood our policy towards Chile when you went there? 

ROE: Kirkpatrick’s 1979 article in Commentary magazine argued that the U.S. should work with authoritarian governments like those of Chile, Argentina and South Africa because they were more likely to lead to democracy than were revolutionary regimes of the left. This was debatable, but it tagged her as pro-dictator. She also fervently criticized President Carter’s human rights policies.

Outgoing Ambassador James Theberge was in the Kirkpatrick mode. He maintained a pretty friendly relationship with the military government. Theberge kept his distance from the leading opposition figure, Gabriel Valdez, the President of the Christian Democratic Party (PDC). In the early 1980s the U.S. frequently bashed the PDC and other center-left opposition parties for not banning the communists from taking part in the protest demonstrations.

But the U.S. Congress kept a close eye on human rights violations, and the Embassy raised its voice on those issues. The human rights officer… Don Knight, who also arrived in the summer of ’85, was the labor and human rights officer. He covered all the demonstrations, worked closely with Solidaridad, the Catholic human rights agency, and visited imprisoned trade union leaders.…The political officer whom I replaced had formed relationships with most democratic political parties except the Socialists.

This changed after Ambassador Harry Barnes’s arrival. The front office tapped me to draft Barnes’ credentials speech. I was stumped at first — how do you say to Pinochet that we’re here to undermine you and assist the rebirth of democracy? So I brainstormed with Jorge Castillo, …a stalwart in the Political section. The message we crafted was: “We have deep, long-standing ties and common interests with Chile and its people. We support the goal of a transition to democracy. We’ll be watching closely to see how this process evolves…”

During Ambassador Barnes’ first few weeks, he went to visit Gabriel Valdes [the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Chile under President Eduardo Frei from 1964 to 1970 and who was a vocal opponent of the military dictatorship, right] in his office. His gesture sent shockwaves throughout the Pinochet government.

The pro-Pinochet hawks disseminated a rumor that when Barnes left Chile, it would be in a six-foot box. (Actually they would have needed a six-foot-five box because the Ambassador is a tall man.) The new U.S. approach emboldened the opposition. Even the pro-democracy conservatives began finding their voices. The Europeans had been supporting the opposition financially, in a patchwork approach. Barnes met daily with key civic, political and intellectual leaders one on one at his residence. I often sat in on these.

Barnes had a photographic memory. When he went to meet with Pinochet or the members of his junta, he would report every word that was said. A huge audience in Washington followed these conversations.…

His actions spoke that message. The Embassy no longer echoed the right’s criticism of the opposition. That’s why the first Barnes-Valdez meeting was such a profound shift. We opened up close channels with the democratic socialist wing of the opposition, which the U.S. had previously tended to equate with the Allende left. The outgoing cultural attaché, Peter DeShazo, opened his house to Democratic Socialists as well as to Christian Democrats and other opposition leaders, but Ambassador Theberge strongly discouraged these ties. I made contact with a myriad of political groups. These included Socialists, the Radical party, and the Humanists, a left-of-center international organization founded in Argentina that advocates non-violence and the development of human potential; the National party, an older conservative grouping; and Renovación Nacional, a new moderate conservative party with an engaging leader, Andres Allemand, a former national soccer hero of Chile.…

BARNES: Pinochet had, as I think he himself said from time to time, had made a gift to the people of Chile in the form of a new Constitution, having done away with the previous one, the Allende and earlier periods. One of the things the people of Chile had a chance to approve was that Constitution in a plebiscite in 1980. Of course, the plebiscite vote was in favor of the new Constitution. The Constitution provided that after eight years there would be an election in which the people of Chile would have a chance to decide whether they wished to have Pinochet continue or be replaced. If they wanted him to be replaced there would have to be a competitive election. With 1988 that was eight years later. The 1988 plebiscite was a plebiscite in the sense it was more of Pinochet, another eight years of Pinochet, or go to a competitive election.

This gradually began to snowball in the sense of citizen participation. You had groups of people, one for example which was taking no sides on the plebiscite outcome or not, but was saying it was Chileans’ obligations as citizens to vote. How you vote is up to you, but vote. We were able to provide some assistance through the National Endowment for Democracy in terms of how one organizes campaigns, since enough time had gone by 1973 was the last election.

The aspect of the plebiscite one worried about was that if some way the government would find a modality for skewing it or if not worse than that. So a lot of emphasis from the standpoint of those of us on the outside, this was pretty much a coordinated effort. We coordinated with the Brazilians and with the Argentinean, the British and the French, and so on, in terms of technical expertise and support.

