Finding Balance in Chile

By Nathaniel Parish Flannery

As student leaders in Chile rally together hundreds of thousands of protesters to march, bang spoons against pots, and loudly demand reforms, one thing has become clear: a new generation is jumping into the public debate on policy reforms. Eventually, the country’s current leaders will step aside, and young leaders like Camila Vallejo, a 23 year old protester who was named person of the year by the British newspaper The Guardian, will run for office and try to push through reforms in their country’s electoral system, tax policies, and schools. Despite their militant enthusiasm and bellicose rhetoric, these young leaders aren’t really rebelling against the status quo, rather they are helping to evolve a long-running process of democracy-building and economic development that has been under way since Chile’s dictatorship ended in 1990. At a recent event at held by the Latin American Student Association at Columbia University in New York City, former Chilean President Ricardo Lagos, who served from 2000 to 2006, said “These people protesting now are the sons and daughters of democratic Chile.”

Lagos was a long-time opponent of Augusto Pinochet, the dictator who ruled Chile from 1973 until 1990. He was sent into exile after Pinochet’s coup in 1973, and returned to Chile in 1978 as an employee of the Regional Program of Employment for the UN, assisting the implementation of IMF policies. In 1983, he left his UN job and became the outspoken President of the Democratic Alliance, which brought together most of the democratic parties opposing the military dictatorship.

As Lagos explains in his new book The Southern Tiger: Chile’s Fight for a Democratic and Prosperous Future, the country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy came after decades of work and countless lives lost.

The current protestors may have adopted the same tactics as their forbearers, but the stakes simply aren’t as high. As late as the 1980s, goons sent by Pinochet’s secret police regularly rounded up his political opponents, detaining and intimidating them, sometimes slitting their throats and dumping their bodies in the street. At the height of the crackdown in 1973, the right wing dictatorship, which was backed by the United States, arrested and incarcerated a broad swathe of the country’s leftist leaders and protestors, torturing and killing thousands of dissidents. 

Now, student leaders gather in the streets, loudly attracting attention to their cause. By contrast, when Lagos first started campaigning for the Party for Democracy (PPD)—the reincarnation of Chile’s socialist party which had been outlawed after the coup against Salvatore Allende, Chile’s first democratically elected socialist president—he found that in some towns, people were too scared to come out of their homes.

The atmosphere was so tense that at a student who Lagos happened to run into at a United Nations event looked down at floor in an effort to ignore him.  Later the student told him, “Mr. Lagos, there is no way that I can admit to having known you before that conference. If I am interrogated tomorrow, and I say that we were acquaintances before then … well, you must understand that your lectures are clandestine.”

The regime, after all, had not hesitated to eliminate its enemies, even those who fled the county.  In 1974 Pinochet’s agents killed Carlos Prats, a dissident General who had escaped to Argentina. In 1976 Pinochet’s forces murdered Orlando Letelier, another high-profile leftist, in Washington D.C., in a bomb blast that literally sent shockwaves all the way to the White House.  In another incident, after a group of workers from Chile’s state-owned copper company attended one of Lagos’ early rallies, they were all summarily fired.

So, when Ricardo Lagos took to the stage in 1988, in a nationally televised interview to speak out against the dictatorship, the stakes were high. Looking straight at the camera, he spoke directly to the general, “I will remind you General Pinochet, that you said on the day of the 1980 plebiscite, ‘President Pinochet would not be a candidate in 1989.’” Lagos was referring to the referendum vote on the dictatorship, a possible first step in the transition to democracy.

On another night, as Lagos explains in his book, he walked outside at night in his neighborhood, after hearing “the sound of just a few people banging pots.” 

“Within minutes,” he writes, “the entire sky filled with that deafening sound. People flooded into the streets, liberated by the simple idea of participating in something forbidden: a protest.”

In 1989, Lagos and his peers in the Concertacion, a coalition of anti-Pinochet parties, defeated Pinochet in the referendum vote. Lagos then joined the first post-dictatorship government as the Minister of Education. In his new office, he hung up a painting of a famous rally that took place in 1983, when 50,000 people came together to protest in Santiago’s biggest park. In his book, he writes that he kept the painting with him as a reminder that if he ever quit he would “have to answer to all of Chile.” In 2000, he was elected as the first socialist president in Chile since Allende. 

Over the last thirty years, Lagos and the other officials who occupied La Moneda–the president’s office, worked to foster ties between universities and the private sector, helping to develop new sectors of the economy. The government partnered with private companies to expand and improve the country’s infrastructure, and Chilean companies moved into grape, wine, salmon, forestry, and canned fruit production. These trends helped jumpstart a dramatic increase in the country’s exports.

Between 1988, the year Lagos and his peers started their “NO!” campaign against Pinochet and 2008–the year that Michelle Bachelet, the most-recent socialist to be elected president left office–the country’s economy doubled and then tripled in size.  Over the course of two decades, Chile’s economy increased by almost 600 percent. Fast growth and good social policies helped reduce the number of people living in absolute poverty, yet Chile remains one of the world’s most unequal economies. The gulf between Chile’s rich and poor is huge, earning it the ignoble distinction of having the most unequal distribution of wealth of all the OECD countries.

In 2011, what began as a protest against a mega-dam project in southern Chile transformed into the current student protests in Santiago. However, like other popular movements around the globe, the pan-banging protestors in Santiago have yet to take the next step. Lagos writes that in the final years before Pinochet released his grip on the state apparatus, he and his peers in the opposition “had to persuade people that [they] could govern the country and not just oppose Pinochet.”

After his presentation at Columbia University, Lagos told me that with regard to the dam protests that have spawned the current mass demonstrations in Santiago, “it’s up to [us] to make sure to take care of the environment… and at the same time use the hydro-capacity.” 

Inevitably, the commotion from the pot-banging protests dies down. When that happens, people need to implement real policies. In his book, Ricardo Lagos shows how he and his peers turned ideas into policies, and policies into action.  Hopefully this new generation of Chileans, with their strong and energetic civil society, can build on Lagos’ peaceful democratic precedent and improve their government too.




Nathaniel Parish Flannery is a New York City based writer. He has worked on projects in Mexico, Colombia, Chile, and China and written articles for The Atlantic, The Nation, Forbes, Lapham’s Quarterly, among others. Follow him on Twitter @LatAmLens

(Photo courtesy of rafa2010)


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