“Pinochet hated and mistrusted us, but some elements in his government were moderating their stance” 

ROE:  As we approached the plebiscite, the U.S. provided $1.5 million in assistance to ensure that the plebiscite would have a level playing field. Cívitas, one of the main civil society organizations, ran a nationwide campaign to re-register all the Chileans who wanted to vote. Pinochet had destroyed all the registration rolls and established a national identification system.

To register, people had to pay the equivalent of nearly 5 dollars to get an ID card and then get on the electoral rolls. It was an onerous process. Under the leadership of Monica Jimenez, the head of Catholic University’s School of Social Work, Cívitas mounted a non-partisan voter education campaign to convince people their vote would be counted and to assist them in registering. The Pinochet regime undercut their efforts to get public service announcements and paid television advertising. I helped convince Juan Ignacio Garcia that Cívitas and Monica Jimenez did not have a political agenda and were legitimate actors.

As the 1988 plebiscite loomed, Washington was hungry to find out if there really was any chance for a fraud-free election. I briefed the news reporters on that issue. I analyzed the implementation of political laws under the 1976 constitution, the emerging civil society organizations and political party dynamics. I helped promote emerging women leaders through IVs [International Visitor program] and lunch sessions hosted by PAO Marilyn McAfee.

We were engaged, but more subtly than during the Allende period. And that experience left a big debt to pay. U.S. assistance to the opposition was non-partisan, because there were no candidates in the plebiscite, just a vote to say “si” or “no” to the regime. As for Cívitas, somebody had to go out and help register people. Ambassador Barnes kept the lines of communication open to both sides, playing such a deft game that Pinochet had to think twice before openly attacking the U.S.

Pinochet’s military junta was a quasi-cabinet that also doubled as his legislative counsel. Two of the four junta members were asserting their independence from Pinochet – Air Force Commander Matthei and Carabineros Commander Stange. They resisted Pinochet’s moves to undermine his own constitution. That was a key opening.

Meanwhile Pinochet’s government was making political parties into legitimate actors, while demonizing them in its propaganda. The PDC, PPD, the radicals, conservatives and eventually the Partido Socialista won recognition.

Within a year of the plebiscite, key opposition forces moved from raw confrontation politics to a willingness to work through the political process. Pinochet hated and mistrusted us, but some elements in his government were moderating their stance, either to make a more presentable case to the world, or because they understood the imperative for change…. 

The Letelier Case and Despair 

The ’76 car bombing in Washington that killed Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier [who served during the presidency of Socialist President Salvador Allende and who, as a political refugee from Pinochet’s government, took an academic position in Washington, D.C.. He was assassinated by Pinochet’s agents in 1976]… transformed U.S. relations with Pinochet. It triggered a cutoff of military aid and a decades-long investigation of the role of top officials including Pinochet himself in the assassination.

At one point Juan Gabriel Valdez, who later became Chilean Ambassador to the UN, offered to provide sensitive information on the case and I connected him with Ambassador Barnes. The Congress and the NGO community kept up pressure in the effort to develop credible information for the Justice Department. The case stayed red hot. In the end it was a major element in Pinochet’s downfall. And speaking of interference in another country:  sending hit men to assassinate a foreign minister in the U.S. capital was about the limit … 

Chilean society was fractured under Allende and even more so under most of Pinochet’s reign. The political paranoia fostered by his regime was meant to keep people divided. Embassy functions, both ours and the Europeans, were among the only places the government moderates, the conservative nationals and the democratic left could meet and converse freely.…

Mostly, they felt betrayed. Chileans see their country as a place of “convivencia” which roughly translates as “living together harmoniously.” The Chilean sense of order and social justice is a legend that began with Pedro de Valdívia. Chileans are proud of their country as a middle class haven, a country that escaped the worst colonial oppression of the lands that supplied Spain’s gold and silver. They’re also acutely aware of their economic interdependence. Both the opposition and the shadow reform elements in the government wanted to build bridges not only with Europe but also with Southeast Asia. They knew that Pinochet’s repression damaged Chile’s image, and that the boycotts hurt economically.

The old elite were stuffy and overbearing. I remember attending a dinner party that was top heavy with this group. One patrician learned that I’d served previously in La Paz and asked me, “Well, how was Bolivia?” expecting that I was going to say, they live in caves, they eat off of the street. Instead I said, “It was a fascinating place. They’ve been through some real turmoil, but they have a lively free press. The national debates in the Congress are completely free, open — they’re nationally televised and attract a huge audience.” When I mentioned the vibrant civic life, a few guests looked about ready to have heart attacks on the spot. The last thing they expected was to hear the view that Bolivia was more advanced in civic discourse.

Economic Policy with the Chicago Boys 

Milton Friedman, the guru of the monetarist school of economists based at the University of Chicago, taught and groomed quite a few of Pinochet’s top advisors. Generally, the Chicago Boys (CB) recipe for privatizing and removing trade barriers and balancing the macroeconomic variables was judged to be a success. Of course, the pundits admitted that you can only implement severe fiscal austerity if you have an iron fist. You can impose them without worrying about the democratic political process.

But there are big costs. Not having rule of law means you won’t have transparent governance or marketplace; you won’t build investor confidence or have economic sustainability. The CB economists erred, for example, in pegging the peso to the dollar. Most observers faulted the government for making the two recessions much deeper than necessary and this may have cost Pinochet a lot of political support. You had asked about public reactions to those trying to push U.S. ideas on another country. Well, Chileans didn’t want the CB model imposed by an academic institution in the U.S. or anyone else. They adopted those reforms on their terms.

When Chileans elected Patricio Aylwin president in 1989, his government and successive administrations kept in place the bulk of the economic reforms. They married the Chicago monetarists to a Chilean version of the New Deal. During the fourteen years of democratic government following Pinochet, Chile’s economy maintained fiscal stability while strengthening its social net. They’ve been the tiger of Latin America. They still have a long ways to go to cut bureaucracy, but post-Pinochet Chile reduced poverty by thirty percent in a decade, which few countries can boast.

“I accuse you, Pinochet, of years of torture, murder and violence; I accuse you of not telling the truth”

Our main focus was to ensure that Chileans had a chance to have their votes count in the plebiscite and the capacity to make the transition to democracy. Pinochet had committed to an open plebiscite, but few believed his words. We thought the procedural instruments the government had put in place could create the framework for a free and fair election, if the military regime didn’t abort the process. Chile is a legalistic, constitutional country that prides itself on respecting the law. The opposition gained strength when it abandoned the strategy of social mobilization in favor of an electoral strategy.

Another turning point came when Ricardo Lagos challenged Pinochet directly. In 1984, a year before the plebiscite, he gave a speech in Antofagasta, a bleak, troubled industrial port about halfway between Iquique and Valparaiso that used to be a mining center. This was one of Lagos’ first rallies as president of PPD, the center-left party he founded in 1987. He was faced with a disruptive group of Communists. The Communist party believed that only armed conflict could end the dictatorship. Few in the opposition knew how to best them.

Lagos talked back without hesitation and subdued the hecklers. He also held up his finger to Pinochet and said basically, “J’acuse, I accuse you, Pinochet, of years of torture, murder and violence; I accuse you of not telling the truth.” Nobody had dared to stand up to Pinochet as an equal. The effect was electrifying.

After that encounter, the parties supporting participation in the plebiscite began recruiting en masse. The Cívitas campaign gained ground. The plebiscite was in October of ’88. Three months before the vote, Pinochet’s own Supreme Court overturned the junta-approved election regulations saying, “This doesn’t meet the fairness test. Your own constitution mandates better rules.”

Pinochet would allow opposition voices to have television time, but only for a few minutes at midnight. The courts mandated fair, equal time and changed the rules of the game. That decision built confidence. The opposition had coalesced into what was called the Coordinadora, eighteen political parties under one tent running a single “no” campaign for the plebiscite. The conservative parties remained apart, but some also supported the no vote.

The Coordinadora’s TV ads were brilliant. They were like political cabaret, with great music and light-hearted lyrics. They rocked people with an upbeat message. Lagos, who was elected President of Chile in 2000, visited the U.S in the pre-plebiscite period. He asked me to arrange a key part of the trip. We set up a voluntary visitor program through USIS [U.S. Information Service] to facilitate his goal of meeting with Wall Street people. Lagos wanted to let them know that when the “no” vote prevailed, it wasn’t going to hurt the economy, that the opposition leadership was committed to keep the basic economic framework in place and work to humanize it. That was a very effective message. A transformation was underway. Our policies and actions had deep resonance, but they were not the main story. The evolving national consensus and the eventual plebiscite victory grew out of tremendous suffering that Chileans had experienced. They found a way to come together and recover their democratic ethos.… 

Pinochet brought a different kind of technocrat into government from the middle class. He curried a reputation of being an uncorrupted dictator. That image was greatly padded, and now we’ve seen the revelations about the millions he funneled abroad.…

“After me chaos” in the style of Louis XIV, “Aprés moi, le deluge”

Pinochet was very confident. Losing the plebiscite completely stunned him.

The polls were pretty imprecise. People would tell different things to the pollsters based on whether or not they trusted them or thought the balloting would be fair. So it was a confidence game. But we saw hopeful signs with the banding together of the democratic opposition, the soul searching that led to them presenting a more credible alternative, a team that could Chile to the rule of law and manage the economic transition. Pinochet was trying to say, “After me, chaos” in the style of Louis XIV, “Aprés moi, le deluge.”

That was his constant theme, but it was falling flat because the country was deeply divided under him. It was becoming ungovernable.

As hope rekindled, the opposition lightened up, making fun of Pinochet as a doddering old man. Talking with people in the provinces, I saw a tremendous groundswell of support for the “no” side. We thought the opposition could win as long as elections proceeded as planned. But I got wind of something that would have completely thrown the election. One of my close contacts was Jorge Jimenez, the brother of Monica Jimenez, who ran Cívitas. Jorge, a medical doctor, was the opposition liaison with the military.

Five days before the plebiscite, Monica called me in Valparaiso where I was doing a pre-election assessment. She said Jorge had solid information that Pinochet intended to stage a mini-coup the night of the election. The plan was to provoke violence and claim it came from the left. They would bring out the soldiers and there would be massive confrontations and bloodshed. The election count would be called off. It would be the last opportunity to fix the results. Ambassador Barnes corroborated this report and determined that it was a plausible threat. So on the Sunday before the election he had the Chilean ambassador to the U.S. called in.

Our officials in Washington told the envoy bluntly that if anything happened to disrupt the election, the U.S. president would denounce it in the loudest possible terms around the world and that nothing of that kind would be tolerated. Apparently, our counter-threat was effective. We later heard from members of the junta that the stop-the-election plan was real.

Q: Prior to the plebiscite, how did we see the vote going, provided there was no military interference? 

BARNES: We thought it could be quite close, because Pinochet had and appealed still to people old enough to remember the Allende era and some of the problems of that era. We guessed, I guess is the way I would have to put it, based on the polling that had been done by organizations we confidence in, including people who were, what should I say, were very much non-partisan, as well as those inclined one way or the other. Combination of those sources, our judgment was that the “no” vote would probably win some margin more than a narrow margin. It wasn’t a huge margin, but it was an adequate margin….

The night of the plebiscite – what was very strange was that state TV ran only one report about seven o’clock in the evening and the results at that point should that the “yes” vote, the government vote, was ahead . After that they started running old sitcoms. One sort of had to wonder what was going on. The Catholic Church sponsored, probably still does, one TV station at that time and they had a panel discussion going toward the end of the evening. One of the panelists they had on was one of the leading supporters of the “yes” vote. During that panel discussion probably around eleven o’clock or so the panel came on and this particular individual who had been a minister in a previous government years back and had a good reputation, he said, “I think the “no” vote has won.” Still nothing on the government channels.

A joyous feeling of release and celebration nationwide

But the TV showed a little after that, a half an hour or so later, were pictures of the other commanders of the Armed Forces, that is, the Air Force, the Carabineros, the Navy going toward the Presidential Palace and obviously a meeting of the junta with Pinochet. [Fernando] Matthei, the Air Force general was stopped by a reporter and was asked what had happed. He said, “I think the “no” vote has won.” He’s very outspoken in general and not liked by Pinochet for that reason. He told me later that when the four of them had assembled, that Pinochet had already prepared a draft of a proclamation extending the state of emergency in effect annulling the plebiscite. As a result the other three refused to go along, which one could not have predicted at that time. So it was a fairly dramatic evening.

Q: What happened afterwards from your perspective? 

BARNES: If you can have flood gates that are good things, the flood gates opened. People knew that Pinochet had given up. They knew he would be around for a year or two, before the first free elections in 20 years would take place. No violence, however.

ROE:  Another decisive moment happened when the first election results came in. Sergio Jarpa, the leader of the conservative National party and a previous supporter of Pinochet, went public and stated that the no vote had won. Junta members Stange and Matthei also said so publicly.…That killed any possibility of them subverting the process. 

There was a joyous feeling of release and celebration nationwide. People felt that Chile had been saved from a terrible path of social and political warfare that would permanently scar the society. The talk turned to reconciliation — what would happen when they finally return to democratic government, could unearth the truth about the dirty war, and take steps to heal the wounds. Pinochet conceded in a dazed, semi-defiant, somewhat disoriented speech.

Chileans began planning for the national elections in December of ’89. Concertación candidate Patricio Aylwin (Christian Democrats) won decisively, heading the first democratically elected government in 16 years. At that point you had an outpouring of positive energy. People felt they had begun to overcome the darkest part of their recent history.

The opposition leaders wanted the world to know they were not about vengeance or divisiveness. They didn’t act triumphant, because no one, not even the old-line Communists, wanted the country to suffer more suicidal feuding. Pinochet had received 44 to their 56 percent in the plebiscite. He remained as Army Commander. His Constitution set strong limits on the democratic process. A portion of the Congress was appointed, and the President could not remove the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.